Peacebuilder’s Angel Wings Take Flight

angel action

The Supreme Court recently ruled in an 8-to-1 decision that the First Amendment protects hateful protests. The case arose in response to the actions of a group calling itself the Westboro Baptist Church that staged an inflammatory protest at the funeral of a slain veteran of the Iraq War. Their point was to contend that the death was justified as God’s punishment for the country’s tolerance of people who are gay. Our constitution protects the messenger regardless of our stand on the message. This has not left those who disagree with that message without a voice—and their methods have proven far more powerful than the methods of those who inspired them to take action.

As a group of 50 mostly related family members, the Westboro Baptist Church has been successful in making headlines. However, their numbers have not grown since their first protests during the trial of Matthew Shepard’s murderers in 1998, nor have other like groups arisen to take up their cause. Instead, these firebrands inspired a movement that effectively put them in check, and that movement has led to real change.

While Fred Phelps and his church members were protesting the trial, Shepard’s high school friend Romaine Patterson was organizing a protest of her own. As the Westboro group chanted and wave signs, Patterson’s counter protesters stood peacefully dressed in large angel wings shielding the families of the victim and accused from Phelps and his group.

Fast forward to October 28, 2009. On this day, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act extending federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

We do not expect to see evil disappear from the world. However, the peacebuilder is one who uses it as inspiration for the good. Romaine Patterson is an example of one person whose response to an injustice hit a chord with many looking for a way to react. When the Westboro Baptist Church threatened another protest at the funerals of those slain in Tucson on the day Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, thousands of people quickly connected in Facebook groups with a determination to duplicate the peaceful protest that had taken place at that Wyoming courthouse more than a decade earlier. Now, this movement has a name: Angel Action, and one can find them organized in Texas and Oregon and Connecticut and beyond.

While the name of Fred Phelps is blasted into our homes on a regular basis, few probably readily recognize the name of Romaine Patterson. However, it was her personal act as a peacebuilder that showed us a positive way to channel our frustration with injustice, and she inspired a movement in the process.

by William Repicci

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