In 2005, I was living in Lexington, Massachusetts, a rather affluent progressive suburb of Boston with an award-winning public school system, high level of parent involvement, and a diverse school population. In May that year, the town caught the attention of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, founded by Fred Phelps who was known to be physically, emotionally and spiritually abusive. The Westboro group’s forty or so members continue to espouse hatred and intolerance toward gays and others and picket about six locations per day.
The Westboro group was targeting Lexington after a town resident had filed a law suit against the schools because a book called “Who’s in a Family?” was being used in his son’s kindergarten class. The book includes depictions of families headed by same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples.
The Westboro group had selected five churches where they intended to picket. They hoped to provoke reactions from onlookers and bystanders in the hopes that their rights to free speech will be infringed upon. If that happens, the lawyers in the family file and often win legal suits against the individuals or, most often, the town or city. This is how they supplement their own donations to fund their travels and hate-filled appearances across all fifty states.
Lexington rallied in anticipation. The interfaith clergy, community organizers and the town’s police department worked together to educate and train concerned citizens.
Many were from churches and temples that worked intentionally to welcome, accept, and appreciate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer folks. I was among them.
We were trained in how to respond – or more specifically, how to not become reactive.
We role-played staying calm while having hate rhetoric spewed in our faces nonstop for five, six, seven minutes. That was challenging. Even more disturbing, though, was having to play the offenders, embodying and voicing their hateful views. We worked together to find common language to use in our counter-protest to help us stay centered and to support and encourage one another. That was an invaluable piece of the work.
The day arrived, the signals were sent, and we mobilized at the entrance drive of the Catholic Church. We were about 50 or 60, I believe, linked arm in arm, creating a semi- circle in front of the church to shield those who were coming to or leaving the church services from the verbal and visual assaults of the dozen or so protestors on the sidewalks.
Their rhetoric was even more vile than we what we had expected. We had been prepared to see and hear their young children and teens spewing hate, as well, but I was unprepared for my own visceral reactions to the abusiveness inflicted upon and perpetrated by the children. After some minutes of the hate display, we all turned our backs on the protestors, shutting off eye contact and the “in-your-face” heckling taunts.
The volume of the rhetoric went up. Would we remain calm? We would. Our resolve to meet hate with love, and defend all our sisters, brothers, and kin remained strong.
At last, the Westboro group departed for their next picket site -- and our group departed in smaller groups to reconstitute our human shields at each of the remaining smaller churches. There was plenty of news coverage and, fortunately, no incidents.
The Westboro group returned the next day to protest at the elementary school whose walls harbored copies of the book, “Who’s In a Family?”, and at a middle school in the neighboring town where a rainbow flag labeled “gay pride” had been hung in the hallway. And they were met at those locations by other counter-protestors meeting hate with love.
The arrival of a hate group in our town mobilized Lexington to declare itself a “No Place for Hate” community. Loudly and clearly, NO PLACE FOR HATE was the message throughout the town, in the schools, in civic discourse and the local paper, in the businesses and restaurants and our houses of worship.
That was 12 years ago. Sadly, today we face an alarming rise in intolerance, exclusionary language and policies that far outstrips the reach of the Westboro group. The number of hate crimes has escalated so much in the current political climate that “No Place for Hate” initiatives are again underway across the country. Meanwhile, we now have fresh stories nearly every day of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting undocumented immigrants in communities around the nation.
Has there ever been a more important time to roll out our “Standing of the Side of Love” tee shirts and banners? Yet again, the time is now to link arms with others of all, or no, faith and join together to create and recreate, as often as necessary, human shields to protect the most vulnerable among us. May we strive to Answer the Call of Love and show our neighbors, communities and government that we believe Love trumps Hate.