Aug 15, 2023
The Rev. Dr. Christopher Ross, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Watertown, was present last month when armed neo-Nazis disrupted the community’s Pride in the Park event. The experience prompted him to reflect on the meaning of Christian public witness.
Dear siblings in the Wisconsin Conference:
Let me tell you about the day Nazis came to town, and those who call themselves Christians stood with them, and how it’s been going since.
Less than a week after I was installed as pastor of First Congregational UCC in Watertown, a major event occurred in the local community. The event itself was understandably disturbing to many on its own. What I have found remarkable is the continuous ramifications felt by the community since that day.
On Saturday, July 29, I attended my first Watertown Pride in the Park event. My spouse, the Rev. Laura Yurs, and I volunteered to help with the local clergy’s Blessing Booth throughout the day. It was a great event with high attendance. Anyone could come—and did.
There were many conservative religious folks who protested with signs outside the park entrance. There were individuals and groups who mingled with other attendees, attempting to ignite scriptural debates. There were conservative Christians who tried to shout down the emcee of the drag show, and youth groups that tried to disrupt the performances whenever there was a lull.
But as you may have seen on your local news station, about midmorning, another group showed up as well. An armed group of protesters with faces hidden, carrying a swastika flag, chanted for blood at the park entrance for about 45 minutes. Some of the vendors and other attendees were escorted to a safer locale. It was a tense moment. The multitude of police officers who were already on hand stood shoulder to shoulder to protect those in the park until the neo-Nazis dispersed.
Since July 29, public input sessions at local government meetings have been busy. Letters to the editor of the local paper have been numerous. A rather disappointing trend has emerged. Although the rest of the event was certainly a success, some local voices in Watertown have turned to blaming the LGBTQIA+ community for bringing a hate group to town.
While I see this response as clearly casting blame on a marginalized group, what appears more essential is the need for LGBTQIA+ affirming religious people to make their presence and voices known. It is undeniable that those loudest religious voices at this Pride event stood on the same side as neo-Nazis, and they were not ashamed at what they helped embolden. Those of us who see God’s compassion and justice at the center of Jesus’ ministry — those of us who call ourselves the Body of Christ — still have much work to do. In today’s charged climate, it is not enough to quietly stay out of these situations and offer support from afar. When that happens, hatred thinks it can propel itself unchecked, and already vulnerable people are further traumatized.
Jesus was criticized for being a friend to tax collectors and sinners. At the very least, that means we, too, are called to be an ally to the outcast and religiously excluded. Such is what Christian public witness looks like.
~The Rev. Dr. Christopher Ross
Pastor, First Congregational United Church of Christ of Watertown