We pressed ourselves up against the metal railing as the jamboree poured down the street. Thousands of red and green and yellow feathers, batons flying through the air and Katy Perry blaring out the speakers. There were drag queens glazed in make-up, politicians waving from floats, gay and lesbian couples strolling, smiling with their kids cheering on their shoulders. It was a blue warm summer afternoon and the air was filled with bliss.
We had a banner draped across the fence that said we were sorry. We wore shirts that said we were sorry. We held signs that said God loves you. We apologized for the how the church has hurt them, hurt some in our group, hurt me.
Not ten feet behind us, in a ring of police protection, were other signs. Ten foot tall banners. They were plastered with scripture and phrases like “Penis Perverts” and “Anal Addicts” and “Labia Lickers”. There were roughly fifteen of them, three of whom had megaphones, and one of them with a step ladder and thick black glasses. They took their turns barking out:
“SMOKE! HELL! SMOKE! You know what’s coming!!! God is going to burn you up! destroy you!”
“YOU ARE SICK! You sir, are a walking example of AIDS! YOU PERVERT! YOU ARE NOT NORMAL, YOU’RE A FREAK!”
“You hate GOD! You hate GOD! You hate GOD! You hate GOD”
“Shame on you! Shame on you! SHAME ON YOU!”
A lesbian couple approached the police perimeter, just below the man on the step ladder, yelling back at him. He smiled and sang.
“YOU ARE FILTHY WHORES! WHORES WHORES WHORES! But you know what? Even Jesus can save a little whore like you, REPENT YOU WHORES!”
Everybody knew these guys were jack-asses. They were hateful, crude, and yes, Evil. They were Westboro without the flag burning. As a group of gay veterans marched down the Parade, they screeched:
“YOU ARE NOT SOLDIERS! YOU ARE PERVERTS! YOU ARE NOT SOLDIERS! SHAME ON YOU!”
And even though you knew they weren’t really representing God, you felt dirty all over. Hours of hearing “SHAME ON YOU!” replays in your head and burns you with rage to the point where you start to think that breaking through the police to beat the snot out of them will be the only thing to bring you peace.
But then, there was this group of girls rollerblading down the street.
They had rainbow streamers in their hair and wore tasteful tank tops and gym shorts. One of them, this beautiful young woman was near the back. She was giggling happy, twirling in circles, gliding back and forth across the street- and I don’t know how to explain the expression on her face when she saw the protesters but it was like the air was sucked straight out of her.
She was trying to shake it off, looking hard at the ground, but the congested parade had to come to a halt and she had to just stand there. She had to stand before a mob shrieking out whore! and pervert! and Hell! Hell! Hell! She had to stand there, exposed, breathless, unable to get away.
Her eyes dropped to our sign and with a furrowed brow, she read it. She tilted her head- perplexed, and read it again and again and again and then looked up at us smiling at her. This wave of emotion flushed through her face and it was so rare. The kind where you can see the beating heart in the creases of her forehead and the sparkle of her eyes. She started nodding, weeping, choking out a proud smile.
And then she really hugged us.
Like the purest most desperate kind of hug.
She whispered thank you, thank you and then skated backwards, sizing up the sign and crying all over again. A friend tugged at her arm as the parade began moving again. But she stayed for just a few moments longer. God Loves You, God Loves You.
I had to step away. I fled past the protesters shrieking in my ears, down an emptier street where I could crash on a curb and cry. I didn’t have any clear thoughts, no prayers were said, it was just an erupting of emotions and a steadying of my breath, because maybe this is the closest I’ve ever been to Jesus.
Standing at that fence, holding that girl, in a gust of piercing barbs, love swept in and stole the stage. It was louder than their megaphones and their curses. It was faster and struck deeper than anything ever could. A love so beautiful that it stops us in our skates and draws tears from our eyes. That is gospel, my friends, that is God.
And I know that these protesters don’t reflect many of the serious disagreements about sexuality within Christianity, but the bombastic slurs are the same I once leveled at myself. The same ones many of us did. The shame that overcame us like a fever and then, the surprise of Christ who came to call us good. Loved. Liked. Accepted. Created. Wept for. Rejoiced over. Loved. Loved. Loved. Loved. LOVED.
And at some point, it hit me that all this hugging and holding was for me too. I was placing my fingers over those hurt places, cleaning them with the reality that God is crazy over me. He delights in me. He made me. He holds me.
He died by lash, nail and suffocation, whispering the name of that girl in his final breaths. And she heard it. In the middle of it all, she heard it. It drew her in.