And so it begins to get ugly.
A peaceful debate between Paul Doyle, senior pastor of Cornerstone Church, and a group of local Christian leaders has now brought others -- defenders of the ReAwaken America tour -- into the mix with threats and nastiness. One of those Christian leaders had served as spokesperson, but she wants it known that there are several others of the same mindset: they don’t want the ReAwaken America Tour here in Batavia. Or anywhere, for that matter, and especially not in this community.
The group has rallied others together for two protests so far; one outside of Cornerstone on Bank Street Road, and the second one in front of City Hall. People have carried signs and been relatively quiet during these events. The Rev. Roula Alkhouri has spoken on behalf of others but would like their involvement also recognized. The group signed and delivered a letter to Doyle after a meeting this past weekend. It states the leaders’ viewpoint about the tour, its implications, the reasons for concern, and messages that have reportedly been given at other tour events.
Concerns of the group about the tour, according to the letter, include:
1. Inciting Violence and Hatred: The speakers for this event mix militant language with religious imagery while speaking of life-and-death stakes, building an implicit permission structure for audience members to commit political violence in the name of God.
Although few speakers have exposed themselves to prosecution by explicitly calling for violence - strategically leaving themselves room for plausible deniability - they allow their audience to connect the dots by downplaying past political violence committed in God's name, demonizing their political opponents as "Team Satan," and urging supporters to win the battle for God against their fellow Americans.
“Batavia is a small, peaceful community, and it is our moral responsibility to protect it from any potential for violence,” it states.
2. Dividing Americans: The false claims of the speakers of this tour about the 2020 election, the stated vision for only one religion in our nation of religious freedom, the demonization of political opponents, and the continued attacks on our democracy are all attempts to divide Americans, pitting us against us each other.
This kind of division and hate hurts communities and makes us vulnerable to more violence. We do not have to share political views to reject the hateful rhetoric and divisive language of this event and its speakers. As Jesus says, "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. Luke 17:11b.”
3. Distorting Christianity with Nationalism: We are so concerned that the name of Jesus is used by this tour's speakers to advance an exclusivist vision of our country as a "Christian nation," even to the point of one prominent speaker urging pastors to preach the Constitution more than we do the Bible. Seeking political power and domination of others is the opposite of what Jesus taught us about loving our neighbors. Christianity is a global religion, and America is a place that cherishes religious freedom for all people.
“We are patriots who love our country, yet we cannot let patriotism become a false idol,” the group states. “We have an American identity and a Christian identity, but they are separate.”
“We prayerfully urge you to cancel hosting this tour to protect our town from having to deal with division, hate, and violence in the name of Christ,” the group states. “Please let us know by Tuesday, August 2 what your intentions are about this event. We are holding you in our prayers as you discern.”
Meanwhile, Alkhouri (pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Batavia) said she has received some “threatening and hateful” phone calls and notes. One such threat was to expose her name nationally.
“These are Christians who are saying that they want to have my name out there in the community and around the country so that I am exposed to lawsuits and to other pressures,” she said. Yet she is not a single defender of this stance, but one of several people. Alkhouri doesn't believe that anyone should be the subject of deragatory comments.
"I think when people try to attack others in the name of defending justice, we all lose," she said. "No one wins when we degrade each other and become fearful or hateful of each other."
The list of names on the letter includes:
- Ruth E. Andes, Racial Justice Working Group, Genesee Valley Presbytery, and Byron Presbyterian Church
- Rev. Joy Bergfalk
- Rev. David R. Glassmire (Roman Catholic, Pastor Ascension Parish -Batavia)
- Rev. Bob Kaiser (Presbyterian - Rochester)
- Deacon Diana Leiker (Episcopalian - Akron)
- Rev. Dr. Shiela McCullough (Chaplain - Batavia)
- Rev. James Morasco (American Baptist and United Church of Christ – Batavia)
- Rev. Laurel Nelson (Presbyterian - Dansville)
- Rev. Elaine Paige (Chaplain - Batavia)
- Rev. Jimmy Reader
- Rev. Chava Redonnet (Chaplain - Rochester)
- Rev. James Renfrew (Retired minister)
- Pastor Mark Ross (Presbyterian - Batavia)
- Pastor Brad Smith and the Attica First Presbyterian Church
- Rev. Michael Stuart (Presbyterian - Batavia)
- Jim Tappon (Elder - Irondequoit Presbyterian Church)
- Lucia VerTseeg (Presbyterian - Rochester)
- Rev. Evan Wildhack (Presbyterian - Corfu)
The Batavian reached out to Doyle for comments about how the meeting went, and his response to the letter. He said that there are “different political perspectives” on each side and that it was a very cordial conversation. However, he does not agree with the “many fears” their position generates, and his decision has not changed.
“We are fully behind this event and resolved on our stance to host the ReAwaken America Tour. We see this as a Christian-based assembly addressing the many issues that face American people — offering a biblical perspective,” he said. “We feel compelled to host this event because of the many highly respected Christian speakers that are scheduled over this two-day event.”
As a Batavia native, Batavia High School and Genesee Community College graduate, and former GCC Foundation and Batavia Rotary Club member, he emphasized that “the protesters do not love Batavia more than I do.”
He and church leaders are taking “every precaution” within their power to ensure a safe and secure event, he said, within the immediate proximity of Cornerstone property. There has been another side to the protests, he said.
“Although there have been voices of opposition, the support for the event has been pouring into our church, not only locally, but nationally as well,” he said. “In addition, we have received calls from several local clergy that support us.”
Doyle said there have been talks with local police, including the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office, and Cornerstone plans to fully cooperate with law enforcement’s instructions. He said those local law officials have been connected with top security officials representing the event organizers.
“I feel the event has been over-dramatized. Speakers and attendees are law-abiding and patriotic citizens of the USA,” he said. “Although many issues are occurring in our country that is hotly debated, I have found no reasonable rationale for cancelling this peaceful assembly of Americans exercising their First Amendment (right) of freedom of speech.”
Groups of protesters, including the list above, are trying to plan prayer vigils and at least one more public event in opposition to the tour before it happens on August 12 and 13. Although some have disputed that this is not a political event, many speakers have claimed that Donald Trump won the election and disparage President Joseph Biden and others in the current White House administration. Other speakers discourage COVID vaccines and masks based on unverifiable evidence. To view tour speakers, go here.
Read the full letter here.
Top photo: Cornerstone Church with new fencing around its property in preparation for the tour. File photo of a protest last month in front of City Hall, above, in Batavia. Photos by Howard Owens.