Earlier this week I received emails from a couple of parents of high school students in my church. They alerted me to the fact that members of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church were scheduled to picket and protest at Shawnee Mission East high school. Students had organized a counter-demonstration. The parents had contacted me to ask if I would go as support to their children and also to be a responsible adult in case things got out of control.
For those of you who don't know about Phelps, he is a vicious hate-monger based out of Topeka, Kansas. His church, which seems to be mostly members of his family, travels the country demonstrating at events. Members of his church hold up vile signs that announce that "God Hates Gays." (He actually uses a deeply offensive slur instead of the word "gays" but I don't want to print that disgusting word on my blog.) His protests are aimed primarily at gays although he drew widespread media attention for protesting at the funerals of American servicemen and women. Heck, Phelps even protested at a speech delivered by Jerry Falwell when Falwell came to speak in KC about four years ago.
Phelps had targeted SM East high school because the students had elected an openly gay homecoming king a few years ago.
The Phelps contingent consisted of 12 people. Six seemed to be adults and six seemed to be minors. Of the minors, two of them seemed to not yet be of reading age. It was heartbreaking to see a little boy who seemed to be about 5 years old carrying a sign that read, "Pray for more dead soldiers."
On the opposite side of the street, the counter demonstration was out in force. There were hundreds and hundreds of Shawnee Mission East students, alumni, students from other high schools, parents, and clergy. The newspapers this morning said only 450 attended the counter demonstration. It seemed to me like it had to be at least twice that number, maybe more.
The counter-demonstrators were a spirited and creative bunch. Bright colors. Spirit. Energy. Creativity. Of course, some of the signs that the students had created were a bit juvenile, but most of the signs proclaimed the importance of the values of love, acceptance, and community.
A few observations:
+ One girl picked up a sign that said, "God loves everybody" and then became distressed and tried to pass the sign off to other students while pondering, "Why am I carrying this sign? I'm an atheist."
+ Four students arrived dressed as the Village People and carried a boom-box playing "YMCA." These young men who probably couldn't grow facial hair if their lives depended on it had used brown magic markers to draw 70s-style moustaches on their upper lips and had choreographed an amusing dance.
+ Students were passing around buckets asking people to donate to AIDS research. Their goal was to raise $200 for AIDS research for every minute the Phelps clan protested. They probably raised thousands of dollars for AIDS research.
+ I heard one student remark. "You know, being on the side of love is a lot more fun than being on the side of hate."
+ As the Phelps' packed up their signs to leave, the crowd erupted in singing, "Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye." This was followed by a spirited rendition of the school song.
It was clear to me that this counter-protest was about school community. The students were expressing their school spirit by insisting that their school be a hate-free zone.
Upon reflection, I left the afternoon hopeful. It was not just that the love-side had outnumbered the hate-side by a ratio of 50:1 (or 100:1). My hope was grounded in the awareness that in two or three or four years all of these students would be old enough to vote. This is how the battle for marriage equality and equal rights in our country will be won. I was deeply impressed by the moral clarity and commitment to inclusion that these young women and men demonstrated.
Here is a sign I saw: