The message on the Grace United Methodist Church website reads: Open hearts, open minds, open doors
Below that it says: Come as you are.
And so we did.
Instead, we found the doors closed.
The Billings Gazette had been invited recently to attend a group meeting which was being convened to see the Magic City pass a nondiscrimination ordinance. The mayor and all the city council members had been invited to the meeting as well.
As part of the meeting notice, former Billings City Council member and minister Rev. Kenneth Crouch said, "The state Legislature and City Council think they have the right to ignore the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people because they are not specifically identified in the Constitution or charters. If the state will not act, then cities must pass ordinances to assure equal protections for all."
We wanted to hear the conversation, and learn about a movement that seems to be starting with a formidable group of clergy. The NDO in Billings lost by one city council vote in 2014.
Yet when we showed up to the church, which proclaims with painted windows, "ALL are welcome," The Gazette reporter and photographer were asked to leave.
Rev. Sarah Beck, pastor at Grace UMC, told The Gazette last week that our team was asked to leave because folks needed a safe space to tell their stories of discrimination without the fear of retribution.
Folks, this is what irony looks like.
The entire reason for passing an NDO is so this kind of retribution, harassment and discrimination stops; so that people can share their stories. In other words, the organizers had called a meeting to make it safe to tell stories and started by closing a meeting because their stories were not safe to tell.
The Gazette did not hear from any of the would-be participants in the conversation because we were asked to leave. Had any of them expressed concern for their safety or identities, we could have been given the chance to deal with it. Instead, Beck assumed she knew better. They lost a great opportunity to share their stories with thousands of readers.
We also assume that folks who speak in a public meeting, like the one the NDO advocates sponsored, understand the context and setting — it's more than just a casual, private conversation.
In order for a community to support an NDO, it must be convinced the problem exists — not in some abstract, theoretical way, but because it hears from friends, neighbors and family who have experienced it. How can the leaders of this movement expect any buy-in when they've chosen to close doors, giving the appearance of something sinister, political, or too sensitive for the average ears?
Instead, what is most needed is for authentic stories of the LGBTQ community to be put in front of this community. We cannot treat them as if they're odd or different. The stories of our brothers and sisters in Billings deserve equal footing and deserve to be heard by everyone so that we all understand this is not an us-versus-them issue. It's about us — together — as a community.
Essentially, we can only assume the participants of the meeting shared stories with those who were already in favor of the NDO. They told the stories to themselves. To borrow another church term: They were preaching to the choir.
Sadly, the way this meeting was handled reinforces the worst of what those who may be opposed to the NDO think. Those who may oppose the NDO believe that its some liberal conspiracy instead of something that guarantees equal footing. By closing doors, shutting out the media, and doing it in a church no less, it looks conspiratorial or agenda-driven. It also gives the appearance that churches endorse secrecy.
The problem with closing doors isn't what was really said in the meeting, it is what people can imagine was said. I also question the liberal paternalism displayed by the organizers -- that the LGBTQ participants who may have shared their stories (we won't know) needed protection from themselves.
Maybe the most successful social movement in Billings was the "Not In Our Town," more than 25 years ago. You may recall that was when the Billings community rose to stand against hate toward our Jewish and American Indian brothers and sisters. The movement achieved success because it did not cloister victims and hold secret meetings. Instead, it told the stories fully and shone the brightest light on the issue, exposing intolerance and hatred's twin ugly heads.
Former Billings Mayor Tom Hanel cast the deciding vote that sent the NDO to defeat nearly a half decade ago, saying infamously, "I do not think Billings is ready at this time for the NDO."
When he uttered those words, The Gazette and others criticized him for suggesting that the time was not right for equal protection.
And yet, if I am honest, when folks with the best of intentions, want to revive the NDO but don't want the heartbreaking stories of its citizens shared publicly, I have to wonder: Is Billings ready — on both sides of the issue — for the NDO?
If we can't even share our stories and we have to close church doors, can we possibly have a discussion about ordinances?