LGBTQ allies stood guard outside the Unitarian Universalist Church in Lakeland on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. | Kimberly Moore, LkldNow

Two dozen of Lakeland’s faith leaders have banded together to condemn the presence of Neo-Nazis in Lakeland on Dec. 3.

“This sickening display of hateful ideology parading as protest has provoked widespread anger and sadness,” the leaders wrote. “We, the undersigned faith leaders, stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community and our Jewish friends and neighbors against the historically hateful Neo-Nazi and White Christian Nationalist ideology of this group who hid behind masks while shouting slanderous lies at peaceful members and friends of the LGBTQ+ community gathered for a charitable cause.”

The group of about a dozen young men, shouting “Heil Hitler” and raising their arms in a Nazi salute, encircled the ART/ifact gallery on Massachusetts Avenue. They held a Nazi flag, a white supremacy flag and a “Christian” flag.

Inside the venue, performers – including several men dressed as women – were putting on a charity event called “Celebration of the Arts.” Proceeds from the show, which also included child performers, went to pay for summer camp for LGBTQ students.

The group of Neo-Nazis also made a sign equating the Star of David —  a symbol of Judaism — with the Communist “hammer and sickle.”

“We also deplore the use of signage intended to perpetuate the evil of Anti-Semitism rooted in the perverse ideology of Hitler and his Nazi sympathizers, and we extend our solidarity and support to our Jewish friends and neighbors,” the faith leaders’ letter states.

The group wrote the letter over about a week’s time.  Among those who signed it were Pastor Timothy Sizemore of Beacon Hill Fellowship; Rev. David McEntire, head pastor of First United Methodist Church of Lakeland; Rev. Mel Wilkinson, pastor of Christ Promise United Church of Christ of Auburndale; Heather Norby of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lakeland; Rev. Lois Ann Sorensen, pastor of Reformation Lutheran Church (ELCA); Betsy Neff of Lakeland Zen Community; and Rabbi David Goldstein of Temple Emanuel of Lakeland.

Goldstein attended Drag Queen BINGO night at the Unitarian Universalist Church Thursday evening to show support. About 55 people were there, half of whom said they had never attended an event like that before.

“I felt it was important to show up,” said Goldstein.

Approximately 6 million European Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II. German scholar Hellmuth Auerbach said Adolf Hitler’s regime killed an additional 7 million people, either by starvation or in concentration camps.

Lakeland resident and Realtor Natalie Oldenkamp also attended. She explained that her mother and her family were part of the French underground against the Nazis during WWII and her Uncle Francois Gouez died in a Nazi concentration camp because of his resistance. In addition, her father served in the U.S. Army during the war and helped to liberate Europe.

“Never in my life would I ever think that nazis would come out from under their rocks and be in our country and in my city,” Oldenkamp wrote on her Facebook page this week. “Do not tolerate – come together and spread love.”

Oldenkamp said Thursday night that her brother belongs to the LGBTQ community and she wanted to show her love and support Thursday night.

About two dozen people remained outside the church Thursday to provide security, as did two Lakeland Police officers in their marked patrol cars. In the end, it wasn’t necessary – no Neo-Nazis showed up.

The letter concludes by saying the Interfaith Colation of Polk County is committed to being a presence of safety and sanctuary to those who need it.

“As people of faith, we aspire to overcome evil with good and believe that love is more powerful than hate,” the letter states. “Our hope is that these individuals, who attempted to disrupt and divide the welcoming and inclusive community of Lakeland that we love, will rethink and reject their ideology of hate and intolerance and work toward a greater realization of the Beloved Community where all people can live together in peace and harmony.”

Local law enforcement have said the group was not from Polk County, but drove from Jacksonville.

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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