Sea of Red

Sterling W. Wyatt, a native of Columbia, Missouri, died in Afgahnistan on July 11th. The Westboro “Baptist” “Church” people decided that they would continue their crusade of hate and idiocy by picketing his funeral. They sent out a press release to that effect on the 17th. Within hours, people all over Columbia were mobilizing against the horrific, destructive weirdness that the Phelps clan stands for. Today, July 21st, Columbia showed up en masse in red clothing to stand with Wyatt’s family. This is some of what it looked like.

Click the panorama for a wide view of just part of the crowd.

The mass of people in front of the church. The crowd lined the streets for miles between the church and cemetary.

I was proud to attend this event, stand in the heat for four hours with my brother-in-law, and witness the unity and care of this town that is now my home. What was amazing and truly special is that this show of solidarity crossed all ideological boundaries. There were Christians and agnostics and atheists there. There were Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians there. There were blacks and whites and asians there. There were artists and teachers and politicians there. There were babies and teenagers and old people there. There were gay and straight and questioning people there. There were rich and poor and homeless people there. There were veterans and conscientious objectors and peaceniks there.

All standing together.

All standing together in 100+ degree heat. All calm and quiet and respectful. All recognizing the complexities of the situation. All willing to stop their day for 2 or 4 or 6 or 8 hours to honor a man who died along some dirty road in Kandahar. All willing to step out and deny twisted fools any chance to spread pain and misinformation. I was pretty proud to be there to see it.

There was a moment when Sterling’s mother was making her way toward the church, and the crowd parted for her. As she moved through a wave of clapping began to take shape. Wave after wave built into an ovation that lasted for minutes on end. It was a whole community of support – not making it any easier, not pretending it was all ok – but recognizing her sacrifice. We’ve been in these damn wars for so long now and most of us don’t have to count the cost so we needed to see her face. We needed to be near her and respect her. She’s paying. Her son paid. They paid in real blood and real tears and real years gone. If the only thing Columbia could give this woman was an ovation of encouragement, if all we could do was let her memory of this day be filtered through our good wishes and red shirts, if our best job was to keep her from seeing the blasphemy that the Westboro picketers brought… then we did well. We couldn’t make it better, but we kept them from making it worse.

I’m a Christian. I’ve spent the last two decades intensely studying the bible and Christian thought. I’ve heard it. I’ve read it. I’ve preached it. I’ve encountered it in history and in individual lives. I’ve seen it in Pontormo and Dostoevesky, in U2 and NASA. I’ve witnessed it through the chance and paradox and uncertainty of real life. It’s a part of who I am. And it offends me at a level that I can’t even begin to describe to see it distorted by the Westboro “Baptist” “Church” (or pedofile priests or opportunitistic politicians). Their actions are so pestilential, so putrifyingly wrong… yet they have become a picture of what Christianity is, who Jesus is, to so many in this country.

In the face of this absolute distortion all I can do is try to be a good man, a good husband, a good dad, a good teacher, a good artist. The only real way for me to show people that Westboro Hate Mongers (or abusive clergy or rightwing pseudo-Christian politicians) don’t represent MY Jesus is by acting out what I believe He’s all about in my own life. I know I can’t do it in my own strength, but that’s part of what I was trying to do today. It’s what I try to do as a teacher. It’s what I try to do as a dad and a husband. I can’t make any big difference. I can’t change anyone’s heart. None of that is my job. But I can try to be a peacemaker and promote justice, try to express reconcilliation, and work to function in a humble, gentle way with everyone.

“He has shown you what is good and what is required of you: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” – Micah 6:8

While thinking about all of the distortion and hate and foolishness is frustrating, it was tremendously encouraging to see my community rise up in a positive way today. I’ll say it again: I’m really proud to live here. I hope our efforts today had some impact – at least on ourselves.

RIP Specialist Sterling W. Wyatt