A friend of mine from elementary school organized a peaceful counter-protest in the event that the litigious, horrifically backwards picketers from Westboro Baptist showed up at today’s interfaith service being held to honor the dead and wounded from Monday’s bombing. They didn’t show, those picketers from Westboro Baptist, and probably never even intended to. But my friend wanted to do the right thing, and – as it turned out – so did many hundreds more. Because most people are fundamentally good. They’re the ones that run not FROM things, but THROUGH them.
The last few days have found me pondering what it is to be courageous. Certainly the first responders fit that bill. The spectators that could, and did, offer medical assistance until the paramedics could arrive. The friend of a friend who started to run away, but then turned around and went right into the fray, comforting a gravely injured girl until help arrived.
When I heard that Westboro Baptist members were planning on showing up, I reacted the way most everyone else did – with outrage. Is nothing sacred?
But to them, to their way of “thinking,” what they’re doing is totally right. They either absolutely believe the utterly poisonous stuff that comes out of their mouths and onto their signs, or they’re all part of some elaborate scheme to come into these places where tragedy has occurred, simply to draw attention to themselves (and to sue anyone who violates their “rights”). Either way, it’s a fiendish way to live – this reveling in and profiting from grief – and they’ve raised their children to believe it’s okay.
Except their children are beginning to realize that it isn’t okay. It isn’t even remotely okay.
Here’s the thing: if you leave Westboro Baptist, you’re on your own. Your parents will not speak to you. Your family will not speak to you. You are persona non grata, and you’re going to hell. Or, at least, this is what I’ve come to understand in reading the interviews with, and stories about, the young adults who have broken ties with Westboro Baptist. They know in their hearts that they’ve done the right thing, but their hearts are breaking nonetheless. Because while you and I see this “church” as monstrous and evil, they see only their parents, their aunts and uncles, their siblings and cousins. There are so many shades of gray for them it’s like navigating through fog. It’s not anything that I can even come close to understanding. My parents and I disagree on many things, but I’ve never been in any danger of their cutting me off because of this. And I can’t fathom being in my early twenties, knowing only one way of thinking, and suddenly having to make my way in a world that encompasses so much more, all the while bearing a last name that’s become synonymous with intolerance and hatred. Cannot even imagine it.
And yet this is what Libby Phelps-Alvarez, Megan Phelps-Roper, and Grace Phelps-Roper are doing. Leaving everything they’ve known and hoping to encounter the kindness and tolerance that they themselves seldom extended. Learning, in essence, the true lessons of Christianity.
Can we call that courageous? The Serenity Prayer is pretty explicit here: (Grant me) the courage to change the things I can. Because they haven’t just run away. They are making the rounds, and they are apologizing. And of course this is what they SHOULD be doing, but you can’t possibly think that this isn’t terrifying for them. With each step they take towards righting their wrongs, they run the risk of being confronted with (at the very least) some real hostility. They’ve been to the Museum of Tolerance, they’re working at the Equality House, they are making efforts to really learn about the people they’ve spent their whole lives condemning.
And as big a cynic as I am, I can’t find it in me to sneer. Because over the last few days, I’ve seen just how good people can be. I have to believe that most people are fundamentally good. I have to believe that people have the courage to change the things they can.
David Abitbol of Jewlicious with Grace and Megan Phelps-Roper