Gateway Fellowship Church in Poulsbo is an integral part of the community. Its parking lot hosts the Farmers Market, its building serves as a warming shelter in the winter, and it is working with the city on affordable housing.
But a recent presentation there by a controversial anti-LGBTQ speaker led to a protest of about 300 people.
Joseph Backholm was invited by the church for a panel discussion on Critical Race Theory Aug. 22. Backholm is a conservative evangelical with the Family Research Council (a group identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group). From 2005-08 he worked on several anti-LGBTQ bills in the state Senate.
“We kind of Googled this guy, like, ‘Oh I wonder who this is. I haven’t heard of him.’ And we all just sort of stared at our phones/computers in shock like, ‘No way they’re bringing this person’,” said Diana Frazier, a protest organizer and former leader at the church.
Frazier and other members and former members found his Twitter feed, where it appears Backholm has advocated for violence against the LGBTQ community, as well as against immigrants, refugees and other marginalized groups. The findings prompted calls and messages to Gateway leadership to reconsider the invitation. But the messages went, and continue to go, unanswered.
Gateway and Pastor Tom Duchemin did not respond for this story either.
“The church posted about it on their Facebook and a whole bunch of us started commenting and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you know who this person is but here are some links to his work and Twitter feed,’ and pretty quickly every one of our comments was deleted,” Frazier said. “We weren’t saying like F- you, go away or anything like that. It was more like, ‘This is who this person is. This doesn’t seem like a good idea. This is going to hurt our community’.”
Frazier and others organized a small protest, but it morphed into something much bigger, with representatives from civil rights groups across Kitsap County as well as two members of Poulsbo City Council.
“We had no idea what it would become. The week before the protest we ended up getting massive support from the Human Rights Council here in Kitsap, Black Lives Matter Bainbridge, various local PRIDE groups and the Suquamish Tribe,” Frazier said. “Because of all the work that these groups have been doing for decades, it became much larger than we ever could have imagined.”
The initial goal of the protest was to prevent Backholm from speaking.
“Saturday night was when we decided if we create a protest or demonstration, maybe the pressure will be on. Maybe they (the church) would really listen if they knew this is coming down the pipeline, and the goal of the protest was still at that point to stop Joseph Backholm’s messaging from coming to the community,” said Alex Jacobson, another protest organizer and niece of Pastor Duchemin.
Despite the protest, the panel did go on and was recorded and posted to the church’s Youtube page, although comments on the video and on all the churches’ social media have been turned off.
Protest organizers said they had friends inside the church watching the panel, as well as others watching the livestream, taking screenshots and reporting on what was said. Protest organizers eventually watched the video, and found out the talk was not actually about CRT.
“He does not know what CRT is. His definition came from Wikipedia He never bothered to quote or mention Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term, or any of the other people who have done research on Critical Race Theory,” Frazier said.
CRT has become a hot-button issue nationwide recently due in part to school districts either adopting or banning the topic in academia.
“CRT is not a diversity and inclusion ‘training’ but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society… It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. CRT also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity and others,” according to the American Bar Association.
In the video of the panel discussion, Backholm admits to not fully understanding CRT.
“Critical Race Theory, as a thing, it’s not really that interesting to me. It’s not my goal to become an expert in the history and understanding of” CRT. “There are components and assumptions within it and implications of it that I think are important,” Backholm said during a Question and Answer session.