by: Kara Crawford
Recently a nine-year-old boy, Josef Miles, achieved internet fame when he staged a one-person counter-protest to Westboro Baptist Church, holding a small sign made of pencil on a sketch pad with a simple but profound message: “God Hates No One.” Westboro is a known hate group infamous for its protests at military funerals and really anywhere else they can get media attention, holding terrible and hateful signs that say things like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” While counter-protests to Westboro are not uncommon, even in some cases one-person counter-protests, I think that Josef’s case represents something different.
I’ve always been hesitant to make a big deal out of Westboro or even counter-protests against them, because I recognize that more than anything Westboro is out for media attention. They certainly don’t try to obscure that fact much, and they certainly have no lack of media presence. In fact, I’d venture a guess that the fact that the vast majority of young people who are outsiders to Christianity, and according to a Barna Group study, believe Christianity to be anti-homosexual is in part due to the fact that Fred Phelps and Westboro are among the most (in)famous “Christians.” So what good does responding to them do, if it really just amps up their media attention?
My first face-to-face run-in with Westboro was a few weeks ago; they were standing outside of what I had come to call, in a mix of joking and dead seriousness, the “queer commie tent” at General Conference of The United Methodist Church (which I’ve already written about a couple of times, so I’ll spare you the gory details). It was the day after the vote which maintained the language that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and we had decided to not have an organized counter-protest because realistically their being there would speak enough for itself. Either that, or, we joked rather seriously, they would be applauding The UMC for its vote, which would speak volumes.
We were in the tent having a lunch celebrating the about 1200 clergy who have pledged, regardless of UMC policy, to perform marriages for all consenting adult couples who approach them. I heard someone outside singing a rewritten version of “Telephone” (yes, as in Lady Gaga; I won’t dwell on the irony of their song choice), and someone told me Westboro had shown up. As we were leaving the lunch, leaders warned us to not engage with Westboro folks in any way, because they’re notorious for suing people for such things.
A line of people made a human barrier between the protesters and people leaving the tent, but we still got to see them with all their signs, including the bizarre choice of “Methodist Fag Church,” which a friend threatened to steal from them, as he has reclaimed the offending term. He and I were headed away from the convention center where the flow of traffic was going, and it would have required either crossing directly in front of the protesters or crossing the street three times to accomplish the same task as crossing once. I’ll admit that, intimidated by the potential of confrontation and a lawsuit, I urged my friend to cross three times with me, avoiding any engagement with them.
There was one counter-protester I was aware of that day, holding a sign that said “God Loves All,” and there were some responses on Twitter, of which I wrote one, but I was unconvinced of their effectiveness. Were we really responding to Westboro in an effective way, or just reassuring ourselves that we hadn’t sat silently as they said such abusive things? My answer leans more towards the second. In the case of Josef’s counter-protest, though, I feel it represents something that gives me a lot of hope.
Even if his counter-protest didn’t necessarily make any significant changes, and got Westboro even more press time, what they’re always looking for, I found it to be really beautiful. Even at the ripe young age of nine years old, he did not give in to the intimidation which Westboro puts forth. He was willing to stand in the face of hatred and violence and say “Enough is enough.” He was willing to take a principled stand on what he believes and state it clearly and simply – “God hates no one.”
Even more than that, though, he seems to represent a paradigm shift. Kids are now growing up understanding that queer folks are also part of society and deserve to be treated with the same love and respect as everyone else, and afforded the same rights. That Josef was self-motivated to counter-protest Westboro, even in a small way, speaks volumes to the world that the youngest generations are being born into and already beginning to create. That Sasha and Malia, according to reports, affected President Obama’s shift of opinion on marriage equality also speaks to this, and speaks to the power of the voices of youth and children to really make a difference.
According to news reports, Josef’s mother couldn’t be prouder, and I’d believe it. I’m energized by the possibility of kids who are willing to take a stand, and look forward to a day when understandings like his will be so commonplace that they won’t even make the news. For now, though, I’ll do my part in making sure that kids learn love, respect, and acceptance and live out those values.
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.