The 2015 Portland Conference included one of my most memorable conference moments.
A few days before the conference, we learned that Westboro Baptist Church was planning a protest outside the convention center prior to Vicky Beeching’s keynote speech on Saturday. A visit to their website made me feel sick. The hate-filled rhetoric – especially the accusation that parents who support their LGBTQ children have “doomed them to destruction” – filled me with concern for parents coming to the conference for the first time. I knew that half of the almost 1,400 people registered for the conference were first-time attendees. I wondered if I could have handled a gauntlet of protestors at my first conference. And I couldn’t bear the re-opening of wounds for attendees who had already been deeply traumatized by rejection in their own churches and families.
And then a miracle happened. First Congregational Church of Portland and Basic Rights Oregon partnered to organize a counter-protest: a “wall of love” to shield conference attendees as they walked from the light rail station to the convention center. Seasoned conference attendees and parents volunteered to help. So many counter-protestors showed up on Saturday morning that they overwhelmingly outnumbered the Westboro protestors. The “wall of love” became a “tunnel of love,” a corridor protecting attendees on both sides. The counter-protestors blocked the protesters from view, holding up their own signs: “Welcome to Portland!” “We love you! God loves you!” “Loving You Like Jesus.” “We Repent from Hate.” And my favorite: “I am what I am because of God’s grace; God’s grace to me isn’t wasted.” When the Westboro folks began to sing songs of hate, the folks in the wall of love sang their own songs: “Let there be Peace on Earth,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Siyahamba,” “They’ll Know We Are Christians,” etc.
From inside the convention center, watching the conference attendees arrive, I saw that their faces were wet – not just with the rain that had begun to fall, but with tears. I went outside to thank the people forming the tunnel of love and found my own face wet with tears.
One of the conference photographers came out and began taking pictures. I’m not sure what prompted me to take my eyes off the miracle unfolding in front of me and notice the rainbow that had suddenly appeared overhead. I nudged the photographer: “Look up, Rob! A rainbow!”
Later in the day, Rob found me and said, “Thank you for making me look up!”
When I’m focused on the messiness happening all around me, I too need to be reminded to look up, where God is quietly making God’s presence known! When I’m frightened and overwhelmed, “looking up” reminds me that God is present, healing, transforming, guiding, and offering abundant, extravagant love.
Look up, brothers and sisters. Look up!