It’s Sunday morning and your church is about to be picketed by America’s most notorious hate cult. And there are a hundred counter protestors coming. And the news media will show up in force. And you still need to continue your regular Sunday morning program.
Glendale Presbyterian Church in Glendale, Calif., faced these challenges when the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., decided to picket four Glendale area churches Jan. 12. Instead of being overwhelmed, the Presbyterians turned the experience into a way to connect with people in the community they would not otherwise have met and to project a positive image for Christians in Glendale and the greater Los Angeles area.
The ostensible reason for the demonstration, as outlined on Westboro’s website, was that Glendale included women in leadership. Numerous observers, however, have speculated that the real reason for Westboro’s picketing is to try to provoke an overreaction by the targets of the protest after which Westboro sues the organization and its participants. Neither happened at the Glendale protests.
Presbyterian pastor Chris Harrison took the lead in formulating a response to the Kansas congregation and their challenge. Arriving early at a Lutheran church across town, he encouraged parishioners and counter protesters there to move from the sidewalk into the church’s sanctuary, where he helped lead a time of prayer and thanksgiving for Christians who stood against hatred of others, regardless of the reason.
Then returning to the Presbyterian campus, Harrison addressed the 100 or so counter-protesters who converged there awaiting the arrival of the Westboro contingent.
“We’ve got one message. The message is that God’s love is for all people,” he said. “I appreciate that you’ve gathered to communicate that love beats hate every time.”
Members and friends of Glendale watched the Kansans from across the street but didn’t engage them. While some counter protesters did engage the picketers, most Presbyterians surveyed the overall scene or talked with the counter-protesters, many of whom were members of a Lutheran LGBT support group.
Once the Westboro picketers moved on to, Glendale Presbyterian gathered for worship in its sanctuary, where Harrison told the congregation, “I am so proud to be a part of this faith community … we got to stand on our corner and just be like Jesus, welcome whoever showed up and do it with a smile. I praise the Lord that today we got to be the church that stood up for love in the face of hate … It is great day to be the body of Christ.”
Ken Baker is executive presbyter for the Presbytery of San Fernando.