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Westboro Baptist Meets a ‘Wall of Love’

By JOHN GREGG, Correspondent, TB Reporter

A group of counter-protesters Sunday in Tampa responded by supporting a United Methodist church that had been targeted by the anti-gay, anti-Semitic group.

TAMPA — The never-ending question for communities when the Westboro Baptist Church comes to town is: Is it better to ignore the Topeka-based group’s colorful  signs and not amplify their anti-gay, anti-Semitic platform? Or is it more important to stand up to the group and protect members of the community from hate speech through direct action like counter-protesting?
For a group of protesters on Sunday at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, the answer was simple: You do the latter.
“I think that it’s important that we confront this type of speech everywhere it manifests itself,” said Aaron Walker, a professor at University of Tampa. “It’s unfortunate that Westboro has figured out how to get a lot of impact for them in these circumstances, but I think we have to be here and I think it’s really important to support these communities of people that are being picketed. I’m here as much for the church-goers, as I am against the message.”

Five members of Westboro, as planned, picketed three churches in Tampa on Sunday (March 19), with signs that read, “Mourn For Your Sins” and “God Hates Your Tears,” but they were outnumbered by about 60 counter-protesters at Hyde Park UMC who came bearing signs of their own saying: “All You Need Is Love” and “We Protect The People You Reject.” The action, which was organized by LGBT-advocacy group Out and Loud Florida, had representation from several local activist groups, including Black Lives Matters and Food Not Bombs.

Aaron Muñoz, a co-founder of Out and Loud Florida, said he knew exactly how to respond to Westboro when word came that they were coming to Tampa. His group has been dealing with Westboro-style “preachers” in Ybor City every Friday night for several months by forming a “Wall of Love.”

“When we found that Westboro Baptist Church had planned a trip to Tampa, we decided that it was the right thing to do what we do every week in blocking out hate and bring it here. Hyde Park UMC and all the United Methodist churches in the area are really supportive of the LGBTQ community. They do a lot for us, so we we’re here to show up for them,” he said after the protest.
Muñoz said that the Westboro preachers were “docile” compared to the Ybor group, which has been documented on video pushing and shoving protesters into the street. And in fact, throughout most of the morning, the Westboro contingent, which was mostly comprised of teenagers, appeared to be tired and disinterested.
But even a low-key Westboro picket can be a startling and jarring experience to those they target, and so the efforts of the protesters did not go unappreciated by the pastoral staff at Hyde Park UMC. They said they saw the outpouring of support from non-church members as validation that they are staying true to their mission statement: “Make God’s Love Real”, which they try to adhere to within the walls of the church and out in the greater community.
“Hyde Park United Methodist Church is a church that really prides itself on being open-minded and warm-hearted,” said Sally Campbell-Evans, a pastor at the church. “We are a welcoming and affirming congregation and we welcome anyone to come here and worship.”

Campbell-Evans said the church recognized Westboro’s Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly, but would remain resolved to being an all-inclusive house of worship, despite the group’s disdain for their philosophy.  “When we learned that there would be some counter-protesters coming to form a Wall of Love, that was encouraging. It made me feel that the people in this community understand that we are an open congregation and that LGBT people are welcome here. They’ll always be welcome here and we just hope they feel the love of Christ.”

As important and uplifting as the Wall of Love was for both the church and the protesters, Aaron Walker and others noted that it’s difficult to counteract Westboro’s message without adding further to the spectacle. Over the past three decades, Westboro has used major national events, often borne from tragedy, to gain media attention, a fact that isn’t lost on Walker, who has experienced this firsthand.

“They do this in order to get media coverage,” said Walker. “So we indulge the media coverage every time they show up and we counter-protest. That’s an unfortunate reality. But I think it’s just as important that we put messages of love in the world at the locations where messages of hate happen. So if they send hate out into the world, I think it’s our obligation to come and try to counter-balance it. I wish we didn’t contribute to their platform, but I don’t know of a better way to do it.”

Walker, who is a native of Wyoming, said he is still hurt by the actions of Westboro members in 1998 who picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the openly gay University of Wyoming student who was tortured and murdered by fellow students, bearing signs like “Matt in Hell.” The group made a name for themselves nationally and continued to hound the Shephard family throughout the trial of his killers with constant picketing.
“Some of those pains have healed, but I’ll never forget how they treated the Shepard family and my community,” he said.

Mercedes Flowers and Kelly Doyle were two other protesters who said they agreed with Walker’s assertion that it’s worth giving Westboro attention if one is working for the greater good. The pair came from St. Petersburg to protest at Westboro’s third church stop on Sunday, the First Baptist Church of Tampa.

“Westboro has quite the place in our cultural consciousness and I feel like if they are coming to my hometown, it’s my duty as someone who really believes that hate is a poison in our society, to stand up against that and make sure that it’s known that it’s not welcome here,” Flowers said.
Doyle concurred, “I always saw them in the news and on the Internet and always thought that it was horrible what they do and wished that I could do something about it. Today I had a chance to. I’ve seen TED talks about people that have left Westboro and the reason why was that everyone else wasn’t as hateful as they thought they were. So I don’t think that us being here today will make them leave, but maybe it will make them think.”
“Yeah, we’re not here to cause a fight,” continued Flowers. “I wasn’t here to yell at them. We wanted to spread love today, not more hate. They put out the hate and we’ll put something out to counter that.”
Photo Courtesy of John Gregg

Tampa | Hyde Park United Methodist Church | Westboro Baptist Church | Demonstrations| TB Reporter

Tampa | Hyde Park United Methodist Church | Westboro Baptist Church | Demonstrations| TB Reporter
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A group of counter-protesters Sunday in Tampa responded by supporting a United Methodist church that had been targeted by the anti-gay, anti-Semitic group.
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