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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Funeral pickets to be met by 'angels'

Tucson, Arizona (CNN) -- Tucson just isn't that kind of town, says Christin Gilmer.
Gilmer is referring to the actions of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, which has made its name protesting the funerals of people who died of AIDS, gay people, soldiers and even Coretta Scott King.
But when the church announced its intention to picket the funeral of a 9-year-old girl -- one of six people who died Saturday during the attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- Gilmer and others put their feet down.
Tucson is a "caring, loving, peaceful community," according to Gilmer, who said two of the six people killed were friends.
"For something like this to happen in Tucson was a really big shock to us all," she said. "Our nightmare happened when we saw Westboro Baptist Church was going to picket the funerals."
They're planning an "angel action" -- with 8- by 10-foot "angel wings" worn by participants and used to shield mourners from pickets. The actions were created by Coloradan Romaine Patterson, who was shocked to find the Topeka church and its neon signs outside the 1999 funeral of Matthew Shepherd, a young gay man beaten and left on a fence to die in Laramie, Wyoming.
"We want to surround them, in a nonviolent way, to say that our community is united," Gilmer said. "We're a peaceful haven.
"You don't mess with Tucson," said Gilmer, 26, who described it as "a little dot of blue in a sea of red."
But political persuasions don't matter, she said. Republicans, Democrats, independents, right, left and center -- they've all offered their support. Forty-two people have signed up on a Facebook page called "Build Angel Wings for the Westboro Funeral Counter-Protest and Meeting," and more than 4,500 have signed up on another page to "Show Support for the Families of the Tucson Shooting Victims."
"People, businesses, they're all donating material and money to build the angel wings," said Gilmer, who is helping organize the action. She added they're donating to a fund created to help pay for services for the shooting victims.
Chelsea Cohen, a 20-year-old senior at the University of Arizona who launched the "Show Support" Facebook page, said she never expected such a response.
"Once I heard that the Westboro Baptist Church was coming, I felt like something should be done to show support for the families," she said. "I don't have any experience in organizing these things. I thought I might get 50 to 100 people."
Cohen said she thinks many of the 4,500 people who've signed up on the Facebook page will be there "in spirit" Thursday when mourners gather for the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, who was born on September 11, 2001. But she added, Tucson is an active town, and the response isn't likely to be small.
"This isn't a counterprotest," she said. "We wanted it to show support for the families and to show that Tucson is there with love and support."
They don't want to interfere with the funeral in any way, Cohen said.
"We plan on being completely silent, and we're asking people not to bring signs or make comments about the Westboro Baptist Church," she said.
The angels will be doing the same thing.
"We're going to silently stand there so people can mourn the death of a 9-year-old girl who died in a senseless tragedy," Gilmer said.
Cohen said several groups are planning to be at the funeral to show their support, and there is an effort afoot to bring them all together "into one group so we can all be on the same page."
"I hope that everyone there can convey the peaceful message that we want to convey, she said
And if the church pickets persist, the silent supporters will be on hand for the funerals of U.S. District Judge John Roll, Gabriel Zimmerman, Dorothy Morris, Dorwin Stoddard and Phyllis Schneck, the other five victims of Saturday's shooting. Giffords, who was shot in the head and is in critical condition, and 13 other people were wounded.
Westboro Baptist Church, founded by its spiritual leader, Fred Phelps, and run mostly by family members, did not respond to a request for an interview in time for this article. But a flier released by the church about the picket targets the Roman Catholic Church because Christina and her family were members.
"God hates Catholics!" the flier, posted on the church's "God Hates Fags" website, says. "God calls your religion 'vain,' as it's empty of His truth; you worship idols!"


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