grace above maryland?

it was a couple weeks ago – a saturday morning, when i found myself in the kansas city airport. i had just gotten done with the leadership institute at the church of the resurrection and was en route to a friend’s wedding in baltimore. i had just sat down near the gate when i noticed three women – two were in their late teens, the third (presumably their mother) in what i would guess to be in her 40s. what was striking about these three were the brightly colored t-shirts they were wearing – all advertising websites in large, bold letters. the girls’ shirts said “” the mom’s shirt was “”. knowing they probably weren’t promoting m. night shyamalan’s movie from a couple years ago, nor did they seem to be prince fans, i decided to look up their site on my phone, fully expecting it would point to something a little crazy (like biblical proof that president obama is the antichrist.

what i got was a little more than what i expected, as my phone’s web browser immediately pointed to westboro baptist church. for those who don’t know westboro baptist is a small church in topeka, kansas led by fred phelps, known for its protests, most notably at funerals, where they condemn individuals, families, denominations, and the nation for associations (however tangental) to homosexuality. now, regardless of where you might stand on the issue, my hope is that most people who stumble across this blog can agree that the particular tactics employed by fred and his family members are about as far from christ-like-ness as you can get.

to say the least i’m not a big fan of fred, and if fred knew me – my theology and politics – he’d be condemning me to hell along with just about everyone else he meets. i knew these women weren’t going to be busting out their signs mid-flight and start protesting, but i couldn’t help but reflect how strange it felt to be on a flight with a group of people whose theology was so diametrically opposed to my own.

we were flying southwest – i’m a fan of their cheap flight and open seating – but on this occasion i didn’t arrive early enough to get in an early boarding group – meaning i was bound for the back of the plane when it was my turn. the westboro women were seated near the front which was fine, because in my mind i was already considering scenarios where we would be seated together and they would take it upon themselves to convert/condemn me.

but the flight has a stopover in chicago before moving on to baltimore, and as all the chicago bound travelers left the plane, i moved closer to the front, and without realizing the westboro women were also traveling on to baltimore, sat myself two rows behind them. in chicago, the flight crew also changed, and it was fascinating to see that the new flight crew was mostly male, including the head flight attendant. as southwest flight crews are prone to do, the head attendant began to sing as the plane pushed back from the runway – doing his best tina turner impression – “big wheels keep on turning, this airplane is rolling; rolling, rolling, rolling down the runway.” he then encouraged everyone else on the plane to join him in singing, to which the young women from topeka immediately take him up on. afterwards the flight attendant compliments them on their singing, and throughout the flight they begin this rapport.

sitting two rows back i can’t help but think how bizarre this whole flight has become. while i’m obviously not certain about the head flight attendant’s sexuality, he stuck me as a little effeminate, and certainly had a proclivity for channeling tina, so i was assuming he was among the folks fred is convinced “God hates”. (i remember seeing an episode of airline where they were interviewing a flight attendant and he said something to the effect of “i’m an unmarried man in his mid-30s working as a flight attendant – you do the math”). again, i’m making a huge assumption here but as this plane is drawing near to baltimore (not far from the glbt march for equality taking place in washington dc that weekend – where i’m pretty sure the westboro women were headed to protest), it really seems that the westboro women are completely unaware of this man’s (likely?) sexuality, and he (naturally) knows nothing of their politics or theology.

and then just as the flight begins it’s descent – just moments before the captan gives the “buckle your seatbelts and put the tray tables in the upright position” announcement – the girls ask the flight attendant if he’ll sing another song with them. the four begin harmoninzing, singing:

precious Lord, take my hand
lead me on, let me stand,
i am tired, i am weak, i am worn,
through the storm, through the night,
lead me on, to thy light
take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home

it was a moment that struck me as completely crazy and totally beautiful. a taste of what the kingdom will one day be like, when differences are placed aside, when our common need for grace can be affirmed, and God might be praised. it was a reminder for me that music has the power to unite, that even i need to be careful whom i choose to vilify. because even those wrapped up in a theology of hate can (unknowingly) send a message about inclusion and love.