In His footsteps
Area priest remembers encounter with protesters from Topeka church
It's Sunday afternoon, and a bright sun pounds the stained-glass windows of a small chapel in Kansas City, Kan. The sunshine and the windows combine to produce a rainbow of soft colors that swirl around parishioners at today's service.
As Mass winds down, pews empty and members of the congregation stop one-by-one at the chapel doors to thank the Rev. Roger Schmit, who orchestrated today's homily. The priest is smiling a smile as vibrant as the sun outside, and from his lips blessings that promise an abundance of God's love and grace are offered to one and all.
"We are all brothers and sisters," Schmit says.
However, in a moment, Schmit's smile recedes, and his look of tranquility transforms into one of deep contemplation. There's a reason behind the change: Schmit has just been asked his opinion about the controversial religious convictions of a renegade church group he saw first-hand seven years ago, and one that staged protests recently in Leavenworth County.
On Oct. 27, approximately a dozen congregation members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka picketed the funeral of the late Lucas Frantz, a 22-year-old Tonganoxie native and Army corporal who recently was killed while serving in Iraq.
In a letter to the newspaper, WBC member Margie Phelps, whose father leads the church, explained the protesters presence in Tonganoxie.
"This nation ... has crossed the line and has sinned away its final days of grace," she wrote. "These dying soldiers and hurricanes are common methods used in the Bible to punish a rebellious nation and, more important, are just a warm up. The Destroyer is on the way and you don't have enough snotty words to stop him."
Margie Phelps is the daughter of Rev. Fred Phelps. Fred Phelps, a social radical and self-proclaimed prophet, is the ringleader of the WBC and believes he and his followers spread the true word of a vengeful God by protesting the funerals of homosexuals and, now, fallen soldiers. Soldiers' funerals are targeted, according to church members, because military deaths are God's way of punishing the United States.
For those who haven't heard the wild claims of the WBC before, the sharp, bitter words may bring shock or alarm. When they are relayed to Schmit on this day, however, he isn't surprised.
The year, circumstances and states may be different, but the words are familiar. He heard them with his own ears, seven years ago, back in Laramie, Wyo.
Following His footsteps
"I don't know how, if (they're) going to walk in the footsteps of Jesus ... how they can come to this violent and unmerciful reaction," said Schmit of the message WBC members carried two weeks ago to Tonganoxie.
It doesn't take long to realize that Schmit's faith, which is grounded in the belief of His infinite goodness, is about as similar to the WBC's as holy water is to a mud puddle.
"If we're going to be like Jesus -- accepting, loving and caring -- we need to be accepting of all our brothers and sisters," the priest said.
Schmit, 70, is the chaplain at Providence St. Margaret Hospital and also St. John Hospital in Leavenworth, a senior associate at Saint Patrick's Catholic Church and a monk of Conception Abbey in Missouri. He has been an ordained priest since 1962.
In 1998, he was serving as pastor of the St. Paul's Newman Center, the campus parish at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. In October of that year, the college town 20 minutes north of the Colorado border reluctantly was thrust into the center of a national debate over hate crimes.
The issue made headlines when Matthew Shepard, a 19-year-old University of Wyoming student and a homosexual, died from injuries sustained from two men who beat him. Both men are now in prison.
Schmit -- along with other local clergy -- helped counsel the people of Laramie, who were shaken by the crime.
"The atmosphere in Laramie was shock, it was disbelief," Schmit said. "The immediate desire on the part of many people was we just had to do something."
And do something, they did.
Schmit and others organized a vigil service for Shepard. Between 800 and 1,100 people attended the ecumenical service, the priest recalls. "It was awesome," he said.
While many were enthused by the turnout, Schmit said he found the absence of some area men of the cloth troubling. Besides himself, only one other town minister took part in the vigil.
Many local religious leaders were asked to attend the vigil, but did not because they felt it would somehow condone Shepard's lifestyle, a notion Schmit disputed. Schmit said the vigil neither condoned nor condemned an alternative lifestyle; it provided bereaved people an outlet for their grief and an opportunity to learn from the tragedy.
"It was more than just mending fences," he said. "It was letting the goodness and truth of Matthew shine forth. It was allowing Matthew to teach us a lesson."
'Hate is heinous'
While the crime against Shepard was an atrocious act, Schmit advocated that good could still come from evil. If the crime against Shepard prompted people to identify and let loose of deep-seated prejudices and then to learn the true nature of God, the priest said, not all would be lost in the wake of the incident.
"I thought people needed to relate this to the Gospels," he said. "I thought people needed to look at all three of these people (Shepard and the two men guilty of his murder) as our brothers.
"We tried to break up that prejudice and that sin and hatred that is so contrary to the Gospels, contrary to the need for acceptance and contrary to the need for forgiveness."
The priest's message of non-violence was captured in the play, "The Laramie Project," which was later turned into an HBO movie. In "The Laramie Project," Schmit's character speaks to filmmakers about the nature of violence and prejudice.
"Every time you are called a fag, or a dyke or a les, do you realize that is violence?" said Schmit in the film. "That is the seed of violence."
He also said that the men convicted of the Shepard homicide have an obligation to tell their stories. They have the responsibility to teach society where it failed, he said, and society has a duty to listen.
"They grew up among us," he said. "What went wrong? What did society put in them that manifested itself so terribly like that?"
It's this same philosophy of patience, tolerance and understanding that Schmit applies to Phelps and his disciples. The group made waves in Laramie by protesting Shepard's funeral.
"We can really criticize the man (Phelps) a great deal or we can try to understand him," Schmit said. "And understanding something does not mean that you have to agree with it."
Winning hearts and minds
The signs -- "too late to pray" and the WBC's favorite, "God hates fags" -- made their way to the Tonganoxie protest last week. In keeping with her church's message of doleing out unprovoked and unwarranted hatred, Margie Phelps wrote that "the whole world used Shepard's death to publish a message, we used it to successfully publish a counter message.
"If you live a life of proud sin and die in that state, you awake in hell. Period."
Several organizations came to the aid of Tonganoxie in an effort not to let the protesters detract from the late soldier's services. Area Vietnam veterans staged a counter-protest, and nearly 150 other military veterans on motorcycles held American flags as they stood with their backs to the demonstrators.
Later, Tonganoxie area residents unfurled a 50-foot-wide sign that shielded those at the funeral from having to view the protest. The sign said, "God loves you, Lucas, and so do we, the people of the USA."
When told of the Tonganoxie people's peaceful reaction to the WBC protest, Schmit nods approvingly. In Laramie, he advised people that, if they couldn't avoid contact with the Kansas protesters, that they should shower them with kindness.
"We were not going to scream or yell at them," Schmit said. "If anything we were going to circle them and sing. Maybe invite them in for coffee and a visit. We were going to be very loving and very caring."
By preaching love, not hatred; by praising creation instead of coveting destruction; and by marveling in the glories of heaven rather than threatening with the pits of hell, he said, the true word -- and will -- of God is spread.
"You win the hearts and minds of people through love," Schmit said. "Violence doesn't win the hearts and minds of anybody."
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