Chants of “stop the hate” echoed from the football field at Fort Lewis College on Tuesday afternoon as more than 1,000 students, faculty and community members rallied for peace and tolerance in response to an expected picket by a Kansas-based church.
After word spread that members from Westboro Baptist Church, known for its inflammatory homophobic messages, planned to protest on campus Tuesday, President Dene Kay Thomas and representatives from campus diversity groups planned the march as a positive counter-message.
“We include everyone of good will on this campus, and we must make that positive commitment,” Thomas said. “This is part of our educational mission.”
Members of the church and their pastor Fred W. Phelps Sr. never made an appearance on campus. According to their website, they had planned to protest the screening of “The Anatomy of Hate: A Dialogue for Hope” at the college’s Reed Library. The documentary, which examines different ideologies of hate and ways to overcome them, features Westboro Church.
Several community organizers learned about the picket late Monday night; they spent Tuesday rallying people to turn out to counteract Phelps’ and Westboro’s controversial actions.
The church is not affiliated with any Baptist organization.
As the sun began to set, thousands of people gathered for the peace march at McPherson Chapel and then walked to Ray Dennison Memorial Field, the college football stadium. Thomas, Durango Mayor Michael Rendon, Shirena Trujillo Long, coordinator for the college’s diversity awareness program, and Sage Grey, president of Prism, the campus’ gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender group, led the march.
Students and community members followed, waving flags and holding signs denouncing Westboro’s messages of hatred.
In his speech, Rendon said events like Tuesday’s were why he ran for public office.
“If people ever wondered what it feels like to be part of a movement for change that is bigger than yourself, this is what it feels like,” he said. “And it feels very good.”
Representatives from Durango clergy were part of the mass rally. Dwight Saunders, pastor at River Church, and the Rev. Andrew Cooley from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church spoke to the audience
Saunders said he represented 10 other pastors who were also part of the event.
At the end of the rally, participants gathered in a group hug as they swayed to the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
The turnout exceeded organizers’ expectations. Grey said administrators thought they were being optimistic after buying 300 candles to hand out to marchers. Administrators had no idea there wouldn’t be enough for every person, he said.
There were nine officers from the Durango Police Department and the Campus Police Department stationed in case the Westboro protesters showed up, said Fort Lewis Police Chief Arnold Trujillo.
There were no reported incidents or arrests.
Westboro Church members’ homophobic protests have increasingly gained national and international attention. Those associated with the church often carry signs that say “God Hates Fags” and “The Jews Killed Jesus.” The group frequently shows up at events with which it has no relation but that it can use as a cause to relay the message that death and disaster happen because they are God’s curse for people who tolerate homosexuality.
Most notably, the church group frequently protests at funerals of U.S. soldiers – gay and straight – because it says their deaths are a consequence of gay tolerance. In October, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case about the protests’ constitutionality. A Maryland man filed the lawsuit after Westboro members protested the funeral of his son, a Marine, with signs like “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates you.”
Westboro’s advertised picket in Durango came two weeks after Fort Lewis College students rallied in support of student body president Alray Nelson. Nelson, an openly gay Native American, has recently been a target of homophobic and racist comments, some of which were briefly posted on The Durango Herald’s website comments section in response to a story about student support for a dismissed professor.
Nelson, who spoke at the march, said it was an opportunity to bring dialogue about the issue of homophobia to the forefront.
“This makes the issue real for students,” he said. “This is not a silent issue at Fort Lewis College anymore.”