Students react to Westboro Baptist Church protest
Last Friday, seven members of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its opposition to homosexuality and its public demonstrations, protested on South Street in front of the Main Gate while students held Celebrate Brandeis in response, a day of performances and activities to celebrate diversity.According to the Church's website, the members were picketing Hillel "to remind these Jews that they bear the curse of their forefather's [sic] murder of Christ" and to chastise students for "spending their energies on drunkeness [sic] lust, sloth and greed rather than serving the Lord Almighty." In an interview with the Justice during the protest, Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of WBC pastor Fred Phelps, said that the church had picketed earlier that morning at nearby locations such as the Islamic Center of Boston and Framingham High School and were planning to picket at Harvard University Hillel later that day.
"I couldn't miss this opportunity [to picket Brandeis]," she said. Phelps-Roper explained that in the past 6 months, she had been talking to Brandeis students about what she described as "doctrines" that concerned Jews in what she referred to as "the last days," or a prophesied apocalypse. Phelps-Roper was unable to say who the students were but said that they had contacted her. "I talked to one all the way home from the airport," she said.
According to Phelps-Roper, the mission of the Topeka, Kan.-based WBC is to "preach the gospel unapologetically."
"You got people who are going to multiply words instead of saying plainly, 'You have to obey God,'" she said, going on to refer to individuals and organizations that do not oppose issues such as homosexuality as much as the WBC does and quoted them saying, "This is the [group that says], 'God loves everybody,' [and] 'It's okay to be gay.'
When asked if the WBC promotes hate, Phelps-Roper responded, "You can't preach God's word without talking about his hatred." She also said, "For every one verse about his love and mercy for his people that obey him, there are five verses about his wrath and his destructive vengeance against those who don't."
Three adult members of the church held signs that bore phrases such as "Destruction is imminent," "Your Rabbi is a whore," "Rabbis rape kids" and "God is your enemy." There were also four children with the protesters, one of whom was Phelps-Roper's child. One of the protesters yelled out phrases similar to those on the signs.
Students, many of whom were informed of the WBC's arrival through news on Facebook, an e-mail sent out by Jehuda Reinharz or by word-of-mouth came down to the entrance to see the protest from 8:45 to 9:15 a.m. While some students tried to go to South Street to interact with the WBC protesters, many students formed a crowd by the University entrance and watched the picketers from a short distance.
"I was just curious to see how many of them were actually here," said Anna Duey '14.
Duey said that she had come from and was planning to go back to Celebrate Brandeis, a day of speeches, performances and activities put together by students, purposely scheduled at the same time as and in response to the WBC protest.
The Celebrate Brandeis activities were held on the Great Lawn from 8:30 until 9:30 a.m. and included musical performances from Manginah, remarks from Student Union President Daniel Acheampong '11 and Hillel President Andrea Wexler '11, short speeches from University President Jehuda Reinharz and President-elect Fredrick Lawrence, face painting by Triskelion, hora dancing with Adagio and B'yachad and free breakfast and coffee. Events continued in the Shapiro Campus Center with an art gallery display, dance performance groups in the Atrium and an open lunch and discussion.
According to an interview with Erica Shaps '13, the campus relations coordinator for Hillel, who was involved in planning Celebrate Brandeis, student groups like Hillel, the Brandeis Interfaith Group, the Brandeis Justice League (an organization of Brandeis students who advocate social justice), the Student Union, Triskelion, the Queer Resource Center, the Graduate Student Association and the Interfaith Chaplaincy assisted in organizing the event.
"[The planning] was overwhelming because there was so much energy and so many ideas," said Shaps. "But what we really wanted was to create a framework that allowed for all of those ideas and plans to happen in a structured way that still allowed for creativity."
In an interview with the Justice, Sahar Massachi '11, who writes for the student blog Innermost Parts, is part of the Justice League and was heavily involved in planning Celebrate Brandeis, said that the idea first originated as a counterprotest in front of the WBC but later changed to a plan to ignore the WBC while creating a positive event.
"[The WBC] is sort of a catalyst or excuse to have this celebration, but I think the celebration is a good thing in any case," said Massachi. "I think the need for something like this [celebration] has been out there for a long time."
Both Massachi and Shaps said that although Celebrate Brandeis was sparked by news of the WBC protest, it was focused on uniting the University and said that they were unaware if the WBC protesters knew of Celebrate Brandeis.
"We talk about the Brandeis community, but it's great to have a chance to show up and form those bonds," said Massachi. "The main driving thought behind this day is how can we actually not just show, but actually create a Brandeis community."
According to Shaps, over 300 students, faculty and community members attended Celebrate Brandeis, and over $4,000 was raised in the past few weeks for Keshet, an organization that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals of all Jewish backgrounds and denominations.
Shaps said that the students she talked to after Celebrate Brandeis were positive about the turn of events, the involvement of students and the support of the Brandeis administration. "It's funny how something like hate, something like this terrible intolerance, like the Westboro Baptist Church can really unite a campus," said Shaps.
"I hope it sent the message that Brandeis is a place of both unity and diversity," said Megan Straughan '11, the coordinator of the Queer Resource Center, who worked to plan Celebrate Brandeis.