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).