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Police Say Vandalism at Veradale United Church of Christ was a Hate Crime


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Police Say Vandalism at Veradale United Church of Christ was a Hate Crime

A month later, why has public support from elected officials in Spokane Valley taken so long?

News Story by Erin Sellers | RANGE

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 25, vandals stole over two-dozen small Pride flags and three large flags — including a Pride flag, a Black Lives Matter flag, and a flag with multiple human rights-oriented messages — from the exterior of the Veradale United Church of Christ in Spokane Valley. 

When Rev. Gen Heywood, pastor of the targeted church, saw footage of the vandalism on a neighbor’s security camera, her first thought was resignation. She had suspected the flags hanging at the church might be targets for theft. As the video progressed, though, resignation turned to curiosity and dread. The vandals seemed to be running back and forth across the lawn. Maybe they were doing more than stealing flags.

It wasn’t until Heywood saw the church in person that she understood what the vandals had been doing: On the church’s lawn the grass was beginning to die, the dead blades appearing to form the phrase “LEV 2013.” Each letter was approximately four feet tall and three feet wide. Heywood could smell diesel fuel, which can quickly kill grass and contaminate soil, making it difficult to grow the grass back. 

Heywood and two of her parishioners sprayed the poisoned grass repeatedly with a mixture of water and Dawn dish soap in hopes of cleaning or at least diluting the contamination. They were able to save much of the grass, Heywood said, but “the smell of diesel lasted for over a week, and the letter V remains.” 

Heywood didn’t immediately understand what the message meant, but eventually concluded it was a reference to the Bible, Leviticus 20:13, “which is a very ugly passage that is used by the alt-right, Christian dominionist types that say it’s okay to kill gay people, gay men,” Heywood said.

Heywood describes her church as holding an open and affirming covenant, and her first worries were for the safety of her congregation. “This church is half LGBTQ, and the other half of us are allies, family, friends, siblings,” she said. “It’s very personal here.”

The Spokane Valley Police Department sent out a press release on July 3 stating that “due to the nature of the crime and the items taken, this is being investigated as a possible hate/bias crime.”

Community support, city silence

In the week following the vandalism, Heywood describes an outpouring of community support, including from activists, nonprofits, and other religious institutions. An anonymous donor replaced the stolen flags, and folks from all over donated funds to a campaign to help the church purchase security cameras. But, something was missing: the support and official condemnation of the act from officials at the City of Spokane Valley. 

On Sunday, July 2, exactly a week after the vandalism, Veradale United Church of Christ hosted a Love is Greater Than Hate party, which is where Heywood first noticed the lack of support from her city. She had sent invitations to Mayor Pam Haley, Deputy Mayor Rod Higgins, and the other members of the City Council (In Spokane Valley, the mayor is also a member of city council.) 

Only one council member showed up: Ben Wick. Councilmember Tim Hattenburg’s wife also attended, expressing their family’s support, according to Heywood. Spokane Valley Police Chief David Ellis attended as well, and told Heywood he was humbled to have been a part of the event.

Heywood says she appreciated the people who did show up, but something still gnawed at her: why wasn’t there any formal response from the city government? 

In the past, city officials had been quick to condemn acts of violence at places of worship. In 2016, when the Sikh Temple of Spokane was desecrated, Rod Higgins (who was serving as Mayor at the time) responded within 24 hours, saying, in part: “This is not who we are. This is not who the people of the Valley are and we do not condone any action such as this. Any desecration of a house of worship is intolerable and cannot be tolerated and we won’t.” 

When RANGE called Higgins for comment on the differing response to the crimes, he said that, since his tenure as mayor, the city’s communications policy has changed. Higgins said that when he spoke out against the vandalism at the Sikh Temple, he tended to take care of his own communication. Since then, he said, communications have become more formalized and now run through a city spokesperson. 

But, there was no word from the city spokesperson, either.

On July 13, 18 days after the crime, Heywood sent an email to Mayor Haley and the Valley councilors, requesting a public statement. Heywood hoped they would denounce the actions and make it clear there is no place for hate in Spokane Valley. After yet another week of crickets, on July 20, Heywood forwarded that letter to members of the press, including RANGE. 

“Please, let us know that the leadership of the City of Spokane Valley denounces acts of vandalism, theft, and hateful threats.” Heywood’s letter reads, “Tell us about what the city is doing to make this a community where everyone is welcome. Tell us that this city is one where the freedom of religion includes Christian faiths like ours that believe God created everyone in the image of God as we practice a life of justice, kindness, and a humble walk with our God (Micah 6:6-8). Tell us that in our city, bullying in schools and neighborhoods is not acceptable.”

That message apparently got the attention of Mayor Haley. In a statement to RANGE, Haley said that she was unable to attend the Love is Greater than Hate party due to a vacation, but that she “sent her regrets.” 

Rev. Heywood, though, said she had heard nothing at all from the mayor, even after checking junk mail for both her personal email account and one she uses for church business.

Haley also told RANGE she wasn’t aware Valley Police were investigating the vandalism as a hate crime.

Councilor Wick, who attended the Love is Greater Than Hate party and mentioned it briefly in his council member report on July 11, confirmed to RANGE that official proclamations, which are handled by the mayor’s office, have been made for hate crimes in the past, and it would be up to Mayor Haley if she wanted to formally condemn the vandalism at the Veradale United Church of Christ. 

“I just really encourage people to have tolerance with others,” Wick said. “While we may not agree with each other, no one deserves to get vandalized, and so I just really wish that the community would kind of come together in that.”

The lack of an immediate response and official attendance of the party left Heywood feeling disappointed.

“Elected officials need to speak up much more quickly,” Heywood said. “They need to make it very clear, not only by speaking up, but also in their policy making. They need to really work on what it means to be a safe community for everyone.”

Higgins, Heywood, hate speech

This isn’t the first time Spokane Valley City leadership and Heywood have been at odds. In 2018, Heywood was part of a group called Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience (FLLC) that asked then-City Council members to adopt a resolution against white supremacy. This was sparked by the attendance of local political leaders, including Higgins, of a Northern Grassroots meeting with speaker James Allsup, who marched in the “Unite the Right” rally and formerly hosted a podcast with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist with views so extreme even ultraconservative organizations have distanced themselves.

At the time, Higgins said that while he didn’t think there was anything “untoward or radical,” he could not comment on Allsup’s views because he knows very little about him. Higgins also said, “If they’re looking for things to be offended about, I’d think there are probably things of more substance.”

Heywood and City Council members continued to be at odds into 2019, when then-councilwoman Linda Thompson brought up in a meeting the potential to write a new policy for racial equity. According to a Spokesman story published at the time, “Higgins, Councilman Arne Woodard and Councilwoman Pam Haley told [Thompson] the city’s already done its part for equality and that racism isn’t a problem in Spokane Valley. They also said a group of activists that has called on Spokane Valley to condemn white supremacy was wrong and that a proposal to address racial equity wasn’t needed.”

Spokane Valley’s City Council ignored community outcry and public comment by activists, including Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson, and declined to denounce white supremacy. The council instead reaffirmed a 2017 resolution that said Spokane Valley was inclusive and was a place that didn’t tolerate discrimination, a suggestion that came from Haley. Five of the seven current City Council members were also on the council in 2019: Higgins, Haley, Wick, Brandi Peetz, and Arne Woodard.

Months later, Rod Higgins, in his capacity as Mayor at the time, criticized Heywood and the Veradale United Church of Christ for their activism and public criticism of Matt Shea and his racist comments. (Higgins also stated that police should have shot Rodney King, the Black man whose beating at the hands of Los Angeles police ignited riots in 1992.) In a 2019 interview with KHQ, Higgins took aim at Heywood’s church saying that “the progressives are a subset of Antifa. If you go online and look them up, you’ll see there’s a close association in there, and ultimately, they’re probably funded by George Soros.” 

Heywood has reiterated publicly that she and her church were not then and are not now associated with Antifa or funded by George Soros.

Higgins also has a history of defending Matt Shea in the press, including against allegations made by former Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.

Haley’s political career has not been without controversy. Her 2017 campaign for City Council was endorsed by Shea, but she has since distanced herself. She ran for reelection in 2021 as a more moderate option against self-proclaimed constitutionalist Mary Butler-Stonewall, and gun rights proponent Wayne Fenton, whose campaign slogan was “Let’s Make Spokane Valley Great Again, Together!” When asked about Shea during the campaign, Haley said she no longer supported him.

Heywood says she and her church are also often incorrectly referred to as part of the political group Valley Indivisible Progressives, possibly because Indivisible rented the church hall for meetings before the COVID-19 shutdowns. Heywood met personally with Higgins and Haley in 2019, before Higgins’ public remarks, to address their strong feelings about her advocacy.

After Higgins’ comments and the media attention, Heywood found herself a target for the ire of online Christian conservative groups, including the Facebook page for the Church and State podcast. The podcast is hosted by local self-identified “former politician and freedom fighter,” Caleb Collier — who has been in the news recently for reading Bible verses at a Spokane City Council meeting — and Gabe Blomgren, Associate Pastor of On Fire Ministries, where Shea is also a pastor. 

Three years later, Heywood is still being targeted. Last month, on June 30, Collier posted a picture to the online page referencing Bible passage Mark 9:42, with a caption insinuating that LGBTQ+ affirming pastors should be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their necks. Members of the Facebook group referenced Heywood in the comments.

A post from late June demonstrated antagonism toward affirming pastors. Commenters appeared to reference Heywood specifically.

For Heywood, it’s this digital vitriol, as well as the in-person vandalism, that demonstrates the need for city officials’ support.   

“I’d like to hear from the whole council that this is not acceptable in Spokane Valley, that Spokane Valley doesn’t tolerate hate, and is about building places that are safe for everybody in the valley or whatever words they would use that would describe that,” Heywood said. “It’s disappointing because the people of this church are also their citizens.”

After a month, a statement

Mayor Haley broke her silence tonight at Spokane Valley’s City Council Meeting. On behalf of the Council, she stated, in full: 

“We had an incident happen at a local church, and I just wanted everyone to understand it’s not acceptable and it won’t be tolerated. But the city of Spokane Valley strives to keep our community safe, healthy, and vibrant. It’s of vital importance to our city council that we’re welcoming and respectful of many residents that call Spokane Valley Home, as well as the visitors who come here to enjoy all that our city has to offer.

These principles are reflected in our city’s vision statement, ‘a community of opportunity where individuals and families can grow and play, and businesses flourish and prosper.’ These principles were reinforced by City Council in 2017 when we unanimously declared Spokane Valley an inclusive city where all are welcome and discrimination is not tolerated.

Actions against people or property that are harmful or perceived as hateful are not indicative of the community as we know it and want it to remain. People come to Spokane Valley because it’s inviting and stay here because it’s friendly. The Spokane Valley City Council is committed to keeping it that way.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Heywood approached the microphone. She thanked Haley for the statement, but pointed out it had been exactly 30 days since the crime, and expressed frustration over the continued lack of communication. 

Despite the crime occurring at her church and her continued efforts to reach city leadership, Heywood said she did not receive an invitation to the upcoming meeting. Instead, she said she found out the mayor would be delivering a statement from RANGE. 

“I thank you for letting us know that the leadership denounces racism and sexism and violence of this kind, but you could do something else, something more as an act against vandalism and the theft and hateful threats,” Heywood said. “We need more than a statement.”

Hate incidents often go undocumented. The Spokane County Human Rights Task Force tracks hate crimes and hate incidents so they can create a community record of these occurrences, develop publicly available reports, and work on improving response and prevention efforts in Spokane.  If you have experienced a hate crime or hate incident or know someone who has, report it through this anonymous process.

This story was originally published in RANGE, a worker-owned newsroom serving Spokane and the Inland Northwest. Read their coverage and sign up for their newsletter here.

RANGE Mediahttps://www.rangemedia.co/
RANGE is a media organization for people who love the Inland Northwest and want to make it better. We are building an anti-racist, equity-minded, class-focused newsroom striving to spotlight the perspectives and expertise of members of marginalized communities, from the ground up.

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