ALTON - A local minister is taking a stance against bigotry by urging the community to transform Westboro Baptist Church's message of hate into a pledge of support.
The Rev. Khleber Van Zandt, minister of First Unitarian Church of Alton, responded to the Rev. Fred Phelps and members from his Topeka, Kan.-based church's protest at a suburban St. Louis high school by rallying an online counter-demonstration.
Recognizing this as an opportunity for an expression of support, Van Zandt created a website, www.khleber.com/justlovewins
, to draw attention to the idea that love is more powerful than hate.
"Our congregation is dedicated to social action and social justice, so we want the students of Clayton High to know that the voices of hate don't speak for all of us," Van Zandt said. "It is unconscionable that statements of hate go unanswered."
The Westboro Baptist Church is an anti-gay extremist group notorious for protesting American values and the United States' involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts at the funerals of military personnel nationwide.
Van Zandt's response reflects the Unitarian Church's larger commitment to social justice through an advocacy of the message, "Just Love Wins." All donations pledged will benefit the Gay Straight Alliance at Clayton High School, the group that Phelps specifically targeted Monday morning.
For each minute the protesters picket, Van Zandt suggested that people donate a dime, a quarter, 50 cents, $1 or $3, as they are able. The protesters were at the school for approximately 30 minutes.
The Alton minister's effort joins a growing fund-raising movement termed a "Phelps-A-Thon," a counter-protest designed to undermine Phelps' anti-gay message.
Phelps' son, Nate Phelps, 53, who broke away from his father as a teenager, lectured at Clayton High School last year against his father's beliefs.
Another of the Rev. Fred Phelps' sons, Fred Phelps Jr., and fellow church members stopped at the high school after picketing Sunday at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
"Our church is trying to show people that God is love," Van Zandt said. "This situation resonated with us because of the growing number of kids coming to our church.
"A few years ago, we had only 15 kids registered in our religious education program, and we're now approaching 100," he explained. "I saw one of our youth group members at Clayton High School this morning who showed up with bumper stickers that people could color and helping others to make signs. She was doing good stuff."
Van Zandt said he was proud to be a part of a church that was willing to find a peaceful way to protest hate.
"I'm glad we've been able to give people a voice," Van Zandt said. "People have been sending in small donations that total a couple hundred dollars, which means that people still want to do something good for one another."