One of the first signs in Medina County to greet motorists headed south on Interstate 71 reads: “Homosexuality is a sin, but Christ can set you free.”
The billboard at the edge of the Southwest Baptist Church property line also has lights so it can be seen at night in Brunswick Hills Township.
“I was driving home from work Friday and I saw it and I just couldn’t believe it,” said Michele Benjamin, who commutes from her Medina home to Cleveland where she works as a psychiatric nurse. Benjamin said she recalled the sign was put up by the church two years ago and was surprised to see it back again.
“I see a lot of kids who are suicidal and they end up at my work because they’ve been bullied for being gay,” she said. “I thought, this is just another thing for them to have to see.”
The Rev. Greg Davis said he knows the sign makes people angry, but it was put up by his church in an attempt to be honest about what his church believes. In a sermon delivered to the congregation a few weeks ago, Davis warned his members the sign would go back up.
“I want to apologize to the homosexual crowd. Let me say first I want to apologize for our Christian brothers and sisters that would call names or treat you angrily,” he said.
“I also want to apologize for some other Christian brothers of mine that have said, ‘Well, your lifestyle is not sinful and not only will we welcome you into our church we will ordain you as our pastor or preacher.’ There has not been a healthy balance of both truth and love.”
But Benjamin scoffed at the idea Davis and his church are approaching the topic in a loving way.
“It has nothing to do with love,” she said. “Go feed people, go clothe people, take care of people who are dying. There are so many ways to love people. Pointing a finger at people makes them feel worse.”
Benjamin posted a photo of the billboard on her Facebook page and more than 150 comments have been added from local residents and other friends.
Benjamin’s husband, Mark Kuhar, wrote a letter to Davis, and Benjamin encouraged people on Facebook to do the same.
In Kuhar’s letter, he tells Davis that he is standing on the wrong side of history and civil rights.
“I am quite certain that if Jesus were to drive down I-71 and see your sign, he would detour over to your house of horrors, and you would be called on the carpet for your egotistical campaign to demonize others.”
Davis said he often gets letters and phone calls from residents about the church sign, which has carried other messages, such as against abortion.
When the homosexuality message went up last time, an online petition against the billboard earned more than 300 signatures.
“I got an email every time there was a new signature,” Davis said.
Southwest Baptist Church even has a section of its website devoted to explaining the sign on I-71, and Davis said he expected a backlash. He said he’s willing to talk to people who call him about the sign and thinks he’s misunderstood.
“We’re not saying it because it’s popular or unpopular. You can speak out against sin and still be loving,” he said.
But Benjamin said while the sign is hurtful to gay friends and community members, she also worries the sign damages Medina County and Brunswick Hills’ reputation.
“I think you can be a more welcoming community than to make people feel like they’re an outcast,” Benjamin said.
Brunswick Hills Township Trustee Michael Esber said trustees received calls from residents concerned about the sign in the past, and he expects more again now that it’s back up. He said while the township disapproves, there’s not much they can do.
“We’ve asked the church not to do it, but they have a First Amendment right to put (the sign) there,” he said.
Esber said trustees will ask the church again to take the sign down, but added it’s disappointing it went up in the first place.
“You’re a church, why are you throwing out venom?” Esber said.
“You’re supposed to be wanting people to forgive each other. It’s just sad.”
Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.