Continuing to wave
SAYVILLE—Six LGBT lawn flags were reported stolen between late July and early November from the front of Sayville Congregational Church on Middle Road. And then a little over two weeks ago, following an investigation, the Suffolk County Police Hate Crimes Unit arrested 21-year-old Ronald Witt for the crime at his home. Witt, who was charged with multiple counts of petit larceny as a hate crime, lives on Erwin Street, a half-mile away from the church.
Shortly before the arrest, the Suffolk County News reached out to the church’s pastor, Rev. Ray Bagnuolo, after the same act of petit larceny kept showing up in the print publication’s weekly crime blotters. Bagnuolo didn’t wish to speak at the time, since an investigation was underway. But now that the situation appears to have been settled, the church’s pastor hopes to use the incident as a teachable moment for the community.
Bagnuolo, who is openly gay, has been the church’s pastor for nearly two years. He says his congregation is welcoming to everyone. “Not only are you welcome, but you are affirmed without exceptions,” he said, adding that the Sayville church has been “social justice-oriented” for “pretty much all its history.”
Bagnuolo pointed out that his congregation had another openly gay pastor, John A. Jeter, from 1990 until 1993. Jeter left the church to pursue his doctorate, but passed away a few years later. He said that his congregation, which dates back to 1888, has been very active in social causes such as the nuclear disarmament movement decades ago. The church continues to support progressive activist groups such as Black Lives Matter.
Earlier this year, the Sayville church also placed 17 white crosses on its lawn to honor those killed during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. This was in addition to about 600 other crosses and Stars of David that were displayed there and loaned out to other churches and organizations to represent victims of gun violence and other mass shootings, beginning with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
In regards to the rainbow flags, Bagnuolo says that when you display something like that, “it’s a statement,” and you can’t be discouraged when there is pushback. “I had an ongoing order with Amazon [to keep replacing the flags],” he said.
After the second flag was stolen, Bagnuolo put a sign outside the church that read: “You destroyed our welcoming Rainbow Flag twice. It WAS an act of fear. It IS an act of hate. Do you realize that? IT WAS NOT KIND. IT WAS HURTFUL. Instead of doing it again, talk with us. We will talk with you. You, too, are welcome here.”
Bagnuolo has since reinforced the notion that he is open to speaking with anyone who might take issue with his church displaying such a symbol. There hadn’t been any complaints from the public prior to the thefts, Bagnuolo said, and since the arrest the church has received only one email disagreeing with the church’s decision to display the flag. “But that’s fine,” Bagnuolo said. “They didn’t destroy or steal anything. They [just] voiced their opinion.”
Bagnuolo, however, didn’t shy away from the arguably negative views some religious individuals and institutions have towards the LGBT community. The pastor says there are certain Bible verses, which he and others refer to as “clobber verses,” that are used against those who are sexually marginalized.
When asked about his feelings towards the individual being charged with stealing the flags, Bagnuolo said, “Of course we [the congregation] forgive him,” adding that he, personally, doesn’t feel good about the arrest. “I feel sad for the person and their family and friends,” the pastor said. “That being said, he’s still responsible [for his actions].”
Despite his forgiveness, Bagnuolo struggles with the idea that someone would act that way towards his congregation, since it is composed of many different groups in the greater community. “Perhaps this is our part of the process,” he said.
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