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Jackson couple’s loss spurs ‘extraordinary’ support

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When friends learned that a fire had destroyed Nikki Joly and Chris Moore’s two-story Jackson home this month, dozens gathered outside for hours and comforted the couple who are considered beacons in the local LGBTQ community.

Many stayed by their side afterward, and a fellow church member quickly crafted a banner emblazoned with a simple phrase to offer more encouragement at a fundraiser for the pair: “Love Wins.”

That message has come to define the multiple efforts supporters have launched in recent weeks to help Joly and Moore recover from the devastating blaze authorities suspect was intentionally set.

“We’re trying to build a community of support and kindness and strength rather than fear,” said Pastor Patti Kenney from St. John’s United Church of Christ in Jackson. “We’re trying to let go of anger, be powerful and wise and good for the good of all people.”

Uplifting others has long been a call for Moore and Joly, who attend St. John’s, have volunteered in a mobile food pantry and “given help to friends and neighbors in need even when they do not know how they will pay their own bills,” Kenney said. “When they see a need, whether it’s a person, an animal or creature, they’re there to try to meet that need.”

Joly, a transgender nurse who volunteers with the American Red Cross, has also earned renown leading the Jackson Pride Center. The nonprofit works to support the LGBTQ community and its allies in the southern Michigan community of about 33,000.

He and Moore also joined many others who pushed for a long-developing non-discrimination ordinance the city approved and enacted this year. The measure, which aims to protect residents from mistreatment due to race, religion, sexual orientation, as well as other identifiers “... would not have been possible without the efforts of Nikki and Chris, nor would Jackson’s first-ever pride festival,” Equality Michigan officials recently wrote on their Facebook page.

But less than a week after joining more than 1,000 other festival participants with rainbow flags and high spirits, the couple lost all their belongings as well as five pets in the Aug. 10 blaze.

The incident is being investigated as an arson, said Elmer Hitt, Jackson’s director of police and fire services. No arrests had been made.

The timing of the alleged crime has raised concerns among the couple’s supporters about potential targeting and pushed them to act, as well.

“There’s a lot of discrimination going around in the world today. It’s disgusting,” said Jeff Graves, a Jackson resident planning a fundraiser next month. “But once our community understands we’re stronger than anything that can break us, then we have found our power.”

Well-wishers have created two fundraisers on the YouCaring crowdfunding website that together have netted more than $18,000.

“This is a hate crime that was premeditated and destructively heartbreaking beyond measure,” read a post on one of the pages.

Meanwhile, hundreds of supporters packed another fundraiser at St. John’s that generated more than $20,000 to help them buy a new house, Kenney said.

“We had an extraordinary number of donations,” said Elody Samuelson, a friend who was involved. “It was absolutely full of love. It was obvious the amount of energy and time that Chris and Nikki had spent in this community and how much they’re cherished for their work.”

Another $20,000 was collected through the United Center for Caring website, Kenney said. Other fundraisers also are planned.

On top of that, the situation has prompted city officials to take note.

Following the fire and days later, the deadly violence at a Virginia white nationalist rally, Jackson’s City Council and Human Relations Commission have passed resolutions condemning acts of bigotry and violence.

“The hateful rhetoric … and the things that have been happening at a national level prompted the council to take this up and take a stand to say: ‘We’re going to build a more tolerant, inclusive community that views diversity as a strength,’ ” Vice Mayor Derek Dobies said.

For now, the Jackson activists vow to move ahead while helping Joly and Moore bounce back.