Marblehead Police are investigating graffiti spray-painted on the side of Grace Community Church overnight Friday, days after a controversy erupted when a man who runs a preschool in the building posted a video of church members removing gay pride flags.
One church member can be heard on the video saying, “We’re a church that believes in the bible” and “You can celebrate who you are, but we don’t have to.”
Supporters of the preschool are planning a peaceful protest across the street from the church on Sunday morning.
The graffiti included a rainbow and reads, among other things, “Say Gay” and “Love is 4 Everyone.”
“I absolutely don’t condone this type of action,” Pleasant Street Preschool owner Mike Richmond told the Current. “I never would do this and never asked anyone to.”
He added, “I saw it as I arrived this morning. I just left the police station. I had to cancel school today because of this. A parent showed up to tell me they don’t feel safe sending their child to the church.”
Richmond continued, “I don’t know who did it, but regardless we need to rise above and take a better approach than letting rage lead to retaliation.”
Mimi Lemay of the Marblehead Pride Committee said the Pride Committee “100% condemns” the vandalism and has reached out to the church to help paint over the graffiti.
Grace Community Church has not returned a request for comment on the vandalism.
Marblehead Police Chief Dennis King encouraged anyone with information about the graffiti to contact Detective Sgt. Sean Brady at email@example.com or 781-631-1212, Ext. 25.
The Pride Committee, along with parents and local businesses spoke out in support of the preschool earlier this week, after church members removed the pride flags.
Richmond, who is gay, rents a classroom in the church and had posted small pride flags outside the building. He claims the church has been trying to kick out the preschool for months.
“We see discrimination, violence and hate directed toward the LGBTQ community on the news every day. Sadly, Marblehead is no exception,” the Pride Committee wrote in a post about the situation on Instagram. “Over the past several months, Pleasant Street Preschool has faced increasing discrimination from the establishment they have a lease with, Grace Community Church … Being openly-gay business owners should not subject you to discrimination and displacement.”
The church alerted Richmond in March that it was terminating the lease for Pleasant Street Preschool. After hearing that the decision would adversely affect families already enrolled for the 2023-24 school year, the church extended the lease until August 2024.
However, Richmond said the church then ignored multiple requests for repairs to the space that are required for the one-room preschool to pass a building inspection and keep its license. In fact, state authorities issued a citation against Pleasant Street Preschool on June 14 because its building and fire inspections have expired, according to Richmond.
Richmond shared an email he sent to a church leader, which reads, “I kept telling the church that if my licensor from the state comes by randomly as they do, that I would be cited for not having the inspection which goes on a public record, yet no one seemed to care. I couldn’t understand why I was being treated this way and ignored. I couldn’t understand the real reason why we were being asked to leave. Then there was an incident this past weekend in front of the church that opened my eyes to how the church feels about homosexuals and the LGBTQ+ community in general.”
The incident to which Richmond is referring began with him posting small pride flags outside the church to celebrate Pride Month. Later, he discovered two church members removing them. He asked the members to explain themselves while recording the interaction, sharing the video on Instagram. The video can be viewed HERE.
“Why are you guys taking down the pride flags?” Richmond asks in the video.
“Because it’s a church that doesn’t celebrate… you can have your time… but we don’t want to celebrate if we don’t have to,” answers a woman. “We are a church that believes in the bible.”
Richmond then asks, “What’s the message that you’re sending to the children?”
The woman responds, “You can celebrate who you are, but we don’t have to.”
Richmond said he never discussed gay pride with his young students.
“I see it as a symbol for peace, love and acceptance for all, no matter what you look like or who you want to be,” he said about the pride flag.
Richmond shared an email he says he received from the church on June 13, after he posted the video.
Signed by “The Elders,” the email apologized for the delay in making repairs and said they would happen soon. The Elders also explained that the reason they initially canceled the lease was because “our church attendance, specifically families with young children, has been growing; and we wanted more flexibility and access to the space we’re currently leasing to you.”
When contacted for comment early this week, Grace Community Church replied via email, “We are a politically and culturally diverse congregation. For this reason, we do not put signage for many things, even good things, on the church front. We generally steer clear of any displays that may be interpreted as political. As a church, and as a landlord, that is our right. Civil liberties also apply to churches, and means we must extend respect in all directions.”
The church’s email, which was not signed, also denied that it is “kicking anyone out.”
“That is a false narrative. We as a church do not ever want anyone to feel disrespected. The church board was aware that the business owners were gay when we recently extended their lease.”
Show of support
Peyton Pugmire, a Marblehead business owner and member of the Marblehead Pride Committee, says he is — and isn’t — surprised by the recent events.
“For a church or any organization in our small town to act in that way … in a town where kindness rules the day, is surprising,” he said. “For this church to choose to discriminate and behave so hatefully is shocking.”
Jami Reyes, who owns Hip Baby Gear a few doors down from Grace Church, hopes local businesses will be able to find the preschool a new location in the neighborhood.
“I absolutely want to help any way I can,” she said. “I have a huge issue with what’s happened. I know other businesses down here absolutely support them, and we want to help. We need to find them a better space that is supportive.”
Richmond says he will finish out the “contracted year of care with families through August 2023” and that he may need to extend into September for some families who need childcare coverage then.
After that, he’s not sure.
“We don’t know what our next steps are. It’s difficult coming back to this church every day for work after that incident.”
State of emergency
The story comes the same week that students at Burlington Middle School tore down gay pride decorations and shouted that their pronouns are “U.S.A.”
The Human Rights Campaign has declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. “following an unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislative assaults sweeping state houses this year. More than 75 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been signed into law this year alone, more than doubling last year’s number, which was previously the worst year on record.”
Lemay is a Marblehead mom and member of the HRC Parent Equality Council.
“Sadly, Massachusetts is not immune to hate, and neither is Marblehead,” she said. “You only need to look at particular popular social media accounts to see fellow ‘Headers engaging in ignorant and harmful attacks against their neighbors. The encouraging thing is how the hate is far outmatched by love.”
Lemay continued, “We are at an inflection point. Most people who might never have thought about these topics are learning about them — sometimes because of an incident like this one — and overwhelmingly, they are choosing to support and uplift our LGBTQ+ community members.”
Parents weigh in
Several local parents responded to the Grace Church incident on social media.
“My daughter goes to Pleasant Street and it is the most wonderful school led by the best! She is learning Spanish and their education is beyond what you’d get at most preschools. Most of all she is learning love and kindness for all and it’s disgusting that Grace Community Church does exactly the opposite!”
Another parent added: “Both my children go to @pleasantstpreschool and we couldn’t ask for better teachers/learning environment. We are deeply saddened by this and stand by them. Thank you for supporting!!”
Another person added: “Omg this is absolutely heartbreaking!!! I see those little kids walking with their teachers like little ducks and it warms my heart!!! This is so upsetting! We must do better!!!”
Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.