Phelpsies at Hillel – A Long Way from Kansas

December 3, 2010

This morning a delegation from Westboro Baptist Church visited Harvard Hillel. I had never seen a live Phelpsie, and moreover I heard that some students and other supporters were planning a vigorous, funny and creative counter-demonstration, so I had to go and watch.

There was an editorial in The Crimson arguing that the best way to deal with crazies like the Phelpsies is to ignore them. They just want the attention, it said; giving it to them only encourages them. OK, I thought, so what? They’re such a fun target! God Hates Figs! (Matthew 21:18-20). After all, who suffers the the most from all the hoopla? Precisely the more “mainstream,” less blatantly crazy religious conservatives – they are the ones profoundly embarrassed by all the attention, they know Fred Phelps gives them all a bad name, they want nothing to do with him. So for those of us to whom “mainstream” religious conservatism is bad enough, who find homophobia abominable even when phrased as “loving the sinner,” what better way to make our own point than to point to Westboro as the reductio ad absurdum of all that?

The counter-demonstraters were supposed to start gathering around 9:30; I got there a few minutes after that, and the only major presence at that point was the police. Lots of barriers to keep the two sides apart. The police seemed to be in good humor though, not expecting a hard time. A young woman with a note pad came around, reporting for The Crimson. I asked her if she knew when the show was supposed to start; she said the Westboro website said 10:00, but they have a reputation for being late or not showing up at all. For a moment I was tempted to give it up and go do other stuff, but I stayed to chat with a small group of Quakers who had come to bear witness to God’s Love, and gradually students with signs started to appear, as well as leaders of local faith communities. Before long the street in front of Hillel was filled with a good-natured crowd, funny signs, happy chatter. I found my friend Don Larsen, pastor of University Lutheran, having a deep discussion with a young Muslim comparing their respective worship services; I met the President of Hillel and suddenly realized she was the daughter of an old prof of mine, Jack Hawley. Signs ranged from “God is Love” and a passage from Saint-Exupery in French to “Is this the line for Bieber tickets?” and “This is not a sign”…

Oh, at some point I noticed that the Phelpsies themselves had arrived – about 4 that I could see, holding about 4 signs each (“Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Your Rabbi is a Whore,” “Destruction is Imminent”), cordoned off on the little traffic island facing the nose of the Lampoon building. Protected from human contact as if they were an endangered species. They stood there stoically, outnumbered about 100 to 1; “sang” what I guess was supposed to be a hymn of theirs; and left after half an hour, as scheduled. They were hardly relevant except as an excuse for everyone else to come together, network, have a good time, and show what life could be like if you don’t have all that hate inside yourself.

You’ve got to hand it to them. It must hurt a lot to maintain such a dyspeptic view of everything all your life, but somehow they do it. I know I couldn’t.

Oh, as I’ve finally got a phone with a camera, I was able to take some pictures; once I figure out how to upload and embed them I’ll post them here.

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