Friday, October 30, 2009

Light a candle

I spent a wet and cold morning this Wednesday outside the high school, doing what every person should do at least once in her life. I was taking a stand for basic decency.

This Wednesday, members of Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based hate group, came to Nova Bastille in a bid to get attention. This is the group that protests at the funerals of American soldiers, and that carries signs that say "God Hates America" and "God Hates Fags" and (more recently) "Jews Killed Jesus." So nice of them to drop by the neighborhood.

I hate to give people like this the attention they're after, but on the other hand, I hate to let their hatred pass without comment. So when I heard that they were coming, I asked the girls if they would like to attend a counterdemonstration. Evangeline decided she wanted to attend; Rachel decided she didn't.

So Wednesday morning as rain fell, I talked with Evangeline about why we were going there. It's not, I said, about the Westboro people, but about the people they hate. It's necessary to show the community that we stand with those who are being hated and reviled, and not with the people doing the hatred. So, I said, there is no need for us to talk to them, no need to heckle them, nor even any need to show that we're aware that they're there, beyond our own presence and the signs we were holding.

She did so well, I was so proud of her. While some of the other counterprotesters heckled the Westboro people and hurtled insults at them, Evangeline quietly stood her ground, standing up for her Jewish friends, and showed a higher way than the Westboro people know. Born just before the new millennium, she sang "We Shall Overcome," verse after verse, with a passion that would have been perfectly in place in Selma, Ala., forty years ago.

The thing about Fred Phelps and his crew is that they're given over to ugly, and they bring out the ugly in the people they encounter. A christocentric faith -- the kind I fail every day to attain -- demands not giving in to that impulse, but learning instead to see the same Imago Dei in others that we see in ourselves, and seeing the same stain in ourselves that we see in others.

I've read the first five chapters of "Addicted to Hate," and I can honestly say I feel nothing but deep pity for Phelps and the children and grandchildren he has poisoned with his hatred. All I can do is pray that someone will have and will seize the opportunity to show them the higher road that they've never even imagined, as Rabbi Weisser once did for Larry Trapp.

When I woke up Wednesday morning and got dressed, I had thought I was going out to demonstrate on behalf of people whom Westboro has marked for hatred: friends like Jennifer McCandless, who has been my best friend for the past 20 years and who became a woman about two years ago; friends like Indigo, who has survived the harrowing experience of being outed to her family, as a teenager; and other friends and co-workers like Myron, Heather Boerner, Bill Hawley, Joe Dee, and Eric Schwarz, and the others I've worked with who never told me that they were gay.

I thought I was doing this for them, and to be sure, I was. But I realize now I was doing it for somebody else also: my daughters. They were born into a world with a lot of ugliness and a lot of hatred, and there will be times that ugliness and that hatred will seem overwhelming, whether it's directed at them or at somebody else. Much as I want to, I can't spare them that.

But I can give them something. I can give them the example and the courage to stand up against something that is wrong; the conviction to speak up for others; and most importantly, a faith that they can light against the darkness until they have driven it away.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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