Last weekend I did a volunteer gig at the Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City. It is an annual event in our shopping district made all the more appealing by the perfect fall weather. I met a darling, young family and while the Dad was helping their boys craft some mustaches, I struck up a conversation with the very pregnant mom. They are recent transplants from the Washington D.C. area and she had the shaky legs of a new resident trying to get her bearings in a place that looks and feels very different from home. "Coincidence," I said. "That's where we came from before we settled here."
A bond was formed and I crammed her with information in hopes that she would feel welcome in my adopted city.
We were that family twenty years ago and busy raising kids when an admired and well-loved judge in the area passed away. The funeral was to be held at the church across from the kids elementary school and a relatively unheard of group called The Westboro Baptist Church announced that they would be protesting his funeral. Their reason? His liberal court decisions had brought the wrath of God, and so they came with their GOD HATES FAGS signs across the street from three hundred 5-12 year olds who were doing flips all day in the learning pool.
With help from the parents, elaborate plans were made by the principal to shield the school population from seeing any of this at dismissal time, and alternate routes were devised away from what was happening across the street. For the kids it was a departure from the usual routine and a grand adventure, for their parents it was a gut punch.
Fast forward to 2007 and the kids and I went to see the candidate, Barack Obama, when he came to speak in Kansas City a few weeks before the election. We parked blocks away from the event and as we got closer we could see that the Westboro Baptist Church had taken up residence with their GOD HATES FAGS signs on the corner.
My gay son grabbed my arm and said, "Let's just cross the street now you guys." I felt and heard his panic but his big sister, who has a habit of punching fear in the face, said, "No, we're not going to do that. You and me and Mom are going to walk right past them cuz they don't get to win this one. Not today." And so we did with thousands of others.
When the casualties of two wars came home, that same church decided to up the ante and bring their protest to military funerals. The nation was outraged and appalled. The residents of Kansas were not. "Welcome to our world," we said to those cable news anchors who blathered on about the 1st amendment. "We've been putting up with this shit for years."
Two years later, the Westboro Baptist Church protested at the kids high school where an openly gay student had been elected Homecoming King the year before. Social media had put a match to this fire and every teenager in a twenty mile radius showed up for the fight. A group of seven God-fearing church members (including a boy of about eight years old) stood on the corner with their GOD HATES FAGS signs while hundreds showed up across the street with their rainbow peace signs, and that church looked small and insignificant in the light of a new order.
Sadly, that is what goes on in Kansas more times than I would have ever thought possible, but I didn't share any of that with my new acquaintances, for theirs is a family that seems full of plans and dreams for their future here. I hope they live a happy, healthy life that never crosses paths with that group. I hope their children will never tremble in fear because they are in the bull's eye of hate.
My favorite writer, Anne Lamott, says, "Love bats last." That is my prayer every day for the trembly kids forging a trail on the road less-traveled. The ones who stand on shaky legs with brave voices and say to their parents, "I need to talk to you about something."
And before Love steps out of the batter's box I wish she would take a swing at those signs.
Kingdom come seems like an appropriate place for them to land.