(This was originally published in the Diocese of Bethlehem newspaper, and it has been picked up since in a number of other places. I wrote it back in December of 2002 just after the actual event. I didn’t have this blog at the time, and realized that I hadn’t put this online for others to read yet.)
Now I know what it’s like to be picketed by Westboro Baptist Church.
It’s not nearly as bad as I feared it was going to be.
The buildup to the moment was much worse than the actual experience.
The protestors arrived right on schedule at 7:30 AM on Sunday morning in two rental vans. The snow we had here late last week made it hard for them to find a place to park, so we watched them driving up and down the street before they finally stopped and unloaded in front of the neighbor’s house.
Our parishioners took their places at the tables with the juice and cookies we had put out for our visitors. The protestors fanned out in front of our church building. They started to curse and abuse us because of our stance as a welcoming congregation. (They did the same to our neighbors too – I think they got confused between which building was the church and which ones were private homes. I would have thought the steeple would have been a hint.)
We didn’t respond verbally.
We did offer them cookies – Swedish Ginger snaps. They were delicious. We have a ministry of Hospitality to all people. Recalling the teaching of St. Paul, we weren’t about to make an exception for people who hated and cursed us.
The protestors responded politely to our offer and said “No thank you, I’ve already had breakfast.” Our people responded “Welcome to Bethlehem.” The protestors smiled. It was a lovely moment and unexpected.
We stood outside on the steps of the building a few feet away watching and listening to the protestors.
They spent a great deal of time pointing out the failings of our clergy. They chided one because her hair was too short. When they said that she was not worthy to speak aloud in Church because she was a woman, she said that she was always terrified to speak the Word of God in the midst of the People of God. They sort of got flustered with that response.
I slipped away for a moment and changed into my vestments before our early service. I came back outside and stood on the step making sure that our parishioners weren’t being blocked from entering the church. Two of the women started to make fun of my “pretty dress.” They said that men shouldn’t dress like that – it wasn’t biblical. One of our people wondered under her breath what exactly Jesus had worn…”sweat pants?”
My first thought was “That’s the best you’ve got? I’m a girl?”
I wondered what would have happened if I showed them the pictures I had from when I danced ballet. All this worrying and planning we had done and the worst they could do was make fun of my clothes? I’d been apprehensive of group of people who were less frightening than the bullies from my childhood schoolyard. Trust me; those guys knew how to hurt my feelings much worse than these people did.
The worst of it was when they made fun of Fr. Mac, one of our assisting clergy. The protestors called him a doddering old fool who had wasted his life telling lies to people for money. Knowing Mac and his commitment to Justice and the Gospel and knowing him as one of the finest pastors I’ve ever known – having to hear their taunting was the hardest part of the morning. Well that, and hearing them go on about what a terrible and unchristian place this was. I wanted to shout out them about the Outreach this parish has done over the years, about the risks it has taken for the Gospel, about the new work planned to care for the widowed and orphans, but I recalled the bible verse about pearls and pigs and decided it wasn’t worth the effort.
The protestors would not look us directly in the eyes while they taunted us. We stood silently and took their abuse. We only responded by offering them something to eat and drink. They were flustered in response. It looked like they were just going through the motions. Their spokesperson made sure that there was a bush between us while he critiqued my life. He made sure not to have to look me in the eye.
I’ve been called a “Jewboy” by the KKK, a “Niggerlover” by children, a “Fag”, a “Geek” and a “Nerd” by my classmates. I wear those titles as badges. This wasn’t nearly as bad as those moments.
Afterwards I had a sense that a great wave of anger had crashed upon our building that morning. But because we tried to follow the Bible’s teaching of how to respond to people who curse you, the wave of anger broke upon a wall of Love – and quickly ebbed away. By the time the Children’s Choir began to sing at the opening of the second service, the taint and smell of the visit was gone from our church.
I guess it’s true – with God on our side, and love in our hearts – what do we have to fear? Certainly not the curses of people who abuse us because we try to be loving to all people.