Some of the members of Westboro Baptist Church were coming to Richmond to spread their message of hate at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Jewish Community Center, and Hermitage High School. You may have seen these people before. Led by Pastor Fred Phelps the members of this widely recognized hate group stage protests across the country and carry signs that say, “God Hates Fags,” “Rabbis Rape Babies,” “America is Doomed,” all the while chanting things like “You’re going to hell!” and “God hates Jews!”
You get the picture.
I’m a member of the Jewish Community Center, where I work out several times a week. When I heard Westboro Baptist Church was going to be protesting there I wrote the following letter to Executive Director Jordan Shenker.
Dear Mr. Shenker:
I learned this morning that the Weinstein JCC has been chosen as one of the locations for a demonstration by the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church,” a hate group from Topeka, Kansas.
I am writing to condemn the actions of this group, and to offer the friendship and solidarity of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. I assure you that this group has no affiliation with the faithful Christian tradition to which we belong. We stand with you against such hatred, which we find nowhere in the teachings of Moses or Jesus.
I am a member of the Weinstein JCC. I work out in the fitness center there several times per week. I have received the warmest possible welcome from your staff and from my fellow members. It grieves me that this group has chosen your center as a place to spread its message of hate. The only thing stronger, and the only thing with which we can counter such atrocity, is love.
I send this letter in that spirit.
Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
I followed up with a personal visit on Monday and talked with Mr. Shenker’s assistant. She thanked me for my concern and assured me that they understood Westboro Baptist Church was not affiliated with “the Baptist Church.” I asked her what we could do to help and she said they were planning to ignore the protestors as much as possible, to let them be seen for what they are—a tiny band of hatemongers.
Some of my colleagues decided to participate in counterprotests, to see if the message of love could drown out the message of hate. I saw them on the news last night and I think they were, more or less, successful. My friend Wallace Adams-Riley sent a text message that read, simply: “Jesus won.”
But I found myself praying for Fred Phelps, the leader of this group. I can only imagine what he has been through—how he has been mistreated, molested, or abused—but I imagine that somewhere along the way Hate had its way with him and made him its disciple. I found myself praying that Love would have its way with him instead, and he would become its disciple; that he would someday repent on national television and tell the world through tears, “I was wrong! God doesn’t hate anybody! God doesn’t even hate me!”
It’s probably too much to hope for, but that’s how I’m trying to stop my enemies: by praying for them.
Join me, won’t you?