Ann Arbor Episcopal church launches Pride flag project after multiple vandalism incidents

By Logan Crews
Posted Jun 20, 2023

Jenny Saperstein, Northside Presbyterian’s pastor, poses with a “Need a Flag, Take a Flag” sign outside St. Aidan’s Episcopal and Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Two other churchgoers plant flags around the sign. Photo: Brian Evely

[Episcopal News Service] After their LGBTQ+ pride flag was vandalized twice this spring, the combined community of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church and Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, planted 300 miniature pride flags with a sign that reads, “Need a Flag, Take a Flag.”

The Rev. Tom Ferguson, St. Aidan’s vicar, replaced the large flag and its pole after they were first damaged in April and then stolen in May. Soon after local news reported on the repeated vandalism in early June, the new display was trampled and the big flag was damaged once again.

“They took the new pole, snapped it off, and then they snapped that pole in two,” Ferguson said. “It was quite violent looking.”

St. Aidan’s and Northside Presbyterian share a building on a hill in Ann Arbor. A natural wooded area with public trails lies between the building and Plymouth Road, where the vandalism took place. Ferguson told Episcopal News Service a “good samaritan” photographed the jogger who first damaged the flag in April, and he sent the photo to the police.

“We want them to stop doing what they’re doing,” Ferguson said. “And then we want them to reflect and see what Jesus is really calling us to do. [It] is to love and I’m hoping to change their hearts and minds by standing our ground.”

St. Aidan’s member Randy Gilchrist was angry when he learned about the vandalism through Facebook. Gilchrist’s first gay relationship in 2003 led him to St. Aidan’s, where he was met with open arms. However, home to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor’s progressive reputation hasn’t always held up. Once, in the early 2000s, he and his partner at the time received hateful comments when walking down the street. These recent events have shown Gilchrist that some things haven’t changed.

“It just makes me realize that there is still work to be done,” Gilchrist said. “That we are not completely accepted as legitimate members of society or probably even as legitimate Christians.”

The Human Rights Campaign declared a national state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans for the first time on June 6. Violence and hateful rhetoric toward LGBTQ+ people have swept across the nation this year, as more than 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced in state legislatures, a new record.

Michigan Bishop Bonnie Perry referenced these bills in her diocesan Pride message, noting that the vast majority of the bills target transgender people.

“Know that we in The Episcopal Church are there for you and that we will stand with you when you speak and when you are not there,” Perry said. “Friends, if you want to be an ally, I invite all of us to speak up, to speak out against any bill that is harmful for our siblings.”

Half of St. Aidan’s around 40-person congregation, it is a mission church, showed up to help set up the Need a Flag, Take a Flag display. Jim Mogensen, a member of St. Aidan’s and community activist, told ENS they took a humorous, loving approach to their flag getting stolen.

“We’ve decided to decide that there is just a shortage of flags and people keep on needing flags and so on,” Mogensen said.

The Ann Arbor police are increasing their presence near Plymouth Road, and the churches are discussing additional security measures. Rachel Baird, junior warden, said media coverage and an End Gun Violence Michigan event held on June 17 have brought new attention to St. Aidan’s, the small mission that was laity-led for three years before Ferguson arrived in October.

“All of a sudden we feel like, I’d like to say, the Holy Spirit is kind of pushing us out there into the community letting people know, ‘Look, we’re here!’” Baird said. “We’re literally a light on a hill.”

Gilchrist noted that many churches and other establishments show support for LGBTQ+ people year-round, not just when it’s trendy during Pride month. At places like St. Aidan’s, both he and Ferguson said their support is rooted in theology.

“We are created in the image of God, which means that God is gay, too,” Gilchrist said. “God is a woman and God is a trans person. God is everything and creates everything. All we have to do is look around us and see the diversity of nature.”

According to Ferguson, Need a Flag, Take a Flag will stay up until all of the flags are taken. The symbolic rainbow flag will continue to fly on Plymouth Road, even if others don’t like it.

“This person doesn’t get to tell us whether or not to have a flag out there, and they also don’t get to tell us how to respond to their antagonism or whatever it is,” Baird said. “We get to choose that. We get to choose to respond with love.”

-Logan Crews is a lifelong Episcopalian and incoming Master of Divinity student at Yale Divinity School. He serves as an Episcopal Church Ecojustice Fellow and on the student leadership team of the World Student Christian Federation-United States.