Days away from a protest from the Westboro Baptist Church, religious officials around the Virginia Tech community are speaking out against the church’s message.
The church, known for its protests of funerals of American soldiers, actively rallies against other religious groups both in person and online, running sites dedicated to denouncing Judaism and Catholicism. The church also runs the Web site
GodHatesTheWorld.com, which features a world map where visitors can “find out why God hates that country.”
Reggie Tuck, pastor at the Blacksburg United Methodist Church, said he struggled “to discern an appropriate and redemptive response” to the protests. Tuck said he had been in contact with groups targeted by the church, including the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance.
Westboro Baptist Church has frequently targeted gays in addition to other religious groups in their protests, with signs such as “God Hates Fags.”
Tuck said he wondered how to “be a representative of Christ in a situation” such as the protest.
“How can you engage them constructively to say that this is not our understanding. God loves all people,” Tuck said. “That sort of ‘God hates’ whatever group you’re going to tag ... we’ve been struggling to figure out where they drive that understanding from.”
John Grace, campus priest for the Catholic-based Newman Center at Virginia Tech, complained of the crudeness of the WBC’s protest.
“People have free speech, but there is a violation of sensitivities,” Grace said. He also disagreed with the WBC’s description as a Christian group.
“They call themselves Christian, but so does the (Ku Klux) Klan,” Grace said. “Anyone who advocates hate and violence separates themselves from the teachings of Jesus.”
Tommy McDearis, pastor at Blacksburg Baptist Church, said he felt “embarrassed” that his church could be linked with the WBC.
“They are not connected to any Baptist group in the nation,” McDearis said. McDearis disagreed with the church’s style of protest.
“Jesus wasn’t a promoter of hate,” he said.
Despite a uniform opposition to the Westboro’s message, opinions were mixed on whether or not to engage in the church in counterprotest.
Grace was adamant in his stance that the church’s protest should be ignored.
“What does a group like this want other than attention?” Grace said. “The best thing to do with groups like this is give them no attention.”
Jeff Highfield, director of Campus Crusade for Christ, said his group would not organize against the church, but he left the option to counterprotest to students.
“If they feel they need to do that that’s great,” Highfield said. “We support them in doing that.”
Tuck recounted the challenge of creating “authentic engagement” in dealing with a similar group with a hateful message.
“What I found is there was no dialogue,” Tuck said. “We were just talking past each other.”
Some of the officials interviewed expressed hope that the protest would bring about a positive outcome.
Highfield said he hoped the protest would foster campus religious discussion. Grace said he hoped the WBC’s negative tone could serve as a “reminder as far as how we treat people.”
“I hope this triggers a sense of being civil and respectful to any of us on campus,” Grace said.
Members of Westboro Baptist Church, after protesting in
downtown Blacksburg and outside Blacksburg High School, will end its protests in Blacksburg with a rally outside the Blacksburg Jewish Community Center on East Roanoke Street from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The Jewish community has mostly ignored commenting on the WBC’s protest.
Shay Nevo, president of Tech’s Hillel group, declined comment on the protest. Joshua Shallom, president of the Blacksburg Jewish Community Center, declined an interview request, instead e-mailing a statement to the Collegiate Times.
“The Blacksburg Jewish Community Center (BJCC) — and Hillel at VT — support the Constitutional rights of all individuals, be it for or against contentious issues,” the statement read. “The BJCC believes and supports freedom of religion and practice, and does not support discrimination in any form.”