SANTA FE – Hunter Reiley, 15, and Sawyer Reed, 17, ran out into the rain to give their pastor a much-needed hug as about 10 picketers marched outside their church with signs that said “God Hates Fags.”
Namiqa Shipman, 46, the senior pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Santa Fe, accepted the hugs gladly and shook her head at the signs, held by a Kansas group that protested at the University of New Mexico and several Santa Fe churches this weekend.
“I’m very saddened by this,” Shipman said Sunday morning. “I think their point is to gain media attention. I really don’t think it’s about trying to change our minds.”
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Other signs from the group read “God Hates the U.S.A.,” “Thank God for 9/11,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “Methodist Fag Church,” “Your Pastor is Lying” and “Fags are Worthy of Death.”
At one point the protesters also dragged an American flag through the dirt and then held it upside down under their messages.
“God doesn’t love everybody,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, 47, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, a group from Topeka, Kan., which has become notorious for its vehement protests against homosexuals.
“God hates the workers of inequity,” Phelps-Roper continued. “Those are people like this lying false preacher and gay activists.”
Phelps-Roper said she thinks Shipman and her parishioners are going to hell because in her interpretation the Bible forbids female pastors.
Deborah Hockenbarger, 51, says the group visited New Mexico to try to warn people.
“God hates America because this nation spits in God’s face and refuses his laws,” Hockenbarger said.
Many spectators said they think the group is motivated by something far different.
“I think it’s stupid for people who don’t know anything about our church to come here with signs like this,” Reed said. “I just did a story on them for my school paper. I think mostly they just try to make people mad so they do something aggressive, and then they sue them. It’s their way of making money.”
The group has sued people for aggressive actions before, said Libby Phelps, 22, another member, but that’s not its point, she argued.
“A lot of our members are lawyers – that’s why everybody says that – but we work for our money,” Phelps said. “We’re not trying to change anybody’s mind. Noah preached for 120 years to condemn the world. That’s what we’re doing – so on Judgment Day, nobody can say they didn’t know the word of God.”
James Longmire, 17, saw the entourage while driving by and decided to stop and hand out fliers for his Love Conquers Hate Fund benefit show, which helps victims of hate crimes. He said he found the group’s choice of protest cities amusing.
“I think it’s a waste of gas money for them,” Longmire said. “They come to one of the most liberal cities in the Southwest and think that yelling `fag’ at people will change something. They even picketed my preschool – First Baptist Church – this morning. That’s just bizarre.”
Ellen Casey, a Santa Fe lawyer, looked onto the situation at St. John’s on Sunday morning bemused, holding up her own sign as she followed the protesters on their route.
Casey’s large pink sign read “Santa Fe Welcomes the Lunatic Fringe” with icons of gay couples on either side.
“It’s theater – they’re doing theater,” Casey said of the protesters. “It’s a perfectly reasonable strategy to just ignore them, but it’s also good to parody them.
“I think this is kind of a fun occasion, really.”
Through the morning people averting their eyes from the hate signs would sometimes find themselves staring instead at Casey’s sign, she said.
“I’ve been making a few people smile,” she said. “That’s good enough for me. I’d try to do better, but their signs are just far more professional looking than mine.”
On Saturday, the Westboro group picketed on Central Avenue in Albuquerque across from the University of New Mexico.
About 40 gay rights supporters responded by waving white cloths they called angel wings, dressing up their dogs with slogan T-shirts, chanting or simply quietly turning their backs on the protesters.
Police said the demonstrations were peaceful and no arrests were made.
In Santa Fe on Sunday, the Westboro group was shadowed by three marked and a few more unmarked Santa Fe police cars and a small group of reporters and photographers from various media organizations.
“Think of what a power that is, to have all the police and media and faith communities captivated by your behavior,” said the Rev. Holly Beaumont, one of a few people appointed as “peacekeepers” by the city of Santa Fe as the entourage moved on to the First Baptist Church of Santa Fe in the late morning.
Beaumont said Santa Fe had advance warning of the group’s visit and talked to churches about what they would see during the protest. The main bit of advice: Ignore them and stay back, she said.
“They stand there and sing ‘God Hates America’ to the tune of ‘God Bless America,’ ” she said. “It’s another strategy to provoke people, so they can sue and fund their cult.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.