Friday, April 24, 2009

Westboro Baptist on a Beautiful Spring Day

It was a perfect day for a demonstration.

Warm but not too warm, with a gentle breeze and little puffy clouds scudding lazily across an azure sky. As I arrived at Walt Whitman high school to counterprotest the Westboro Baptist folks, I realized that I was going to be pretty much by myself. The folks from my church and/or from my denomination who I thought might be able to make didn't quite happen. And here I was with a little stack of signs. Ah well. I was happy to be out, and curious to see the Westboro show with my own eyes.

After shooting the breeze with some of the law enforcement folks who'd arrived to keep things in check, I settled in across the street from where the cultists were to protest. I struck up conversations with those around me, passing the time with a small cadre of folks from a nearby Unitarian congregation and a fellow from the neighborhood whose kids had attended the school.

The Westboro folks arrived exactly on time, four women and three little kids. Their hateful signs came out. Some painfully reworded hymns were sung. They looked...well...more than a little pathetic.

I began displaying my own signage, a mix of different Bible passages that reiterated the love ethic that is central to the Gospel. For a little while, there weren't many onlookers, and the single largest contingent was three dozen rather bemused cops. Then school let out, and several hundred kids poured over to the police line to have a look. Many were part of the organized counterdemonstration, but most were just curious.

I rotated my signs. I chatted with folks around me. I didn't do the Jesus-skeeving thing for a second. I wasn't pitching my church to anyone, or collecting names and numbers and gladhanding. I wasn't doing anything other than presenting what Jesus taught. I was just there to witness to that essential goodness. Nothing more.

Then one Whitman kid asked if they could have a sign. Then another. Finally, I managed to distribute pretty much all of them. There, courtesy of folks who were just volunteering on the spot, was a nice little wall of grace confronting Westboro. Only one part of that wall was me. The rest were folks who may or may not have been Christian, but who responded positively enough to the core message of the Gospel to be willing to use it to confront hatred.

I found that rather reassuring.