With the notoriously gay-bashing Westboro Baptist Church set to protest in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention, Tyler Lynch and Christopher Whibley are responding to the hate with love.
The two friends have taken to social media to organize “a very peaceful blockade” they’re calling a Great Wall of Love, in which supporters will shield patients entering the Mazzoni Center, a health care provider in Center City serving the LGBT community, the afternoon of July 26, when Westboro members plan to rally there.
The Kansas-based church is infamous for picketing soldiers’ funerals, stomping American flags, and most of all, denouncing gays (their website is GodHatesFags.com).
“No matter how much the WBC folks yell, spew hate, and antagonize us, we will hold steadfast and NOT argue with them,” blockade organizers wrote on a Facebook page promoting their effort. “This is an anti-protest where we can provide barriers for the patients of Mazzoni and shield them from the hate.”
In an interview this morning, Lynch said he was driven to help organize the effort because “they speak a lot of hate rhetoric, and I don’t think that’s appropriate for people going to seek health services, no matter whether they’re LGBT or not.”
State Rep. Brian Sims, D.-Phila., plans to participate as well.
“The Mazzoni Center is the largest LGBT organization in the state. The work that they do quite literally saves people’s lives; it’s not an exaggeration to say that,” said Sims, whose district office, on 12th Street, is in the same building as Mazzoni’s main office.
Sims volunteers as a patient escort at a nearby Planned Parenthood, shielding patients there whenever pro-life demonstrators picket. Those who participate in the Great Wall of Love will apply the same principles of peaceful non-engagement as Planned Parenthood’s escorts, Sims said.
“The WBC is a group of bigoted trash. Pure and simple. Period,” Sims said. “But this isn’t about offering a counter-message to the [Westboro] messaging. If they want to gather together in a hateful little pocket and hate everybody, feel free to. What I want to make sure of is that both the staff and patients of the Mazzoni Center not only know that they are safe and respected, but the Westboro Baptist Church knows that they don’t get to show up in a place like Philadelphia and bring their hate without a response of love and respect from Philadelphians.”
Lynch, 35, of Old City, said he’s asked a few members of the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus to come sing songs of love, and the Philadelphia Freedom Band also has offered to help drown out Westboro’s hateful chants with music.
Organizers hope to turn the event into a fundraiser: They’re considering asking supporters to donate a dime for “every f-word, ‘sodomite,’ ‘hell,’ anything hate-inspired” uttered by Westboro members.
“That’s still in the works, but I think that’s a good way to really turn that hate into love,” Lynch said.
Mazzoni spokeswoman Elisabeth Flynn said the center will boost staff that day to ensure patients can arrive and leave safely. Still, the center doesn’t typically draw protesters, so the Great Wall of Love effort especially is appreciated, she added.
“The reality is that transgender and gender non-conforming people face harassment and risks to their physical safety and mental wellbeing just be being who they are, and just walking down the street,” Flynn said. “So it’s certainly encouraging to see an outpouring of support for the people we serve.”
That’s something that really resounds with Jennifer Zavala, 38, a mother of two who lives in South Philadelphia and plans to join the Great Wall of Love.
“Westboro tends to really capitalize on vulnerable moments in people’s lives. It’s disgusting and it’s bulls**t, and what they stand for is just crap,” Zavala said. “It’s real easy to react (negatively) to these people, and that’s what they want. To stay cool and stay happy and show that contrast is really important.”
She added: “As a parent, it’s also important for me to be a role model for my children. Kids see that stuff (Westboro signs), so they should also see (the other side) stay calm and have a positive message of love and don’t back down.”
Besides the Mazzoni picket, Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis, whose father, Fred Phelps, is the church pastor who started the notorious pickets, also applied for a city permit for two hourlong “peaceful religious demonstrations featuring signs, banners, placards, flags and music” on July 26 and 27 at FDR Park, across the street from the Wells Fargo Center, where the convention will be held. Ten picketers are expected. The status of the application is listed as “pending.”
Church members also plan two protests on July 19 and 20 at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.