West Michigan Episcopal parishes support LGBTQ+ community by sponsoring Pride festival, resisting far-right local government

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Jun 5, 2023

Episcopal churches nationwide are hosting Pride events throughout the month of June. Photo: Pixabay

[Episcopal News Service] St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, will sponsor the city’s first Pride festival on June 10. The event is proceeding while in the background the surrounding county continues to shift from traditional conservatism to far-right politics and Christian nationalism.

The Rev. Jared Cramer, rector of St. John’s, told Episcopal News Service that LGBTQ+ people inspire him and make him “a better husband and a better Christian because of their witness.”

“[LGBTQ+] are wonderfully and beautifully made, and the willingness to be boldly who they are, to be committed to one another in spite of what occurs in society, is astounding,” he said.

Since November 2022, Ottawa County, Michigan, has attracted attention from national news outlets over its local election results. After months of campaigning over COVID-19 health ordinances and social issues, far-right candidates won most of the seats on the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners. The new board swiftly made changes upon taking office, one of the first being to close the county’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Thanks to tourism and having some of the lowest unemployment rates in Michigan, Ottawa County has been the fastest-growing county in the state since 2010. The predominantly white county, located alongside Lake Michigan in the western half of the state, is also historically one of the most consistently conservative counties in the state. Cramer, who grew up in Grand Haven, told ENS that Ottawa County residents of all sides of the political spectrum used to be civil toward each other despite their differences, but even traditionally conservative parishioners at St. John’s are “bewildered as to what’s happening.”

“We’re seeing people who want political power and who have increasingly got it, and the result is marginalization, dehumanization and often violence against marginalized communities,” he said.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Ottawa County’s approximately 300,000 residents resisted Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mask mandate and the local health department’s push for coronavirus vaccines, leading to death threats. Clashes over state and local health orders led some residents to form Ottawa Impact, a far-right political action committee focused on recruiting and raising money for local candidates to unseat incumbent members of Ottawa County’s board of commissioners. The campaign was mostly successful; candidates backed by Ottawa Impact won eight out of 11 seats total in the 2022 local election.

“[Ottawa Impact-backed candidates] ran on a pillar of faith, freedom and family,” Cramer said. “Who’s gonna disagree with that?”

Before the election, board meetings were sparsely attended. Now, board meetings are packed with supporters and opponents of the new far-right board fighting and calling each other “fascists” and “communists.”

“These [new board members] spew hate as though they’re speaking for Christians,” Cramer said. “What about the gay members of my church who want to be able to go to church and get married in worship? Where’s their freedom of religion in all of this?”

Ottawa County’s growing conservatism isn’t unique in the United States, as the country is becoming more geographically polarized — more Americans are moving to cities and states that match their political ideologies. Additionally, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has been rising in the United States for some time, with bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights introduced by state legislatures having more than doubled so far since 2022.

“I think there is a fear around gender, representation and race, and loss of power and privilege, rather than an acknowledgment that we need to let go of some of that power and privilege if we are going to ever be the people of the nation,” said the Rev. Jen Adams, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Holland, and a longtime vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ rights in Ottawa County.

Grace Episcopal Church partners with Out on the Lakeshore, a local nonprofit dedicated to providing resources, support, programming and education to LGBTQ+ people and allies. The Rev. Jay Johnson, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Saugatuck, is a board member of Out on the Lakeshore.

Adams and Cramer both expressed safety concerns for their LGBTQ+ parishioners. Hate crimes targeting marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+ people, are predicted to rise nationwide in 2024 because of an ongoing trend in reported hate crimes during U.S. election seasons. This prediction is based on a recently published report by The Leadership Conference Education Fund, an arm of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the oldest and largest civil rights coalition in the United States.

Adams told ENS that her congregation’s transgender parishioners “are feeling the most vulnerable and threatened” these days.

 “Standing up for our trans brothers and sisters and LGBTQIA folks is critically important right now,” she said. “If you look at the different initiatives, legislative and otherwise, around our country, you see why and so many [people and organizations] are standing with [LGBTQ+ people] and creating safe spaces.”

Rather than succumb to the new status quo in Ottawa County, Cramer has been actively speaking out against the new board members’ “extreme” views, particularly their proclivity to discriminate against marginalized communities under the supposed guise of religious beliefs. Cramer regularly writes columns criticizing the board for the “Grand Haven Tribune,” and he has made some TikTok videos with commentary on speakers at recent city council and board meetings.

Cramer and Adams are both members of the Unifying Coalition of Ottawa County, a nonpartisan group established to push back against Ottawa Impact and unseat the new board of commissioners in the next election. They have been collaborating with other church leaders in the county to stand up to Ottawa Impact and its affiliates, who mostly come from evangelical Christian backgrounds.

“In a way, I’m glad that this is the way Ottawa County is being known right now because it’s raised awareness,” Adams said. “And that means more people will stand up and are getting involved, and more organizing is happening in a broader way.”

The inaugural Grand Haven Pride Festival was unanimously approved by the city council in April. Even though St. John’s is underwriting the festival, the steering committee running the event is primarily led by the local LGBTQ+ community outside of the church.

“There were some people deeply suspicious of a church leader leading the Pride festival, but we’ve kind of been won over a bit, I think, when they realized that [St. John’s is] not here trying to convert anyone,” Cramer said. “We’re just trying to do what we believe Jesus told us to do.”

The family-friendly festival will include live entertainment, children’s activities, a vendor fair featuring handmade products by local artists, and more. At least 500 people are expected to attend the free event, which is taking place from noon to 9 p.m. Eastern at the Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium. St. John’s will kickstart the Pride festival with a special community worship service at 10 a.m.

As Episcopal congregations across the United States participate in Pride events during the month of June, Cramer said it’s important for Episcopalians to remain humble while supporting the LGBTQ+ community.

“Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that we are somehow superior to those who have been trapped by extremist right-wing Christianity, because being the judgmental superior left in Christianity is still not what we should be,” he said. “Claim who you are and what you believe, speak strongly about your faith and speak strongly in particular on behalf of those who don’t have a voice. But do it in such a way that the other parts of Christ’s body are needed.”

Cramer told ENS that protestors are expected to gather at the worship service and festival, and some people have expressed fears about going to both events despite plans for increased security. Still, he said he believes Episcopalians must “save those who have been held captive by the system of right-wing extremism.”

“It’s important for us as Episcopalians to speak up and to provide an alternative voice, to say that we are absolutely devoted to Jesus, and that is why we love our gay and lesbian siblings in Christ,” Cramer said. “Because in the end, the Christian church in Ottawa County and in West Michigan is less than we could be because of the absence of so many of our gay and lesbian siblings in Christ. And until they are fully a part of the Christian community here, we will continue to be anemic and sick. We need them to make us better.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.