On Thursday a former student of mine (@KatieMcLeaner) Tweeted a Friendface event that was encouraging people to come out to protect Elizabeth Edwards' funeral from protesters. I had no idea why in the world anyone would want to protest at her funeral, but a few clicks around The Google later I discovered a group calling themselves the Westboro Baptist Church has been going around protesting at military funerals with signs that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates Fags."
I still had no idea what any of this had to do with Elizabeth Edwards' funeral, however.
Despite living and working in the same towns, I never met Elizabeth Edwards. When her husband, John, was running for president, I continually wished she was the one running. John was a bit too slick, a bit too Hollywood. My opinion of him softened a bit after reading his book, Four Trials. When Elizabeth announced her cancer had returned, back in 2008, I was saddened. She was a good woman with a good family who didn't need to be taken from them so soon.
Later in that same year, the National Enquirer broke the story that John had been having a long-term affair with a campaign staffer. And he had fathered a son by that woman. After weeks of denials, John Edwards finally admitted to the affair but denied paternity. A month or so later, he admitted to that, too.
Elizabeth Edwards came out to speak publicly about the effects her husband's affair had had on her and their family. It was, I'm sure, one way to keep the light of shame directly where it belonged, but it was also her way of trying to let other people know what devastation such a decision can have on a family and the people you love.
(My own problem with this, however, was that she learned of the affair while John was still campaigning for President. If he had somehow gotten the nomination, the story would have broken and been the ruin of the Democratic party for decades to come. It was sheer ego that led John Edwards to allow a woman who waited around his hotel room for a full day so she could approach him and say, "You're hot"; it was another to continue on a path that could lead to the entire country being screwed. When she was asked about her decision to still campaign for her husband, she said she believed John was still the best candidate for the office. I cannot believe that, given the risks involved.)
Regardless of my personal annoyances with a single decision (should anyone's life be defined by a single mistake?) I still respected Elizabeth Edwards for being a very forthright person who spoke her mind and didn't seem to let the bright lights bother her or change who she was.
Funerals are, after all, not so much for the dead, but for the living. I may still think John Edwards is a jerk who will be forever known as the man who ruined his family and cheated on his amazing wife Elizabeth, but their children do not deserve to have hate mongering protesters interfere with their public expression of grief.
The Friendface page requested people show up to create a protective barrier between the church and the protests so the family wouldn't be disrupted by them. Again, we didn't know Elizabeth Edwards, but I did respect her. Showing up seemed the right thing to do.
So we went.
We arrived by 10:30am and wondered where the crowd of people we were expecting to see might be. Across the street from the church, in the Catholic Church school asphalt playground area, were a herd of local news channel vans, their satellite antennae reaching almost as high as the church steeple. Reporters and cameramen huddled in 10x10 show tents against the cold, waiting for the funeral service to begin. We joined a small group of confused, lost looking people on the corner, wondering what had happened.
A few minutes later we overheard a woman telling people behind us that the protesters had been given a small area a full block away from the church in which to stage their protest. The odd thing was, she said, there was another church at the end of that block, and on the same side of the street, that was giving away toys to needy families so they could have something for their kids for Christmas. It could look like there were more people protesting than there really were.
It was around this time that Bonn decided she wanted to attend the funeral. It was open to the public, with the front entrance designated for just plain folks like us, and a small line had already formed. I left Bonn in line and walked down two blocks to see what the protest was all about.
Another friend (@schampeo) had Tweeted a link to a reprint of a posting to a threat on Fark that described the leader of the Westboro group as a scammer. According to Fark member El_Camino_SS, the leader's family are all lawyers. Said leader is very careful about what he says, keeping his inflammatory rhetoric either generic ("Thank God for Breast Cancer") or in religious terms ("God Hates You") but is aggressively confrontational with his messages. His intent is to provoke you to pushing him or in some other way to violate his rights. Once you do so, he sues you. If you're in the military, he gets to sue the military and the federal government.
I haven't done the background research to confirm or refute this argument, but my Vow of Cynicism leads me to think this is an entirely plausible explanation for such unthinking hatred. Certainly, the guy I saw on the protester's side of the street didn't seem to be giving his messages much thought.
The guy in the bright orange jacket had four different signs that he moved, from back to front, giving each one a full second of air time, before switching to the next sign. He wasn't making eye contact with the protesters across the street, but only spoke with the protester nearby with their own sign.
I've seen protests for most of my life and this was the least engaged of anyone I've seen at a protest rally. He was about as involved in working his signs as a bored kids in the middle of the summer standing by the side of the road with a sign for the nearby pizzeria.
And, yeah, I only count four people holding signs on their side of the street.
Let's just say the counter protesters outnumbered the Westboro scammers by A Whole Lot. They were also far more engaged and outraged.
It's sad that the news coverage on Elizabeth Edwards' funeral will even include the protest at all. The Edenton Methodist Church sits at the far end of one city block and the protesters were at the far end of the next block. They may as well have been the next town over.
I left and walked back to the church, thinking I probably should have gone with my first choice of a green knit sweater instead of the sweatshirt emblazoned with an extremely proud Tigger. At least I had a jacket over the sweatshirt. (Although Bonn quickly asked that I take my Batman button off of the front of the jacket when I got back in line)
The Edenton Street Methodist Church reminded me of the churches we visited in Scotland and London. High cathedral ceilings with impressive interior architecture without being overwhelming and a feeling of having borne witness to more history than anything in its surroundings. (I found out later that it was first rebuilt in 1831)
The funeral was the kind you'd want for yourself: full to capacity with friends and admirers, two of your closest friends standing up and telling funny, yet poignant stories about you that made everybody laugh, and your child telling the world about the loving, private side of your life and how it has made her, and the rest of your family, the people they are today.
The final eulogy was given by Elizabeth's daughter, Cate, and it was her grace under pressure that impressed me the most about the service. At 28, having just completed law school and recently become engaged to her boyfriend, I think Cate realizes that the mantle of some of Elizabeth's role in the family has now been passed on to her. Her two much younger sibblings, Jack (10) and Emma Claire (12), as they grow up, will need the kind of unconditional love, attention, humor and drive that only a mother-figure can provide. It's one heck of a tall order, but I think her mother has, by example, taught her well and she's ready for it.
Here is her eulogy:
At the end I was left with misty eyes and the wish that I had gone to her door and knocked on it, asking to be let in and become a member of her ever-widening circle of family.