Many residents of Wheeling and Charleston, W.Va., are looking forward to their communities banding together in unity this weekend — and all it took was a little fire and brimstone.
The Westboro Baptist Church, best known for its religiously motivated hate speech aimed at Jews, blacks, homosexuals, Catholics and other groups, will be arriving in West Virginia this weekend to picket events they see as sinful. Namely, synagogue and church services.
In response, a conglomeration of religious and social organizations in both Wheeling and Charleston have planned solidarity rallies.
“This is not a counterprotest,” said Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner of Wheeling’s Temple Shalom. “This is for us to join in solidarity and support of each other and to unify against hate.”
Wheeling’s rally was organized by Temple Shalom, NAACP, students from Wheeling Jesuit University, the Wheeling Human Rights Commission and several other groups and churches. From 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, April 10, Wheeling residents will join together for eight musical performances as well as “an opening interfaith invocation and a reading every half hour,” said Chottiner.
“An attack on one is an attack on all,” said Diana Bell, director of racial justice at Wheeling’s YWCA and an NAACP executive board member. “We want to show them that the community of Wheeling will not tolerate their message — so we’ll put an alternative message out there of peace and harmony.”
In Charleston, the efforts to organize a similar rally Thursday, April 8, at 5:30 p.m. on the city’s capitol grounds have caused a surge of local pride and unity. First, a “huge, diverse spectrum of organizations came together to sign a statement of cooperation, mutual respect and equality of everyone in the community,” said Rabbi Jim Cohn of Temple Israel. “It was as fundamental a coalition as can be imagined.”
Cohn said Charleston groups wanted to “make everything we did separate [from the WBC].”
Both cities also launched campaigns to “send [WBC] a message that they’re not welcome here,” said Chottiner. In Wheeling, posters were distributed, displaying “West Virginia is no place for hate.”
Similarly, Charleston leaders wanted “to give people something they could do,” said Cohn. Rally organizers have urged people to post paper heart cutouts in their windows.
“When [the WBC] is here presenting their six or 10 picket signs, we hope to have hundreds of window signs with a very simple, straightforward image of love,” said Cohn. “This heart icon has become a unifying step.”
Chottiner, who dealt with the WBC before when her temple received consistent, hate-motivated faxes, said she realized that engaging the WBC would not be productive.
“When you sit down to talk with people, you do so with the intent of having a civil conversation,” she said. “Everything I’ve seen, heard or read of this group shows me they are close-minded, bigoted, racist and consumed with hatred. Speaking with them would literally be like talking to a brick wall.”
Without any illusions that community rallies could change the minds of WBC members, leaders simply hope to give the community and the media something more positive on which to focus this weekend.
“We want to become the story; to steal the story from the WBC,” said Cohn. “We’re annoyed by the idea that they get the publicity through hatred.”
While the Church’s visits to West Virginia this weekend may not bring them any new followers, it has caused a newfound togetherness, said Cohn.
“One thing their visit has done is draw together groups or leaders who might not otherwise have found an opportunity to create solidarity.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)