Two Faith Groups Turn Hatred Into Blessing

Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Two Faith Groups Turn Hatred Into Blessing

Believe it or not, last Sunday was a great day for religion in Santa Fe. Not only Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom, it was the day that Christians and Jews and built a holy bridge of redemptive connection over the homophobic waters of Westboro Baptist Church. For weeks, local media had reported that specific churches were going to be picketed by Phelps for our recent outpouring of sympathy for James Maestas, a young gay man who had been beaten into a coma because of his sexual orientation.

St. Bede’s Episcopal Church, with its rainbow flag and open message of inclusion, was an obvious target of the church. Despite precautions and plans, the church community was edgy: they had been vandalized by local hate groups several times already.

St. Bede’s is not only home to its parishioners but to HaMakom: The Place for Passionate and Progressive Judaism. Despite Phelps’ arrival on a major Jewish holiday, our community immediately pledged its support of the church by offering to escort its members into the church to attend services. There were so many people coming to church that day that its rector, Father Richard Murphy, remarked that it looked like a Christmas mass.

It also looked like something none of us had ever seen before. If God is radical amazement, we glimpsed the holy at St. Bede’s. As the picketers were photographed singing puerile, original lyrics to “God Bless America”, we caught another picture. Amidst their repellant signs and the wonder of spring rain, the church parking lot bloomed with umbrellas carried by HaMakom members wearing white yarmulkes (scull caps) as they met parishioners to escort them into the church. Fears of violence melted as people from both congregations huddled together smiling and laughing at the remarkable way God had brought them together to be lovers of peace and freedom.

As a church that has long stood for freedom from prejudice and exclusion of lesbians and gays, St. Bede’s was now being helped by its Jewish friends to have the freedom to attend church without the blight of homophobia. This may have been a historic moment: while Jews have often marched with oppressed groups, we rarely have been called to shelter Episcopalian faith groups. For HaMakom, it was a sacrifice for which we were profoundly grateful, because St. Bede’s has given us so much.

30 of us met to pray that morning in Father Murphy’s office, and as we ended our song that prayed for the God of heaven who makes peace in heaven to bring peace on earth, there was a knock at the door. I wish that the world had been with us to witness what happened next. Deacon Kyra Kerr, resplendent in her white chasuble, entered to thank us, and showed us her head covering: a white yarmulke with a blue Star of David! The night before, members of St. Bede’s made these symbols of friendship, solidarity, and appreciation to wear in church. Her tears inspired ours, as we thought of the Danes in the Holocaust who wore Stars of David to let their Jews know that they were not alone.

When the picketers left and we all entered the standing room only crowd in the sanctuary, the white yarmulkes that dotted the room might have confused many about exactly what kind of religious service it was!

While Father Murphy and I won’t be sending Fred Phelps a thank you note, we’ve come to humbly accept the presence of angels, no matter how disguised. We had hoped for a non-event. What we had gotten was infinitely better, an event that demonstrates that the power of compassion can set us free of fear and violence.

Rabbi Malka Drucker