Church-Led Gay Bashing in Tennessee: WWJD?
Humbolt, Tennessee – In the quiet outskirts of rural Humbolt, Tennessee, a church with a Fruitland address was the scene for a violent attack on two young gay men simply for arriving at Wednesday evening services. What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) about Church-and-Pastor instigated gay bashing? On September 28, Jerry Pittman Jr. and his boyfriend, Dustin Lee, arrived at Grace Fellowship Church where his father, Jerry Pittman Sr., is the pastor. Just before the gay couple got out of their car, Jerry Jr. heard his father cry, “Sic ‘em!,” as a hunter would address a pack of dogs. Two deacons from the church, and Jerry Jr.’s uncle who is also a deacon, attacked the pair while they were still trying to get out of the parked vehicle. WBBJ Eyewitness News interviewed Jerry Jr. soon after the church gay bashed the couple: “My uncle and two other deacons came over to the car per my dad’s request,” young Jerry said. “My uncle smashed me in the door as the other deacon knocked my boyfriend back so he couldn’t help me, punching him in his face and his chest. The other deacon came and hit me through my car window in my back.” The men kept yelling homophobic insults and slurs at the couple even after a Gibson County Deputy Sheriff arrived on the scene. The couple attempted to press charges with the officer, who refused to allow them to do so, implying that they were the cause of the attack themselves. Gibson County Sheriff Chuck Arnold defended the actions of his deputy to the press, saying, ”I haven’t talk to him but that would be out of character for my deputy to say unless they were causing a problem themselves.” Media attention has caused the sheriff to temper his remarks in subsequent interviews.
Pittman and Lee did press charges the following Friday against Deacons Billy Sims and Eugene McCoy, as well as Rev. Jerry Pittman Sr. and Deacon Patrick Flatt, the younger Pittman’s uncle. When WBBJ reporters contacted the pastor, he refused comment and demanded that the station not try to communicate with him again.
Evan Hurst of Truth Wins Out gives the latest details on this story that has shocked Christians and non-Christians alike, awakening them to the presence of virulent, anti-gay prejudice in America’s pulpits and pews. Hurst spoke to Jerry Jr. by phone on October 5, who said, “The church acted as four people, instead of as a congregation.” Pittman explained that he and his boyfriend had attended the church before, though they knew the condemning stance of the elder Pittman, who preached anti-gay sermons “when the couple wasn’t there.” Lee had even been invited to sing at Grace Fellowship once when he attended services alone. But marital trouble broke out between Pittman Sr. and Jerry Jr.’s stepmother, and, in Hurst’s words, “the floodgates opened and the church no longer felt the need to stay silent about Jerry, Jr. and his boyfriend.” The charges and counter charges in this case are still being sorted out. All parties are remanded to court on November 22. Meanwhile, Jerry Pittman Jr. and Dustin Lee are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and shattered faith. Jerry Jr. has already lost his job because of the days he has spent pursuing justice for himself and his boyfriend.
West Tennessee is a tough place to be gay or lesbian, much less transgender. Hurst relates a “man-on-the-street” interview in Jackson, in which the reporter asked a passer-by about what he would do if his son brought a boyfriend to church with him. The man candidly said he would shoot them. The culture of hatred, religious intolerance of LGBTQ people, and church-sanctioned violence remains undisturbed in America’s heartland, no matter if there is a federal Matthew Shepard Act to offer some protection legally to marginalized gay people.
Would Jesus condone anti-gay violence? If not, then why is such prejudice overtly and covertly incubated in the nation’s communities of faith, like Grace Fellowship? While it may be simple for many Christians to dismiss the Grace Fellowship hate crime as an aberration in an embarrassing, Pentecostal byway, the silence from every other church in the surrounding area is deafening. The Unfinished Lives Project has shown the link between religious intolerance, religious hate speech, and deadly anti-gay violence. Nine out of ten fatal hate crimes perpetrated against LGBTQ people in the United States were sparked, by admission of the killers, by Bible or Church teaching. If churches cannot speak out against an attack against a young gay couple simply for arriving at a church for services, what will they remain silent about next? WWJD about Christians and Churches who gay bash or stand by silently while others do? Read John 11:35: “Jesus wept.”