Two members of the Sparta Avenue church, both who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, arrived at the church for Sunday morning worship service on Jan. 2 and found the nylon flag half melted and half burned, church Pastor Reverend Dr. Steven Bechtold told the New Jersey Herald on Friday.
The flag was still partially attached to the flag pole and had been raised about 8 to 10 feet — not too tall for someone to set fire to it from below, Bechtold said.
Sparta police were called to the scene that morning after it was reported the flag had been burned down by an unknown source overnight, Detective Steven Guido confirmed on Friday. The investigation remains active.
"It was recorded as a biased incident and will be investigated as such," Guido said.
While Bechtold said there are surveillance videos on the church's front doors that help staff monitor who comes and goes, it was likely too dark to see any activity that evening. Guido said there has been no video evidence that has proved helpful.
The church has flown the pride flag periodically since 2015 when the congregation voted overwhelmingly to become a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network. It has flown consistently since 2019, when Bechtold was appointed to the Sparta church.
According to Bechtold, there is a network of congregations across the nation that have made a commitment to be fully inclusive to all sexual orientations and gender identities.
"The United Methodist Church's official stance we believe is not consistent with Christian values and feel it is exclusive, so the network works together to seek to change the official policy," Bechtold explained.
The church, located at a busy intersection not far from Route 15, draws a membership of over 300 and follows a motto that welcomes those of all walks of life: "Open hearts, open minds, open doors."
But the flag has proven to be a sore spot for those who feel otherwise.
Bechtold said the flag has been stolen in the past, with church members finding it thrown behind a dumpster and around the property, but it was the first time it was destroyed by fire.
And this time, it hit hard.
"The congregation feels it is an act of hate," he said. "I try to look for the best in people, but sometimes it's not there or certain parts of them don't allow it to come out."
For some members, there has been fear, and for others, a sense of anger, Bechtold said.
"There is a sense of hurtfulness that someone would deliberately come on the property," Bechtold said, his voice trailing off before adding, "this was not accidental."
To read the rest of the story: Pride flag at Sparta NJ church burned, police investigate (njherald.com)