This insightful reflection is from Katie Carpenter, co-president of the Unitarian Universalist campus ministry group at Vassar College. It is cross-posted from Blue Boat, the blog of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Office of Youth & Young Adult Ministries.
The Westboro Baptist Church protested Vassar College on February 28th, for supporting LGBTQ rights. In response, Vassar’s current and alumni community came together amazingly to denounce Westboro Baptist’s views, in part by raising over $100,000 for The Trevor Project, which provides crisis support and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth. Seeing people rise to meet the challenge made me incredibly proud of my community, and what it strives to stand for.
But what made me prouder was to hear Vassar alum Joseph Tolton, the National Minister of Social Justice from the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries in New York, speak about not just his love for the school but his desire to see it always improving. In the discourse over this event, I’ve heard students challenge the school and point out that homophobia, racism, sexism, cissexism, and other inequalities do exist here; they exist everywhere.
It was a strange experience, to be sure, seeing the Westboro Baptist Church members. There were four of them, and they looked just like you see in pictures; offensive posters, American flags on their clothing, the whole bit. But after you get over the initial surprise that they actually exist, it was easy to not take them very seriously. It’s easy – maybe too easy – to look at Westboro Baptist and feel safe because they’re extreme, and we can distance ourselves from their opinions.
It’s easier to confront hate when it’s in the form of four angry, irrational people on the other side of a police barricade, and you have over 500 people standing with you. It’s not so easy to look inward at your community and demand better. Denouncing the Westboro Baptist Church is easy, but it’s only the beginning of creating real change. Continuing down that path requires facing our own biases and assumptions. We may not agree with hate groups, but we do all have a responsibility for a world in which they can exist. Seeing many Vassar students try to take ownership of that fact gave me an enormous sense of love and appreciation for my community, despite its faults, and I think that’s a sturdy foundation to build from.