Zero Tolerance 

Two Westlake churches are attacked for their anti-gay positions -- maybe.

Richard Bilski is certain that three of his four - assailants were gay. - COURTESY OF THE WESTLAKE POLICE DEPARTMENT

The caller was brief, but insistent. Unless the church's pastor got on TV and expressed support for gay marriage, the church and its school would be blown up.

Bomb threats aren't exactly rare, especially when school's in session. "Typically, you figure some kid just doesn't want to take an exam," says Westlake Police Captain Guy Turner. "In this situation, that was clearly not the case."

The church in question, St. Paul-Westlake Lutheran, is hardly known for its fire-and-brimstone passion regarding homosexuality. National leaders of its denomination had issued a statement saying they were "saddened" by the Episcopalians' recent acceptance of a gay bishop, but St. Paul itself did nothing beyond making the statement available, says Pastor Larry Wesolik. And while church pastors consider homosexuality a sin, the topic hadn't been addressed at St. Paul recently.

Still, no one was taking chances. The elementary school was evacuated, and evening church activities were canceled. "Any time you have 280 children involved, even though you may not think the threat is legitimate, you have to err on the side of overcaution," Wesolik says. "And that's exactly what we did."

After all, the call wasn't the first threat of violence linked to anti-gay positions in Greater Cleveland this month. It wasn't even the first in Westlake.

Two weeks before, a janitor at Church on the Rise, the fundamentalist megachurch on Crocker Road, was assaulted in the parking lot when he took out the trash before Sunday services. The janitor, Richard Bilski, would later tell police that three of the four men who attacked him were overtly gay. "This is a message for Pastor Paul," Bilski reported one assailant saying. Paul Endrei, the church's pastor, had delivered a sermon the week before slamming the Episcopalians.

Police aren't sure whether the two incidents are related. "We've had nothing related to gay issues in so many years, and now, two in short order," Turner says. Still, he says, a bomb threat and a beating speak to two different pathologies. Also, the churches seem to have little in common beyond their Christianity and their city of residence.

Yet the attacks couldn't have been completely random: The assailants in the first case had done enough homework to know Endrei's first name; in the second, the caller knew that St. Paul has a school -- making it unlikely that he'd merely confused it with, say, Church on the Rise.

Police traced the call, but it led to a pay phone at the Five O'Clock Lounge in Lakewood. Bartenders could recall nothing suspicious, Turner says. And despite Bilski's recollection of a white Pontiac Firebird, the beating suspects have yet to be fingered.

The beating drew plenty of media attention, thanks to a press conference that same day. Both Bilski and Endrei spoke; two TV news cameras showed up.

Mary Ellen Urmin, a church member active in the anti-abortion movement, says it was her idea to hold it. "My feeling is, when something happens and you're quiet about it, it only proliferates the evil," she says. "When this happens, and it happens in a church, people have got to know about it and know that it's wrong."

Police haven't been so quick to blame either incident on a pro-gay faction. They don't doubt Bilski was assaulted; the pictures make it clear. But Turner isn't necessarily buying Bilski's theory on his attackers' sexual orientation. "You'll have to ask him about that," is all he'll say.

Bilski didn't return calls for comment, but Urmin, who serves as a church spokeswoman, delicately offers the word "flamers" to explain Bilski's certainty that his attackers were gay. "In the way they talk, the way they dress, the whole bit, it's kind of obvious," she says. The most masculine of the four men did most of the beating, she says, suggesting that he may have been a "hired hand."

Patrick Shepherd, who heads the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats, doesn't buy it. He says some gays wonder whether the culprits are "freaks trying to malign our community." He adds, "I just can't see why a gay person would do that, unless he had some type of mental disorder. It would make more sense if it was a homophobe."

Turner doesn't reject the theory. "It strikes me as odd, for several reasons," he says. "You don't create support for any issue by threatening violence against children. Is the motivation to create anti-gay sentiment instead? I just don't know."

Indeed, public martyrdom in the media can be a great way to rally the troops. It's a card that Urmin, for one, seems willing to play. "My opinion is, [gay people] are putting it out there as a warning," she says. "'If you speak out against us, there will be consequences.' But for those of us really following the mandates of Christ, we will continue to speak out."

Urmin believes her church's job is to "speak the truth, in love." Then she adds, "They're trying to shove this whole homosexuality thing down our throats. Well, we don't have to tolerate it, and we don't have to accept it."

The gay community's reaction to the attack has only fueled Urmin's righteous fire. Buck Harris, who used to host a gay-themed radio show, was quoted in The Plain Dealer, seeming to suggest the church had it coming: "If they don't preach tolerance, they are preaching violence." Harris says he was referencing Matthew Shepherd's murder and other crimes against homosexuals. "They're preaching against gay men, and they think there's going to be no impact on their parish," he says. "They're basically endorsing violence."

Harris's words can't help but raise Christian hackles. As the conservative Ohio Roundtable noted in a recent radio broadcast, Bilski's beating may not, in fact, have been retaliation for Endrei's sermon. But, the Roundtable added, the fact that no gay organizations or activists have risen to condemn the attack says something too.

More by Sarah Fenske


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