Westboro Baptist and me

westboro baptist church

I remember the Sunday morning. We knew they were coming. My church was picketed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

A group at the University of Michigan was premiering “The Matthew Shepard Story” on Saturday night (that’s the movie based on a true story about a gay college student killed in an act of cruel and senseless violence), and the Westboro Baptist folks were going to show up and protest the premiere with their infamous signs.

Having nothing better to do the next morning, they were coming to my church. Why? Presumably not because of anything we had done, or stands we had taken, because my church had been mostly silent on the one subject that Westboro Baptist seemed to be narrowly fixated on.  It was, we were told, because my church was the biggest, most visible one in town. For a movement or crusade or whatever they are that thrives on publicity, my church was the best option available for a protest on that particular Sunday morning.

I talked with the leadership about what to do. At first I argued in favor of kindness. I wanted to bring hot chocolate and doughnuts to the protesters, even inviting them in for worship. “Won’t work,” we were told by police. “These are skilled demonstrators who do what they’ve come to do and then leave.”

So, in the end, we didn’t do much. We had a larger crowd than usual, a sign that we wouldn’t be intimidated, although maybe some people came just to see for themselves. Nothing like a spectacle to draw a crowd.

I liked it, though, that my congregation was cordial and welcoming. They did not return hate for hate. They said, “Good morning” to the protestors and then entered the church. Some even tried, as I did, to engage them in conversation.

From my study window I could see the protesters and the signs that have come to be identified with the Westboro Baptist Church. “God hates fags” was the one I knew best. “Your pastor is a whore” was one I hadn’t seen before, and – yes – it stung a bit.

This week we learned that Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist, has died. My first thought, I’m ashamed to admit, was that I wanted to picket his funeral. But I let go of that thought as quickly as I could.

What I’m thinking now, as I type this blog, is that I hope God deals mercifully with him. Not because he deserves mercy – none of us does – but because I believe in a merciful God, a God who will one day deal mercifully with me (I hope).

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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9 Responses to Westboro Baptist and me

  1. Andrea Stewart March 21, 2014 at 2:22 am #

    I pray that Christians take this as a chance to show this lost, misguided, hate -filled family the true love of Christ Jesus.

  2. Doug March 21, 2014 at 5:35 am #

    Thanks for the response, Andrea. It’s a sad situation all around.

  3. Dennis Ulmer March 21, 2014 at 7:21 am #

    I have the honor to know a number of “Gold Star Families”. That means they had a loved one killed while serving our nation in military service. Some of them have endured the pickets from Westboro Baptist Church disrupting the funerals of their loved ones. They used this type of picketing too. Some of the Gold Star Family Members have already bitterly posted on social media their feelings on Mr. Phelps death. I understand how they feel, but I also think today they have second thoughts about what they posted.

    Doug, you always seem to know what to say at even the most difficult times. I too hope that God deals mercifully with Mr. Phelps. I also hope that all that have been hurt can heal and get past anything hateful. I know it must have been awful for a family to have to deal with pickets during their time of grief. I pray that all that were hurt by hateful signs and words can heal and move forward in a spirit of love. Because love will always be stronger than hate.

    • Doug March 21, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words, Dennis. The demonstrations at military funerals were deeply disturbing, but then that’s what was intended. I thought the demonstration at Fred Rogers’ funeral – Mr. Rogers! – was particularly outrageous, but again that was their aim, wasn’t it? I do not mourn his passing – or the disintegration of his church.

  4. Tom Brandt March 21, 2014 at 7:24 am #

    George Takei had a wonderful, most gracious response to Phelp’s passing: http://www.popehat.com/2014/03/20/takei-on-phelps/. (I’m no longer on Facebook and can’t link to Takei’s original post.)

    I remember clearly the day the WBC picketed us. I thought it was because we were doing something right.

  5. Earl Mogk March 21, 2014 at 9:02 am #

    I have to agree with both Doug and Dennis. This is no time to do anything but to pray for the Grace of God to hold us all together, at all times.

    Earl Mogk

  6. Doug March 21, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    Always good to hear from you, Earl.

  7. Mary Austin March 21, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

    I love the doughnut idea! That would have been fun. I keep wondering what happened to Fred along the way to make him act so hatefully.

    Hope you’re doing well!

    • Doug March 22, 2014 at 1:43 am #

      Hi, Mary. The doughnuts were going to be from the Washtenaw Dairy too!

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