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Vermont faith groups proclaim love against rhetoric of hate

8/5/1999 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Holly E. Nye*

MONTPELIER, Vt. (UMNS) -- About 200 Vermonters from a variety of faith communities assembled at Trinity United Methodist Church Aug. 2 for a "Witness Against Hate: An Interfaith Worship Service of Love and Reconciliation."

Those leading the service included laity and clergy from the United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal and Jewish communities.

They gathered, as Pastor Mitchell Hay noted in his welcome, because "the voice of hatred, the voice of fear, is coming into our community. (We gather) to say 'no' to that voice and 'yes' to the voice of love."

Religious leaders planned the service as a response to the arrival in the state capital of picketers from the controversial Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The independent church, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, has held demonstrations around the country condemning homosexuals with inflammatory rhetoric such as "God hates fags." Westboro had gained permission for 10 picketers to stand in front of the Vermont state house for two hours on Aug. 3 "in solemn protest and warning," according to the church's World Wide Web site.

Phelps' group targeted Vermont because the Vermont Supreme Court is deliberating a case in which several homosexual couples have sued the state for the right to be legally married. The ecumenical service was planned not to express any stance on the legal question of marriage, but simply to take a stand against the rhetoric of hate used by the Westboro group, organizers said.

Hay summed up the sense of outrage felt by many in the religious community, pointing out that "Phelps uses a language I also use. I won't let him take my language. I won't let him take the message of hate and shoot it at the heart of the gospel and shrivel it dry."

Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Burlington offered the message for the evening. "It is good that our sisters and brothers are here from Kansas," he pointed out, "because we can bear witness to the mainstream religious tradition of Vermont."

Being unified for the purpose of proclaiming God's love and justice is good for the religious communities - and "it results in good music," he said.

A central teaching of Judaism is that "each one of us is created in the image of God," Chasan said. He remarked on "how far we have come: we can pray side by side in our own language," whereas 30 years ago there was intolerance among the different religious traditions. This unity is a strength, he said, as the community faces those who would say that Jews, as well as homosexuals, are "going to hell."

He defined a stance for the religious community to take against the intrusion of hate groups: responding not with "haters, go home" but with "haters, come home." The task of the mainstream religious traditions is to stand for the human rights of all, and to call people "home" to the God of love and compassion. Chasan's message received a standing ovation from the congregation in the full sanctuary.

Advance publicity for the service affirmed that "our shared music, song, stories and liturgy will celebrate that God is the God of steadfast love and compassion." Readings reflected the theme: from Micah 6 ("What does the Lord require of you?"), I John 4 ("Let us love on another"), Mark 12:28-34 ("The greatest commandment"), and Romans 8 ("Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God").

Music for the service included traditional Jewish chants, anthems from the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir, congregational singing from the United Methodist Hymnal, melodies from a local steel drum band, and an impromptu solo of "Oh Freedom." As verses were added to the traditional gospel tune, proclaiming, "no more hatred ... no more fear ... there'll be loving over me," the congregation rose to join the singing. By the end of the service, the mood of outrage and concern had given way to one of celebration and purpose, and commitment to live out the message of God's love.

Westboro's protest took place as scheduled the next morning. The 10 picketers were outnumbered by about 200 counter-protesters and left before their allotted time was up. Bread and Puppet, a well-known Vermont puppet theater group, led the remaining crowd on an impromptu parade down the street.

Some members of Monday evening's congregation stopped by to watch the action. But they had already made their response.

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*Nye is media editor for the Troy Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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