Westboro Baptist demonstrators came to Thousand Oaks, CA to spread their hateful message but thankfully ended up bringing the community together. The group’s offensive placards claimed that the November murders at the Borderline Bar and Grill and the Woolsey and Hill fires that tore through the area were God’s wrath for our sins.
Few things in recent months have been able to unite liberals and conservatives against a common enemy, but their offensive demonstration outside Thousand Oaks High School did just that.
Word of their demonstration spread like wildfire through the community. Some came together for prayer. Others demonstrated in support of love instead of hate. No one attacked or even engaged the demonstrators. They just came together in their own way to call for healing over hate.
Parents, students, faith communities, and community members waved banners from across the street as students filed into their classes. One sign read, "Love heals hurts, holds victims, puts out fires #T.O.strong." Amy Bohn, one of the demonstrators, said what so many felt, "This is our community, I don't want one single student to feel anything but our love and support."
Pamela Wilson, another community demonstrator held signs promoting love and "Borderline Strong." Wilson, a graduate of Thousand Oaks high school, said, "The last time I marched was against the Vietnam War. This is as important. We need to be spreading love. Forget the hate. We have enough of that."
Desta Goehner, CLU’s Director of Congregational Relations, hosted a debrief with CLU students who participated. She summed up their experience, “They couldn’t remain silent. They felt they had to make a stand. They had pride in what they did, how they organized, how it all played out as they saw and felt the power of people coming together with one voice. They felt SEEN and HEARD and LOVED.”
Rev. Tom Stephen, pastor of Monte Vista Presbyterian Church in Newbury Park, helped coordinate a prayer vigil: “We came together from many churches to pray. Our prayers focused on the students at Thousand Oaks High school, grace for the school administrators, and that love would be shown to the families who were victimized by Borderline. We prayed that the message of love and grace would triumph over the message of hate and judgement. We all became convinced that prayer and protest can work together beautifully when they share a common message. Prayer became our protest, and the demonstrators’ protest lived out their prayer laced with love and support.”
Pastor Erik Goehner felt compelled to preach to his Holy Trinity Lutheran Church congregation on how some use the Bible to hurt rather than heal: “It was important to be honest about how parts of our tradition and sacred scripture could easily be used to come to some of the conclusions that a group like Westboro might come to. Scripture can be used to hurt others, so it was important to lift up how we look at Scripture through the lens of the Jesus story and how that causes us to reach different conclusions about God. God’s love overcomes hate.”
It’s such demonstrations of love that make a difference. Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church and as a young woman participated in many of their demonstrations. In a stirring and insightful TED talk Megan explains how loving responses over Twitter were instrumental in her leaving Westboro. In her extraordinary message, she shares her personal experience with extreme polarization. She challenges listeners to respond with civility, to refuse to escalate, to stay calm, to ask questions and really listen, and to never let one’s belief that they are right justify rudeness. Lessons we all need to master.
May this united demonstration calling for love over hate remind us to work through our own biases and political hatred. What unites us is surely more important than what divides us. May this experience foster more civil dialogue in our community on the things that matter most.