Sussex County Church rainbow flag burning

Rainbow flag burning
Rainbow flag burning in Sussex County New Jersey in 2022.

Incident rallies the LGBTQ community

When Advent Lutheran Church’s Progress Pride flag was lit on fire, a seamstress in the congregation sewed it back together with a verse. The verse read, ‘Do not be discouraged, I love you, and you are mine.’

That wasn’t the last time their flag was burned or stolen.

“Basically, at this point, I forget what flag we’re on, but we have people — just somebody or some people — that rip it down on a regular basis,” Danielle Miller, senior pastor of Advent, said.

Advent now calls the flag stealer the “Pride Bandit.”

“Every time we could be angry,” Miller said, “it’s an opportunity to affirm for us. It’s like, ‘Hey, God loves you. And here’s an opportunity for folks to be supportive.’”

Advent isn’t the only Church with a “Pride Bandit.”

On the night of New Years’ Day, someone drove onto the property of Sussex County’s Sparta United Methodist Church and lit their rainbow pride flag on fire. The nylon flag was left a charred, melted mess. Reverend Steven Bechtold was on his way to deliver Sunday mass when two of the church’s newest members — an LGBTQ couple — noticed the flag was down. When they went looking, they found it on the lawn burnt to a crisp.

“I mean, this is literally five minutes before worship,” Bechtold said. “But it was very obvious that the two women who brought it in, this was very disturbing to them.”

The Sparta Police were called the morning after the incident happened. The crime is being investigated as a bias incident. While they know that a car drove outside the church, unfortunately it was too dark to see who set the flag aflame. The Church believes they will never know who burned the flag. However, they know that they are more united than before.

Hate crimes against LGBTQ people have increased in the last two years, according to the FBI’s 2020 report. There were 1,051 victims of hate crimes targeted due to their sexual orientation and 236 victims of hate crimes targeted due to their gender identity. Together both those numbers made up 16.5% of all hate crimes in 2020. These crimes disproportionately affect gender nonconforming people and transgender women of color.

The Church has an intention of protecting the diverse communities in and outside their congregation. “This congregation has a strong commitment for social justice, but it is a congregation that understands that social justice is a response to our faith,” Bechtold said. “When we talk about God’s love it’s for all and all means all period.”

This incident was the first time some took witness to a hate crime against the LGBTQ community. Like the church goers of Advent, the parishioners of Sparta United unified with the goal of encouraging acceptance and love. The community put together a Pride fund to prepare for the (potential) next time. Sparta Methodist had five flags donated within 48 hours of the incident. “I’ve lost count of how many we have — we’ve gotten four since last Thursday,” Bechtold said.

The church has flown the pride flag in intervals since 2015 when the congregation voted to become a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network. The flag has flown consistently since Bechtold was appointed to the Sparta Church in 2019. The Church is in the process of reactivating their PFLAG group and Bechtold thinks it’s because of the incident. Nine folks came to the planning meeting to brainstorm their organization at the Church with 48 hours’ notice. Everyone from the Church was affected, even the folks who voted against the reconciliation (which was only 10%).

“I’ve heard some hurt from people who I know were not in favor of that vote several years ago, but they’re still here and they really felt hurt that people would come on our property — and we’ve had the flag stolen before, but the burning of it especially — so there’s a real violation,” Bechtold said

The church’s welcoming statement is “Come as you are, you are welcome! Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”

The church believes they will never know who burned the flag. However, they know that they are more united than before.