By Shelly Goodling
While Americans have been struggling to reach agreement on civil rights and political policy issues across the nation, issues of racism and discrimination are hitting close to home.
In June 2016, a Dallastown church made national headlines for the message they chose to post on their welcome sign.
The sign read, “Wishing a blessed Ramadan to our Muslim neighbors.”
United Church of Christ’s Pastor, Dr. Christopher Rodkey, is also a professor of religion and philosophy at York College. He described himself as a scholar, an activist, and a radical theologian. He did not expect the backlash he received for posting a sign exhibiting kindness to the Muslim community.
Matt Jensen, Spring Grove Area School Board Member and York County Republican delegate, was provoked by the sign, leading him to leave an anonymous message on the church’s voicemail.
In the voicemail, which can be heard in full via The York Dispatch’s website, Jansen says, “I am completely shocked by that sign out in front of your church—that you were wishing people who subscribe to a faith that is not only Godless, but pagan, in front of your church, aligning it with the name of Christ. It is unbelievable that you would welcome them and wish them a blessed Ramadan. Are you sick? Is there something wrong with you?”
The message ends with Jansen stating his intention to post a picture of the sign on Facebook and Twitter with the church’s phone number, which he later did, with the caption “Choose your battles but if this is your hill here is the churchs’ # 717-244-2090.”
Rodkey said he chose not to respond to the call because it was left anonymously. He was able to decipher who left the message using caller ID, and Jansen later admitted to leaving it, saying that he forgot to leave his name and that he stood by what he said.
According to Rodkey, he agreed not to go public with the message if Jansen removed the photo from Twitter and apologized. Jansen did not comply, so Rodkey decided to speak out against what he described as a hateful act of racism.
As a result of the controversy, the church lost several members, including a clergy member, which Rodkey said was disappointing. However, the church has also received several new members as a result.
“The issue here is that an elected official should never incite harassment toward a church’s property,” Rodkey said.
This issue made local and national news in the summer of 2016, but it did not stop there.
“What didn’t get attention,” Rodkey said, “is that people defended his rights to free speech.”
The church’s phone rang for weeks on end following Jansen’s Twitter post. Rodkey said that every day when his secretary returned from lunch, the voicemail was full. Most of the messages were angry, in defense of Jansen’s actions and his first amendment rights. A few were supportive. Eventually, the church made the decision to cut the phone lines.
Rodkey said he also received threats from the S&S weather services, whose founder said he was going to use social media to publicly accuse Rodkey of being a pedophile, as well as threatening to create a scene at the church.
However, the controversy has not received a purely negative response. Many are appreciative of Rodkey’s actions. Since last summer, he said he has established connections with many local Muslim communities. One Islamic center in Lancaster presented him with a humanitarian award.
In Jan., Rodkey was invited to a conference by the PA human relations commission’s interagency task force, which addresses racial issues. He will be the head speaker at the next conference, which will be held on March 26.
Petitions, such as one on change.org, began circulating the internet calling for Jansen’s dismissal from the Spring Grove Area School Board. However, under Pennsylvania law, school board members cannot be fired unless they have been convicted of a felony. According to the York Dispatch, Jansen has said he will not walk away despite petitions asking for his resignation.
However, citizen calls for resignation are amping up now that he has allegedly used his Twitter account to spout messages of hate once again.
On Feb. 6, Jansen’s Twitter account posted in response to a Breitbart news article, “Well than this wetbacks family should be thrown out of the country.”
Amy Gunzelman, a junior at Spring Grove Area High School, tweeted back to Jansen asking him why he thought it was acceptable to use this term under any circumstance. Jansen replied, “”It’s a term from the 1950’s used in the Eisenhower Administration, Operation Wetback. But inappropriate now. My apologies!”
Ten minutes later, both tweets were deleted and Jansen claimed that his account had been hacked. He reportedly said that we would never use such language. Despite the claim of a hack, which is a serious legal allegation, Jansen did not file a police report, according to The York Dispatch.
Gunzelman, who had previously addressed the school board about Jansen after the summer incident, is not accepting Jansen’s actions. At Spring Grove’s most recent board meeting, Gunzelman spoke out again. She pointed out that Jansen has made numerous misogynistic and discriminative posts on his Twitter account, such as one that read “Diversity = the destruction of the host culture aided by annihilist self-loathing left.”
Gunzelman said that she constantly tries to fight for what is right because she hates to see injustice of any kind. She felt inclined to speak out against Jansen’s comments because after realizing that history is often sugarcoated, she started to see that racism and misogyny still exist today.
“When someone targets a specific group of people, I fight for them,” Gunzelman said.
She said the response she has received has been nothing but supportive. She intends to continue attending school board meetings in hopes that action will be taken and “encourages others to attend as well.”
Featured image: St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Dallastown