A Soulsbyville church event on Saturday features a well-known former military general who opposes homesexuality and gay marriage, and a group in Tuolumne County plans to protest it.
Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin will speak at Calvary Chapel Sonora’s sixth annual Tent Days in the Last Days mens-only retreat.
Boykin is executive vice president of the Family Research Council, which advocates for socially conservative Christian causes and has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The protest is planned for noon to 4 p.m. at Courthouse Square in downtown Sonora. They also plan to celebrate Pride Month, which occurs every year in June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City that served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement.
“We want to raise awareness in the community that not all Christian people support this and also to discourage them from inviting such speakers in the future,” said Tom Taylor, one of the organizers of the protest. “I think there are a lot of speakers who can come speak to churches about love and inclusivity and not topics that are divisive and hateful.”
Miles McMahon, senior pastor and founder of the church, said in an interview on Wednesday that he invited Boykin to speak a year ago and didn’t think anyone in the community outside of the church would care.
The church, which was founded in 1992, has more than 250 families in its directory and would typically draw more than 500 people for Sunday services prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, McMahon said.
McMahon said he’s conflicted over how he feels about the reaction to Boykin because people protesting a guest speaker at the church is new to him.
“We don’t try to offend people or upset people,” he said. “I think that this whole thing is being unfairly characterized.”
Taylor, 34, of Jamestown, was born and raised in Tuolumne County and came out as gay when he was 16. He helped to start a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance at Sonora High School when he was a senior despite pushback from administration and teachers.
Taylor said he thinks Boykin’s statements about the LGBTQ community and Muslims, as well as his high-ranking position with the Family Research Council, are offensive. The council supports gay conversion therapy, which the organization refers to as “sexual orientation change efforts.”
“That has driven so many young queer kids to suicide,” he said. “We have a vastly higher rate of suicide than other communities. The process they put these kids through is basically torture. They try to torture the gay out of these kids, and I think it’s inhuman.”
Protesters are being encouraged to gather in Courthouse Square as opposed to outside the church itself, which would be less visible and provide less space for physical distancing because it’s located off a narrow road.
The church posted on its website that Saturday’s event is expected to be under protest by “some associated with the (Black Lives Matter) movement and its ancillaries of gender, diversity, and other such issues.”
Men attending the event were encouraged by the church to come ready to “love and curse not” and reassured that it was not anticipating violence.
Taylor said he was called names and harassed “relentlessly” for his sexual orientation while in high school and feels that there’s a greater level of acceptance in the community now, but he still hears about young LGBTQ people who are harassed at bars and other social venues.
Among the statement’s made by Boykin that protest organizers have labeled as hate speech was one from 2016 in which he stated that the first transgender man who walks into his daugther’s bathroom “ain’t going to have to worry about surgery” and called it unnatural and ungodly.
They also cite another 2012 statement by Boykin in which he said Europe was “hopelessly lost” and would become an Islamic continent because “they took Jesus out of their societies and it’s been replaced by darkness.”
Boykin was disinvited from speaking during a prayer breakfast at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2012 following objections from a progressive veterans’ organization over his comments about Muslims.
A military base in Kansas also canceled a prayer breakfast in 2016 that Boykin was scheduled to speak at due to controversy over his past statements.
Dave Atkins, a pastor at Calvary Chapel Sonora, said the intent of having Boykin speak at the event that coincides with Pride Month was not to cause offense to people in the LGBTQ community and referred to the statements cited by the protesters as “off-handed.”
“He has made public clarifications pertaining to those comments and you can research them on the web on your own time,” Atkins wrote. “The protest against his coming to speak to our men, during pride month, is a distraction from the greater message that he proclaims - The Gospel.”
About 100 men are expected to attend on Saturday, double what the annual retreats typically draw, and McMahon said he’s also invited all other churches in the area to send some of their men.
Tickets are $20 and $15 for students or seniors 65 and older with lunch included. The event is scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and will feature Boykin’s speech, Bible teachings from the church’s pastors, and competitions with prizes.
McMahon said competitions held at the annual retreat have included hatchet throwing, fly-fishing casting, and chipping golf balls, with prizes that have included chainsaws, drones, and bows and arrows.
Boykin was invited to speak because McMahon felt he would provide a strong influence for the men as a former Delta Force leader who was involved in the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia that inspired a popular book and film of the same name.
“I was looking for someone who I was hoping would be a strong influence to get men to stand up and as the Bible says ‘act like men,’ whatever that means,” he said. “You don’t see men in my mind who are supposed to be the responsible one and leader in the family, so I was looking for someone who would help them step up into what we would call a God-given role.”
McMahon said some online have criticized the event for being men only and accused the church of sexism, but he said 95 percent of the church’s events are coed and women have preached during services several times.
The church also has women’s-only events, such as an annual tea party at Christmastime.
“I’m pretty sure they don’t want guys going to it,” he said, adding that schools have gender exclusive events. “We think that’s healthy and good.”
McMahon said he feels that the protesters and liberal groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center label statements as hate speech and the Family Research Council as a hate group to silence opinions they don’t agree with.
Though everyone is welcome to attend the church regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, McMahon acknowledged they teach biblical Christianity that says those types of relationships are “against God’s plan” and would be expected to increase in “the last days.”
The event is called Tent Days in the Last Days because the focus this year will be on scriptures that pertain to the end times, such as the Book of Revelation.
“People think I hate them because I don’t fly the flag of ‘We think this is wonderful,’ but I don’t think it’s wonderful,” he said. “However, what people do in the privacy of their own homes is none of my business. If it was up to me, I would do it differently, but it’s not up to me and it’s up to the Lord.”
Some people online have accused McMahon of being a racist, but he said he’s had a number of gay and black friends throughout his life who would speak to the contrary and spent time living in parts of east and west Africa.
McMahon said that he doesn’t know the exact statements that Boykin has made about Muslims that people have found objectionable, but he agrees with comments he’s heard from the retired general and takes a “strong stance against the Islamic religion.”
“This is the United States of America and every religion is welcome, they are welcome to have their religion and practice it, but I don’t believe they worship the same God that we do,” he said.
The controversy over Boykin’s speech comes at a time of deep division in the country over the issue of race and nationwide protests over police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he was handcuffed on the ground.
McMahon and Atkins both condemned the actions of the officer that led to Floyd’s death, though both expressed their strong support for local law enforcement.
“I do think there is a problem in our nation and that prejudice exists,” McMahon said. “This is a great time for our nation to straighten some of these things out that have been wrong for a very long time. I think you would have to be blind to say that racism doesn’t exist.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 768-5175.