More than 150 people stood in the rain for a peaceful protest across from Grace Community Church on Sunday morning, waving pride flags and handmade signs, singing gospel songs and calling for more tolerance in Marblehead.
“As a gay woman, when discrimination raises its head in a small town, people aren’t going to put up with it,” said Judy Geneen of Marblehead. “I live in Florida part of the year, and I thought I was coming home to a safe space here in Marblehead. For a church that preaches the bible, they need to go back and read it.”
The protest was in response to two members of Grace Community Church removing pride flags placed in flower boxes outside the building by Mike Richmond, who is gay and rents space in the church to run the Pleasant Street Preschool with his partner. Richmond approached the two church members asking why they were removing the flags. He recorded the interaction on his phone.
“Why are you taking down the pride flags?” Richmond asked the couple.
“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,” answered the woman. “We are a church that believes in the bible.”
Richmond then asked, “What’s the message that you’re sending to the children?”
The woman responded, “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 the pride flag as a symbol for peace, love and acceptance for all,” he said.
When contacted for comment, 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 email was signed by “The Elders.”
Richmond also accuses the church of trying for months to kick out his preschool. Grace
Community Church notified Richmond in March that it would be ending his lease in August. It later said that it needed the space for its growing congregation. When Richmond explained that several families had already enrolled for the 2023-24 school year and it would be a hardship for them to find other childcare, the church extended the lease until August 2024.
However, Richmond said the church ignored multiple requests over 10 months for repairs 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 had expired.
Richmond has decided to close the preschool effective immediately.
“The parents and I do not feel safe continuing to run the school there,” he said.
The church denied that it is trying to kick out the preschool.
“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.”
When he arrived to teach Friday morning, June 16, Richmond discovered graffiti on the church. Someone spray-painted a rainbow and remarks, including “Love is 4 Everyone.” He notified the police right away.
“I absolutely don’t condone this type of action,” Richmond said. “I never would do this and never asked anyone to. 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.”
The Marblehead Pride Committee offered to paint over the graffiti. Police are investigating the vandalism. Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact Detective Sgt. Sean Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org or 781-631-1212, Ext. 25.
Show of support
“I’m here to wake up the town of Marblehead to the underlying bigotry and intolerance that is in the heart of their community,” Richmond said to the crowd on Sunday. “We’re here to show we don’t stand for it. The pride flag is about accepting everyone no matter who they are, who they love or who they want to be… so the act of removing it is a clear sign of not celebrating that idea.”
Alexandra Middleton of Marblehead came out in the rain to join the protest.“I have a wife and a son and we’re Christians,” she said. “I want our son to grow up in a town where we’re accepted. I happened to be walking by when Mike approached the couple taking down the flags. They were super, super ugly and condescending. Not Christian. It’s really sad.”
Robert Corcoran came from Wenham to show his support for Michael and the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’ve been married to a man for 30 years, and we go to church every Sunday, except this Sunday,” he said. “When I heard about what happened I felt outrage and sadness. It was so unnecessary.”
Gail New, president at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, came out with her husband.
“Our town is rampant with antisemitism and I see this as very similar,” she said. “We’re here to support the community.”
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.”
State of emergency
The flag incident happened 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.”
Mimi Lemay is a member of the Marblehead Pride Committee and 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.”