Anti-gay Fred Phelps has protested at the funerals of gay men, at pro-gay churches and schools, at conferences and hundreds of other events. But his strategy often includes saying he will be somewhere and not showing up.
Last week, the Phelps Web site, www.godhatesfags.com, said his merry band of protesters would be at a pro-gay church in Park Forest Sunday, before protesting at the Crete-Monee High School Monday.
The high school received national attention when a lesbian duo was voted cutest couple by their peers—and school officials, after a protest, allowed the vote to stand and the couple to appear in this year's yearbook.
When the Unitarian Universalist Community Church heard Phelps was coming to a pro-gay Park Forest church, they knew they were a top candidate and they sent out an alert to Unitarian churches in the region. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network also sent out the news, and helped organize a counter-protest outside the church last Sunday.
A few of the Unitarians also showed up at the high school Monday to show their support of the students—and many students told Windy City Times that they were fully prepared to participate in a counter-protest had Phelps actually shown up.
But the rag-tag Phelps klan and their over-sized 'GOD HATES FAGS' posters were home in Kansas—they did not show for either protest.
Many parents of Crete-Monee students took their children out of school Monday, with some students telling Windy City Times that as many as 400 of the school's 1,200 students were not in school.
'The parents did not want trouble,' one girl told WCT. Inside the school, administrators would not allow WCT to talk with the 'cutest couple.' They were also fielding calls from media asking if Phelps had shown.
While a few students shouted 'go home' to the pro-gay sign holders, most seemed progressive—honking their car horns and showing off their rainbow attire.
The teens who spoke to Windy City Times said the school has been really good on this issue, and they were wondering why Phelps would not show.
Park Forest sits in both Cook County and Will County. The Unitarian Universalist Community Church is just over Cook's southern border, making it part of a very conservative county with no gay protections.
But the police as well as more than 100 church members and supporters showed up Sunday morning, starting around 7:30 a.m., for both the 9 and 11 a.m. services, led by Martin Woulfe, interim minister. There were rainbow stickers and flags, and 'Welcome to our hate-free zone' signs, along with other hand-made placards for the day. Parents brought their children—who seemed just as energetic about the protests as the adults.
Standing out in the cold early morning hours, several church supporters stood on Western Avenue, where the Unitarian Universalist Community Church sign stands, to make sure Phelps did not take over their sign. Others stood at the church's parking lot entrance, while others hovered outside the church's front door.
'Today's Unitarian Universalism is a religion that welcomes all religious beliefs and theologies,' Woulfe said. The Unitarian Universalist Community Church in particular has gone through the 'welcoming' process two times, whereby an individual Unitarian church proclaims itself supportive of GLBTs.
Unitarians from Chicago, Naperville, Downer's Grove and other far suburbs travelled in caravans to show their support. They were joined by CABN supporters from the North and South side of Chicago.
Heather Godbout, an open lesbian who is the GLBT coordinator for the Gender Justice Action Group of UUCC (a group she and her mother formed), said the response to Phelps grew very organically, with many individuals and groups lending their support along the way. Godbout teaches at an elementary school in the same district as Crete-Monee High School, and said even if Phelps didn't show, 'We can't let it go. I am not willing to turn a blind eye to bigotry.'
Patricia Hughes Ussery, UUCC board president, said the church has a healthy gay and lesbian population.
'We see ourselves as a sanctuary for people of liberal thought and from different forms of spirituality,' Ussery said. 'This is a sincerely welcoming congregation.'
UUCC members felt empowered by the support, even if Phelps himself did not show. With Park Forest—and much of the South Suburbs—known as a such a conservative area, those who attended said this showed that they are not as isolated as some might have believed.
'Those Phelpsians subscribe to a very different worldview and theological system,' Minister Woulfe said. 'We soundly reject both their interpretation of scripture and their notion that hatred is an attribute of the divine nature. We deplore their campaign against non-heterosexuals.'
UUCC is at 70 Sycamore Dr., Park Forest, 60466, (708) 481-5339.
— Also contributing: Kathleen Ulm