When the Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin arrived at the Menlo Park church she leads on Aug. 10 for a funeral, she was disappointed to find that the gay pride rainbow flag the church displays on its front sign was gone.
Just days prior, officials at St. Bede's Episcopal Church had replaced another rainbow flag that had been stolen from the same spot a couple of weeks before the second theft, said Hayes-Martin, the church's rector.
St. Bede's, located at 2650 Sand Hill Road, has replaced three rainbow flags, hung to support the LGBTQ community, since 2016, but two in the last month, she said.
Hayes-Martin said she was moved to give a sermon about the thefts during an Aug. 18 church service, addressing whoever took the flags directly as "neighbor."
"Neighbor, I hope you will leave our flag alone in the future," she said in the sermon. "If you steal it again, we'll put another one up. All you're doing is increasing the sales of rainbow flags."
A threatening act
One parishioner, who asked not to be identified out of concern for his safety in an environment of apparent animosity felt by least one person in the community, said he feels threatened by the thefts.
"I'm gay and I've fought my whole life to be visible," the parishioner said. "Something like this (the flag thefts) triggers my deep-seated fears of being hated for who I love and how I love."
There are no clues as to why the individual, or individuals, took the pride flags, Hayes-Martin said. The church would like to "believe it's a kid who likes rainbows and wants to make a tent with our rainbow flag and no malice is intended." But, she notes, hate crimes have risen against LGBTQ people in recent years.
Hate crimes based on sexual orientation bias reported to law enforcement agencies in the U.S. rose from 1,178 in 2014 to 1,303 in 2017, according to FBI data released in November 2018. The U.S. Census Bureau's National Crime Victimization Survey suggests that the number of hate crimes nationwide, in general -- not only those based on sexual orientation bias -- is larger. There were 45,600 hate crimes on average annually between 2013 and 2017, compared with the FBI's estimate of about 7,500 annually.
Meanwhile, Hayes-Martin said, church officials would welcome the "neighbor" to meet with them.
"It's OK to disagree, but we prefer they (whoever took the flags) come and talk to us," she told The Almanac. "Allow this disagreement to be manifested in a relationship instead of something that probably happens in the dark of night when nobody knows it happened."
In her sermon, she said: "We will seek to understand you and where you're coming from. We'll share with you where we're coming from, not to change your mind or make you feel guilty but so you can understand us. ... The world is locked in conflict right now; opposing sides barely know how to talk to each other anymore. We think we have something to teach people about how to disagree. We would like to share our way of disagreeing while remaining in a relationship with you."
In addition to the flags, the church also replaced the flagpole used to affix the flag to its front sign because the pole was stolen recently as well, Hayes-Martin said. Aside from the three flag thefts, officials also found the flag torn down, tucked behind the sign, the parishioner said.
The church's 10-member governing board passed a resolution during the summer of 2016 to hang a gay pride flag at the church after a mass shooter killed 49 people at Pulse Nightclub, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Hayes-Martin said. The church has supported LBGTQ people for 15 to 20 years, but decided it needed to explicitly affirm it was a safe place for LBGTQ people, she said. The church also flies an American flag in its courtyard.
"We fly that flag (the rainbow flag) because we've come to believe over many, many years that the arms of Jesus extend to everybody, and all people really means all," Hayes-Martin said. "It reminds our parish of who we are and encourages them to reach out to people who are different and say 'Jesus loves you as well.' The way we navigate as Christians is to treat everyone with respect and kindness."
Church officials reported the latest theft to the Menlo Park Police Department on Aug. 10, said police spokesperson Nicole Acker in a Sept. 3 email. There are no leads in the case, she said, and she hasn't heard of any similar incidents in Menlo Park.
The church does not have security cameras, but officials were concerned that cameras would be expensive to install, Hayes-Martin said. The church's sign where the flag is flown is along a wide corner, she said, so the church would probably have to buy multiple cameras to capture the area.