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Monday, November 24, 2008

Protesting the Westboro Baptist Church

Posted by Amy J. Ruiz on Mon, Nov 24, 2008 at 9:09 AM

Four members of the Topeka, Kansas based anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church protested for an hour this morning, at the corner of SW 13th and Market, where bewildered commuters exiting highway 26 had to pass this:

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And this, a counter protest on the opposite side of the street:

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And this, a rally in support of PSU's Queer Resource Center (the apparent target of the WBC protest, along with PSU's gender neutral bathrooms), a block down the street:

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More photos and details--including one guy's earnest attempt to convince the two teenage WBC to broaden their worldview a tad, and consider whether they've been brainwashed--after the cut.

At 7:00 am, dozens of people gathered in PSU's Queer Resource Center to collect rally signs and hear from the center's development coordinator, Amy Romberg. "We're trying to support and contain ourselves," she told the crowd, stressing that the QRC's goal was "absolutely no engagement" with the WBC crew.

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Romberg, later at the rally site.

"That is what [the WBC's head, Fred Phelps] wants more than anything in the world," Romberg said, noting that Phelps is "awful and pretty scary." He also has a tendency to sue groups that get in the way of his protests, several counter-protesters noted.

A few blocks away and a half hour later, the four Westboro folks took up their post. The most striking thing about their protest, besides the small number, was the age of two of the protesters. One--a granddaughter of Phelps--told people she was 16, while the other didn't give her age.

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That gal, who says she grew up in Tampa before moving to Topeka, gave a short interview to a guy with a video camera. Saying they were there to "preach the word of God," she said it's "the duty of every man to warn his neighbor," to say "stop it, right now." She added the word "filthy" to every other sentence, to "warn you all that you're going to hell."

The WBC folks didn't chant or make much noise, they just waved their signs at passing cars. The older guy in the first photo held a sheaf of posters, which he rotated. Both he and another woman--also a granddaughter of Phelps, she told people--apparently attempted to underscore their point by standing on American and rainbow flags. (Very edgy of them...)

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"It's an obsession to preach this message," the guy told one counter-protester.

The entire hour was calm and peaceful, though not everyone heeded Romberg's call to not engage. Groups not affiliated with the QRC--including a duo who were raising money for Outside In for every minute the WBC people held up their signs--crowded the opposite corner, and eventually a few dozen people gathered on the same corner as the WBC quartet. Unfortunately, this made it appear as if the WBC protest was larger than it truly was.

Fortunately, Duke Revard, who holds a masters in theology, did a remarkable job of engaging the two youngest protesters, asking them to explain their signs and protest and have a scholarly conversation. "We didn't come here to save anyone," the gal from Tampa said. They're simply here to share the word of God, as they see it, she explained.

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"If Christ were here, he'd be washing feet," Revard told me, after the girls briefly tried to ignore him. "The biblical perspective on sin is that all have fallen short of the word of God. We're all in the same boat." Which means that the WBC's preaching "is very inconsistent with the scripture. That's not the word, from an exegetical standpoint... Christ's way is through kindness."

Revard said he came down to the protest on his own, because as a Christian, his "biggest frustration... is that Christians are lumped in with this sort of thing."

Talking to the girls, Revard asked if either of them had "read anything outside" of Phelps' teachings. "You might be brainwashed," he told them, in a completely serious and kind way.

Phelps' younger granddaughter shot back that "the Lord our God has given my grandfather light on this." Phelps is right, she claimed, because she knows he is.

"How do you verify that you have the light and others don't?" Revard asked them. "There are 70 people that believe this, out of 6 billion people in the world." Based on those odds, he urged the girls to broaden their worldview, and read up on other points of view. "God is not intimidated by curiosity," he told them, and if the WBC isn't a cult, then Phelps shouldn't be intimidated, either. "If this is what you've given your life to, you owe it to yourself. What if your grandfather is wrong?"

It's possible his words sunk in, but Phelps' granddaughter didn't relent. Why bother learning anything else, when she knows she's right, and reading anything else would just reinforce her convictions? They have THE LIGHT, she kept repeating. One counter-protester asked if the girls' parents had made them come to Portland to protest. No, one answered. Their parents offered the opportunity, and she answered them by saying "of course, because I'd love to go out there. It's a preaching opportunity."

At 8:30, the quartet packed up their signs into a black canvas carrying case--the flags were stuffed in alongside the placards--and trotted off. Their next stop, according to the WBC's website, is the local Sweden consulate, because "God Hates Sweden, and everyone needs to know that." Then off to the German consulate, because "God REALLY hates Germany. Have we told you lately that God Hates Germany? Well, here you go. They did much evil in their history, and now to try to kiss fag ass and distract from that fact they have become more and more evil."

Phelps' granddaughter was nice enough to wave as they left:

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A block away at the QRC protest, the crowd was chanting that "bigots have to go."

"This is not even a counter protest," Romberg said. "It's a rally" to support the two-year-old QRC and those it serves. In keeping with the positive vibe, the group even had coffee and cupcakes.

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