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In St. Joseph, a gay pastor's ouster taught him 'we're a more divided community now'

Brian Kirk, lead pastor at First Christian Church in St. Joseph, used to think the city was libertarian in its tolerance of LGBTQ+ people. Now, he feels the community is more divided than he realized.
Nomin Ujiyediin/KCUR
Brian Kirk, lead pastor at First Christian Church in St. Joseph, used to think the city was libertarian in its tolerance of LGBTQ+ people. Now, he feels the community is more divided than he realized.

Brian Kirk lost his position on a volunteer library board over his support for LGBTQ+ rights. Progressive residents of St. Joseph say the incident has revealed discrimination in the city.

It wasn’t until October that Brian Kirk felt like he could take a breath.

The summer had turned his life upside down. In July, the longtime pastor of First Christian Church in St. Joseph, population 70,656, lost his position on the volunteer board that performs administrative tasks for the local library.

Spurred by pastor Josh Blevins of the conservative Grace Calvary Chapel across town, strangers had scrutinized Kirk’s LGBTQ+ activism on social media and accused him of using a public space to promote an inappropriate agenda.

It consumed Kirk’s thoughts. He couldn’t sleep. His runs in the park were spent wondering what to do next — whether to reach out to another pastor and what to say to the media. He worried his husband would become a target because he used to be an elementary school teacher.

“I had spent a decade here trying to build a good reputation in this community,” Kirk said. “And suddenly you’re in the public eye.”

The appointment to the volunteer St. Joseph Public Library Board is usually a routine matter, but the renewal of Kirk’s candidacy this summer drew an unusual amount of attention. It spurred raucous meetings, dozens of letters to the City Council and protests outside of City Hall attended by hundreds of people.

In the wake of the controversy, progressive and LGBTQ+ residents of St. Joseph are asking whether the town is actually a safe place to live.

First Christian Church

Things have quieted down since the summer. The new spotlight on First Christian Church has brought new visitors looking for a progressive Christian community. But it’s also brought new concerns about vandalism and safety during Sunday services.

The church is considering putting up cameras and hiring security. Kirk received a threatening letter in early September that he reported to the local police department.

Most of all, he’s worried the perception that LGBTQ+ people are a threat to children could attract a mass shooting.

“We have seen this happen in other churches,” Kirk said. “We're just living in a culture now where this is a problem with any public building.”

First Christian Church is located in a 125-year-old building in downtown St. Joseph.
Nomin Ujiyediin/KCUR
First Christian Church is located in a 125-year-old building in downtown St. Joseph.

First Christian Church, located in a 125-year-old building in downtown St. Joseph, has about 150 members. According to Kirk, between 70 and 100 people attend services on Sunday. The church is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a small denomination whose members participate in a weekly communion where they share food.

The St. Joseph location prides itself on being open to any people, regardless of identity or even religious belief, Kirk said. In the center of its sanctuary is an ornate wooden table decorated with multicolored strips of cloth representing human diversity.

“We're a church that really believes in the beauty of diversity within the human being, within creation, within beliefs,” Kirk said. “Having multicolored cloth on our communion table is a way to say ‘everybody's welcome at this table.’”

First Christian shares its space with a congregation of immigrants from Micronesia. It has a permanent space for a chapter of Narcotics Anonymous to hold meetings. It has also let local Pride Festival organizers use the space.

Now, the church has to consider how to stay a welcoming space to all, while still protecting itself from violence. Kirk used to feel that St. Joseph was, if not a liberal community, a libertarian one, where people’s individual choices were respected, and LGBTQ+ people were free to live their lives without interference. He doesn’t feel that way anymore.

“It seems to be a pretty clear message that ‘we will tolerate you if you keep quiet and keep your head down,” Kirk said. “But if you put your head up and you have something to say, we're not going to allow that.”

The sanctuary of First Christian Church features an ornately carved wooden table decorated with cloth representing human diversity.
Nomin Ujiyediin/KCUR
The sanctuary of First Christian Church features an ornately carved wooden table decorated with cloth representing human diversity.

He knows of two transgender people who have moved out of St. Joseph because they no longer felt welcome. He has heard other queer people question whether it’s worth staying in the community when they could become targets of public harassment and ire. Throughout it all, Kirk has felt like a victim of discrimination due to his identity as a gay man.

“They were successful in getting me not reappointed to the library board,” Kirk said. “The reasoning that they gave was nothing other than, ‘you advocate for the queer community or you're part of it.’ And that was allowed to stand.”

This fall, Kirk was appointed to the local school board’s teacher retention and recruitment committee — not without further controversy. As a result of the discussion surrounding Kirk’s initial nomination in September, the school board voted to disband all committees. The committees were later reinstated.

People have encouraged Kirk to run for election to serve on the school board itself. But friends have sent him screenshots of private Facebook groups where LGBTQ+ people working for local government are still the target of criticism. He’s reluctant to be a target again.

“I think we're a more divided community now than we probably thought we were,” he said.

Grace Calvary Chapel

Josh Blevins, lead pastor of Grace Calvary Chapel, said he didn’t initially know Brian Kirk was gay when he heard about Kirk’s potential renomination to the library board. Blevins mostly objected to Kirk’s activism in support of LGBTQ+ people, particularly an event featuring a drag queen that took place in First Christian Church. And he was worried Kirk would promote LGBTQ+ ideas in a public space.

Josh Blevins, pastor of Grace Calvary Chapel in St. Joseph, leads a congregation of about 1,200. The church is a member of the Calvary Chapel movement.
Nomin Ujiyediin/KCUR
Josh Blevins, pastor of Grace Calvary Chapel in St. Joseph, leads a congregation of about 1,200. The church is a member of the Calvary Chapel movement.

“I became concerned because of my convictions and my biblical worldview,” Blevins said. “As Christians, we don't really believe that that truth is subjective or relative. We believe that there are unchanging truths that stand the test of time and experience.”

Blevins said he did not have a problem with Kirk being gay and serving in a public office, but he only opposed Kirk potentially using a public role to promote LGBTQ+ activism.

“If he was to even make a public statement [and say] ‘I understand these are sensitive issues and it’s not my intention to use my political platforms to push any of these specific agendas,’ I think it would go a long way into building a bridge of trust,” Blevins said.

Despite exchanging Facebook messages over the summer, Blevins and Kirk still have not met. Blevins doesn’t have any desire to meet in person.

“The Bible is very clear that if someone calls themself a Christian, but they're actively engaging in and living in sinful lifestyles,” Blevins told KCUR, “there's not really a place for true fellowship to take place between those two people.”

Located on a state highway a few miles from St. Joseph’s city center, Grace Calvary Chapel’s campus is more than 55,000 square feet and features a podcast studio, a coffee shop and a nursery with room for about 100 kids. In its basement is a model town where about 150 children can play and learn about the Bible.

The congregation numbers about 1,200, with about 900 people attending Sunday services in a main sanctuary with state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment and a wide stage with room for a band.

Grace Calvary Chapel's campus is over 55,000 square feet and includes a coffee shop, podcast studio and model town for the children's ministry.
Nomin Ujiyediin/KCUR
Grace Calvary Chapel's campus is over 55,000 square feet and includes a coffee shop, podcast studio and model town for the children's ministry.

According to Blevins, the Bible sends clear messages about human sexuality and morality, including gender roles and family structures. And he believes a family setting — not a school or other public place — is the best place for children to learn about those issues.

“[God] created men and women in the context of a marriage relationship from the very beginning, which is God's design for the family and for human sexuality to thrive in,” Blevins said. “We can make a lot of cases why that is very beneficial for a family and for society and for a culture.”

This summer was not the first time Grace Calvary Chapel has ventured into politics. In March 2022, the church published a website called Vote St. Joe, which offered information on local government candidates and rated them based on their adherence to conservative values.

Blevins thinks the federal Johnson Amendment, which limits the political involvement of churches and other tax-exempt groups, is unconstitutional. He thinks churches should remain tax-exempt, but also have a moral responsibility to participate in politics.

“America has enjoyed unprecedented freedom, probably in the history of the world. And I think that it's something that has to be stewarded, it has to be fought for, it has to be maintained in order to be enjoyed,” he said. “Politics is always legislating some form of morality.”

Critics have called Grace Calvary Chapel a Christian nationalist church — one invested in promoting conservative Christian ideals in government and all aspects of American life. In a September sermon, Blevins didn’t deny that label.

“As far as being a nationalist, if you define that as a person who loves their country… wants all of their neighbors to know Jesus and wants their country, the nation that God has placed them in, to experience the blessings of righteousness in their land,” he said, “then I’m guilty as charged.”

But Blevins told KCUR in November that he doesn’t see his church as Christian nationalist and would not support a Christian government.

“We would never advocate for a theocracy-run state,” he said. “What we do advocate for is: the closer that a nation would adhere to moral and ethical standards that are rooted in God's truth, the better it will be for that nation.”

Blevins told KCUR he didn’t currently have plans for the church to participate further in local politics. But at a church panel in August, Blevins and other speakers encouraged the audience to get involved in the local school board to prevent the teaching of LGBTQ+ acceptance.

The sanctuary at Grace Calvary Chapel in St. Joseph features impeccable soundproofing and a wide stage with enough room for a band.
Nomin Ujiyediin/KCUR
The sanctuary at Grace Calvary Chapel in St. Joseph features impeccable soundproofing and a wide stage with enough room for a band.

Blevins discouraged Christians from collaborating with any LGBTQ+ groups, alleging that teaching about homosexuality in school and events like drag shows and pride parades are a form of grooming — manipulating children so they can become victims of abuse.

“We are against the practice of homosexuality,” he said. “Part of the grooming is normalizing sinful behavior in the culture.”

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network does not include sex education, pride parades or drag shows in its definition of grooming.

At the event, speaker Nancy Gregory presented a plan to introduce Christian education program Lifewise Academy to St. Joseph Public Schools. The program would take students off campus to learn about Christianity during school hours.

“This is where the army needs to rise up,” she said, directing audience members to donate and sign a petition.

Grace Calvary’s former lead pastor, Darrell Jones, is now the president of the Stanley M. Herzog Charitable Foundation, a conservative group with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding seeking to promote Christianity in public schools.

Christian nationalism defined

Andrew Whitehead, professor of sociology at the Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis, said Grace Calvary Chapel’s beliefs hew closely to a definition of Christian nationalism that academics have developed over years of research.

“We find that Christian nationalism is a desire to see a particular expression of Christianity privileged in American civic life,” Whitehead said.

That expression includes support for:

  • traditional social arrangements like heterosexual marriage and strict gender roles for men and women,
  • authoritarianism and strong rulers,
  • a national ethnic identity based in whiteness,
  • populism and the victimhood of Christians in a rapidly changing secular society.

People and communities that espouse Christian nationalist beliefs don’t necessarily identify with that label, Whitehead said. But they embrace a conception of American identity that is centered around white Christianity, and don’t balk at getting the church involved in politics. They see embracing gender roles and rejecting homosexuality, for example, as key parts of being Christian.
“For Americans that embrace Christian nationalism,” he said, “choosing a church is not just about worshiping Jesus or some of those historic creeds that identify Christians throughout history, but these other cultural elements.”

More Americans are choosing their religious communities based on their political beliefs, he said.

“Our congregations have less political variation than they used to,” Whitehead said. “They can operate as echo chambers.”

Nomin Ujiyediin/KCUR
Grace Calvary Chapel is located on a state highway a few miles from downtown St. Joseph.

Tosha Rathman attended Grace Calvary Chapel until 2021, but left when she felt the messaging of the church became too homophobic. Rathman, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, said she didn’t feel welcome anymore. This year, her friends who attend First Christian Church told her they didn’t feel safe anymore because of the attacks on Kirk.

“That’s where they felt the most safe,” Rathman said. “And Josh [Blevins] kind of took that away from them by going after that pastor, because it kind of felt like Josh was going after them as well.”

Sean Connors, another former attendee of Grace Calvary, is gay and served as the head of the St. Joseph Human Rights Commission. He says social media attacks on Kirk and others have made some progressive St. Joseph residents feel unsafe and unwelcome

“We’re being treated like second-class people that don’t deserve to live, to thrive, in St. Joe,” Connors said.

Impact on St. Joseph

St. Joseph’s mayor, John Josendale, said the city had moved on from the controversy of the summer and vehemently denied that Grace Calvary Chapel had influenced city politics.

But in the wake of the controversy spurred by the church, Josendale said the city has completely changed its process for finding and appointing members to volunteer city boards and commissions.

A man sits on wooden steps leading up to a church pulpit.
Nomin Ujiyediin
KCUR 89.3
First Christian Church shares its space with a church of immigrants from Micronesia, organizers of the local Pride Festival and other groups. Head pastor Brian Kirk says inclusion is at the heart of his church's teachings.

Josendale says he hasn’t noticed a rise in homophobic incidents.

“You can go anywhere in the country and say that same thing,” he said. “I’m sure that you could go to any different category and talk to people and get some kind of response like that.”

But St. Joseph resident RJ Jackson said in recent months, friends and family members have experienced LGBTQ+ discrimination they never have before, including being called homophobic slurs. He said the social media firestorm around Kirk has had negative impacts as well.

“There are some people who are genuinely afraid to come out to their friends and family because they see how they reacted to the gay man on the library board,” Jackson said. “It has a measurable ripple effect.”

Jackson was a member of Grace Calvary Chapel until 2016, when he left because he felt the church was becoming increasingly conservative and unwelcome to LGBTQ+ people. He is now filming a documentary about the church and the controversy surrounding Kirk’s renomination to the library board.

Jackson worries that the church’s influence in St. Joseph, and its conservative politics, are a local manifestation of a nationwide trend.

“If something like this can happen in St. Joe, where a church can start to influence politics, where the homophobia can be ramped up,” he said, “I feel like that is something that can happen anywhere.”

Corrected: December 18, 2023 at 1:39 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Andrew Whitehead's university affiliation. It has since been corrected.
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