It is no secret, nor surprise, that the Episcopal Church is no favorite of the Westboro Baptist Church. The protest group was even outside last year’s General Convention revival worship and barbecue to greet attendees as they arrived. This past Sunday, Westboro members divided themselves between various churches in Gainesville, Georgia, including Grace Episcopal Church.
The local Dawson County News asked them why:
For the Westboro group, the protests served mainly as a warmup for a much bigger event, Super Bowl LIII, being played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Westboro protests every Super Bowl, which they declare as “idol worship.”
“We generally go to a town with churches that we have not picketed yet,” said Margie Phelps, one of the protesters. “The churches used to preach against sin. Now they teach sin. It’s ground zero where sin has gotten a grip on this nation.”
As to adding the Episcopal church to their list of protest sites,
Jonathan Phelps, one of the Westboro Baptist picketers, said his group intentionally chose Grace Episcopal for its denomination’s “oppression of the truth.”
“In the history of America, there has never been a more evil institution,” he said.
Counter-protesters with messages of love far outnumbered the Westboro members, according to the Dawson County News. And Grace Episcopal drowned them all out with the tolling of its church bells.
“We always ring them before the service, so we’re just ringing them a little more this morning,” the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham of Grace Episcopal said.
The bells persistently rang until stopping at the last second of the protest.
The Café asked the Rev. Dr Higginbotham about Grace Episcopal Church’s experience of the Westboro protests, and about the idea of ringing the church bells until they were over. He responded via email:
Since we knew some two weeks out that they were coming, I wanted to see what could be a proactive, compassionate, and centered response to that stress. Given that there was so much unknown, we needed some way to focus that energy. I had the idea of ringing the tower bells, because I realized that there was a symbolic response that could be made. The bells can be heard all over town, and that might be a way to embody grace in some way.
The church also had the idea to take advantage of the extra attention and attendance that Sunday to conduct a food drive to benefit a local Food Pantry and Humane Society. Higginbotham continued,
Overall, it was very important to ask ourselves what posture we could take in order to respond out of grace and compassion, while also maintaining an awareness of the call of our Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. The image and practice of maintaining a contemplative posture were vital in this situation.
Find more reporting on Sunday’s events at the Dawson County News site.
Featured image: Westboro Baptist members protest outside General Convention, 2018