It was a shock to the whole nation when a gunman opened fire on a group of people who had gathered at a supermarket to meet with their U.S. Representative, Gabrielle Giffords. In mere moments, six people, including nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green, were killed, and many more, including Representative Giffords, were seriously wounded. Yes, it was horrifying to the whole nation. But the shock was especially terrible for the people of Tucson, Arizona, where the shooting took place.
So it's hard to even imagine how people felt when Fred Phelps, minister of the Westboro Baptist Church, said he and his followers were going to picket young Christina's funeral. Fred Phelps said Christina "was killed for your rebellion when God sent the shooter to deal with idolatrous America." Who knows what exactly that meant, or why a man known for protesting against gay people would bring his followers to hold signs at the funeral of a murdered child. But the last thing the troubled community needed to see was brutal words from a man who has made himself famous by promoting hatred.
Kat Sinclair was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson who had seen Fred Phelps and witnessed his angry protests before. Never one to sit by and watch people get hurt, Sinclair got to work right away organizing a peaceful response to Phelps's demonstration. She knew it would do no good to reason with Phelps and his followers, and that a shouting match would only make everyone feel worse.
No, Sinclair was ready to meet hatred with silence. Not the silence of ignoring a problem, but the silence that comes from bringing a strong presence when and where one is needed. Sinclair knew about the African Americans who had sat down at lunch counters in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, letting their physical presence declare that they had just as much right as white people to be served there. She knew about Julia "Butterfly" Hill, who had spent months sitting in an ancient redwood tree, so her presence would keep loggers from cutting that tree down. Only a few months before, Sinclair herself had been arrested for being a peaceful presence in defense of immigrants in Phoenix, Arizona. She knew about the power of presence, and she had a plan.
Before Christina's funeral, Kat Sinclair and a bunch of other folks got together a work party. They brought long poles of white PVC plastic, and yards of white fabric and used them to make giant angels, whose wide wings would block the protestors' nasty picket signs from view. Instead of seeing cruel words on their way to Christina's funeral, mourners would pass a gathering of angels, silently offering loving support.
Fred Phelps and his followers did not show up that day. Maybe because they learned their picket signs would not be seen. But the angels were there—very human angels, with broad wings hanging from plastic poles—offering a silent ministry of presence, as they tried to bring healing to a shattered town.