The Westboro Baptist Church is one of the ugliest embodiments of extremist Calvinism extant. Headquartered out of—surprise me—Kansas, Westboro specializes in despoiling funerals. Church faithful travel the land, disrupting the interments of soldiers, public figures, and persons of differing faiths, broadcasting their message that the deceased were deliberately killed by Our Lord, as an expression of His rage at the United States permitting itself to be owned and controlled by “the homosexual agenda.”
Earlier this week, Westboro announced that it would set up shop at the Thursday funeral services for Christina Taylor Green, one of six people killed last Saturday in Tucson, Arizona, by the scrambled man who sought to assassinate Congressmember Gabrielle Giffords.
In response, the Arizona Legislature today enacted emergency legislation, subsequently signed by the governor, that prohibits “protests,” within 300 feet of any funeral, and for an hour both before and after such a service.
Whether the Westboro folks will now, as they have in the past, seek an injunction debarring enforcement of such a statute, is at present unknown.
But it really doesn’t matter. Because before the legislature even acted, the people of Tucson had already settled upon another way to deflect the Westboreans. And there is nothing at all the Westboro folks can do about this one. Because the people of Tucson have enlisted the aid of angels.
In October of 1998, Westboro announced its intention to bring its Calvinist road show to the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young Laramie, Wyoming gay man beaten and left to die—which he did—by a pair of homophobic bigots.
Romaine Patterson, Shepard’s close friend, was distraught at the desecration. Six months later, when the Westboro people declared that they would “attend” the trial of one of Shepard’s killers, Patterson was ready for them.
I was on the phone with a good friend of mine named Jim Osborn, who at the time was the president of the gay and lesbian group at the University of Wyoming, discussing the trial. We had heard that [Westboro] had planned to come to the courthouse. We kind of came up with this idea that someone should do something about it because, obviously, we live in a country where freedom of speech and the freedom to protest is one of our most cherished rights. It wasn’t like we could stop them from protesting. But even though they have the right to protest, what I didn’t understand is why other people never felt the need to stand up side-by-side and let people see something more positive[.]
We talked about [Westboro's] message that God hates. I was raised Catholic. I was taught to believe that God is not about hate, God is about love, respect and compassion. So in the course of that we came up with the idea of using an image from the Bible to demonstrate God’s love. In the Bible angels are the bearers of messages, whenever God wanted man to know something. We decided that the angels would be the ones to bear this message.
Patterson organized what was the first of what came to be known as “Angel Actions.” She and her friends constructed very large wings, seven feet high with 10-foot wingspans, which they wore, together with long white robes; standing side-by-side, they succeeded in blocking the fulminations of the Westboro people from view.
The idea, as good ideas will, has since spread. And so Westboro not uncommonly encounters Angel Actions these days. Though there is no real organization to the Angels. They just . . . are.
[A] project started informally back in 1998 to protect mourners from [Westboro's] band of crazies at the funeral of gay hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard, it’s completely grassroots, completely run by the goodness of people. Volunteers throw on fluffy wings and stand in a close-knit group, the wings providing extra protection to keep the disturbing image of picketers out of the line of sight of those there to honor the memory of the deceased.
Participants plan to shield mourners from pickets by wearing eight-foot by ten-foot “angel wings” during the funeral.
“We want to surround them, in a non-violent way, to say that our community is united,” Ms. Gilmer said. “We’re a peaceful haven.”
Dozens of people have signed up to a Facebook page called Build Angel Wings for the Westboro Funeral Counter-Protest.
“People, businesses, they’re all donating material and money to build the angel wings,” said Ms. Gilmer, who is helping to galvanise the action.
“Once I heard that the Westboro Baptist Church was coming, I felt like something should be done to show support for the families,” [Cohen] said. “I don’t have any experience in organizing these things. I thought I might get 50 to 100 people.”
“This isn’t a counter-protest,” she said. “We wanted it to show support for the families and to show that Tucson is there with love and support.”
The groups don’t want to interfere with the funeral in any way, Cohen said.
“We plan on being completely silent, and we’re asking people not to bring signs or make comments about the Westboro Baptist Church,” she said.
This last is wise. Angels don’t speak. They don’t need to.
Here is the Facebook page for those wishing to be angels for Christina Green. They are making wings there as we speak. Hundreds of them.
Romaine Patterson offers instructions, in a pdf accessible from here, so that anybody anywhere at any time can make wings.
I’m thinking maybe we don’t need to be angels only when the Westboro folks pull into town. Maybe we should wear these wings more often. Maybe, that way, people would not so often hurt each other so. Maybe.