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Dr. Emily Miller, head of the Lee's Summit R7 School District on stage with Abundant Life lead pastor Phil Hopper. Photo: Screenshot.

Missouri church falsely attacked as anti-gay by activists and local media

One of Missouri’s largest churches, attended by thousands weekly, is asserting that they were falsely attacked and misrepresented as hateful and “anti-gay” by The Kansas City Star and the Lee’s Summit Journal.

Metro Voice wants to give voice to the church – Abundant Life – its leadership, and the school district in responding to the allegations.

[News Analysis: This is a developing story that began on August 5 with a story published by media outlets against Abundant Life Church of Lee’s Summit, Missouri (a suburb of Kansas City). The lead pastor of that Church, Phil Hopper, responded during Sunday sermons on August 11. On the following Sunday, August 18, the Acting Superintendent of Lee’s Summit Public Schools, Dr. Emily Miller, addressed the church in person during Sunday services, apologizing for the hurt caused to Abundant Life Church. This story has attracted local and national media attention over the last two weeks.]

Local Media Makes Unsubstantiated Claims Church is “Anti-gay”

The Star and Journal stories, published Aug. 5 and 7, were based purely on a protest organized by a single teacher in the Lee’s Summit R7 school district (LSR7) against Abundant Life Church. The Church is a well-respected congregation in Lee’s Summit, Mo. that partners heavily with the school district and serves thousands of at-risk children and families across the region.

The headline from the Kansas City Star.

That teacher, who the Metro Voice has chosen not to name, appears to actively promote LGBTQ causes on her Facebook page and besmirch religions that do not condone homosexuality. She has since taken down the posts about Abundant Life Church and the R7 School District.

The August 7 edition of the Journal, which is owned by the Star, published a front-page story labeling, without any proof, Abundant Life Church as an “anti-gay church.” The headline in the Journal read, “Lee’s Summit teachers protest use of anti-gay church.” The same article was published two days earlier in the Kansas City Star under a similar headline.

The Journal and Star stories were based on that one teacher’s objection to previous plans by the LSR7 district to hold their back-to-school convocation at Abundant Life Church. The event, which is held annually for all teachers and staff in the district, was convened last year at Abundant Life free of charge to the school district, saving the district thousands of dollars.

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The Abundant Life church building was considered a venue in the LSR7 district that could accommodate the approximately 2200 teachers and staff in LSR7. All high school graduation convocations of the three public high schools in Lee’s Summit are held at another church-owned facility — the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, Missouri.

The protesting teacher, given a platform by the Star and Journal, encouraged other LSR7 teachers and staff to wear LGBTQ T-shirts, stickers, pins and buttons to the event that was scheduled to be held at Abundant Life on Wednesday, August 7.

Hopper and Abundant Life initially remained publicly silent during the week the story broke. When Hopper did respond, he stated, “We’re going to love and support our schools no matter what.”

LSR7 Responds by Moving District Event for Teachers and Staff from Abundant Life Building

In response, the LSR7 school district moved the event from Abundant Life to the Lee’s Summit High School Field House. Kelly Wachel, Executive Director of Public Relations for LSR7, provided the following statement to the Metro Voice and other media outlets about the change of location:

“As we made the decision to host our convocation in-district, it was important that we took time to listen and seek to understand. We are very much in tune to the sentiments and feelings among our staff and our community and this decision allows us to honor multiple voices. This does not diminish our gratitude to Abundant Life for their willingness to host our staff, this decision simply seeks to acknowledge multiple perspectives and honor them. We are thankful for our teachers who chose to engage with us in conversation and we hope these conversations can be a demonstration of our commitment to strong personal relationships as the foundation of what we represent.”

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A post from the teacher’s Facebook page.

Prior to the school district decision to move the event, the teacher­ who organized the protest posted the following on her Facebook page:

“My personal belief is that the district holding a required meeting there is equivalent to supporting the church’s beliefs and that sends a clear message to the community and our students. I am in no way anti-church or anti-Christian. But, I am anti-hate.”

A meme on the teacher’s Facebook page depicts three clergymen attacking a bloodied member of the LGBTQ community with Bibles in hand with the caption. “IF YOUR RELIGION MAKES YOU HATE SOMEONE YOU NEED A NEW RELIGION.”

 

Abundant Life Accused of Holding Week-Long Anti-Gay Seminar That “Never Happened”

In addition to what the Star and Journal cited from that teacher’s Facebook post on Friday, August 2, she also posted claims that were inaccurate. One post included a misleading assertion that Abundant Life hosted a “week-long anti-gay seminar” that allegedly included “preaching nightly against LGBTQ people.”

She also asserted the alleged week-long “anti-gay” event occurred the week before last year’s LSR7 back-to-school convocation, which was held at Abundant Life.

The Metro Voice contacted Abundant Life Church for corroboration. Their lead pastor, Phil Hopper, stated that “there was no week-long seminar.”

Former Homosexual Shared Testimony at Abundant Life and Spoke at Q&A

Hopper did acknowledge that last year, on August 5, 2018 — just before the school district’s back-to-school event for teachers and staff was held at Abundant Life, Dr. Christopher Yuan came as a guest speaker along with his mom and dad.

Yuan is an author who speaks nationwide about his personal experience as a former practicing homosexual who came out of that lifestyle. Yuan spoke at Sunday morning services and at a Q&A session that same afternoon. There was no “week-long anti-gay seminar” with “preaching nightly against LGBTQ people” as the teacher asserted on Facebook.

He’s always been so sweet to my partner and I. – Gay member supporting Pastor Hopper

Gay Attendees of Abundant Life and Their Loved Ones Defend the Church

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Pastor Phil Hopper

One member of Abundant Life, who was involved when Yuan spoke at the church, commented on Facebook that Yuan “shared his story with such love and compassion.”

A gay businessman who attends Abundant Life wrote about Hopper, saying “he’s always been so sweet to my partner and I.”

Another member wrote about the anti-gay allegations stating, “I can promise you Phil Hopper does not have a message of hate, nor does Christopher Yuan … He [Hopper] preaches God’s Word and will not compromise that. However, trust me, he loves everyone … We are not a church of hate.”

A mother of a son who identifies as gay and whose family are longtime members of Abundant Life wrote:

“My 16-year-old son is OPENLY gay and wears a full beautiful face of makeup every single week to this church. He is LOVED and has never been shunned or treated poorly in any way! In fact, quite the opposite. The pastor himself told my son if ANYONE at church ever treats him poorly, makes comments about him being gay, or even looks at him judgmentally — to let him know and he would personally address the situation with those church members. Guess what, it has NEVER happened. This false news report makes me ill! As someone who actually attends church here, please don’t assume it is a “hateful” church unless you can give an example of actual hatred. I disagree with my son’s lifestyle. But guess what? I still love him to pieces and we have CONVERSATIONS both about agreeing to disagree, AND that no matter what he does with his life I will always love and support him unconditionally. I know that’s hard to believe coming from a Christian, but it’s 100% true. Signed, a loving member of Abundant Life Church and parent of an amazing child in the LS school district. Bless you all.”

Pastor Phil Hopper Addresses the Issue in Sunday Services on August 11

Hopper described the media’s anti-gay spin as “misrepresentation” and “character assassination.” He then addressed the controversy by saying:

“Here’s what I want you to hear me say today … those that have deemed us their enemy — they are not ours. We will love people unconditionally. And just for clarity, I’ve had a lot of ugly things said about our church this week that just aren’t true, one of which, ‘well Abundant Life doesn’t like gay and lesbian people coming there.’ I just want to make it clear publicly, I’ve said it before, I’m going to say it again, ‘Abundant Life welcomes everybody.’”

I’m going to say it again, ‘Abundant Life welcomes everybody.’ – Phil Hopper

The Star and Journal did not just stick to the story of the change of venue and falsely labeled Abundant Life Church as “anti-gay” — they also went after Hopper personally.

Hopper Testified at a Hearing of the Missouri House of Representatives in 2016

Their news stories also recounted that he testified before a committee hearing of the Missouri House of Representatives in April of 2016 in support of Senate Joint Resolution 39. That legislation was filibustered in the Senate for 41 hours and failed to pass out of a House Committee in a 6-6 tie vote.

According to Missouri Senate archives, that proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution would have prohibited the state from imposing a penalty on religious organizations that act in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief concerning same-sex marriage.

The Resolution also would have prevented the state from imposing penalties on an individual who declines to provide goods of expression or artistic creation for a wedding ceremony because of sincere religious beliefs on same-sex marriage.

While seeking to discredit Hopper for testifying in favor of SJR 39 more than three years ago, the Star and Journal articles also cited Abundant Life’s Statement of Faith, which includes the following:

“We believe that the home was the first institution God provided for man; that marriage is a sacred relationship between one man and one woman for life; and that homosexuality is a perversion of God’s natural order of one man for one woman.”

Hopper noted that Christians, including Protestants and Catholics, have held that same view as a part of the historic Christian Faith for nearly two millenniums. “We believe what 2,000 years of Christians have always believed. We haven’t changed our mind because God hasn’t changed his,” he said.

You are welcome here, we love you, we love everybody because love is unconditional. – Phil Hopper

During his sermons on August 11, Hopper addressed members of the LGBTQ community and their loved ones directly.

“You are welcome here, we love you, we love everybody because love is unconditional … There are gay and lesbian people that come to our church and they have for years and years, he stated,” Hopper emphasized. “There are lots of parents here that have gay and lesbian children. We love your children; we will care for them.”

Acting Superintendent of LSR7 Apologizes to Abundant Life in Sunday Services on August 18

On Sunday, August 18, Dr. Emily Miller, the Acting Superintendent of LSR7 public schools, addressed the Abundant Life congregation in person during Sunday services, accompanied by Wachel.

Before introducing Miller, Hopper described what had transpired over the previous two weeks. “Our church was really just dragged through the mud over the issue related to our biblical view of marriage and human sexuality, etc. Well, I received a very kind phone call that week from the Acting Superintendent of Lee’s Summit schools, simply saying ‘Pastor Phil, we’re so sorry’ and recounting that Miller wanted to apologize to Abundant Life publicly. So, would you give them a warm Abundant Life welcome? We’re so honored that you’re among us,” Hopper said.

Miller responded to Hopper’s gracious introduction and applause from the congregation by saying, “One of the things we’ve been trying to do over the last year is really listen and honor multiple perspectives, which drove our decision two weeks ago to move the venue from Abundant Life Church to a district facility.”

In acknowledging the consequences of that decision, Miller said, “We recognize the collateral damage that occurred to the Abundant Life Church. Please know that was not our intention and we’re sorry for the hurt it has caused.”

She then addressed Hopper personally, saying “I just want to thank you, Pastor Phil, for the grace you have shown over the last couple of weeks.”

Hopper responded by saying, “We want you to know that we are 100 percent behind our schools and our partnership moving forward is as strong as it’s ever been and we as a body want to do anything we can to support our school districts, not just in Lee’s Summit, but abroad. So, I just want you to know that our church is behind you — our students, our teachers and your leadership.”

Their exchange was met with enthusiastic applause from the congregation.

–Dwight Widaman and Metro Voice Staff

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