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Counter protest planned for anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church’s expected picket in Amherst Wednesday

Derrick Gordon, a University of Massachusetts basketball player, last week became the first Division 1 men’s college basketball player to publicly reveal he is gay. In response, the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas has said they are coming to Amherst on Wednesday to picket him. A counter-protest is planned.
(AP Photo)

Derrick Gordon, a University of Massachusetts basketball player, last week became the first Division 1 men’s college basketball player to publicly reveal he is gay. In response, the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas has said they are coming to Amherst on Wednesday to picket him. A counter-protest is planned. (AP Photo)

AMHERST — Area groups are preparing a show of support Wednesday to counter plans by members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church to stage a protest against Derrick Gordon, the University of Massachusetts basketball player who last week became the first Division 1 men’s college basketball player to publicly reveal he is gay.

The church, a notorious group from Kansas known for its virulent rhetoric, announced on its Twitter feed that it will be in Amherst at 12:15 p.m.

A UMass group with a Facebook page called UMass United: #StandwithDerrick has over 1,000 people indicating they will gather at the intersection from 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., where Westboro protesters are expected. That is at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue, according to Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone. Also, ministers from Amherst and Haydenville are asking members of local churches to show up.

The Rev. Caroline Meyers of South Congregational Church in Amherst said, in a telephone interview, that she will dress as “the Christian clown,” symbolic of the “silent truth,” and lead parishioners to make a statement of peace and love before the Westboro group. And the Rev. Susannah Crolius of the Haydenville Congregational Church has sent out an email “encouraging all Christian churches (that) are gay-affirming” to coalesce Wednesday “and show the power of love in action in the face of Westboro’s message of wrath.”

On its Facebook page, the UMass group said its purpose is to “show support and solidarity for our students.”

Organizers, listed as Ellie Miske, Sionan Barrett and Charlotte Kelly, say in the post the university gathering will not be an angry rally. “In no way do we want to perpetrate hate, violence or even give attention to Westboro,” they wrote. “We are going there to give support to Derrick and other LGBTQ students.”

The organizers could not be reached for comment.

The organizers of UMass United could not be reached for comment.

The UMass athletic department had no plans to officially participate.

“We respect organizations’ rights to assemble and to voice their opinions as provided for under the Constitution and the right to free speech,” UMass athletic department spokesman John Sinnett said. “The university has shown a great spirit for celebrating and supporting diversity of all types and that is a great message for all to receive. The acceptance of the student body, administration and the community of people of all races, religions, and sexual orientation is something to truly be proud of.”

The Amherst College Black Student Union issued this statement on its Facebook page: “The Westboro Baptist Church will be picketing at UMass on Wednesday. We strongly encourage everyone to #StandwithDerrick then at the intersection of Route 9 and University Drive at 11:45 a.m.”

Westboro Baptist Church, which is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination, is known for verbal attacks against gays, Catholics, Jews and other groups, and staging demonstrations at high-profile events aimed to get media attention. Often the group does not show up at its announced rallies. According to its Twitter feed it also has a protest planned against the singer Miley Cyrus in Kansas Wednesday.

On the UMass United Facebook page, organizers have included a list of ground rules for its supporters including no yelling, no hate and to disperse immediately if asked by law enforcement.

Meyers said she asked parishioners during her Palm Sunday sermon to join her Wednesday and also put the message out on her Facebook page. She said she runs a Bible study group on Wednesdays that will be canceled this week and participants may come along to the Westboro protest. At mid-day Monday, she said, she had about a dozen people committed.

Meyers has asked people to meet her at the church at 1066 South East St. at 11 a.m. Once it is determined exactly where Westboro members will be, the group will head there, she said. In addition to being dressed as a clown that does not speak, Meyers will bring the bread and juice of communion. The Christian clown symbol is one she has used at services at her church, she said, and it has proven to be a “powerful message.” The silent jester, she said, points out truths people fail to see otherwise. “The idea is to show people love in action rather than words,” she said.

In her email, Crolius said she hoped to get at least 10 members from each local church. Such a turnout, she said, would make a strong statement “to all those unchurched or wounded by church to hold up a different vision of what church is thought to be and believe.”

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