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Standing Up to Hate

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Last week, Fred Phelps Westboro “Baptist” Church clan (it’s mostly his children, grandchildren and extended family, but also closer to a Klan) brought its vile, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT rhetoric to Blacksburg. If you have never seen the kind of hate of which I speak, you may be stunned to see this video from three years ago.  I have debated whether to link this video.  But perhaps by my doing so, you can see what I am talking about, what is going on around this country as this man and his so-called church disrupt funerals of soldiers.  They rail at and demonize anyone suffering a tragedy because, they say, it’s the victims’ fault and God’s punishment. Before the Phelps clan arrived on Friday (Fred Phelps did not come, but sent his daughter’s family instead), they targeted the fallen coal miners in West Virginia.  This is who they are.  

All over town, citizens, including ministers representing all the town’s churches, united in opposing the hateful message of the unwelcome visitors, but differed in how to respond, or if to respond at all.  

Some sought to publicly distance themselves from Phelps ahead of time. Some wanted us to stay away from the unwelcome visitors, so as to not “bring more attention” to them.  Others thought a counter-protest at another location to be better. A counter-protest was announced as an “unofficial” event located at Virginia Tech.  Meanwhile, the disagreements about strategy (and location) continued down the the wire.  The University was rightly concerned about the potential for violence and so tried to steer the event planners to the plaza between Squires and the Graduate Life Center.  The police urged anyone who wasn’t confident they could stay peaceful to stay home.  

But 500 from the community (who were confident they could remain positive and peaceful) said, “no silence –no distance– this time.”  Is not silence what leads to further erosion of community?  Is it not silence which has led historically to even more dire events?  Why should we fear standing proud with a different message? And, so, we stood up.

We stood in opposition to the not-guests in our town.  Those gathering for a scheduled rally on the VT campus, chose to leave in groups peacefully walking the sidewalks with signs calling upon the community to renounce hate, and to affirm that the essence of any supposed spiritual calling is to love, not to scapegoat minorities, those of Jewish faith, or those who are LGBT.   They walked down College Avenue to Main St., right to the intersection where the Phelps clan spewed its  false righteousness.  The counter-protesters took up three of the four corners at N. Main Street and Roanoke St, leaving the Phelps group to the cacophony of the larger group.  The crowd defiantly played “Enter Sandman,” which traditionally begins sporting events at Va Tech.  (Aside: As the VT players emerge on the football field or basketball floor, “Enter Sandman” booms, the crowd jumps up and down, athletes emerge through a cloud of “smoke,” and the game begins….)

Some of us walked with blue balloons with the message, “Stand on the Side of Love.” Some from the Unitarian Church and Religious Society of Friends gathered together on College Avenue to raise money for those targeted by Phelps’ message of hate, such as Equality Virginia and PFLAG .  

In addition, I should mention that the Unitarian Congregation offered to bring forth enough members to encircle the Jewish Community center with people standing hand-in-hand.  That was not to be because the local Rabbi thought it best to call for police protection instead.  I do understand the reasoning and we honored that decision.  But we would have proudly encircled the community center of our Jewish neighbors.

Let it be said that the unwelcome visitors call themselves a church, but hide behind the pretense of religion.  This clan calls itself Baptist, but it is not.  It belongs to no Baptist convention and is renounced by real Baptists churches.  Here in Blacksburg, the local Baptist pastor took to the airwaves to distance himself and his church from hate.  A woman from his congregation thanked us for standing up against the clan.

Everywhere they went, the Phelps clan spewed their poisonous rhetoric.  At the Jewish Community Center, they railed against people of Jewish faith for “killing Jesus,” “not repenting” and not converting to Christianity.  At their second stop, downtown they hurled hateful slogans about Virginia Tech and, even Morgan Harrington, the Tech student who was murdered in Charlottesville after she couldn’t get back into a Metallica concert at John Paul Jones Arena. Her father joined us in counter-protest.  

This clan, whose leader disrupts military funerals of those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan and threatened to disrupt the funerals of the April 16 Virginia Tech victims, has seeded so much ignorance and hate you cannot imagine what some people here in town have endured through hate mail. That’s not the entire story of that time, though.  Following April 16,2007, people from all over our country and the world reached out in comfort.  But not Fred Phelps and some other riled and very disturbed, hateful people.

At their third stop, the Phelps clan picketed Blacksburg Middle School, which also now houses Blacksburg High School in the afternoon and evening.  You may recall that the BHS gym roof collapsed.  According to Phelps, that’s our fault as well.  He may have hoped others joined him. But not this past Friday.  They stood alone on one street corner.  500 others counter-protested on the other three corners at N. Main Street and Roanoke Street.

If you think coming together to protest this kind of hate isn’t important, consider this: Shortly before the Phelps visit to Blacksburg, a welcoming Presbyterian church in Houston TX (the only welcoming one in the whole presbytery in the area surrounding Houston) was burned to the ground.  The church lost everything. Our society can no longer afford timid response in the face of such attacks on members of our society.  Standing together to renounce hate and standing  up for the victims of the haters is a moral imperative.  We say, silent no more.