A Tacoma restaurant was pressured to cancel a fundraiser for a new Tacoma church, and some in the community are celebrating it as a victory in the battle against hate and intolerance.
I’m not so sure it’s a victory, though, when intolerance is used to battle intolerance, when religious beliefs are targeted, or when church congregations are discouraged from forming.
Mars Hill Church says it’s still two months from opening a church in Tacoma. The Seattle-based megachurch already has five locations in Seattle, four in its suburbs, one each in Everett, Olympia, Portland, Albuquerque, N.M. and Orange County, Calif.
The church is moving into a historic church building in the Stadium District. But economic threats, both clear and implied, caused the managers of The Hub restaurant in the same neighborhood to cancel a “Replace The Roof” fundraiser for Mars Hill.
“We did not realize how the community felt about this religious organization,” Hub general manager Jason Gatliff wrote to those who objected to the event. “While we try and support ALL of our neighbors and friends in the community we will not be moving forward with this particular fund raiser.”
The campaign against the event, which would have raised money from church supporters only and not from other restaurant patrons, was delivered mostly via email and was organized on social media, led partly by an anonymous website called Tacoma Demands Better.
“‘Gayest City’ business Harmon invites in/sponsors anti-LGBT, anti-women Mars Hill Church,” the website stated.
When the Hub, a restaurant owned by the same folks who have The Harmon downtown, canceled the event, the creators of the website said, again anonymously: “This is what happens when Tacoma demands better!”
Disagreeing with the teachings of Mars Hill is free speech, and there appears to be plenty to disagree with. But using that speech to block or drown out disagreeable speech is not OK.
The Rev. Chris Morton is the executive director of the Associated Ministries of Pierce County. He said he knew of the protests but did not take part. As an organization with the mission of “uniting people of faith to build strong communities,” Morton said he feels strongly about the uniting part.
He understands the concerns about Mars Hill’s teachings and shares some of them. But he also knows many of the congregations that are members of his organization agree with Mars Hill teachings that same-sex marriage and relations are a sin and that women are subservient to men.
Morton said he tries to engage with those congregations to talk about having respect for all people and about how those teachings can often harm gays and lesbians and how they even contribute to suicides.
“As Christians, we’re in the same blood line through Jesus Christ,” Morton said, acknowledging “there’s a lot of tension inside that container.”
He can have conversations with Christians who have different teachings, though, as long as everyone understands that “their truth is allowed but also my truth is allowed.”
Morton said he wishes any effort to stop the fundraiser would have come after “a lot of face-to-face dialogue and communication. I don’t think that happened in this case.”
The planned event wasn’t political; it wasn’t to raise money, say, to fight a ballot measure or to lobby politicians. It was instead organized by a fledgling church to put on a roof and make other repairs to a historic building in the neighborhood.
If not for Mars Hill’s purchase of the former First Congregational Church at South J Street and Division Avenue, the 105-year-old church and school likely would have faced demolition — the same fate as some other historic but under-used churches.
So the campaign against the fundraiser seemed aimed not at particular teachings of the church, but at the church itself — at its attempt to exist.
That is an important difference for the Rev. David Alger, the former director of Associated Ministries and a longtime proponent of gay rights, civil rights, anti-poverty work and ecumenism. When I asked him what he thought, he said he was troubled by the move to prevent a fundraiser aimed at creating a congregation and renovating a building.
What if the fundraiser had been to raise money for an anti-gay rights political effort? Would he have supported protests then?
“Sign me up,” Alger said. “I’m there.”
But Alger said he doesn’t see a major difference between Mars Hill’s teachings on gay marriage and the roles of women and the teachings of church communities already established in Tacoma and Pierce County.
“There are 600 other churches they could go after,” Alger said of protestors.
The Rev. David R. Brown, the pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in the North Slope area, said he wrote the owners of the Hub but did not urge them to cancel the event, nor did he threaten to boycott if they did not.
“Mars Hill has a pretty clear reputation nationally on where it stands on women’s issues and homosexuality,” Brown said. “My intent was to let my friends at the Hub know about Mars Hill and how it would be perceived.”
Where does it end, I asked Brown? Would he write owners of a West End pizza joint that frequently sponsors takeover night fundraisers if the beneficiary were a Catholic school or a Mormon church?
No, Brown said. There is a difference because the teachings of established congregations in the community are well known.
“To many, Mars Hill is an unknown quantity,” Brown said. “Many people don’t know where Mars Hill is coming from while we know where the Catholic Church is coming from.
“The owners … responded to my letter with appreciation indicating they did not know Mars Hill’s reputation” on these issues, Brown said.
“My desire is for truth in advertising.”
I posed the same “where does it end?” question to Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello. He said he didn’t instigate the campaign against the fundraiser but did thank the owners of the Hub for canceling it.
“I think it’s very hateful,” Mello said of Mars Hill’s views on gay and lesbian issues. “But I’m not opposed to any church or place of worship. I want any church to feel welcome in the city of Tacoma.”
Calls to Mars Hill were not returned. The church has not contacted Associated Ministries and is not involved with the equivalent organization in Seattle, The Church Council.
Congregants, who have been meeting in temporary space in Federal Way, gathered at the old church Saturday for a work party to begin preparing for a September or October opening. I stopped by and asked to speak to the Rev. Bubba Jennings, who will lead the new congregation but was told all comments must come from a church spokesman.
That spokesman told our religion reporter Steve Maynard via email that the cancellation is “unfortunate” but “we respect (the owners’) wishes and we will continue to support The Hub as they have great food, great service and they continue to be one of the funnest places to hang out in Tacoma.”
Justin Dean, the Mars Hill spokesman, said that $480,000 of the $700,000 needed to renovate the church has been raised.
This conflict might be just beginning. Other first entries into communities by Mars Hill have led to protests. Stained glass windows at a historic church in Portland were vandalized after Mars Hill purchased it.
Morton said he would consider hosting a meeting with Mars Hill and members of the church community concerned with the new church.
“Let’s put together a structured way to respect everyone and have a conversation, not to win a debate but to have a dialogue with one another,” Morton said.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter