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South Jersey clergyman says his anti-hate messages got him hate

Ryan Paetzold says he was targeted after expressing solidarity with an Ambler church's denunciation of the demonstration in Charlottesville.

Rev. Ryan Paetzold (center) of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Audubon, N.J., gets a hug of support from Rabbi Larry Sernovitz of Nafshenu synagogue in Cherry Hill on Wednesday morning.
Rev. Ryan Paetzold (center) of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Audubon, N.J., gets a hug of support from Rabbi Larry Sernovitz of Nafshenu synagogue in Cherry Hill on Wednesday morning.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia man charged with harassing a South Jersey clergyman online has pleaded not guilty.

A preliminary hearing Wednesday in Evesham Township Municipal Court was postponed to Oct. 12 at the request of Steven A. Traub, the Cherry Hill lawyer who entered the plea on behalf of Joseph Baird, 41, of the 2000 block of East Elkhart Street in Kensington.

Traub declined to comment on the case, which centers on Facebook exchanges about white supremacy made in August between his client and the Rev. Ryan Paetzold, 36, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Audubon, Camden County.

Baird did not respond to a voice mail I left Wednesday at his home number.

Word of the postponement did not dampen spirits among a diverse group of about 30 Paetzold supporters and clergy of many faiths, who sang, prayed, observed a moment of silence, and embraced during a news conference at Evesham's municipal complex on Tomlinson Road.

"This is not a Lutheran thing or a Christian thing. All the faith leaders here believe we are called to stand with the vulnerable, to stand with the oppressed … in the face of hate and racism," Paetzold said outside the courthouse.

"We are thankful for everyone who joined us today to stand with Rev. Ryan and his pregnant wife, who [were] threatened for speaking out about racism," said Archange Antoine, executive director of the progressive statewide organization Faith in New Jersey.

"I was there when Ryan was ordained, and it is just such a witness to his faith that he is following through with the vows that he made," said the Rev. Christine Regan, pastor of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church in Woodbury.

"Brother Ryan, be bold," said the Rev. Nelson Rabell of Apostles Lutheran Church in Turnersville. "We have your back."

What Paetzold described as an unsuccessful online attempt at "intimidation" began after venomous criticism of a "Resist white supremacy" sign board outside St. John's Lutheran Church in Ambler appeared on that congregation's Facebook page in August. The Ambler church was reacting to the Aug. 12 Charlottesville, Va., rally by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Paetzold, who is friendly with the Ambler pastor, the Rev. Rachel Anderson, was among clergy and others in the community who posted messages of support on the St. John's page. Paetzold's  posts attracted the attention of Baird, whose Facebook nickname is "ChetD Joe."

At first, Paetzold engaged with Baird, who contended that criticizing white supremacy was disrespectful to white people generally, and questioned why Black Lives Matter was not being chastised.

But the pastor, who lives in Evesham, decided to stop the dialogue and contact police after becoming concerned by what struck him — and certainly strikes me — as a rather menacing tone in follow-up posts, photographs, and comments directed at him by "ChetD Joe" and at least one of the accused man's Facebook friends.

One screenshot Paetzold made and shared with me of "ChetD Joe" shows him displaying what looks like a machete.

Another shows a repurposed Facebook photo that Paetzold and his wife, Katie, an elementary art teacher in Moorestown, had posted earlier to announce her pregnancy. An added block of text says in part about Paetzold: "Attention: BROTHERS THIS IS HIM … He hates whites … and he hates straight men."

"ChetD Joe" also used various antigay slurs to describe the married father-to-be, who is an outspoken LGBT rights supporter and whom I met during his 2016 prayer service at Holy Trinity in memory of victims of the shootings at the gay nightclub in Orlando.

A third screen shot shows a Facebook friend of "ChetD Joe" commenting that he has "petrol and matches," which led "ChetD Joe" to observe that Ambler is not far "from Valley Forge KKK territory."

Whatever that means.

Crud like this splatters the internet and even spews from the mouths of some politicians these days.

Having the courage to call out white supremacists and neo-Nazis parading around with torches is derided as nothing more than political correctitude mashed up with fake news.

But while I won't waste time interpreting, much less excusing, Baird's foul Facebook images and belligerent proclamations, I do know that what I saw in the crowd of clergy and ordinary people in Evesham on Wednesday was the real thing.

"We live in a world that's changed, that's filled with hatred," said Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, founder of Nafshenu, a new Jewish congregation in Cherry Hill.

"Not too long ago, Nazi flags were [flying] in Charlottesville, in a huge march," he added. "That should not happen in the year 2017, in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. It's time to be brave."

Amen to that.