A tale of two beliefs
Sandy drew statewide attention again Saturday, March 20, as two groups with very different beliefs held respective rallies in the center of town. On the north side of the street in Centennial Plaza, Russell Collier, Rivers of Living Water United Pentecostal Church pastor, hosted what he labeled a "celebration of the natural, heterosexual family." On the south side, behind Sandy City Hall, the Sandy STAND UP Movement and Students Advocating for Equality (SAFE) hosted a celebration for the members of the LGBTQ2SIA+ community and allies.
The latter event, held separately, came as a result of Collier's rally. Reactions of "pain, anger and frustration" from members of the Sandy community are what STAND UP Movement co-leader Allison Cloo said motivated the group to hold its "Have a Gay Day" event on March 20, across the street from Collier's rally.
Though the "Have a Gay Day" event was planned in response to Collier's celebration of the heterosexual family, Cloo said Saturday that "This isn't a counter protest at this point; it's its own event with its own focus."
"We wanted to strengthen those parts of Sandy that make it a safe place to be," Cloo explained. "We wanted to find a way to channel some of that energy (from people's reaction to Collier's event) in a positive way. We want everyone to have a chance to be heard. People hear what's being said about them in their community. They also hear the silence when their neighbors or friends don't speak up in support of them."
Multiple people spoke at the "Have a Gay Day" event of their experiences as members of the LGBTQ2SIA+ community and why they are affirming allies.
SAFE co-leader Jake Billard spoke of their experience growing up and coming out in Sandy, telling those who might be queer, but not yet out, to come out in their own time, on their own terms and that "sharing a mutual love with any person can never be a sin."
Others spoke of how members of the Sandy community must "combat" the reputation the town has acquired as being intolerant and not inclusive.
"Aside from the people beyond Sandy, we must set an example for our peers," Billard added. "Don't fear us. Hear us."
Kimberly Brown, who said she is actually friends of Russell and Dusty Collier, has a different view on homosexuality than the couple from her own theological background. Brown and her wife, Gail, have lived in Sandy for more than 30 years and attend the Metropolitan Community Church in Portland.
Brown spoke to those assembled for the "Have a Gay Day" event, telling people: "The scripture was never meant to be used as a weapon but a way to find relationship with God."
Brown said she also visited the plaza during the celebration of the heterosexual family on Saturday, wearing a shirt that said: "Made in the image of God." She told Dusty Collier, Russell's wife and her friend, that their event made her sad.
Brown stayed and "held witness" to Russell's preaching for a moment then left.
"I wanted (those assembled) to see someone who looks like me, who looks like a lesbian and who identifies as a lesbian," Brown explained.
In the decades she's called Sandy home, Brown says, "I've actually found (Sandy) to be an amazing community."
Though she hasn't experienced as much judgement for her orientation directly in Sandy, she says she understands how the feelings of younger people, like those who are members of SAFE, might differ.
"Parents will say things to kids they won't say to other adults," she said. "If conservative churches knew the level of harm they do to young LGBTQ people — I can't imagine they want to do that harm."
Freedom of speech
Though some members from both events took to the sidewalks to show their opposition of the other's message, the events remained free of any form of violence.
While the two groups had differing ideologies, both expressed appreciation for their First Amendment rights, which allowed them to assemble and voice free speech.
Both events had people show up to act as protection for their groups. Flipp Todd, vice president of the Portland Proud Boys, was among those from out of town to attend the plaza gathering. Todd said his main purpose for attending, was to protect that right, regardless of his feelings with Collier's message. About a dozen or so people wearing the Proud Boys' trademark colors of black and yellow made an appearance at the plaza.
"I appreciate their support for our right to freedom of speech," Collier said, clarifying that "I didn't invite (the Proud Boys). They chose to come on their own accord. They're free to come just like anyone else."
Collier says his view of the traditional heterosexual family is founded in his biblical view as a Pentecostal pastor.
Collier has been a pastor for more than 20 years and started hosting prayer rallies like Saturday's celebration in the plaza since last summer.
In February, Collier said he invited members of the LGBTQ2SIA+ community to come and have an open discussion in the plaza, but none came.
He explained that he'd hoped to have a conversation "in a respectful, civil and courteous manner."
"I genuinely feel we as Americans — as humans — are going through a lot of things and at the forefront is sexuality. I feel we have been given direction about our sexuality from the scriptures," Collier said. "I appreciate the opportunity for all of us to utilize our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. I know it's difficult to have conversations. I know this has become an intense subject matter."
Collier added that he wanted people to understand that although he is "a passionate speaker," he is "also a compassionate person."
"I will listen to a person however ugly it gets. I will stand and talk to anyone," he explained. "I am not naive and think the LGBTQ community is going to go away or be converted. This is the hard work that actually strengthens a community and our freedoms as a country. You have to be willing to engage and be willing to step forward and represent the message you believe in."
"Freedom of speech and religion cover a lot of material," Cloo said. "But, if (what's being said has) hurt our family or our community, why should that go unanswered? There has to be a response. This (Have a Gay Day event) is a chance to support, share and celebrate. We're doing this event out of love for Sandy. To anyone who's LGBTQ+ or felt marginalized: We love you and support you and welcome you as your whole selves. This (event) is not a one-and-done thing. We want this to be the start of a conversation, not the end. This is long-term work, and we're here for it."
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