An ad-hoc counter demonstration against the anti-Semitic venom of Westboro Baptist Church was carried on peacefully as the sun was setting for the beginning of the Jewish holidays.  

The evening sun gilded Foster Street as the group from Westoboro set up shop where the street intersects Sheridan Road, about a half block from Hillel House where Rosh Hashanah services would soon begin. Two women and one man quietly raised their signs of hatred and then began to sing songs of invective against the Jews. A boy with them did not participate in the demonstration.

Ryan Odom, an architecture student from University of Illinois at Chicago was already waiting for the group. He had been following them all day, countering their garish, laminated signs of hatred with simple words hand-lettered on sketchbook paper. Some of Westboro’s two-sided signs read “Destruction Is Imminent”; “God Takes Your Peace”; “God Hates Jews”; “America Is Doomed”; “Israel Is Doomed”; “Mourn for Your Sins.”

Mr. Odom’s read “Love Your Neighbor, As Jesus Did” and “Leave the Jews Alone; They Have Suffered Enough.”

The Westboro demonstration was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Northwestern University’s Hillel House on Foster Street, but at about 6:25 Mr. Odom correctly steered reporters to the Sheridan Road intersection. “They’ll be here in about 4 minutes, and they’ll probably set up where they can attract the most attention,” he said. He said he had followed the group’s activities for most of the day, holding his lone silent protest because “they’re more awful than anyone else, so I felt moved to be here.” For the most part, he said, “They ignore me.”

At Sheridan Road, Mr. Odom found sympathizers for his cause. Even though the University had not begun classes, about a dozen students gathered on the sidewalk near the Westboro group on the parkway. As the Westboro group sang anti-Semitic lyrics to traditional Jewish songs, the students may have shown the Westboro folks that they were not in Kansas any more. When the “call” was hatred, the “response” was love. When Westboro group began a parody of the Beatles tune written for a love-struck Julian Lennon, the students responded with the original “Hey, Jude.” Too young to be even children of the boomers, the students faltered on the lyrics of “All You Need Is Love,” but kept on with “Amazing Grace.” Some of them moved into a closed off (for repairs) lane of Sheridan Road, holding their hands in the “V” sign used for decades as a sign of peace and sang as much as they could of another Beatles song, “Let It Be.”

For the most part these were not students who would attend the Hillel services, said Michael Simon Hillel House. “I think this is a spontaneous demonstration,” he said, adding that those Westboro group “are the fringe.”

Collin Jordan, a recent Northwestern graduate who lives in Evanston, came with Hana Suckstorff, a senior at the University. “We’re both Christians,” he said. “We had to come to show love [for the Jews against the Westboro group]. “The fact is, it breaks your heart,” said Ms. Suckstorff.

Less than a half-hour later, the Westboro group reassembled at Church Street and Hinman Avenue, where the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation was gathering at First United Methodist Church for its Rosh Hashanah services. There Mr. Odom was joined by a few different students, one of whom carried a “TEAM JACOB” poster and smilingly sat down next to the Westboro group. 

Fred Phelps heads the Westboro Baptist Church, which is not affiliated with other Baptist churches. The group is known for its outspoken venom against homosexuals, Jews and other minority groups. Because of their disruption of many graveside services of soldiers – where they protest the presence of gays in the military – they have been banned from such services.

“Who are these people?” asked a woman walking her dogs along Hinman Avenue. Told by reporters that the group was from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, she said, “How stupid.”

A young woman talking on a cell phone approached the group on her evening walk and was overheard saying, “This is not O.K. What the hell is wrong with these people?”

After the stint at First Methodist Church the group was scheduled to meet again at Evanston Township High School, where Temple Beth Israel in Skokie was holding its services. However, said Evanston Police Commander Tom Guenther, no one showed up there.

The demonstrations, hate-filled and divisive in content, were peaceful in action. Evanston Police had been notified of the Westboro group’s intent to demonstrate, said Cmdr. Guenther. Quiet but alert, several police personnel had been deployed to each of the demonstration sites, but the evening turned into night-time without incident. “There were no disturbances and no arrests,” Cmdr. Guenther told the RoundTable. “[Guaranteeing] the Constitutional right of free speech and [peaceable] assembly was part of our mission. Another part was keeping the peace, and police achieved both,” he said.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...