It’s been 24 hours since we made our signs and headed to downtown Kansas City, but the messages, the chants, the facial expressions and gestures, the police, the anger and the fear continue to linger in my mind. What a day…
We went to the Trump rally for a number of reasons. As DOC pastors, PKs, a church lay worker, and a neighbor, some of those reasons ranged from a desire to stand for our faith to a simple “mom said so” — but we all shared a desire to declare what we are for instead of shouting against Trump. So we made signs urging love of neighbor, and held them proudly. My sign read, “Love thy refugee neighbor. #kindness”. Others swapped descriptors, changing refugee to Muslim, black, LGBTQ, Hispanic, immigrant, and even wrong. A friend’s youngest kids held signs declaring “LOVE” and “Be Nice. Say Kind Things. Be Gentle.” — the deep wisdom of preschool and Kindergarten that we seem to forget as we age. Standing on the same stretch of sidewalk across from the Midland Theater, we created a poster board wall of love for our neighbors.
Photo credit: Travis Smith McKee, 2016
All told, we spent around two hours in the protest. During that time, we met lots of other protesters with similar signs that spoke of love’s power over hatred, and the inherent value of our neighbors. We also met people whose signs called out the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that have characterized much of Trump’s campaign. And yes, we met people whose signs and words were angry, people who spoke with voices and fists raised high. Though most Trump supporters were inside the Midland, an occasional supporter wandered through the crowd as well. In other words, it was exactly what a public demonstration is supposed to be: a place where perspectives are given voice out in the open, where people express their ideas, values, hopes, fears, and anger in the public square. That’s a part of our political system that I hope we never lose – the right to peacefully gather and protest whenever and wherever we feel we must.
Now, as you’ve surely heard, eventually the protest heated up. Children are excellent barometers of mood, and our kids grew restless as the air around us began to change. Thanks to their fidgety warning (and hunger), we left the street and stepped into the grocery store that sits across from the Theater. Shortly thereafter, the first blast of pepper spray hit the crowd. A lovely Methodist woman whose sign spoke of love was one of the people who was hit. She and I had stood side by side only minutes before.
It was utterly surreal, watching through the grocery windows as protesters began surging away from the spray. We were simultaneously grateful and worried. On the one hand, the children in our group were safely oblivious as they munched on their snacks. On the other hand, two in our group were still outside. And what of the other protesters, rally attendees, and police? Were they safe?
We left through the parking garage, because store employees would no longer let people in or out through the street entrance. Though it was a safety measure, it also meant that pepper-sprayed protesters couldn’t buy milk — the only thing that would relieve the pain. After exiting the garage, we were reunited with our two friends. They’d found themselves trapped in a group of people preparing to rush across the barricade (an action that apparently prompted the first use of pepper spray). Thankfully, they managed to push through the pressing crowd before the spray was used.
Our ride home was odd. Each person in the vehicle moved in and out of reflection, trying to make sense of what we’d experienced. For me, that reflection focused on the question: “Why did I come here, really?”
Personally, I had a hodgepodge of reasons for standing on the street in the rain with a sign. Some are obvious, at least to those who know me, and others have been a surprise — in some ways, I didn’t know why I went until after we’d returned home. While the action certainly doesn’t require defense, I think it is important to share why the day was so important to my life of faith. So, here goes nothing:
- For observation – In case you haven’t noticed, we receive very different accountings of recent protests depending upon which news station or pundit blares from our screens. Some describe protesters as anarchists and thugs. Some describe protesters as heroes. Both fail to take into account the diversity of people who show up to these demonstrations, the wide range of folk who are jarred by the rhetoric of this campaign season. Thankfully there are still others who view protesters as people with real concerns, hopes and dreams, who protest because they want to stand against what they see as a swelling hatred in the United States. Knowing that the people of my congregation would hear widely varying reports of what took place, I wanted to see for myself so that I can help to separate fact from fiction.
- For justice – The groups of people named on our signs are the very groups that candidates such as Trump speak against. As hateful rhetoric increases and translates into acts of violent aggression, many of our neighbors feel increasingly unsafe. Though we have never met, these people are my brothers and sisters. They deserve to see people holding signs that name and proclaim their full humanity and dignity, especially in public places where they are rhetorically and/or physically attacked. I was moved by the number of people who stopped and thanked us for carrying signs that named them as neighbor instead of other or enemy.
- For the little girl in me – I grew up in awe of the social justice activists of the Civil Rights Movement, the suffragists in both Britain and the US, the anti-colonial activists from around the world, the feminist leaders, the activists who protested injustice not despite their faith but because of it. As a teenager, I regretted being “born in the wrong time” because I naively believed that all the good fights had already been fought and won. As a college student, I began to see that there was so much left to be done…and with every year that passed, I began to find excuses not to show up. My own activism slowly morphed into words backed by little action, and that child-who-was looked at me with very little respect. I want to be someone the younger Lara would be proud of, which means putting myself where my words are, where the need is, where my faith tells me to go.
- Because I am afraid – I almost didn’t go yesterday. The pull of a lazy Saturday at home was strong, but my fear of what might happen was even stronger. What if the protests became violent? What if church folk criticized me for attending? What if? What if? What if… At the last minute, I settled down just enough to hear the quiet voice inside me whisper “If you are afraid, then you MUST go.” She was right. The things in life that really matter are worth taking thoughtful risks, and I believe all the above reasons really and truly matter.
- Because it’s not about me – As honest and personally true as my self-reflection may be, this place that we’re in – this hatesplosion – is bigger than me or any other individual. It is about all of us, together. It hurts all of us, together (though some clearly bear more of that hurt than others). And if we are to find our way out of here, it will require all of us working together. That means showing up and doing the hard work of reconciliation and compassion, even when our hands and voices shake.
- Because the Bible tells me so – If there is anything I know with utter certainty, it is this: the Bible reveals that God is intimately concerned with the welfare of the other. Widows, orphans, immigrants, strangers…all are named as beloved, and all make it to the list of folk we’re not only called but commanded to love.
That’s where I stand. I don’t expect others to stand there with me, though I’m certainly grateful for the company. Nor do I claim to speak on behalf of my congregation on this one. They get to take their own stands, wherever and however they hear God call them. I’m not telling them who to vote for, because I value the separation of church and state. But I’m also no longer hiding behind that separation, as though being a pastor means I can’t have personal convictions. I can, and I do. I’m standing for love.