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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Reconnaissance

The Battle of Walkerton

Kevin O'Connor & the Defiant Survival of Memories Pizza

by Terrell Clemmons

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 34

When Kevin O'Connor opened Memories Pizza in 2006 in his hometown of Walkerton, Indiana, it was a classically American entrepreneurial move. He borrowed $25,000 to buy equipment and furnishings, spruced the place up with fresh paint, installed new flooring, hung photos of country music singers and other celebrities, and brought in an upright piano to be played by anyone, employee or customer, so musically inclined. An army veteran and employee of the nearby town of Mishawaka, he did the startup labor himself in his spare time. He named the restaurant, which seats about 34, "Memories" as a nostalgic nod to an earlier, simpler era. Completing the retro feel, the streetscape out front could easily have doubled as a set for Mayberry RFD.

A lifelong Christian, Kevin was never bashful about his faith. A laminated sign on the counter read, "Every day before we open the store, we gather and pray together." If there was something you wanted him and his staff to pray for, you could drop a note in a little box, and they would add your request to their list. Memories Pizza managed to hold its own through economic ups and downs—mostly downs—for nearly a decade. Kevin had always hoped it would provide employment and income for his nine children, eight of whom are adopted, as they grew up, and to a certain extent it did. All of them have worked there at one time or another.

Sting Journalism

And so it was that his 22-year-old daughter Crystal was minding the place, bedecked as it was in Easter decorations, on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 31, 2015, when the phone rang. "Dad," she called after taking the call, "a reporter wants to come here and do a story on the new law and how it would affect us."

Now just a few days prior, the governor of Indiana had signed the state's version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the purpose of which was to limit the state's ability to impinge on Hoosiers' exercise of religion. And in the wake of it, LGBT activists and celebrities (from whom we can expect irrational hissy fits), as well as journalists and political figures (who should know better but apparently don't), had exploded in a veritable hate-fest on the entire state, with an especially virile malice toward traditionally minded Christians.

What should she do?

Immediately, a Bible phrase flashed through Kevin's mind. "Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven," Jesus had said. It hit him so hard he got goose bumps. Okay, Lord, he thought, I'm willing. . . . I'm not going to deny you. He told Crystal to go ahead and do the interview. He didn't tell her what to say or not say.

A short time later, Alyssa Marino, a pretty, young reporter from ABC57 News in nearby South Bend materialized. She talked to Crystal, and then to Kevin, who arrived a little later. They both answered her questions honestly. "She was nice," Kevin reflected several weeks later. "She seemed to sympathize, understand, was very friendly and nice and sweet. And she told me that she was the one that edits the story."

He knew there would probably be a cost for their responses, but never in his wildest imagination could he have predicted what was about to go down.

Death to Dissenters

Business went on as usual that evening. After closing, Crystal, who had just moved out of the family home, texted Kevin from her apartment, scared. The headline of the story read, "RFRA: Michiana business wouldn't cater a gay wedding," accompanied by script blaring in all caps, "RESTAURANT DENIES SOME SERVICE TO SAME-SEX COUPLES."

"It got ugly fast; threats, phone calls—they just blew up our Facebook page." Kevin struggles even now to come up with words to convey it all. "I don't know how one human being can think that way about another human being. It was just vile. I'd rather be beheaded by ISIS than what some of these people said they wanted to do to her."

He picked Crystal up early the next morning, and for safety they stayed away from the store that day while the threats piled on and ABC57 camped outside. Then support start coming in—first in the form of conservative media figures, then from sympathetic people across the country. "It all started to change, late afternoon Wednesday, and the support started coming from Christians, and people who were just aggravated and upset by the way we were being treated. And we saw that, You know what? There are people out there that like us, so we're going to sit this out. And we just closed the store down and kept it closed for a little over a week."

Rebound

On Thursday, April 9, they opened back up. Fox News was there, and Sean Hannity covered it on his show. "This place was packed," Kevin says with a grateful smile. "They were standing outside, and people were waiting for hours to get pizza." Walkerton police made a special effort to be highly visible, but nary a hint of discord could be heard except for constant phone calls, most of which came from California and New York. Kevin would listen for a moment, then say something like, "I'm sorry you feel that way," and get back to work.

The media soon moved on, but the grassroots support continued. People drove from as far away as Indianapolis and Chicago just to eat pizza at Memories. Area churches and Christian schools bused kids in for the same reason. Kevin still chokes up when he recalls a pack of high-schoolers breaking into "How Great Thou Art" after finishing off their pizza. His biggest worry during those hectic weeks was that people had to wait hours for food. But none of them seemed to mind. This was about more than pizza.

Post-Mortem Reflections

People of conscience would do well to reflect on the attempted takedown of Memories Pizza. Crystal clearly told the reporter that Memories would never deny service to a gay couple who came in to eat. But in response to a pointed question, she did say, "If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no." As if people routinely call upon pizza joints to provide their wedding reception dinner. It was clearly a setup—a sting interview cavalierly crafted to get multiple page views; good-faith reporting be damned. At that, it was wildly successful, but it also roused an alarmingly malicious mob demanding obeisance or blood. They got neither, at least not from Kevin or Crystal.

And there's something else to reflect on here. In Maoist China, when an individual fell out of favor with the powers that be, he or she would be summoned to a "self-criticism" session—something akin to an ideological tarring and feathering. The entire community would loudly denounce the person, usually for no other reason than to avoid becoming the next self-criticism subject. As I watched the mob tactics play out in Indiana, I couldn't help but think of this practice of conspicuous denunciation—the difference being, in America, that subjects don't have to attend their own denunciation.

The denouncers would do well to consult history, though. The subjects of Communist criticism sessions are in many cases the ones we admire today. History has vindicated them because they were right. And we admire them because they had the courage of their convictions. 


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