At about 8pm on Sunday night, Geoffrey Skelding was watching a movie with his partner when he heard a loud argument outside his home on Highfield Road, near Dundas and Greenwood in Leslieville. Witnessing a standoff between a group of his neighbours and a group of well-dressed churchgoers, Skelding grabbed his video camera and shot the footage that’s now been posted to YouTube and watched more than 12,000 times.
The invading group was comprised of members of the Highfield Road Gospel Hall up the street. They stood on the sidewalk, singing and yelling out Bible verses as they’ve done many summer nights before.
“I don’t know exactly what they were saying beforehand,” Skelding says, “but I’m told it was directed at a gay couple living in a house in that area.” Ironically, the unidentified couple was not even home at the time and Skelding says he’s been told that they, like most of the neighbourhood, have tolerated the Baptist group until now.
When Skelding and his partner moved into the neighbourhood back in January, “we were told about this crazy church at the end of the street and they might come and knock on your door and tell you you’re a sinner. We didn’t think anything of it — they sounded like the Jehovah’s Witnesses — so I was surprised by this. Another lady said they do the same thing on her street behind my house.”
“We have the authority to preach the gospel,” says a member of the group in Skelding’s video. It’s been reported that he adds, “We’ve been doing this for seven years.”
“No, not seven years, sir,” corrects a contact at the Highfield Road Gospel Hall on the phone with Xtra, “It’s 70 years, maybe more. This is not some new thing that just popped up, we’ve been involved with preaching the gospel to the community for 70-75 years.”
Asking that he not be identified (“I just don’t want to be smeared”), the Gospel Hall contact says, “It appears there’s been a major misunderstanding. I wasn’t there [Sunday night] but I’ve been involved with outdoor services like that for over 40 years, every Sunday night, weather permitting, on a different street. From what I understand, someone felt we were targeting a specific house but we would never stoop, never stoop to target any group such as gay people. That’s very low.”
“This was not a protest in front of a house,” he insists, “We do not get involved in political issues, social issues, people’s gender persuasion. We’re not out in the street with a vendetta to change anyone, we’re just out telling the world’s greatest story.”
Whether their neighbours like it or not? Jane Farrow, executive director of “urban literacy” project Jane’s Walk, lives in that neighbourhood and says, “I’ve only talked to a couple of the queers I know on the street so far but they’ve definitely said they’d be into helping out with ‘reclaiming the street’ if more things were to happen in the future… Clearly, people have a right to wander the streets, sing gospel tunes and read the Bible, but if you start doing it on a regular basis and over a period of years, I think it constitutes invasion of privacy and harassment.”
Writer and AIDS activist Brian Finch, no stranger to protest, agrees that evangelizing in front of people’s homes is “crossing a line.” Activism, he says, is “about challenging policy and systemic things, not going to Tony Clement’s house. Burning crosses on the lawn is the extreme end of that continuum. It’s really really wrong and I’m shocked to see it in Toronto.”
The Gospel Hall member doesn’t disagree: “If it was me, and they were coming in front of my house year-in-year-out with something I didn’t agree with, I’d suggest to them they try further up the street to get their message out.” He says the evangelical group has already toned it down in recent years: “We’re not the only church that does this. We used to spend about half an hour… but we sensed some people were not receiving the message well.”
“I’ll say it again,” he insists, “we do not seek to antagonize or target or stir up strife. We’re there to deliver the message of the gospel, that God loves every soul. God does not discriminate. It’s a grave misunderstanding on the part of the people who say they’re being targeted.”
“I’m very very sorry about this,” the Gospel Hall contact says, pledging to “make it a point to go to different areas, different groups of houses.”
This does little to ease Skelding’s mind. “Why don’t they just stand in front of their church with its empty parking lot and do it there?” he asks. “The cops did show up but they hadn’t heard of this happening. I don’t think anyone’s reported it before. The cops said if it happens again, keep reporting it. Some people don’t care, they don’t mind, it’s been going on for years, but it’s not cool. How do I know they’re not going to come and stand in front of my house next week?” Indeed, as the defiant preacher in the YouTube video declares, “In the word of God, next year we’ll be here!”
“They’re bullies,” says Farrow, “which is why it’s so awesome the neighbourhood just did the right thing and pushed back.”