Photo by Emilie Stoltzfus

“Great Wall of Love” holds back Westboro Baptist Church member’s message of bigotry Supporters of the Mazzoni Center outnumbered Westboro protestors

In Community/World News by Emilie Stoltzfus

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) protested the Mazzoni Center, a health clinic for the LGBTQ-plus community, in Center City Philadelphia were drowned out by supporters and counter-protesters on July 25, 2016, during the week of the Democratic National Convention.

Photo by Emilie Stoltzfus

“Great Wall of Love” members stand in support of the Mazzoni Center

Community members, LGBTQ supporters and a group of volunteers called the “Great Wall of Love” created a Facebook event to organize support for the center soon after the church from Topeka Kansas announced their plans to hold a demonstration in front of the Mazzoni Center, which is the oldest AIDS service organization in Pennsylvania.

The Great Wall of Love members arrived at 1:45 p.m. and chalked off a path for patients to navigate through the crowd, to the entrance of the clinic. Members stood side-by-side, wore white sheets suspended on a structure which appeared to look like angel wings, and provided a visual barrier between the center and the WBC protesters.

At 2:15 p.m., ten WBC members arrived and stationed themselves at 8th and Locust Street. Philadelphia police provided security.  

“The Mazzoni center is a festering pit of disease,” said Jael Holroyd, nurse and granddaughter of church founder Fred Phelps. Holroyd thinks it is wrong for the clinic to provide support and by doing so the clinic is encouraging the “sinful” behavior that will have eternal consequences.

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Jael Holroyd, daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper and grand daughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps

Mazzoni supporters were instructed not to engage with WBC members directly, due to the church’s history of making money off of lawsuits against people or cities who violate their rights to protest. Supporters packed the sidewalks on both sides of the street.

Holroyd believes that sex outside of marriage is a sin worth being condemned to hell in one’s “eternal afterlife.” She offered college students this piece of advice, “one man, one woman for life. The only proper time to have any sexual relationship is in the marriage bed.”

Photo by Emilie Stoltzfus

Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps

Supporters of the center brought their own picket signs and a sense of humor behind their message of love, with signs like “God hates Figs” and “God hates lame signs.”

Eighteen-year-old Mazzoni supporter Matthew McClair stood holding a sign saying “God Hates Bus Lines.”

“[The Mazzoni Center] just wants to help you and we have people who want to protest and spread hate in a city of brotherly love,” said McClair. “I’m really angry right now. But you can’t put out fire with fire. You can’t make them stop with hate.”

Photo by Emilie Stoltzfus

Mazzoni supporters play outside the center to drown out Westboro Baptist Church’s protest

A bass band arrived, playing New Orleans jazz style music as they walked through the crowd and set up outside the front of the Mazzoni Center. Supporters were encouraged to make friends. The crowd passed sheet music with song lyrics and sang, one song being Imagine by John Lennon.

After 30 minutes, the church members ended their picketing and were escorted to their vehicle by the police.

Jake Heart, Mazzoni supporter and 26-year-old student at Community College of Philadelphia, remarked about the overwhelming evidence of a supportive community despite of cause of what evoked such a response. “I felt very proud of the community that everyone had showed up and had been very active,” said Heart.

Photo by Emilie Stoltzfus

Supporters stand outside of the Mazzoni Center and the “Great Wall of Love angels” leave a pathway for clients to receive care.

“We need the Westboro Baptist church. We need these kinds of people to show up and remind us that these people still exist and they bring us closer together,” said Heart.

The center works with 35,000 people a year, offering direct medical services, education, prevention, psychosocial services, support groups, and legal services to its patients. Their mission statement is, “to provide quality comprehensive health and wellness in an LGBTQ-focused environment, while preserving the dignity and improving the quality of life of the individuals we serve.”