A conservative pastor is trying to unseat a gay library board member in St. Joseph
The push to remove Brian Kirk is being led by a conservative pastor in the same city. The conflict has already prompted St. Joseph to change how it appoints members of city boards.
On Monday, June 26, the St. Joseph City Council meeting began as usual with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. As the attendees finished reciting the pledge, a few people shouted the last words — “with liberty and justice for all!” — prompting a rebuke from Mayor John Josendale.
The meeting was at capacity, with overflow crowds in the hallway and outside the building. The subject: whether Brian Kirk, a gay pastor at a progressive Christian church, should be approved to serve another term on the St. Joseph Public Library’s Board of Trustees, a nine-member group of volunteers that oversees financial and administrative matters.
Hundreds of people on both sides had gathered outside of the City Council earlier that afternoon to pray and protest.
Jacob McMillian was one of a few who opposed the reappointment because of Kirk’s support for the LGBTQ+ community. He felt the library went too far in promoting LGBTQ+ events, such as a drag queen story hour in 2019.
“I feel like our library needs a new direction,” McMillian said. “We don’t need a library that is one promoting a minority above everyone else.”
The library Board of Trustees doesn’t have influence over library materials and events.
The majority of speakers, like Andrea Cole, voiced their support for Kirk. Cole warned that the community would feel the effect of not approving Kirk’s appointment.
“It think that sends a message to every LGBTQ member of St. Joseph that they’re not welcome to serve on boards, they’re not welcome to do voluntary public service,” Cole said, “or anybody for that matter who is an active supporter of the LGBTQ community.”
For now, Kirk’s reappointment to the library board remains up in the air. But the controversy, promoted by senior pastor Josh Blevins of Grace Calvary Chapel, has already spurred change in city government. St. Joseph is suspending all nominations to its more than 30 boards and commissions, until it can decide on another process for appointing members.
“That polarization has fostered a lot of misinformation,” said Mayor John Josendale at Monday’s City Council meeting. “We have determined that our process for board nominations should be more accessible to the entire public.”
A brewing controversy
Brian Kirk’s three-year term on the St. Joseph library board was supposed to end on June 30. He was surprised when he heard the mayor wouldn’t approve his nomination for another term. Kirk and library director Mary Beth Revels met with Josendale on June 20. They said the mayor told them that people had called and emailed the city, asking that Kirk not be reappointed to the board.
“He said, ‘it’s just causing conflict in the city.’ And for my protection and my church's protection, he was gonna go ahead and take me off the board,” Kirk said. “He then proceeded to talk about, ‘people are concerned about woke ideology spreading and too many Pride flags in our downtown.’”
Revels corroborated Kirk’s account.
“The mayor at that point was just like, ‘I’m sorry. I respect you. I think you've done a great job. I just don't want this controversy. And I think that the best way to not hurt you, not hurt the library, not hurt the city, is to just stop right here,’” Revels said.
In an email, Josendale said these accounts were “not true.” The mayor did not respond to further questions and did not elaborate on which aspects were false.
The same day of that meeting, Josh Blevins, the senior pastor at Grace Calvary Church, had posted on Facebook asking residents to oppose Kirk’s nomination to the board because of Kirk’s support for the LGBTQ+ community and his work as a progressive pastor.
“His appointment to a post that directly impacts our youngest and most vulnerable minds should be a deep concern for any resident who wants to keep our libraries as centers for unbiased learning,” Blevins said in the post. “We don’t want our public libraries to become indoctrination centers for the LGBTQ movement.”
Blevins elaborated on his beliefs in the comments.
“I hold the belief that choosing to live a homosexual lifestyle is contrary to God's design,” he said. “This conviction does not arise from a place of bigotry, hatred, or homophobia, but from the clear teachings of God's Word.”
Vote St. Joe, a political group founded by Blevins and affiliated with Grace Calvary Chapel, published a form letter for people to send to the City Council, requesting that Kirk not be reappointed to the library board because of his support for LGBTQ+ issues.
Kirk, the lead pastor at First Christian Church in St. Joseph, said he has never met Blevins. The two pastors exchanged Facebook messages last month and agreed to meet, but at the last minute, Blevins pulled out, saying their theological differences were too great to find any common ground.
“Understand that my vocal or public opposition to you is in the spirit of loving God and loving others in the truth,” Blevins told Kirk on Facebook. “Know that you will remain in my prayers, not for God’s judgment to be upon you, but that in His mercy, He might guide you towards repentance and restoration.”
Earlier in June, Kirk’s church hosted an event called the Queer Revival, featuring drag queens and welcoming people who felt rejected by Christianity. Kirk thinks this event and his church’s continuing support of the LGBTQ+ community have spurred Blevins’s campaign against him. Blevins has even criticized Kirk in a sermon by name.
Kirk said the controversy has been emotionally draining.
“I’m not getting much sleep right now,” he told KCUR. “I've got family members that are worried for our safety.”
He and others who testified in his support at the City Council believe that if he is removed from the library board, it would be an act of anti-gay discrimination.
“I don’t know what other word we would use for it,” Kirk said.
A “duty” to speak up
Mary Beth Revels, the director of the St. Joseph Public Library, said Kirk has been an “exemplary” library board member and has served as vice president and on multiple committees.
“He’s everything that you look for in a board member,” she said. “I cannot emphasize enough that he is unbiased. He has never tried to push any agenda.”
Revels said the library Board of Trustees doesn’t have influence over library materials and events. Board members approve budgets and sign checks. The mayor nominates members to three-year terms and the City Council approves them. Three out of nine members are up for renomination every year.
But only Kirk’s nomination was called into question this year.
“I’m saddened that there is any controversy surrounding this,” Revels said.
Blevins declined to be interviewed or answer questions sent by email. In a statement, he said his opposition to Kirk had nothing to do with Kirk’s identity as a gay man, and he did not initially know Kirk was gay.
“Our public spaces need to maintain an environment that does not emphasize controversial ideologies about sexuality and gender identity,” Blevins said in an email. “They must consider not only the LGTBQ voice but also the legitimate concerns of those in their community that prefer to keep conversations about sexuality within the context of their own homes and families.”
Blevins’ church, Grace Calvary Chapel in St. Joseph, is affiliated with the Calvary Chapel Association, a nationwide conservative evangelical Christian movement that opposeshomosexuality and same-sex marriage.
In his statement, Blevins said he believes the Christian community has a duty to speak up in civic matters.
“I firmly believe in the vital role of the Christian community in fostering a civic process that promotes the safety and prosperity of our cities,” he said.
In an email, city spokeswoman Mary Robertson said staff were making changes to the process of nominating committee and board members.
“The process is being developed with the goal of making vacancies on boards and commissions widely and routinely known for people who may be interested in various positions,” Robertson said. “That process will provide those interested in applying methods in which to submit an application.”
The next City Council meeting is on July 10. For now, Kirk and other library board members with terms that expired June 30 will remain on the board indefinitely until St. Joseph revamps its nomination process.
“I’m unapologetically a supporter of LGBTQ people and their rights within the city. So, guilty as charged about that,” Kirk said. “The question that's looming here in the city is: is that a legitimate reason to remove somebody from a position of public leadership?”