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A few more than Sixteen Candles

October 21, 2010   The reason for the gathering was in itself not the happiest of occasions. An unfortunate act of intolerant vandalism by one misanthrope earlier in the semester had left the community wondering what the appropriate next step might be. When a group of students as well as faculty and administrators met to determine what made sense moving forward, we discussed several options, from seminars to workshops to speeches, before determining that the most important thing as to make some sort of show of unity. Eventually, we decided that a candlelight vigil to accompany tonight’s screening of the moving documentary The Anatomy of Hate: A Dialogue For Hope on campus would be a powerful way to make a statement against intolerance.

The Anatomy of Hate seeks to understand what drives humans to hate one another, and examines different agents of intolerance. Among those they examine in the film is the Westboro Baptist Church, a fringe group led by a vile human being by the name of Fred Phelps, that is known for its protests of military funerals, antagonistic homophobia, and caretakers of a website whose name I won’t dignify by listing both because of the abhorrent nature of its domain name and the fact that Phelps and the Church make money every time one of us visits it. As they do with every college that chooses to screen The Anatomy of Hate, the Westboro Baptist Church threatened to stage a protest at Hamilton on the date of the screening. This had the effect of energizing the student body in a new and impressive way. The thinking was that the candlelight vigil, which would culminate with the participants marching across campus with the candles, starting at the chapel and ending in KJ, would be the perfect sign of unity to send as strong a message to the Westboro protesters about the values of this community.

The Westboro protesters never showed. But even the prospect of them showing up helped mobilize the student body. When we finally departed the Chapel, there were around 400 assorted students and professors walking in lockstep toward the other side of campus.

The image of the hundreds of us (relatively) silently walking along Martin’s Way, the darkness obscuring everything but our resilient flames, stopping traffic on College Hill Road for several minutes, is something that I won’t soon forget. Getting to KJ and looking back to see a seemingly endless procession still making their way across the bridge was incredibly gratifying.

It’s probably a term that gets tossed around these parts a little too easily, but that moment truly made me proud to be a member of the Hamilton community. Life at Hamilton is busy, and everyone always has their own set of commitments and prerogatives that can get the way of these sorts of events. So to have hundreds of us put aside everything else we were doing to at least do this one thing, to show those Westboro protesters, wherever it was they might have been at the moment, that this community could stand together is not something I’m taking for granted.

Certainly, the somewhat awkward rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ that somebody started at the end (does anyone ACTUALLY know the 2nd verse of that song?) might have been a little over the top. And I managed to interrupt one of the more poignant moments of the vigil for myself when, as we all raised our candles toward the sky in an act of solidarity, I looked up to realize the paper hanging around my candle as a wax-guard was in fact on fire and that I wasn’t holding up a candle as much as a small fireball (which led to me throwing it to the ground and giving it a good stomp). But those are just… itty bitty details.

And sure, the sheer volume of participants probably would not have been achieved without an easily targetable foil like the Westboro Baptist church looming in the background. But we’ll take a victory where we can find one, and this one certainly qualifies as that. 

Even if Fred Phelps and his army of haters didn’t end up showing up, I thought this statement by a friend of mine was a pretty succinct way of summing the whole situation up: “When the Westboro Baptist Church is coming to protest your school, you know you're doing something right.”