In the early morning on June 7, Pastor Mark Stephenson received an alarming text from a distraught neighborhood resident alerting him that the large LGBTQ+ pride banner hanging outside Harmony Toluca Lake had been violently slashed. “She was reeling from this hateful act — not only against the church, but also against her neighborhood community where safety is a priority,” Stephenson recalls.
After providing care and comfort to the resident, Stephenson headed to the church to survey the damage firsthand. Seeing the two large gashes down the middle of the colorful banner stirred a myriad of emotions within him — anger, concern and, ultimately, disappointment. “I was disappointed an individual had felt such hate gnawing within them to cause such an emotional, vicious outburst, as well as what and who caused that seed of hate to have been planted,” he says. “Hate just doesn’t happen. It is caused and then it spreads.” Stephenson reported the incident to authorities as a hate crime and, as of this writing, no one has been caught or charged.
The act of vandalism was the first time anything like this had ever happened to the banner, which the church has displayed in its exterior breezeway each June for Pride Month since 2017. The banner is a vivid testament to the church’s LGBTQ+ allyship. Its design features the traditional six-colored rainbow pride flag; the pink, white and blue stripes of the transgender pride flag; and black and brown stripes to represent marginalized queer communities of color, as well as those who live with and those who have died from HIV/AIDS.
“The faith community and neighbors were deeply hurt by such an aggressive form of vitriol,” Stephenson says. However, the church was undeterred. The incident was reported on by multiple news outlets, including ABC7 News and the L.A. Times, prompting an outpouring of “encouragement and support from many people in Toluca Lake, surrounding areas and actually throughout the world,” he notes.
The church decided to keep the slashed banner in place until its Sunday worship service on June 11 before taping and repairing it. Stephenson explains they felt it was “important that the neighbors, as well as our faith community, understand that we are susceptible to the biases and prejudices of others. But I want to send a signal that we’re not going to let hate win. That love ultimately wins.”
Since its establishment, Harmony has proudly shown its support and solidarity for the LGBTQ+ community, which includes many members of the congregation, and has demonstrated its activism by actively participating in Pride parades and AIDS Walk L.A., writing advocacy letters and assisting in outreach efforts with Project Angel Food. “We firmly believe it imperative to stand alongside, as well as lead, in the advocacy for a marginalized people who constantly face threats, harassment, discrimination and acts of violence,” Stephenson says. “Our call and responsibility are to expand God’s loving openness to care for, lift up and support those who feel rejected, shunned and ignored, which also means those who have been hurt or harmed by the Church.”
Stephenson’s poignant words come at time when the nation is experiencing an unprecedented rise in hate crimes and vandalism targeting the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to the Harmony incident, there were other local anti-LGBTQ+ attacks during the summer months that deeply impacted residents. On May 31, a transgender teacher’s pride flag was burned by a trespasser at Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood. The incident came after a group of parents announced that they had planned to protest the school’s Pride Month assembly.
And on August 18, Laura Ann Carleton, owner of mag.pi boutiques in Studio City and the Lake Arrowhead area, was fatally shot for refusing to remove a pride flag from outside her Cedar Glen store. According to reports, Carleton had nonviolently defended her store against previous anti-LGBTQ+ attacks; people had torn down the pride flags before, but she replaced them with new ones each time. (For more information, see “Remembering Laura Ann Carleton.”)
“Knowing how others are being adversely affected by hate crimes and violent incidents, such as what occurred in mid-August when Laura Ann Carleton was murdered, these extreme acts of hate are beyond heartbreaking. They are earth-shattering and traumatic,” Stephenson says. “For those experiencing the hurt, harm and trauma of hateful actions — whether they be outward or inward — know you are loved. Know you have friends who care. Know there is a Christian faith community, among other faith communities, willing and able to stand with you, to hold you, to share your burdens, to grieve with you, as well as celebrate with you when the appropriate time comes.”
Stephenson sees the aftermath of such attacks as an opportunity for the community to come together in the face of adversity, overcome hate by choosing love and become allies. “Listen without judgment to what our LGBTQ+ friends have to say. It is important to validate their feelings,” he says. “If you witness an act of hate, don’t stay silent. Speak up, even if it’s uncomfortable. Report incidents to the proper authorities or organizations. Challenge stereotypes and misconceptions. Create safe spaces where those in the LGBTQ+ community (young, old and in between) feel accepted. Stay informed and support LGBTQ+ rights. And celebrate inclusivity and diversity!”