Thy Views Are So Unchanging

A tree’s ornaments were taken off display after disagreements with the messaging.


Dakota Oswalt

RAINBOW TREE- The CAP Tree stands at Effects Salon on Chestnut Street in Atlantic. Lydia Goehring from the salon reached out to Johnna Joy, who founded CAP. Goehring wanted a safe place where it would have been seen with ornaments.

Elizabeth Anderson and Dakota Oswalt

The Festival of Trees, a “longstanding holiday tradition” in Atlantic that supports the American Cancer Society, took place this year on Dec 1-4 at the Catholic Parish Center, as it has for many years. Various bright, colorful Christmas trees are showcased by the community. This year, 57 trees were displayed, but one drew significant attention: the Cass Atlantic Pride (CAP) tree. This is the first year CAP has participated in the Festival of Trees, displaying a white tree with colorful lights and handmade ornaments. The ornaments were made by Atlantic High School’s Gender and Sexuality Awareness club with meaningful notes such as “love thy neighbor” and “love is love.’’ However, after complaints from parishioners, the handmade ornaments were removed, leaving the tree with only lights.

The co-chair of the festival of trees, Vicki Nordskog, said “There were some individuals who are members of the Saints Peter and Paul Church that saw the messaging on the tree that was contrary to their perspective. They raised concerns with the priest, Father Trevor Chicoine, and discussed it with them.” After discussing with the parishioners, Nordskog met with Chicoine and the church admin. “We had a long discussion. There was a clause in the contract that says you will not knowingly or intentionally display or incorporate anything into your utilization of the building that conflicts with church teachings and beliefs,” Nordskog said. After Chicoine asked for the ornaments to be removed, Nordskog, Chicoine, and the church administrator discussed how important it is to be inclusive. “The priest (Chicoine) assured that he and the church believe in diversity and inclusivity but, at the same time, they have specific doctrines and beliefs that cannot be violated,” said Nordskog.” For the remainder of the festival, the ornaments were left off the tree.

“Love Thy Neighbor” was one of the many ornaments that were on the CAP tree. Students at Atlantic High School made some of the ornaments, this being one. (Dakota Oswalt)

Johnna Joy, the founder of CAP posted on Facebook, “I was excited to support the FoT [Festival of Trees] this year, especially as my mom passed just this year from stage four breast cancer. My mom was a beautiful example that you can in fact be a loving ally and person of faith. You do not have to choose one or the other. Choose to love thy neighbor, not stifle them.” 

Joy said that the more that Atlantic and the community can accept and embrace diversities, the more it can create a meaningful community that can thrive. “I was really excited that our tree was a little way that we could see a little bit of ourselves represented inside our community. It was heartbreaking to hear it. I’m tired of us being seen differently, scary, or sinful. We’re just another family. We do game night and make snow angels. We aren’t anything special or different,” said Joy. 

The president of the Atlantic High School’s Gay and Sexuality Awareness club Alix Nath spoke about the situation. “The worst part about it is that I was expecting it. We all thought it would be frowned upon, argued against, or opposed, just because we are in a small town in Iowa.  It didn’t change the fact that it hurt. It was just trying to spread a positive message,” Nath said. 

Nath wanted to tell the LGBTQ+ community that was negatively impacted by the removal of the decorations not to be diminished and to look for the good of the situation.

Brigham Hoegh is a community member who expressed her concerns. “LGBTQ people, and particularly youth, are at increased risk of death by suicide, not because they are inherently prone to suicide, but because they are stigmatized–because they are told again and again that their true selves are unwelcome,” Hoegh said. She talked about how she has seen so many different people “shine” with Joy’s support and love of the community after establishing CAP.

Father Trevor Chicoine, the priest at the Catholic church gave AHSNeedle a statement: “On Friday, December 2, it came to our attention that some of the tags on a Christmas tree at the Festival of Trees at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Atlantic held statements that are contrary to Catholic Church teaching. This was in conflict with a contract signed by a representative of the charity sponsoring the event. The contract specifically calls for respect of Catholic Church teaching on church property. The pastor invited the sponsor of the community fundraiser to keep the tree on display but asked that the tags be removed.”

After the ornaments were removed, Lydia Goehring at Effects Salon in Atlantic reached out to Joy, as they wanted to display the tree at their business. “Lydia has been an awesome ally. I met Lydia early on when I moved to Atlantic. She has been a nice safe place,” Joy said. Goehring wanted to have a safe space to put the tree “in its entirety in a public space.” 

It was heartbreaking to hear it. I’m tired of us being seen differently, scary, or sinful.

— Johnna Joy

Johnna Joy’s “messages are open” on social media for whoever wants to learn more about the LGBTQ+ Community and Support.


**The secondary headline of this story was updated on 1/6/23.