By Marion Filler
Was it a bias incident or wasn’t it? Ten days after the destruction of a $15,000 “All Are Welcome” sign outside the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, a Clifton man, Klenti Allushi, 22, surrendered to Morristown police this week.
Although the vandalism occurred just hours after the church had erected flags bearing Gay Pride rainbow colors, the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office said it did not rise to the level of a hate crime, and instead charged Allushi with third-degree criminal mischief for his alleged intent to destroy property.
Despite the fact that Allushi came forth voluntarily, the Rev. Cynthia Black, rector of Redeemer, remained a little skeptical about his motivation.
“What we know is, if someone were pressed, they would be unlikely to admit that that was what they had done,” Black said Thursday at a “Witness for Love” rally she organized that included local clergy and the Morristown community, to show support for LGBTQ+ and diversity.
Slideshow photos by Sharon Sheridan and Kevin Coughlin; click/hover on images for captions:
The Rev. Sidney Williams Jr., pastor of Bethel AME Church in Morristown, had strong words for Morris County Prosecutor Robert J. Carroll.
“When he was asked to say something on camera, he refused,” Williams told the crowd, gathered amidst rainbow-colored balloons on the Redeemer lawn.
“As a leader, your first response is to have a duty of care, not to hide behind law books, not to hide behind your office, your title and position, but to show that you love and you care and you have concern — not whether it was a hate crime or not.”
“We know how it [the destruction of the sign] makes us feel and whether or not the Court decides it was a hate crime does not make it feel any better for us,” Williams said.
Video: Pastor pokes Prosecutor:
“Not too long ago, our sign was damaged, and while it turned out that it was not a hate crime, what it did, it struck fear. It reminded us of the nine people who were killed in Charleston, SC, by a gunman who walked in and did commit a hate crime.”
The Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on Friday in response to the pastor’s remarks.
Thursday’s large crowd on the lawn of the stately church on South Street appeared eager to show its support for tolerance and solidarity, whatever the circumstances surrounding the damaged sign might be.
“Thank you for being so supportive for the last few weeks as our community has lived with a lot of uncertainty and even – yes, I can say this – a lot of fear,” said Black. Gratefully acknowledging the “encouragement, support, outrage and love” from neighbors near and far, she announced that the goal to raise money for a new sign has been met.
Rabbi Michael Satz of Temple B’nai Or and Bishop Bill Ludlam of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints spoke, echoing the theme of acceptance and love to counter hate.
The Rev. Anne Thatcher, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and her assistant rector, the Rev. Elizabeth Ivell; and the Rev. Luana Cook Scott, pastor of the Morristown United Methodist Church, also participated.
Musical interludes included Megan Chappius of Morristown, who sang and played the guitar. Fourteen-year-old Bernardsville resident Audrey Johnson, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, was accompanied by her mother, Sariah Johnson, on the cello, and Bill Gallagher on keyboard as she sang.
Small rainbow flags were distributed, and people ate free gelato, courtesy of Guerriero’s, and free cookies from The Artist Baker.
As dusk began to fall, Methodist Music Director John Liepold led members of the St. Peter’s chorus and the audience in the grand finale– a rousing three-part version of Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace), ending the evening on a joyful note.
Video: Community sing-along, in Latin: