There’s a meme going around which I will not re-post here. It says:
“REFUSE SERVICE TO THIS WOMAN and those with her.
“This is Shirley Phelps-Roper. If she comes into your store, sits in your restaurant, or tries to check into your hotel, refuse her any service. She is one of the leaders of Westboro Baptist Church and she is not welcome in Waco.
“Click ‘Share’ to get the word out!”
In my work with PROMO - Missouri's statewide LGBT civil rights organization - and in my work as a pediatrician, I spend a lot of my time and energy trying to assure that no one is refused food or shelter in the state of Missouri on the basis of who they are. Granted, this woman's actions and professed attitudes are vile and reprehensible. That makes our response to her and her companions a challenge.
I have seen Westboro Baptist in action. In 2001, one month after 9/11, in fact, I was at the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association Annual Conference in New Orleans. As you can imagine, indeed, as you may remember, that was a time of deep sadness and roiling emotion, and many of us who went to the conference were pretty apprehensive about even getting on a plane to travel there. Well, that year Westboro decided to target GLMA, and for three days they picketed outside the hotel, spewing hate and bile. On top of the devastation I was still feeling for the thousands lost that autumn, as someone who, at one point or another in my life, has been called all the disgusting names a gay man can be called, it was hard to hear that relentless chanting outside my window. It brought up a lot of old fear and shame, and my first response, understandably, was anger. “This is freedom?” I thought. “Americans are dead, for THIS?” I wanted nothing more than to go out onto the street, scream right back in their faces, kick them in the gut, pummel them with their own GOD HATES FAGS signs. Of course, all of us at the conference had already been coached on what we could do and could not do, legally, in response to them, no matter how we felt or what old psychic scabs they had picked at. Finally, I went down to the street…
Now, I do consider myself a Christian, and at times like that, it’s not easy. As I went took the elevator down to the lobby, I recalled, almost against my will, what Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-45, "You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you; That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." Like it or not, I had been given a grace experience, and I had to choose to accept it or not. As I walked out of the hotel onto the sidewalk on Poydras Street, I saw them standing in the median, their screaming faces focused now on me and contorted by hate and fear. I made my choice, and for the first time, I saw them clearly: sad, pathetic, and ultimately powerless. Finally, I pitied them, I prayed for them, and I turned and went back into the conference.
So we all know that Shirley Phelps-Roper and the members of Westboro Baptist Church have twisted and corrupted the core tenet of Christianity – Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself – but if we do the same to her and to them, if we hate and revile them, then we are no better than they. We surrender to hopelessness. We yield to fear. We lose our power. We are diminished.
As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It's easy to love those who love us. The challenge we have been given is to love those who hate us. And perhaps, in doing so, we can be the agent of grace for them, the one person who will reveal the truth of God's love to these people so poor in spirit, and perhaps we may crack open even these poor hearts shriveled by hate.