Burning Bibles, Open Air Preaching, and New Friends

11698511_919220688114117_1957285698220968615_nI attended St. Cloud’s Pride in the Park last weekend. This was my first gay pride event that I attended in my 36 years on this earth, so, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. When I arrived my first thought was that I was surprised to see how big the festival was! Many booths ranging from local faith-based groups to local colleges and gay-friendly businesses lined the open areas with brochures, candy, and conversation. There was one whole row of booths geared towards kids – face painting, art making, Humane Society pets and of course, an AirMaxx contraption! Bands played and sang on the main stage, fried food was consumed, the beer garden was visited.

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As I walked around and talked to the folks manning the booths, I heard many stories. Stories are the reason I went to this festival. I wanted to know what it’s like being gay/transgender/etc. in St. Cloud. I heard stories from parents of gay children and how their eyes were opened when their child came out to them. Since their child has come out as gay, many of them have become activists for gay rights and champions for their kids and their spouses and their grandchildren to be treated as any human should be – with respect, dignity, and love.

I heard stories from children that came out to their parents and received quite the opposite message. One man told me that when he came out as a teenager, he was kicked out of the house and his mother told him that she would start planning his funeral. Another person identifying as transgender had a similar story. I responded to their stories by asking them if I could hug them. I could say nothing to take away the pain they feel. I did tell them #unitecloud would love to tell their story. I explained that some in this town have told us that they have never met a gay or transgender person and by sharing their story, someone may begin to put a face to this issue and come to realize that it is not as black and white as they once thought it was. Every single person who told me their story was more than willing to share their story. “If it helps one person, talking about my pain is worth it”, one man said to me.

As I went around to each booth, many folks said “you should go talk to that guy over there holding up the sign. He needs some uniting.” The guy they were speaking of was doing some open-air preaching on how he believes the bible says the homosexuality is a perversion and an abomination and that all must turn from their wicked ways and come to Jesus or they are in danger of eternal damnation. He talked about the change he made in his own life a few years back when he gave up a life of bar-bouncing, drunkenness, and general debauchery. He names Jesus as the reason for his drastic change and said that if he cane change, anyone can.

There was a good crowd of people surrounding this gentleman….some asking questions (“Why are you even here?”, “What about other sins like divorce?”), some hurling insults (“This guy is a douche-bag”, “F-off you idiot”), some discussing the finer points of the bible with him (“Isn’t it up to God to judge, not you?” “What about the other things we don’t follow from the bible, like women covering their heads?”). I discussed a few things with him as others hurled insults and one man sang “This is My Father’s World” and “Our God is An Awesome God”. At one point, a woman came up, ready to fight the preacher, yelling in his face that he doesn’t get to tell her that she doesn’t love Jesus. As she got more and more agitated a group of us held her back and told her fighting is not the way to handle this.

Out of the group came a young man who sat a bible on the sidewalk, poured lighter fluid on it, and started to burn it. Some cheered. Some watched, stunned to silence. One man went up and stomped out the flames. I went up to this young man and said “This is not right. If you think this preacher is spreading hate, what you are doing is adding more hate. There are people cheering here for the burning of a book that many of us love. How will this help? You get to choose your reaction, sir. If someone is hating you, you don’t have to disrespect them.” The young man looked at me and said: “You mean I can choose to be a mature adult?” “You bet”, I said. He came over, hugged me, and said thank you.

We talked for a while afterwards, I told him about #unitecloud, and he told me that he was doing the bible burning as a social experiment to see what people would do and that he actually felt sick about it. We talked about his desire to actively affect change in our community so we are setting up a date to go out for coffee and explore other ways he could do this that bring dignity and respect to hard issues.

I also offered to have coffee with the open-air preacher so we could discuss more one-on-one but he would not take my card. I wish he would’ve. Not because I want to “set him straight” but because I want to get to know him and understand why he chooses to do these sort of demonstrations. He told me and many other people that he is telling them to repent out of love for them because he loves them and so does Jesus. Really, the truth is that he was not being malicious, he was just speaking his truth.

Speaking your truth is something that our country allows. The open-air preacher has a right to state his views. The LGBT community has a right to have a festival. People have a right to not agree with gay marriage. I have a right to call out someone for adding hate onto hate, instead of choosing a calm, conversational reaction.

I’m not sure that focusing on what we have a “right” to do is the way to bring a community together, however. What I have found in my 4 months with #unitecloud is that, for the most part, conversation is the key. And most people welcome conversation. Going out for coffee with someone who disagrees with me is a step in the right direction for our city. When I sit down with folks that are all over the spectrum of rights vs. humility, we have always been able to find common ground.

Focusing on what we have the 'right' to do does not bring our community together. Click To Tweet

There are some that won’t sit down with me and will do nothing but call me names, claim I’m ignorant and naive, and inform me that if I’d just “open my eyes” and see what’s “really going on”, then I wouldn’t be so “rainbows and butterflies” about everything. I personally believe that “glass-half full”, humble, conversational living is so much more peaceful than the alternative. I choose that for myself today and I hope that you will consider doing this same. Thank you to those of you that already have chosen this type of living. You are making our community a better place.

Humble, conversational living is so much more peaceful than the alternative. Click To Tweet
About the Author

Natalie Ringsmuth

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Natalie grew up in Central Minnesota and received her Music Education degree from Concordia College in Moorhead. She taught middle school choir in Georgia and worked in the church sector for over a decade. She now works as a legal assistant at Tripiciano Immigration Law, a trainer with the CARE (Community Anti-Racism Education) Team at SCSU (St Cloud State University), and as Founder and Director of #unitecloud, a non-profit working to reduce racial, religious, and cultural tensions in Central MN. She is a member of the Community Impact Team at United Way of Central MN and is a member of the St Cloud District 742 school board. In her spare time (haha) she loves to spend time with her husband and 3 children.