Chris Moore, Nikki Joly and Barbara Shelton, director of the United Center for Caring in Jackson.

Love Wins in the City of Jackson

Community Raises Over $40,000 to Support LGBTQ Victims of Arson

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

Hundreds gathered for a fundraiser on Tuesday night to support Nikki Joly and Chris Moore, an LGBTQ couple in the city of Jackson who lost their home and their pets to arson on Aug. 10.

The community rallied in support and to share ideas about how to move forward while the incident is still under investigation by the Jackson Police Department in partnership with the Ann Arbor Resident Agency of the Detroit Field Office of the FBI.

"I love all of you...I want to say to those of you who are scared, don't be, be angry and channel that anger for good. Tomorrow we begin rebuilding," said Joly before people began chanting "Love wins" inside St. Johns United Church of Christ, home of the United Center for Caring and the Jackson Pride Center, which opened in February.

In memoriam of Joly and Moore's four-legged family members

Rev. Patti Kenney, pastor with the church for about a year and a half, said, "My heart is full. The community has shown that love is strong and will win." While she is trying her best not to jump the gun and place judgment as the community awaits details about what happened, Kenney said, "We don't know, but if someone caused it, my heart breaks for them the way this kind of act breaks their soul. My yearning for them is healing."

To heal is one of the reasons Carol Lellis came to the event. A Jackson resident for eight years, Lellis said the arson followed by the news out of Charlottesville, Virginia has been overwhelming.

"This helps me heal and fires me up to be an activist. It's time to take to the streets. We've been complacent for too long as hatred rears its ugly head."

Lellis was there with her friend Peg Stout-Dickey, a Jackson resident for 62 years.

"Jackson is a great place to live. We've had our problems, but it's a great little community. There is so much togetherness and so much love. This is what Jackson is right here, not what happened," said Stout-Dickey, who remembers feeling "shell-shocked" to hear some members of her community express their hatred and bigotry while fighting for the non-discrimination ordinance, which passed in April.

"I couldn't believe it. I think it's appalling that our mayor hasn't stood up and said something. I haven't heard a word," she said.

Peg Stout-Dickey and Carol Lellis

This sentiment was expressed by several others in attendance, who are anxious for the mayoral race in November between two candidates - current Mayor Bill Jors and Vice Mayor Derek Dobies.

"It's very apparent to more than just myself that our mayor is not here," said Carl Struble, who is credited with being the driving force behind the idea of the Jackson Pride Center. He points to the fact that Jors did not support the non-discrimination ordinance, which Struble said he can understand.

"He has his reasons. However, this is not an NDO issue. This is about people's lives and you should be here, at least to express his personal condolences, and for that I'm a little disappointed in the mayor."

Despite that, Struble said, "I've lived in Jackson County for 25 years. This is the best place I've ever lived. I love the people here. It ripped my heart out when this happened to Chris and Nikki's house. This can't stand and will not stand. There are too many good people here in this city."

Close friends of the couple, Jean Herrick and Breanna Spiteri-Phillips, agree the arson is telling.

"It really brings it home. People have said we don't need a non-discrimination ordinance because things like this don't happen in Jackson and my response has always been do we have to wait until it does? Now, it has," said Herrick, a Jackson County resident for 25 years, who is wondering, like many others, what she needs to do to protect herself.

"I believe this is an aberration and I don't see this as the norm, but we need leadership that takes a stand and says this is not acceptable. If you stop it when it's just words, it's not going to build into violence. If you don't stop it, then people think it's OK and it escalates and eventually, this is what you get."

When asked what the community needs right now, Spiteri-Phillips, a Jackson resident for 11 years, said, "We need unity."

Breanna Spiteri-Phillips and Jean Herrick

Supporters of Joly and Moore said they have followed their lead as allies since the fight began for the non-discrimination ordinance.

Aaron Wilson of Jackson said he is "inspired by very normal people doing extraordinary things."

He expressed his disappointment that after more than 1,000 people showed up for Jackson's inaugural pride celebration on Aug. 5, it has been "overshadowed" by this incident. Wilson reminds people what a "huge success" that is for the small town.

When asked about a lack of leadership in the community, Del Belcher of Spring Arbor said, "The mayor is a non-partisan position. It's your responsibility to take care of your community. If you're not doing that, you're not doing your job."

Beyond that, he was "excited to see so many people here, across generations, coming together to support each other" as he said they did at city council meetings over the last several months.

"I've lived here my whole life. It's horrifying that something like this has happened in my hometown. It feels like a violation and it wasn't my house," said Carrie Heider Grant. "I can't imagine their heartache. We're here to show them that's not what Jackson is. This group of people rallies like nothing I've ever seen. There is a lot of love and support in our community right now."

For those who do not step up to help or who stand by in silence, Heider Grant said, "Shame on them. It's embarrassing."

Her friend, Karysa Trombley, hesitated to say she is scared, but she is. With two children, she is using this as an opportunity to teach them.

"I am helping them understand why this happened. They are learning a lot about empathy" she said noting that "Love is a lot louder than hate right now and I am proud of our future mayor Derek Dobies for his support."

Lora Tucker, CEO of CenterLink, the community of LGBT centers across the country called in from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to offer her support for the couple.

"As we continue to face firsthand incidents of anti-LGBT vandalism, harassment, intimidation and domestic terrorism, we must continue to choose love over hate and positive action over lethargic blindness," said Tucker, who provided a scholarship on speakerphone to Joly so he can attend the Executive Director and Board Leadership Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona in September.

"What I do know for a fact is that leadership makes a difference and Nikki and Chris, I know that your leadership and the leadership of your team at the Jackson Pride Center is making a difference. Harvey Milk said, 'Hope is never silent.' You continue through your positive actions to inspire others and provide that hope."

Barbara Shelton, director of the United Center for Caring at the church confirmed more than $20,000 was raised at last night's event. With monies raised through other online fundraising sites, over $40,000 has been raised so far in five days to help Joly and Moore reach their goal of $50,000 to purchase a new home.

Signs handmade by community members hang throughout the Jackson Pride Center.

Response from Leadership in Michigan

Asked for comment, Gov. Rick Snyder's deputy press secretary Tanya Baker said he cannot comment on a specific law enforcement investigation that is still ongoing, but points to a statement Snyder issued on Aug. 14 in response to Charlottesville, Virginia that is now inclusive of Jackson.

His statement reads: "History has shown time and again that hate begets hate and violence begets violence. On the other hand, unity and cooperation have shown how much we can accomplish when we respect our neighbors, embrace our differences and focus our energy on how we can all move forward and prosper together. Hate speech and violence are not welcome in Michigan - it's not representative of who Michiganders truly are or of the future we want to build for our children."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told BTL, "This is very disturbing news. Nikki and Chris were victims of a terrible and hateful act. Those responsible should be brought to justice immediately."

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) told BTL, "Michigan's LGBT families have the right to feel safe in their homes and their communities, and this kind of hatred and violence has no place in our state. While the investigation is still ongoing, it's clear that Nikki and Chris have suffered a tremendous loss and my thoughts are with them and with members of Michigan's LGBT community who are understandably shaken by this terrible action."

During the fight for the non-discrimination ordinance in Jackson, Consumers Energy Vice President Daniel Malone spoke at meetings, telling city council that the largest employer in the county supports the inclusiveness the NDO would provide, as indicated by a letter submitted to Dobies in November 2016.

Malone told council, "Jackson is in competition for residents, business, and employees, and inclusiveness is an important factor that attracts all three. Beyond the important issues of fairness and equality lies an additional reason for cities to take matters of equality seriously - it is good business. But this isn't just about good business or an inclusive community - it's about doing what's right for so many who are negatively impacted by discrimination - and it happens right here in Michigan."

On Aug. 16, Senior Director of Strategic Communications & Public Relations, Megan M. Brown wrote: "Consumers Energy's vision is 'world-class performance delivering hometown service,' and being a world-class company means we have an unwavering commitment to supporting an inclusive workforce and community. We are keeping the family in our thoughts at this time."

Opportunities to contribute online are available at the You Caring links http://www.youcaring.com/nikkijolyandchrismoore-902381 and http://www.youcaring.com/nikkijoly-902118. Donations can also be made at http://www.unitedcenterforcaring.com/.
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