Westboro Baptist: God Loves Poetry

Last week, the Westboro Baptist Church announced plans to protest my university. Apparently, American University’s community is too open, too liberal, and ultimately too gay-friendly to go unaddressed. (See Josh Garrett-Davis’ essay on Westboro that appeared a year ago on KtB.)

The campus is, naturally, in an uproar. Eager to live up to our reputation as a politically active school, young activists are jumping into the fray, eager to counter-protest in ways ranging from rallying to making signs to singing hymns to having gay orgies on the quad. While I would enjoy blasting Lady Gaga songs as much as the next person, I’ve been encouraging my fellow students to think carefully about the appropriate methods of response.

I’m not sure it’s productive to respond directly to this fringe group, even with something as fun as a campus-wide orgy—ultimately, it gives them more of the attention they seek, and it also validates their viewpoints by entering into some kind of dialogue on their terms. I don’t accept their terms. I think American University needs to transcend the conversation altogether.

GodLovesPoetry.com is a national movement dedicated to challenging the WBC through poetry. The idea is to take WBC’s original press releases and transform them into pieces of art by creating “blackout poetry.” The words that are left behind bring powerful messages of hope, love, and acceptance. You can see my own blackout poem below.

American University
will see truth,
the face of God.
Your God shall be in thine heart.
Teach thy children
that simple commandment:
God is love.

I love the idea of students expressing themselves not through forming a direct counter-protest or feeding the media frenzy, but rather through their own art and poetry. I invited the rest of the campus to join this project, and there have already been almost 20 amazing student submissions (check them out on the Facebook page). I’m currently working to collect them, enlarge them, and display them in poster-form on our quad.

As the local media starts to take notice of American students’ efforts, I’ve been contacted to talk about my project and, honestly, I don’t always know how to best explain it. Yesterday, a particularly challenging interviewer asked me simply why: “If this is a cult-like group, if this handful of people profess views that hardly anyone else can claim to support or agree with, why is this necessary? Who are you taking a stance against? What will you really change?”

Okay. You got me. I don’t know why it feels so important to me to provide some kind of outlet for student expression, despite the fact that we’re expressing a much more mainstream message than the one we’re opposing. Maybe it would be better to simply do nothing, to completely ignore WBC altogether. But somehow, I can’t.

Tara Culp-Ressler, a KtB intern, will graduate from American University in May with a BA in Communications, a minor in Religious Studies, and a lot of student loans. She is a Lancaster County-bred Mennonite trying to find her place in the nation's capital (suggestions welcome).