Not the Word of God: Reactions to the Westboro Baptist Church’s Planned Picketing of Harrisburg

by: Kara Crawford

At the beginning of March, it came to my attention through the central-and-southern Illinois social media grapevine that Fred Phelps and his church family hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) were planning on protesting at the funerals of the people who had died as a result of the February 29th tornado that tore through Harrisburg, IL.

Never heard of Harrisburg before? Join the club. In spite of being a small-town central Illinoisan who prides herself on knowing an abnormally large number of small-town names from central-and-southern Illinois [1], I had never heard of Harrisburg before the tornado. It is a tiny town near the far southern tip of Illinois [2]. And yes, feel free to let your mind wander from there about it; because while I don’t like when people make blanket assumptions about my motherland’s sociopolitical makeup, they are, admittedly, often correct.

So with that in mind, why on Earth would WBC choose Harrisburg, of all places, to do their infamous protesting? I was in shock. I decided to look at WBC’s blog for reasons they give why they chose this particular locale. [3] What I found certainly didn’t decrease my level of shock. Their first entry about Harrisburg begins “HALLELUJAH! GOD SENT AN F-4 TORNADO RIPPING THROUGH HARRISBURG, IL – 6 CONFIRMED DEAD SO FAR!” [4]

The post goes on to describe their reasons for the protest and calls for the protest as follows: “They died for the sins of Illinois, and WBC will picket their funerals! You can blame your legislature who is again considering a law further criminalizing the gospel preaching of God’s servants at WBC!” So the basic story is that they planned to protest (celebrate?) the funerals of several people in southern Illinois because the Illinois legislature has, let’s call it what it is, declared WBC a hate group. And rightfully so.

For further insight, I decided to turn to my friend, Rachel Berry [5], who has lived in Harrisburg in the past:

I don’t think the WBC ever became real to me until I heard they were coming to my hometown. Before that they were just an idea, a horrible idea, one that couldn’t possibly exist in reality.

A couple weeks ago an F4 tornado ripped through my hometown of Harrisburg, Illinois. Whole parts of town were flattened, including the new commercial center and my old neighborhood. Six people were killed. Looking at pictures of the aftermath, I find it hard to believe that the death toll wasn’t much higher. Hearing about what happened from my friends, and seeing the pictures on national and international news websites left me in shock.

Not all of my memories of Harrisburg were positive. When I was growing up, I was practically the only liberal in the entire school, and definitely the only feminist. People in Harrisburg are pretty much as conservative as they come, and sometimes school felt like one big battle for me; a battle in which I was vastly outnumbered. But I still have a lot of friends there, who I thank God were left unharmed by the tornado.

When I heard the Westboro Baptist Church was coming to stage protests at the funerals of those poor people who died in the storm, my jaw was on the floor. I thought, why are they protesting their own?! Don’t they know those funerals are being held at some of the most conservative churches in town? What did the people of Harrisburg do to deserve this?! Is WBC trying to make enemies of everyone on earth?!

The truth is, WBC doesn’t want allies. They want to make everyone angry. They purposefully attack those who are grieving. Eventually someone is bound to lash out against them, at which point the WBC (whose leader conveniently is a lawyer by trade) will sue them for all they’re worth. The WBC is supposedly protesting the sins of America, claiming that the whole country is going to Hell. I refuse to believe they give a hoot about the issues they’re protesting. Instead they are out to create a media empire.

They are the cultural product of hate, hype and greed, yet they have become an icon of organized religion in America. We must acknowledge the fact that they are being funded by mainstream religious organizations, organizations hoping that the WBC will make them look more middle-of-the-road by comparison. The WBC is a product of sin, in my opinion. They are the bearers are hate and sadness and are a harbinger of the fall of Christianity in America.

I pray that God softens their hearts and makes clear their minds. I also pray that we as Christians can stand up and show the world what organized Christianity really looks like. We are compassionate, loving, passionate, active, critical yet forgiving, traditional yet open-minded….

May it be so.

In the end, WBC was a no-show in Harrisburg, but I think that Rachel is definitely on to something. They’re not out to spread the “word of God,” or to make allies, or even to spread Christianity. I mean, surely they don’t believe the Jonathan Edwards “scare-’em-to-heaven” strategy doesn’t work this day and age, right? They are out to be the loudest, most well-known for being the most-hated media empire around. Like Terry Jones and his Qur’an-burning scandal, they are simply out for attention.

This pathological need for attention and psychopathic means of going about getting it demonstrates WBC’s true intentions, and, to me, indicates that it is all bound to come crashing down around them eventually.

What we must do to respond remains unclear, but I think that our task as citizens of Queerville is at least twofold: we must not allow ourselves to believe this is the norm within Christianity and thereby encourage their ideology, and we must do everything in our power to support the communities who choose to take responsive action, like those in Harrisburg who were planning on providing a human shield between mourners and WBC, as they are the ones truly living out love in the face of such hate.

Kara Johansen Crawford is a graduate of DePaul University, with a BA in International Studies and Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Kara has been actively involved in activism and community service for much of her life and is particularly passionate about labor justice, queer issues and engaging faith communities on social issues. Kara is currently serving as a Mission Intern with the United Methodist Church at the Centro Popular para América Latina de Comunicación, based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow Kara on Twitter @revolUMCionaria and on her blog.

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[1] For instance, people always mock me for how I pronounce the names of certain towns, correct for Illinois, but for those traveled and cosmopolitan friends from Chicago, are horribly inaccurate. Like Milan, about three hours straight west of Chicago, pronounced “My-len.” Or Bogota, in southern Illinois, which according to my dad’s having gone there for work, is pronounced “Buh-go-tuh.”

[2] The farthest southern tip of Illinois is, in fact, the town Cairo. Like my first footnote, it’s not pronounced correctly by global standards, but rather “Kay-roe.”

[3] Not something I recommend for anyone, so I’m not going to provide a link.

[4] Caps and bold were unchanged from the website.

[5] Yes, like the Glee character. Have your giggle fit and move on.

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