“I wanted to be a counter-voice,” Pastor Ray McKinnon, of Hickory, told the Times-News at Sunday’s protest in Catawba County over local church leader Charles Worley’s controversial comments about gays and the President.
McKinnon said he chose to attend the event so that everyone would know they have worth and purpose in life, much the opposite of Worley’s idea to exterminate gays and lesbians by putting them inside a large electric fence.
Worley’s comments during a sermon at Providence Baptist Church in Maiden on Mother’s Day gained nationwide attention after being uploaded to YouTube, drawing large crowds on both sides of the issue to the protest in the area on Sunday, as well as bringing in national media.
“People need to know they matter,” McKinnon said. He called Worley’s words “toxic” and in “direct opposition to what Jesus said.
“Sometimes the loudest voices at either end of the spectrum are extreme,” he said, “and at the end of the day, God is for them — not just them — but us.”
Bishop Donagrant McCluney, of Progressive Pentecostal Church of the Triad in Greensboro, shared McKinnon’s views and said he was at the event “in the spirit of a David who heard Goliath defying God.”
“There must be a voice that offers the other side in the faith,” he said. “Worley and all pastors are entitled to their opinion, but the pulpit is not a place to preach your opinion but a place to preach the Word of God.”
Bill Holt, a member of Faith Baptist Church in Primrose, Ga., traveled to Newton with his Pastor Billy Ball and several church members. Holt and other Faith Baptist churchgoers were on-site holding large signs in support of their view of the Christian gospel, which agrees with Pastor Worley’s comments.
“Our nation just is blind,” he said. Holt said he and others with similar viewpoints are just supporting God’s Word and are motivated by love, not hate.
“We wouldn’t have driven six to eight hours if we hated them,” he said. “We love them.”
The Georgia church members added that they frequently attend other protest events across the country in order to preach about God’s disdain for homosexuality.
With nearly 1,500 people lining the sidewalk and streets at the Catawba County Justice Center in Newton Sunday, many with contradictory opinions, the event remained peaceful and nonviolent, despite a few groups that needed law enforcement reminders at times, Sheriff Coy Reid said.
“We’ve had a couple little blow-ups but with that many people here, it’s not too bad,” he said.
Lincoln County S.W.A.T. and the Catawba County S.T.A.R. team were both on-hand inside the Justice Center building in case a riot broke out.
Additional law enforcement at the event included Newton and Conover Police officers and troopers with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.
While some protest-goers felt comfortable shouting and dancing their opinions, others voiced their views through song, chanting lines from Beatles classic “All You Need is Love” and Sunday School favorite “Jesus Loves Me.”
In addition, decorative signs displaying creative statements drew both positive and negative reaction from cars along Southwest Boulevard. Among them were sayings such as “concentration camps—the wrong side of history,” “The ground is level at the foot of the cross,” “If being gay is a choice, when did you choose to be straight” and “Homophobia is a social disease,” a poster designed by Asheville resident Donovan Nordellia. He said he created the sign as a statement against “ignorant” people. He also wrote the word “love” in various places on the poster.
Nordellia said he initially felt disappointment and shame after watching Worley’s YouTube rant and was saddened that such an incident would take place in both his country and state.
Perhaps one of the most popular sites at the event was Lisa Dickenson wrapped in homemade wire garden fencing, a contraption she constructed around herself with with a sign that read, “Would Jesus do this?”
“It’s just like the Bosnians and Serbs,” she said of Worley’s genocidal remarks about killing off homosexuals.
She said one of the main missions of her church, Piedmont Unitarian Universalist in Charlotte, is promoting human rights.
Dickenson was also upset over Worley’s comments about President Obama, calling him a “baby killer” and “homosexual lover” during the same Mother’s Day sermon.
“It’s perfectly clear that he has used the pulpit to support his politics and a certain candidate,” she said.
Paul Greene told the Times-News he’s a moral, Christian homosexual who traveled from Greensboro to not only speak out against Worley’s comments but also to represent all gays who couldn’t make the event.
“I’m here for those who can’t be,” Greene said.
After growing up in a Christian family and attending a Christian school, he noted that the loneliest days of his childhood were spent in church, where he felt hated by God and others. After surviving a suicide attempt later in life, he decided to encourage other gays to live their lives free of fear and “help them not have lost years like me,” he said.
Walt Boyle, from Raleigh, was also on-hand at the event, defending the freedoms that his father once fought for in World War II and that soldiers continue to fight to protect today. The Denver, Colo., resident said he had been visiting his dying father in a Winston-Salem hospital when he heard about the North Carolina protest.
“I think he appreciates me being here,” he said.
Towards the end of the three-hour protest, participants stretched a colorful, paper chain along the sidewalk. Each link in the chain had a name, poem, verse or other saying that had been marked by participants.
“I wanted to make something pretty and colorful out of something pretty ugly,” Gina Hicks said of her paper chain construction. She made 1,500 paper strips for what she called a protest surrounding a significant “civil rights issue.”
“After Amendment One passed, I felt disheartened and saddened,” she said, “and after Worley’s sermon and how much his congregation agreed with him, I felt I needed to do something. I have three children and want them to learn love.”
Protest organizer Laura Tipton of Hickory, who organized the event through local grassroots group Catawba Valley Citizens Against Hate, donned a shirt that read “love not hate” and said she was grateful to see the positive response Sunday from both her community and state.
“It started out overwhelming when everything was up in the air,” she said of planning the event, “but I don’t’ have to be overwhelmed anymore. I’m humbled and proud and have regained my faith back in my state.”
Tipton said she wasn’t ready to let “a small group of people (Worley and his church) define” North Carolina and its people.