I've seen pictures and videos of the members of Fred Phelps's family from the Westboro Baptist Church, but I've never been in their presence. Yesterday, Super Bowl Sunday, I had the "pleasure" of counter-protesting against their protest.
In 2009, they arrived in Indianapolis to protest the production of The Laramie Project at North Central High School, as well as at the Jewish Community Center. So when I learned last week that they would be returning to Indianapolis, I decided to make a sign and join other counter-protesters.
Sunday morning was cold and sunny. The Phelps clan first "invaded" my own city of Carmel. They split up and made appearances at the East 91st Street Christian Church and Carmel Lutheran Church. They were upset with the East 91st Street Church because they allow women ministers and with the Carmel Lutheran Church because they are an LGBT-affirming church.
They claimed they were picketing the Super Bowl because they feel that people spend too much time watching football when they should be in church instead.
Pictures and more after the jump.
I decided to counter-protest at the Carmel Lutheran Church. With my sign in tow, I drove over and found a group of high school students and their parents also counter-protesting. We stood on the sidewalk and waited for the WBC group to show up. Finally they appeared and stood across the street from us on two different corners. We were told by the Carmel policeman assigned to watch us that we needed to stay on the sidewalk.
As we stood watching the Phelps people, more counter-protesters arrived to join us. Cars drove by and honked their support to us as the WBC members began to sing modern rock and pop songs but changed the words to suit their twisted needs.
At one point I crossed the street with another man in our group, and we attempted to speak to one of the protesters. We tried to reason with him, but realized that it was a total waste of time. He wasn't rude or nasty, but he kept to his story line and I finally gave up and went back to my place on the other side of the street.
At about 11:00, the church members closed up shop. As they walked down the street some of the teens in our group ran to follow them. I said goodbye to the people in our group and went to my car.
At that point, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go downtown to the protest at the Super Bowl Village. Parking was very expensive, and I was tired, but the day was getting warmer, and the sun was still shining, so I made the decision to go.
I parked quite a bit away from the Super Bowl Village, and as I walked downtown the crowds became much thicker. I finally found the area near the Lucas Oil Stadium where the WBC group was assembled. The street was closed to traffic and there were hundreds of people, visitors to our city to take part in the Super Bowl festivities, milling about.
As I walked around I found a contingent of young people from Indiana Youth Group. They came down with home-made signs and were a pleasure to spend time with.
There were some other people counter-protesting, but I'm not sure what their agenda was. One man carried a huge wooden cross that bore the words "He Is Risen." Another man read bible verses to no one in particular for the three hours we were there.
The police were not too happy with any of us being there. I think they were worried that there might be some trouble so there were many more of them here than there had been in Carmel. They made sure that we stayed behind an invisible line that they created for us.
As people walked by, they looked quite surprised to see the Phelps family at the Super Bowl Village. Sometimes different groups of drunk young men would talk to the family, but it was more for curiosity than anything else.
As the day went on, I got the feeling that most people viewed them as a novelty and something pretty nasty. I doubt many agreed with their hateful agenda.
At some point in the afternoon, a young women appeared from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). She was in Indianapolis because GLSEN was running an anti-bullying PSA at the Super Bowl, "Think Before You Speak." She asked the IYG kids, my friend Gena, and me, if we would be willing to make a "Think Before You Speak" PSA right there in the Super Bowl Village.
She gave us all GLSEN t-shirts to wear and told us what to say. We did it in two takes, and it was a lot of fun!
As the afternoon wore on I began to realize that something quite unexpected (and wonderful) was happening. I had come downtown to protest against a group of mean-spirited, hateful people. I knew we wouldn't make a difference in how they thought or felt, but as I stood in the street with my sign people came up to me - complete strangers - and they hugged me, asked to have their photo taken with me and my sign, high-fived me, and thanked me for the message on my sign. One of the policemen even thanked me for what my sign said. A few parents told me that they also love and support their LGBT children.
I spoke to so many people from all over the country and two young men from England, and one from Toronto. Because if this, I believe that the hateful people from WBC actually did us a favor. Even though people looked at them and took their photos, they were clearly a freak-show.
I don't believe anyone takes them seriously, but they provided us with a venue to share our message of love and equality and tolerance. I am sure that my photo and those of the IYG teens will appear on many Facebook and Twitter pages, and I have a little more faith that there are many people out there who agree with our agenda of love and inclusion rather than the hateful bigotry spewed out by the Westboro Baptist Church.