Members of the Arvada United Methodist Church congregation attended services and enjoyed an ice cream social in the Church’s courtyard on July 25, just as they might on any given Sunday. To many …
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Members of the Arvada United Methodist Church congregation attended services and enjoyed an ice cream social in the Church’s courtyard on July 25, just as they might on any given Sunday. To many churchgoers, the only thing that may have appeared out of the ordinary was the influx of cars in the parking lot.
The extra traffic can be attributed to the presence of the Parasol Patrol, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group whose mission is to shield members of the community and children from hateful protests. When the group became aware that the Westboro Baptist Church, longtime peddlers of homophobia and transphobia, had plans to picket AUMC, the group mobilized.
“We’ve stood up to Westboro many times,” said Pasha Eve, co-founder of Parasol Patrol. “We use umbrellas to shield kids from seeing sign that they bring. The highest compliment we can get from a parent is when they say, `Our kidsdidn’t even know protesters were there at all.’ That means we’re doing our job.”
By Eve’s standard, Sunday’s Parasol Patrol assembly was a success, as over 150 people assembled with umbrellas to shield AUMC churchgoers from Westboro’s picket, which was made up of 12 people, many of which were descendants of WBC founder Fred Phelps.
Ginny Dunkelberger, who has been going to church at AUMC for 10 years, said the Parasol Patrol’s buffer was effective.
“You couldn’t even see the protesters,” said Dunkelberger.
Eve added that Parasol Patrol are not counter protesters, as they do not engage with protesters whenever they attend pickets.
AUMC is a reconciling congregation, meaning the church accepts members of the LGBTQ+ community into its ranks, even hosting a Pride Month celebration in June. Members of the church said that AUMC’s stance on LGBTQ+ inclusivity was a key factor in their joining the congregation.
“People need to know that there’s a safe place,” Tammy Box, who has been attending church at AUMC for 10 years, “that there are people that love them and live out the example of Christ. The religious community is not all hate or `love the sinner, hate the sin.’ That’s not the message. It’s `love everyone and love them where they are.’ We’re so much better together.”
Ben Rowe, who has been a member of AUMC’s congregation since 2014, said that he has been a part of the reconciling congregation movement for years and wanted to find a church community that welcomed all.
“To me it’s crucial,” Rowe said of LGBTQ+ inclusivity. “When we were looking for a church, we wanted to be sure to find a church that would welcome LGBTQIA people. It’s been wonderful. It’s been great to see gay and lesbian couples be a part of the service, whether in the choir, ushering, or reading scripture. That’s the interesting thing about it, once it’s no longer important, then you focus on who the people are.”
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church have long espoused their hatred of the LGBTQ+ community, rising to prominence in 1998 by protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was killed in a hate crime. WBC is recognized as one of the “most obnoxious and rabid hate groups” in the country by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The group stated that they came to Arvada to protest AUMC’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ people and warn the community that this inclusivity was triggering “the hand of God,” writing that “God sent the shooter to Arvada,” in a July 17 press release.
MORE: A day after tragedy
WBC’s press release also stated that they would be picketing the Agape Life Church and the Shrine of St. Anne Catholic Church, both in Arvada. Eve said Parasol Patrol reached out to both churches and did not hear back from Agape and were asked not to attend WBC’s picket at St. Anne’s.
“God is punishing this world for its refusal to obey,” said Karl Hockenbarger, a member of WBC’s picket. “This city, like many 100% of the other cities in this country, are adopting homosexuality as normal, as the dominant means of social intercourse (sic). One of your own being killed in that shooting is God’s hand saying, `Why aren’t you repenting?’”
House District 27 Representative Brianna Titone attended Parasol Patrol’s gathering and condemned WBC’s stated motivation for picketing AUMC.
“It’s a ridiculous argument that they’re just trying to capitalize on,” said Titone, “and trying to make people fearful that `if you accept LGBT people you’re going to have a shooting’ and that’s a really horrible sentiment to try to say to someone, to make people feel afraid that something completely unrelated is going to affect their community because of accepting a group of people. It’s laughable, it’s insulting.”
Arvada City Councilmember Lauren Simpson echoed Titone’s sentiment, stating that the large number of attendees for the Parasol Patrol gathering show that Arvada is a welcoming community. Simpson wore a shirt commemorating fallen Arvada Police Officer Gordon Beesley emblazoned with the Olde Town water tower and the words “Look for the good in every day.”
“It is so incredibly important that we stand up and show these people what this community is really about,” said Simpson. “We are about love, we are about tolerance, we are about inclusivity here. The reason they’re here is what happened in Olde Town on June 21. I’m wearing this shirt to honor Gordon Beesley, who always looked for the good in people. Today, you guys are the good.”
However, the WBC may have chosen to picket AUMC for more convenient reasons. Isaiah Phelps-Roper said that the group was in the area on vacation, and Jonah Phelps-Roper confirmed that WBC finds a church to protest every time they go on vacation.
“We’re here simultaneously as a break, as a vacation,” said Isaiah. “But we have an obligation to warn our neighbors that their sins are taking them to Hell. So, we want to serve God in everything we do, so even when we go on a trip that’s for rest and relaxation, we make a point to make a stop in the area to preach the word of God.”
“We do this every time,” said Jonah. “If we go on vacation, there is a picket.”
For their part, members of AUMC’s community said that the fact that a group as hateful as the WBC would come to picket their LGBTQ+ inclusion means that they’re on the right track.
“It means that we’re doing something right,” said Dr. Amy Gearhart, AUMC’s lead pastor, “that we’re living in our witness and mission to be an inclusive congregation. We believe that it’s rooted in baptism, it’s rooted in the way we understand God’s grace for all people.
“It’s great to have allies in the community,” Gearhart said of the Parasol Patrol, “that share our mission and our vision, and several of our congregation have been a part of their efforts.”
Ginny Dunkelberger said the church community is enhanced by its LGBTQ+ members.
“I think we’re better together,” said Dunkelberger. “It sounds like a cliché, but it’s not. We gain from diversity. We all learn from each other how to love better and be better people.”
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