Reflections on talking with protestors

Earlier today I wrote a post in preparation for going to a festival which would have protestors. You can read it here

Let me start with a recounting of the first part of my time at the event. And then follow that up with a few reflection points. 

The festival was the Harrisburg Pride Festival. And there were protestors – although just a small, but vocal, handful. I was asked to be there to engage in conversation with the protestors in order to draw attention away from them yelling into bull horns with words of condemnation at the crowd gathered. The protestors were a religious group/church. In usual fashion, they had signs with scripture quotes and signs essentially saying repent or else you will burn. And the message in the bullhorns were quoting scripture and having a message that was similar to the signs. 

The particular pastor who was leading the effort in protest is known for protesting and his tactics are often designed to provoke a response, often with the intent of confrontation that could be reported to the police, arrests, and lawsuits as a result. 

When I arrived, I found my contact and was escorted to the location where the pastor was doing his thing in the bull horn. Initially I just watched and listened. I needed to have a sense of what he was talking about. People were coming near and getting their pictures taken in front of him, which was amazingly ironic. One couple specifically walked up in front of him and kissed in front of him. All the while this pastor continually talked loudly into the bull horn with his message. I’m not sure he actually saw anyone there. From time to time he would point his finger around with words of condemnation. 

After a little bit of this, I started to engage him with questions. I kept my distance and had a calm voice. I asked him questions about how he came to the conclusion he did. I was genuinely curious. I asked him to cite the Scripture he was using. I asked him if he wanted to talk about the context of those verses. When he cited Scripture referring to hell, I asked him which Greek term for hell he was referring to because they each have a unique understanding. Would he be willing to talk about the context of that? He made statements about churches who are affirming being false and pastors who lead them as being wolves in sheep clothing. I asked him if he meant me as well and if we could talk about that. Twice during his condemning finger pointing he walked in my direction and pointing in an arc around the area and his finger was no more than a couple of inches from my face. I imagine the intent of this was to rattle me or get some kind of reaction in which I would swat away his hand while I claimed he was in my space. I didn’t do any of that of course. I just stood and kept asking questions with my hands on my water bottle in front of me. 

Then the pastor moved down the sidewalk, so I followed him. he stopped at a stairwell by the capitol, saw a group of people sitting there and proceeded to walk up the steps to put a condemning sign in front of them. One of the parents was not happy and let it be known to back off from his children. There were some verbal exchanges and during this time I had the closest to what could be called a conversation with the pastor. He proceeded to call me a wolf in sheep clothing citing scripture. I asked him some questions about that, but it was as if he didn’t hear me. He proceeded to move on and then have a confrontation with a Silent Witness volunteer. The husband of this volunteer responded with the two of them getting heated. I worked on distracting the husband and reminding him that this is the pastor’s technique – to get a response and be attacked. 

The pastor then spoke with a nearby police office telling the officer that he was being followed by our group which was harassing him. God bless the officer – he was in a tough spot. The officer spoke with the pastor and with us, asking us some questions which ended with nothing happening because we weren’t really doing anything. I told the officer that I was only interested in having a conversation with the man, but he doesn’t ever answer my questions and I remain six feet away from him. 

From there, the pastor went down the street to another section where there were other men, one on a bull horn on a ladder with similar proclamation as the pastor. I walked down and listened to this individual and then proceeded to engage in conversation with this man. The interesting thing about this is that he actually engaged in conversation with me, albeit through the bull horn. I asked him questions about the Scripture referenced and how he came to the conclusion he did, to share his story, which he did. Another man was there, and I was able to have a lengthy conversation with him that was actually quite interesting. I was able exchange names with this man, and I would ask him questions and he would talk. I would occasionally add in some contextual insight into the Scripture he was citing – things like what marriage was in the OT times, how women were seen as property, the understanding of what resurrection means during the early OT times versus what it meant in NT times, the reality of communal salvation in Scripture rather than just individual salvation, and more. It was quite an interesting conversation. I would listen to what he had to say and then I would ask if I understood correctly. 

One of the common things that people talk about is how protestors like these folks can talk about the love of Jesus, while preaching condemnation and a message based on fear of God’s wrath and punishment. I came to understand long ago that the idea here is that these folks do believe that what they are doing is loving. They love people so much that they are trying to “warn” people of the wrath they are going to face unless they change their ways. That’s their belief. And that is a short summary of what this group was about. 

I asked a few more questions before I had to go, including if the man believed in something like the Rapture theology that is popular in some Christian circles. He said yes and that it is clear in Scripture and went on to give a pretty good summation of what Rapture theology is all about. I listened with intent to learn and understand. And then it was time for me to go to our Church tent. I thanked him for the conversation, reminded him that Jesus loves him, and all people gathered at the event, told him that my goal was to see the image of God in him and others and said I would pray for him for his well-being. And as I left, I asked him to get some water because he looked really warm having been in the sun for a long time. 

Now on to the reflection points:

  1. My goal was to see the image of God in the protestors. I wasn’t going to convince them of anything. In fact, not a single one of them ever asked me for my thoughts, or how I interpreted Scripture, or what I believed. This is not uncommon when you have contact and conversation with people who are most concerned with being right. Why would they ask for other’s thoughts and beliefs if they have all the correct answers? There is no need. There is no room to grow. They have the answers after all. 
  2. I was a bit surprised that the lead pastor actually engaged with me directly when he finally did. His tactics of trying to provoke a response from me did not work and I wonder how often he has interaction with people who just ask questions with intent to understand or want to talk about Scripture. Even though he engaged with me directly at one point, it was still a bit weird because he was looking right through me, not really seeing me. I think this relates to the first point. When the main goal and focus is on being right, we become blinded to seeing the humanity of others. 
  3. I really enjoyed the conversation with the one man that I stayed with for over an hour. It was quite clear that he was well versed in Scripture, however, when I presented some contextual information that made the Scripture more complicated than he was using it, he brushed that information aside because he didn’t know what to do with it, or he spun it away. It was with this man that I also asked him for his story of how he came to his conclusion. He started by talking about the Gospel and I interrupted him saying that sounded like the middle of the story. I wanted to know his story. He finally understood what I was asking, and he was actually vulnerable with me in sharing where he was from and his upbringing, when he converted, and how he came in contact with the church group. It was very interesting, and it humanized him for me. 
  4. Throughout my time of engaging with the protestors I would often question their use of Scripture, especially when it was focused on fear and condemnation. The pastor would say, do you know what Jesus said? And I would respond with saying “Do not be afraid. So why are you proclaiming fear to these people? How is that Good News?” They of course like to talk about Sodom and Gomorrah claiming that the sin of Sodom and the reason for God destroying the cities was sexual immorality (meaning homosexuality). I asked them to specifically cite that – where does it specifically say that is the reason. And I referred to Ezekiel where it specifically says that the sin of Sodom was that the people did not show hospitality and that the sexual immoral behavior was rape. Leviticus came up, as expected. And I spoke about the context of the chapter being power dynamics being abused. As with previous citations and cultural references, these were either just dismissed or spun to get back to “the truth” as they understood it and how it was clearly obvious for them. 
  5. Overall, I was glad to be there and play the role that I played. I gained renewed appreciation for people who are demeaned and constantly attacked for who they are, not because of anything that happened to me in these conversations, but in watching it play out. I also appreciated how far we have come as a nation in the sense that a group of people who have been persecuted for who they are could gather together in public and only attract a small handful of protestors (which happened to also be rather loud though). At no point did I sense that anyone felt like their safety was in danger. That’s an incredible advancement. Considering what other states are doing with laws they are passing against people who are LGBTQ+, today was a reminder that Pennsylvania is thankfully different. Regardless of whether someone agrees or not, in this state, the law recognizes that people have the basic freedom and right to be without harm. You could argue about specifics with that of course (having a man yell condemning and fear-based words at a crowd certainly isn’t the definition of peaceful and can easily be considered verbal violence, but that’s still an improvement over what other states allow or are pushing towards). 

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