Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Thugs

United Methodist activists form a human shield to block a demonstrator from the Westboro Baptist Church on May 4 outside the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida. The United Methodists belong to a group that supports the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church, while the Westboro demonstrators travel widely with their anti-homosexual agenda.

When I heard this week that the hatemongers from Westboro Baptist Church were coming to the United Methodist General Conference in Florida, an event I was covering for the denomination’s news service, I felt caught in a dilemma. I’ve photographed these idiots before, and they are beyond despicable. And yet every time a photographer shows up to shoot one of their activities, it merely feeds their sick egos. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we all just ignored them. They very well might go away. On the other hand, their presence is news in itself, and I’m uncomfortable deciding a group doesn’t warrant coverage just because I disagree with them. So I was really torn.

But when they showed up, they were quickly blockaded by a human shield of people from the coalition of progressive groups that hung out in a huge tent across from the convention center. They turned their backs on the homophobic thugs and encouraged people to move along, that there was nothing there to see. I think it worked effectively, and it allowed me to capture images in which no longer was hate speech the focus, but rather the calm demeanor of people who nonviolently resist hatred. I’ll gladly take photos of that any day.

It was also a sort of iconic image for the entire 11-day conference, in which on vote after vote, the forces of exclusion and oppression found majority support. In a plenary debate, an African delegate called gay people names that the interpreter would only translate after apologizing. On the unsuccessful proposal to divest from corporations benefitting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, speakers rewrote history, echoing a blind Zionism and issuing appeals to a jihad against Muslims. And so on, day after day. Although as a visual communicator I only kept one ear tuned to the words being uttered, much of what I heard was ignorant, arrogant, and hateful.

But that’s not the whole picture. Just like the sisters and brothers who turned their backs on the Westboro folks, taking a stand for love and tolerance, so are many in the denomination maintaining their steady vigil in favor of a church that’s truly characterized by open minds, open hearts, and open doors. They stood at the sides of the conference hall, quietly praying for conversion of a church that’s increasingly captive to cultural racism. They sat in the plenary as delegates, speaking when they could a word of hope. They are so many colleagues and friends in so many churches and communities around the globe who work unstintingly for justice. They are our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers who only want the freedom to love who they want. They are the poor, who call us all to understand the Gospel as it is incarnated through their lives and struggles. They are the real picture worth taking every day.

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