Nearly a thousand people from across California flooded the Natomas office park housing Verity Baptist Church on Sunday with rainbow flags and megaphones to protest the pastor who last week delivered an inflammatory sermon praising the massacre of LGBT people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
John Hayden held back tears as he thanked the crowd for its support. He said the protest grew from a personal event for himself and his friends to the hundreds-strong crowd at a rate he’s never seen before from the LGBT community.
“It’s just remarkable how it didn’t matter your race, religion, creed, background or orientation,” he said. “It didn’t matter. We came together as the Sacramento community.”
The number of protesters far outpaced the crowds seen last Sunday in the Lavender Heights neighborhood and outside the church on Wednesday. On the Facebook event, 2,600 people said they were interested in attending. Families with children turned out on Father’s Day as well, including one boy carrying a sign reading: “Future revolutionary.”
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A longtime friend of Hayden, Tom Wukawitz, 50, flew up from Los Angeles to attend the rally.
“For me, I’ve been one of the Facebook warriors, and that’s not enough anymore,” he said. “It’s time to walk the talk.”
He said the owner of a gay bar in Pasadena who drove up with two employees after closing time Saturday night were among others who came to Sacramento for the protest.
Last Sunday, after news broke of the Orlando mass shooting, the worst in modern U.S. history, Verity’s pastor, Roger Jimenez, told his congregants that he wished the shooter had killed more people in the gay nightclub. He said God has put a death sentence on gay people.
“There’s no tragedy,” Jimenez said. “I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out.”
The sermon, which a congregant posted on YouTube, has grabbed national headlines and has been condemned by local faith leaders. A group from St. Mark’s United Methodist Church held a banner and signs Sunday with pictures of the victims. Lifting Up Jesus Church, in the same office park as Verity, offered its bathrooms for use by protesters.
At least 30 sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers were on hand to keep the crowd back and control traffic as worshippers entered and exited the church. The crowd stayed behind the makeshift barricades and chanted “love conquers hate” and “shame, shame, shame” as members of the congregation escorted parishioners out in groups.
An ethnically diverse group of about 75 people attended the service, many of them with children. A Fox 40 reporter who was allowed inside the church tweeted that Jimenez said during the sermon he doesn’t want bloodshed and mocked protesters who disagreed with his interpretation of the Bible.
Members of the church approached by The Sacramento Bee declined to be interviewed for this story.
Cindy Roose, 63, who described herself as a heterosexual grandmother of 10, said she bypassed her own church service Sunday morning to come out for the rally.
“I have no problem with the congregation,” she said while the service was still going on. “I have a direct problem with a preacher who is preaching hate from the pulpit. A person who is supposed to be a leader of a church, who is supposed to be a man of God; it’s just unimaginable today.”
She joined a group of protesters lying down on the hot asphalt to have chalk outlines of their bodies drawn to represent the victims.
At 10:45 a.m., the organizers of the rally held a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting. Then they began to read the names. The crowd, many holding signs reading “we are Orlando” and “love conquers hate” accompanied by all of the names, read along with them.
After the 49 names were read, the crowd began to chant “not one more.”
City Councilman Steve Hansen hand-delivered an additional 200 signs for the event after organizers ran out of the 400 he gave them initially. They were produced with campaign funds left over from his re-election campaign, which he won on June 7. Hansen, who is gay, said Jimenez has done a disservice to Sacramento.
“I heard from people around the country – my friends from D.C., my family in Minnesota – that they’d heard about this minister, and I wanted to make sure that one person, just like in Orlando, doesn’t destroy all the goodwill, all the positiveness,” he said. “And what we’ve seen today is a lot of love.”
Heather Sims, 53, of Sacramento swung a California flag with a rainbow across the bottom. She said she borrowed the flag from a fellow member of the Tower Bridge Battalion, the fan group for the Sacramento Republic FC, after Saturday night’s game. There was a moment of silence for the Orlando victims during the 49th minute of the game, she said.
Sims said she was horrified to find out about Jimenez’s sermon last week, especially because as a church, Verity enjoys a tax-exempt status.
Another chant that ran through the crowd: “Tax the hate.”