Update: Controversy around Tom Ricks grows as Kirkwood responds to pastoral letter
March 31, 2019
Grant Trokey, 2016 KHS graduate, had attended Greentree Community Church for as long as he could remember. For two years during high school, he played with the worship band a few times a month and attended camps with the church. Then, at age 18, he came out as gay. Within a month, he found he was no longer allowed to play in the band or be involved in a leadership role at the church he said he had always loved.
“It was against the church’s rules and doctrine to allow any member of the LGBT community to hold a leadership position in the church,” Trokey said. “The youth pastor was very kind and very clear that they did not agree with that decision, but it did come down to the church leadership under Tom Ricks telling me that I wasn’t allowed to be part of the church in that way.”
Ricks, lead pastor at Greentree Community Church and Kirkwood School Board candidate, sent a pastoral letter to his congregation in May 2016 which stated homosexuality as a sin. In the letter, Ricks defines tolerance as “accepting a sinful behavior as good in the eyes of God,” and says when regarding same-sex attraction, “tolerance is not a virtue, it is spiritually criminal.” Opinions within the Kirkwood community vary on whether Ricks is fit for the Kirkwood School Board, but Trokey said he does not believe he is.
“[My experience] put me in some position that I’m unequal to others and other kids my age just because of [my sexuality],” Trokey said. “I don’t think that has a place at a public school, especially when it comes to peoples’ lives and lifestyles when it could affect someone’s quality of education.”
To Jim Seibert, Greentree Community Church member, a school board with a diverse set of beliefs will prepare students for the real world, where there are disagreements, and give them the best education possible. He said Ricks has always used his influence with the church in service of Kirkwood, and that his values would be a positive addition to the school board.
“Is it better to have someone on the school board who you don’t know what their core beliefs are and they can act on those beliefs without anybody realizing?” Seibert said. “Or is it better [if someone] has beliefs out there you don’t necessarily agree with but at least they’ve taken a stand? Stand up, be counted, say, ‘this is what I believe in,’ and we can balance a school board out with people who come from different beliefs and different values.”
Darnel Frost and Mark Boyko, the other two candidates for the Kirkwood School Board, are both Methodist. Both said everyone has religious viewpoints, but it’s important not to let these beliefs affect their role as a school board member. Boyko said he read the letter shortly after Ricks announced his candidacy and said his focus as a school board member would be making sure KHS students would feel welcomed in the Kirkwood community.
“My focus in my campaign is on the safety of our students,” Boyko said. “We all come in with varying backgrounds and beliefs on all sorts of issues. Obviously, a public school is not a place for trying to advance your personal religious beliefs, especially if that impacts the environment that [KSD] is trying to create.”
TKC reached out to all current members of the school board in an effort to gain a better understanding of its religious makeup and decision-making but received no response. TKC also made multiple attempts to reach Ricks for further comment, but no response was given as a result of Ricks having prior commitments, including overseeing two funerals, over the weekend.
Julie Sutfin is the KHS Gay-Straight Alliance sponsor and said seeing a formal argument with Ricks’ religious beliefs toward “gay and transgender lifestyles” in black and white shocked her. She said when opinions of this nature are so vocalized, especially if it comes from a position of power, it can harm LGBT youth.
“I see when young people are told either directly or indirectly that fundamental aspects of their personhood, their selves, are defective and immoral, it can lead to really deep damage,” Sutfin said. “Self-hatred and negative self-worth at minimum, but self-harm all the way to suicide. LGBT students [are] the highest group of any of attempted suicides and completed suicides. I have to wonder if in part that’s because some churches are telling them that God thinks they are defective and need to be fixed.”
There are still many in the Kirkwood community, however, who do not believe Ricks’ personal beliefs disqualify him from fairly performing the duties of a school board member. Sara Denckhoff, Greentree Community Church member, said she understands the perspective of those who are uncomfortable with Ricks being in this position but supports him because she personally believes his leadership would benefit all students. Denckhoff, as highlighted on a Facebook post she wrote in support of Ricks, said it is important to have a wide range of beliefs represented on the Kirkwood School Board even if not everyone agrees with these beliefs.
“My intentions are for all kids at Kirkwood, no matter what, to have exactly what they need to be successful no matter what they believe or their race, religion, sexual orientation or anything,” Denckoff said. “I don’t believe that Tom would harm the LGBT community in any way, but I’m not going to downplay someone’s opinion who thinks he might. I get where the other side comes from. My vote and my reason to support Tom is because I personally don’t believe that.”
Another vote toward Ricks is coming from Mike Gibbons, a longtime friend of Ricks, who endorsed his candidacy on Ricks’ official Facebook page. Gibbons said although he hasn’t read the controversial pastoral letter, Ricks is fit for the Kirkwood School Board based off the service he has provided to the Kirkwood community from providing gifts for students around Christmas who otherwise couldn’t afford them to working on fixing the achievement gap in the district by improving early childhood education. Peggy Demetri, director of women’s ministry at Greentree Community Church, also described the main role of Greentree in the Kirkwood community as one of service. Demetri said Ricks’ leadership experience and care for the community will allow him to make decisions on the school board to benefit all students.
“There’s nothing better than being a friend of Tom Ricks,” Gibbons said. “That’s a guy who would actually honestly take the shirt off his back if you needed it and it doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, or whether he’s known you forever or just met you on the street. I mean, this is a very kind, compassionate, caring, active guy and I cannot believe that he would harbor ill-will toward anyone or any group on any reason under any circumstance.”
According to Sutfin, not only are school board members leaders in setting the cultural tone for KSD schools, but they can set and change a wide range of policies that can affect all students. Members can set and change non-discrimination policies, including those involving bullying and hate speech, as well as the consequences for all of these. She also said the board is basically in charge of what is taught in KSD schools, as they can both approve curriculum and decide which textbooks can be used in classrooms.
It is for these reasons the pastoral letter written by Ricks gives Sutfin cause for concern, and why she hopes the school board will, no matter what, fulfill its role in representing all KSD kids, no matter who they are or who they love.
“Our Kirkwood community has been really good allies of our LGBT students,” Sutfin said. “Our principals have strived to set a tone of inclusiveness and respect for all our human differences. [It’s] integral to the kind of top-notch place Kirkwood High School is. Our school board, I believe, should always and everywhere represent these values, also.”