Students offer hugs at Westboro protest

2/3/2011

Feb. 1, 2011

Kathleen Kimball and Cara Murray, part of the “free hugs” squad, share a snuggie as they listen to choirs. A UMNS web-only photo by Rebekah Smith.
Kathleen Kimball and Cara Murray, part of the “free hugs” squad, share a snuggie as they listen to choirs. A UMNS web-only photo by Rebekah Smith.

A group of United Methodist students at American University in Washington, D.C., met hate head-on when members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church came to their campus Jan. 14.

They did it with love, poetry and hot chocolate.

Westboro, a small church in Topeka, Kan., known for picketing military funerals and college campuses with signs like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” threw down the gauntlet with a press release announcing plans to picket the United Methodist-related institution.

The headline on the release screamed: “WBC will picket the fag-infested, pervert-run American University.”

News of the planned picket spread quickly across the campus and soon some students were calling for aggressive counter protests.

In the midst of the fury, Carly Jones, a member of American’s United Methodist campus ministry, saw a golden opportunity.

She sent out a post on Facebook: “In light of recent news that WBC is coming to AU to picket next Friday, I would like to suggest that the United Methodist Student Association use this event as an opportunity to display our love and inclusiveness to the campus community and to this hate group.”

At the same time the Rev. Mark Schaefer, United Methodist campus minister at American, was also worrying about the negative response he was hearing. He was thinking about nonviolent alternatives like offering cookies and hot chocolate to all that gathered on that chilly afternoon.

Things started converging when Tara Culp-Ressler, another student, told Schaefer about “God Loves Poetry,” a national campaign that takes the hate-filled press releases sent out by Westboro and changes them into poems.

By blacking out many of the angry words in Westboro’s press release, Culp-Ressler changed the remaining text into a love letter from God: “American University will see truth, the face of God. Your God shall be in thine heart. Teach thy children that simple commandment: God is love.”

Students gather at the United Methodist campus ministry to create signs for “God Loves Poetry.” A UMNS photo by Tara Culp-Ressler.
Students gather at the United Methodist campus ministry to create signs for “God Loves Poetry.” A UMNS photo by Tara Culp-Ressler.

“I wanted to show my peers that we have the creative power to transform (Westboro’s) hateful messages into our own messages of love, support and acceptance,” Culp-Ressler said.

The United Methodist Student Association sponsored a “God Loves Poetry” event and opened it to the campus so students could make their own positive statements. Posters were made of the creations and posted on campus.

A prayer and healing service was held the night before the planned protest. To pave the way, Schaefer admitted his own feelings of anger and hatred toward Westboro and the way they choose to portray Christianity.

“I used the opportunity to talk about love, not as an emotion, but as a way of living. Something we can choose,” he said.

Schaefer didn’t promise it would be easy to meet hate with love; he used the example of the cross as a sign of what love can cost.

“But I spoke of how we get locked in cycles of hate and violence and are called to step out of that cycle and follow the Gospel, which is one of a radical, inclusive love that can change the world itself.”

Four Westboro church members came to the campus on Jan. 14. More than 1,000 American students and members of the surrounding community gathered to greet them.

The United Methodist students handed out more than 500 cups of hot chocolate with Bible verses and statements about God’s love glued to the front.

Love conquers hate

Westboro proudly proclaims on its website that it has conducted more than 45,000 pickets in 816 cities. They recently made headlines when they applauded the Tucson, Ariz., gunman who killed six and left more than a dozen wounded, among them U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

Carolyn Capern, United Methodist Student Association vice president (left), and Kathleen Kimball, president (right), bring greetings to the rally.
Carolyn Capern, United Methodist Student Association vice president (left), and Kathleen Kimball, president (right), bring greetings to the rally.

When Westboro announces a protest, campus ministers and other leaders are using the opportunity to teach their students to respond with love.

Another United Methodist-related college, North Central College in Naperville, Ill., found out they were a planned target of the group in October after they announced they would show the film “The Anatomy of Hate: Dialogue for Hope.” Although Westboro did not follow through on the threat, more than 400 students and community members gathered outside Koten Chapel and marched across campus to the theater to view the film.

The threat of the protest became a "teachable moment," said the Rev. Lynn Pries, United Methodist campus minister at North Central. Students were inspired to organize and develop a positive response.

“I really felt the Holy Spirit moving as faculty, administrators and students responded to the support from nearby United Methodist churches in face of this threatened display of hate. I felt a sense of love, unity and inclusion present in the North Central College community,” Pries said.

‘Demonstrative Christianity’

Culp-Ressler said Westboro strikes a nerve with her because the group misrepresents what faith means.

“When they decided to come to my own university, I couldn’t just be silent. However, I wasn't convinced that a loud counter-protest was the best way to demonstrate the power of God’s love, the welcoming community on this campus, and the range of student emotions. I felt extremely passionately about the need to provide a creative space for those things to shine through.”

The aftermath of the visit has sparked a number of conversations and reflections on campus about the theologies of hate and love, Schaefer said.

Jones, who has been co-leader of a study on Practical Christianity at the United Methodist campus ministry, said she believes it is God’s plan for her life to love many things and to encourage others to do the same.

“I personally stand by the idea of demonstrative Christianity as the greatest way to draw others to a Godly life. Simply telling someone of the joy of living with faith is not enough.”

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.