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October 12, 2002
When I first heard that Fred Phelps and his anti-gay family from the Westboro Baptist Church was coming to Fort Collins to "celebrate the fourth anniversary of Matthew Shepard's entry into hell" at the CSU-Wyoming homecoming game, my first inclination was to stay away. The less attention paid to him, I thought, the better. But when our minister announced from the pulpit that our church, Foothills Unitarian, would be a departure place for peaceful protestors to be shuttled to the stadium, I decided to participate. If there was going to be a counter-demonstration, I thought it should be a big one. My daughter said she'd come too.
I spent a few days with a concordance looking up "hate" and "love" in the Bible. I found a few quotes I thought would make good signs:
"Thou shalt not hate thy brother--Leviticus 19:17",
"If a man say, 'I love God,' and hateth his brother, he is a liar -- 1 John 4:20",
"He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love. -- 1 John 4:8",
"Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer -- 1 John 3:15",
"Judge not, that ye be not judged -- Matthew 7:1".
As I was making some signs, my husband asked me to include his definition: "Evil: What people do when they're sure they're right. --Terl Robinson".
Despite my advanced age of 46 years, I'd never been to a protest before, so I didn't know what to expect. We arrived at the church parking lot at 10:00 and found a few other people there. One woman had a sign that said "Hate is ugly". Square in the center of the sign was a hideous Halloween mask.
I gave all but two of my signs away to people who hadn't brought any. Several people stayed at the church to demonstrate there, but my daughter and I decided to go the stadium. A volunteer from the CSU Stop Hate Coalition gave us a ride, and then went back to pick up more people.
The five of us who'd ridden with him walked down Overland Trail. We weren't sure if we'd be allowed to keep the sticks attached to our signs, since the police had told the CSU group not to have sticks.
When we passed the place where the Phelpses were standing with their signs that said "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for 9-11", my daughter said, "I don't want to look."
I said, "You don't have to." I glanced at them, and saw that they were a small group of about a dozen people. I didn't feel shock or anger; I'd been following their career for four years, and I knew what their signs would say. And I'd been praying for them for four years. I don't know if it ever did any good for them, but it did a lot of good for me.
The police had a place set up for us that was a long block north of the Phelpses, on the other side of some trees. It was a relief not to have to look at them. We were to stay inside an area delineated by some orange cones. Someone gave us buttons that said, "Kiss me if you want to stop hate" and stickers that said "Stop hate". We were urged to stand at the front of our group, since we had signs. After a little while, someone came around handing out Krispy Kreme donuts.
More and more people arrived, and the police told us we could move the cones to make a bigger area. Some of my daughter's friends showed up, to her surprise, as well as her history teacher. There were at least three church groups represented: Foothills Unitarian, Plymouth Congregational, and Jefferson Unitarian from Golden. We also met some Lutherans there. No one made us take the sticks out of our signs. A girl next to me had an impromptu sign written on the back of a pizza box that said "God is Love."
Some of the other signs I saw said, "God does not hate", "All you need is love", "Peace on you, Phelps", "Jesus loves, do you?", "Pray for the children of Westboro", and "United we Stand". There was one carried by a gay guy that said, "Phelps, I want to have your baby." Silly, and not in keeping with the other signs, but it did make me laugh. There were also several church banners and beautiful, tie-died rainbow flags.
Three police officers rode by on horses in front of us. One of them, a woman, had a big grin on her face. From the side of her saddle, where the other officers and passersby couldn't see, she surreptitiously gave us a big thumbs up. Our protest was supposed to be silent, but people couldn't help cheering her.
The Denver news crews came by, but they seemed more interested in getting down the road to the Phelpses. I was disappointed that they didn't seem to want to report on our gathering.
For two hours we stood, while cars drove past on their way to the game. People kept arriving for our protest. I'm not sure how many there were, but I'm sure it was at least 200, and maybe twice that.
A guy across the street came out and hammered three big signs on his fence that said, "Hate mongers", "Go to", "HELL". People around me looked worried and said, "He's not with us, is he? That's not a good message. It sounds too much like Phelps." But I said, "Well, he has a right to say what he wants. We can't do anything about it."
As the cars drove slowly past, filing into the stadium parking lot, people looked at us curiously. After they'd read some of the signs, about one car in four honked and waved at us, many forming their hands into the "I love you" sign. Our crowd responded with cheers. A guy behind me said, "For a silent protest, we sure are screaming a lot." But of course the silence was supposed to mean we weren't shouting at Phelps. Cheering the people cheering us was entirely different.
One guy shouted out his car window, "Go, good guys!"
Somebody else asked, "Where are the bad guys?"
A little later, some football fans waved a cowboy hat out the car window at us, bringing a chorus of cheers. Pickups drove by with the backs filled with football fans, some of whom stood up and cheered us. Despite the cold wind, I felt a warm glow.
In all that football crowd, there was only one negative comment. A woman shouted, "You people are so f--ed up!" Though we were supposed to be silent, people from the crowd shouted, "We love you!" I wondered whether she really thought we were wrong to say "God is love", or whether she hadn't read our signs and thought we were the Phelpses. I hope the latter.
At a little after one o-clock, the police asked us to leave, since the agreement was that we'd be there from 11:00 to 1:00. We walked back to the pickup point, where a volunteer herded us into two groups, Unitarians on her right and Congregationalists on her left, since there were shuttles to both churches.
Back at the church parking lot, I gave my daughter a big hug and told her I was proud of her. I was glad the experience had been so positive; it could have been nasty, but thanks to the organizers and the police and the wonderful people driving past, it turned out to be a great day.
I hope Matthew Shepard was watching.
Karen Deal RobinsonReturn to the top
copyright 2002 by Karen Deal Robinson
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