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Council of Churches: Pray for peace while picketers in town


Article Last Updated: 02/06/2007 11:50:51 AM EST


Local congregations are being asked to pray for peace this weekend, when the Westboro Baptist Church is planning to picket a high school play and several churches.

"I hope that each church will pray that everyone will be safe and protected as a human, that there will be peace in York," said the Rev. Joan Maruskin, executive director of the York County Council of Churches, which represents 140 congregations.

Yesterday, the York city-based council hosted a training session titled Community Response: When Hate Groups Come to Town to help community organizations and churches learn how to peacefully and effectively deal with such groups.

The session was sponsored by the council, the York County Community Against Racism and the York City Human Relations Commission.

Close to 20 people attended the session to help them prepare for picketing activities by Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, which announced plans to picket York Suburban High School on Saturday and six area churches Sunday to oppose the school's "The Laramie Project," a drama presentation focusing on a community's reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyo.

Pickets: The Topeka-based ministry pickets against the homosexual lifestyle.

The church has picketed at about 25 different locations in Pennsylvania, said Ann Van Dyke, a civil rights investigator with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission.

"Do not interact when they are physically on the street," she said. "Also, do
not ignore their presence or their message or the impact on your town."

The commission finds that churches are quicker to respond to hate group activities against ethnic groups than to similar activities targeting homosexuals, Van Dyke said.

"We're not asking anyone to take a stand for or against sexual orientation, but the stand for every human being to be safe and respected," she said.

The community can show its stand for tolerance by filling the auditorium for York Suburban's play, said Mary Galiardi, whose son, A.J., a York Suburban junior, is participating in the drama.

'Respond by showing up': "We don't want to be confrontational, but we don't want to be silent," she said. "Let's respond by showing up. Let's have the community show support for the school."

Galiardi said she talked with her son about the Westboro issue.

"I talk to my son about hate groups and I teach my kids tolerance," she said. "I'm really proud of him."

Alanna Berger, a member of Harrisburg-based Silent Witness of Central Pennsylvania, said Westboro Baptist has picketed their organization, which consists of members of Metropolitan Community Church and Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, and reaches out to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The group plans to be at York Suburban to stand between play attendees and Westboro picketers, Berger said.

"We use great big umbrellas and we open them up and lean them against our shoulders," she said. "We'll be facing the school. We'll smile and welcome people who come for the play. We stand as a spiritual firewall."

Like Van Dyke, Berger said people should stay away from the Westboro group.

"They're really hard to ignore, but you can't argue with them," Berger said. "People try to reason with them and they get frustrated and then things escalate."

-- Reach Eyana Adah McMillan at 505-5438 or emcmillan@yorkdispatch.com.

Places targeted for picketing
"The Laramie Project" drama presentation is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at York Suburban Senior High School, 1800 Hollywood Drive, Spring Garden Township.

Besides the school, Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church has said picketing is planned at six churches:

--- St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church, 839 W. Market St., York City.

--- St. Joseph Catholic Church, 2935 Kingston Road, Springettsbury Township.

--- St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, 140 N. Beaver St., in the city.

--- Living Word Community Church, 2530 Cape Horn Road, Red Lion.

--- Grace Fellowship Church, 1405 Seven Valleys Road, New Salem.

--- Calvary Baptist Church, 2740 Roosevelt Ave., West Manchester Township.