The wave of heat and humidity of a July day in Kansas City swept over my body and filled my lungs as I left the hotel. Blessedly, it was a short walk to the convention center, where I was a delegate to the combined General Synod of the United Church of Christ and General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Several items in the program book appealed to me, especially a workshop on transgender Christians and the church. I have been transgender long before there was a word for it. So as not to cause pain to my family, I live “in the male mode”-in other words, I’m a closeted TG. After years of denying the significance of my transgender nature, now I am trying to understand my situation, accept it, and cope with it. Having the chance to meet, and relate to, others who shared this nature was a wonderful opportunity. Our two denominations both have strong movements within them of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members and clergy.
Another wave struck me as I neared the convention center-a wave of frenzied hatred. Across the street from the convention center, a small but noisy group waved signs and chanted. The signs read: Fags Burn in Hell. God Hates Fags. Fag Church. When a Fag Dies, God Laughs. This Way to Hell (with an arrow pointing toward the convention hall). AIDS is God’s Judgment to Fags. As obscene as these signs were, others are too obscene to describe. Yes, we were being picketed by Fred Phelps and his followers. Kansas City isn’t too far down the road from Phelps’ headquarters in Topeka, Kansas. Our denominations were both fag churches, according to him, because we allowed gay and lesbian people as members. I felt sickened. They reminded me of Nazis. But how could I respond? What could I do that wouldn’t feed their self-righteous frenzy and appetite for conflict and publicity? Nothing, I guess. Praying that God would forgive them and would help me to, as well, and praying for my gay and lesbian friends, I crossed into the air-conditioned relief of the convention hall. In talking it over with another delegate, he pointed out that one good thing about them being here picketing us is that they weren’t out picketing at a funeral of an AIDS victim, as they have been known to do. We had the strength and grace to handle the situation.
The next day, the picketers were back, playing, as always, for the television camera. This time, though, something was different. A group of young people from our two denominations, holding a banner for the UCC Coalition of GLBT youth, stood on the corner opposite, in the shade of the convention hall. They also carried signs that read: God Loves You. God Forgives You. God Loves Everyone. John 3:16. They chanted words of love in response to the words of hate. They sang “We Are One in the Spirit.” They were returning love for hate — good for evil.
That night, the Rev. John Thomas, the United Church of Christ General Minister and President, described to the assembly the encounter between the Phelps group and the youth of the church. He commended the youth highly, but cautioned us that the other group was cunning, and would love to agitate and escalate a situation to a point of violence. The best thing to do, he advised, was to ignore them and pray for them.
The third morning was starting out as another hot day. On my walk across the plaza to the convention center, I observed something of a miracle-a parable of grace. Several young people, wielding colored chalk, were writing messages on the steps and sidewalks where the picketers had stood. Again, they were messages of God’s universal love and forgiveness.
“Thank you,” I told one of the youth. “It’s a wonderful thing that you’re doing.”
He grinned. “It’s the right thing. And it’s fun.”
As far as I know, the Phelps crew didn’t return to see the handiwork of my young friends. That’s too bad. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference to them, at least initially. But maybe someday, in one of them, a crack would appear in that wall of hatred and bigotry and God’s subtle love would begin its transforming work. The Phelps crew did a us a favor by attending the gathering of the two denominations, though, whether straight or GLBT, whether conservative or liberal, whether young or old. They strengthened our resolve to try to love one another across our various ideologies and perspectives. They showed us the ugly mask of bigotry, and gave us the opportunity to pray the prayer of forgiveness.