Monday, April 5, 2010

Counter-Protesting the Westboro Baptist Church at Temple University

Throughout the years, Saturday Night Live has done a hilarious job of satirizing politicians and major celebrities who get publicly upset or experience brief public mishaps. Usually the SNL sketch involves the character excessively flipping out at a press conference or in some other extremely over-the-top way in order to lampoon that celebrity's brief real-life situation.

And then there's Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, KS, who in many ways, resembles an out-of-control SNL character, but sadly, is as true to life as it gets. Phelps and his "church" base their sole platform on the hatred of homosexuals. Not the disagreement of the homosexual lifestyle, per se, but the absolute abhorrence of the individuals themselves, as well as anyone who doesn't share in their disdain; people they've lovingly termed "fag enablers." Members of the WBC spend their time traveling the country picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers and disrupting various events in order to inform the masses that "God hates fags," "God hates the U.S.," "Thank God for 9/11," and plenty of other messages that are designed to pretty much let you know that you suck and they don't. They also like to publically celebrate news reports of mass human casualties. Simply put, the WBC are to genuine Christianity what the New York Mets are to winning a World Series; they vehemently tell you they're legit, but everyone knows they're nothing but a sick illusion.

Several weeks ago, the WBC announced on their website that they were planning to come to Temple University's campus in "Philthydelphia" on April 1st at 6:45pm to protest Temple's theater productions of Rent and The Laramie Project. My wife Tara, who is the director of a campus ministry group on Temple's campus called Crosswalk, met with several student leaders in an effort to come up with an appropriate, peaceful, and Christ-like counter-response to the WBC's impending arrival. On the evening of April 1st, Tara and I, along with several Crosswalk students, stood on Temple's campus alongside more than a thousand people in order to protest the WBC's messages of hatred. And that we did.

Except that the WBC never showed up.

We arrived well before 6:45pm and waited until close to 8:00pm, at which time the police began taking down the barricades that were designated specifically for WBC members. As we waited, I had the opportunity to have some good interactions with other Temple students and community members. Most of the protest signs people had made were pretty creative and humorous. As expected, however, there were naturally a few idiots here and there whose signs were completely inappropriate or did nothing but promote more hostility. By and large though, these were the exceptions, not the norm. Overall, the mood of the crowd was pretty jovial, but after some significant time had passed, we all started getting a little impatient. At one point, as the tension in the air hung thick, the crowd would let out a collective excited yell as each car would slowly pass by, in hopes that our most welcome guests had arrived. I was a little worried that if the WBC did show up, they'd be unintentionally treated to a rock star welcome.

While in the end, the WBC didn't show up -- it was April Fool's Day after all -- I believe that the mere mention of their possible arrival has done and will continue to do a lot of good for the relationship between Christians and members of the LGBT community on Temple's campus; a relationship that Christians, by and large, have failed miserably at over the years.

For a video recap, click here. [Warning: mature content]

Pictures of the event: