ST. LOUIS (BP)–Police arrested 50 pro-homosexual demonstrators on the first day of the June 11-12 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in St. Louis. Protesting the SBC’s strong stance on the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality, 38 were arrested outside after refusing to clear a sidewalk, while 12 inside were charged with felony trespassing.
The protesters were members of Soulforce, a national network of homosexual activists co-founded by Mel White, now its executive director. The 12 protesters inside were taken to police headquarters in St. Louis where they were to be arraigned. They face heavy fines and face possible jail time if convicted. The 38 protestors arrested outside the America’s Center were taken to the St. Louis Medium Correction Facility and face misdemeanor charges for refusing to obey the order of a police officer and demonstrating near or on the street.
Altogether, about 200 Soulforce representatives marched to the America’s Center from a nearby park to a block adjacent to the circle drive at the main entrance, where they stood two deep. They were faced there by nearly 60 police officers, many dressed in full riot gear and flanked by steel barricades.
This is the third year Soulforce members have demonstrated during the SBC annual meeting. They held similar protests in Orlando in 2000 and in New Orleans in 2001. Mel White said he has sent letters, faxes and e-mails to James Merritt, outgoing SBC president, asking to “dialogue” with Southern Baptists. Merritt is pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church, Snellville, and has served two one-year terms as SBC president.
Among other claims by White’s group is that Southern Baptist teachings about “…sexual and gender minorities lead to intolerance, suffering, and even death for God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children.”
“Today things change,” White said during a news conference. “We have done media-driven street theater in the past, [but] today things change, today we escalate. Today we are taking our message inside the auditorium.”
White’s threats led to even greater scrutiny of those entering the building than in the past. Typically both messengers and their guests, without credentials even, are allowed entry so they may register.
At one point the access was so limited that people waited for 20-30 minutes before realizing they could enter through doors located on a different side of the building. Nearly two-thirds of the main entrance was blocked by police barricades during a one-and-a-half-hour period while the protesters presented themselves four at a time every 10 minutes for arrest.
Jack Wilkerson, vice president for business and finance of the SBC Executive Committee, said although the restricted access might have made things a little inconvenient, it was intended to ensure the ultimate safety of messengers.
“By reducing the access for a 30-minute period, we wanted to do everything we could to guarantee maximum security,” Wilkerson said. “Our intent is to provide the greatest security for messengers to conduct their business at the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Wilkerson lauded the local police force for their readiness and cooperation in helping keep order.
“The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has cooperated over the last nine months in an exemplary manner along with the St. Louis Airport Police and the America’s Center/Edward Jones Dome security team. The cooperative effort of all security personnel in St. Louis has been exemplary in all aspects,” Wilkerson said.
Outside America’s Center, the protesters were arrested after being warned twice by police to leave. Wearing distinctive white T-shirts with a large red stop sign and holding brochures that explained their position, they were handcuffed and led to one of two air-conditioned buses idling in the circle drive.
Inside, as Merritt began his presidential address, a man and woman walked across the front of the floor, shouting to the president after being apprehended by security forces surrounding the platform. The man yelled, “You can put me in jail. You can put me in the dungeon.”
In all, 12 individuals from various points inside the dome were led behind a curtain beside the platform where they were placed under arrest. Most shouted slogans and waved their arms while Merritt continued his address without interruption.
Earlier in the day, Merritt told messengers of the protest outside and asked them to pray.
“I want to make this statement, and I want to make it as plainly as I know how: We love homosexuals. God loves homosexuals,” Merritt said. “But he loves them too much to leave them homosexuals.”
Among messengers caught in the drama of the day’s events, Sheri Carter, a messenger from First Baptist Church, Lamar, S.C., said she drove 13 hours to attend the convention and had been waiting to go inside for the Minister’s Wives Luncheon.
“I just don’t feel like that protest group should restrict my entrance and exit into my convention,” Carter said. “They take away our rights to give them their rights.”
Other messengers looking out the windows of both levels of the dome watched the protesters and tried to explain what was happening to children and others.
Holding his 4-year-old son in his arms, Wesley Noss from New Hope Baptist Church in Versailles, Ky., watched as another group of four protestors of varying ages, arm in arm, tried to enter the America’s Center.
Noss said he explained to his son that people don’t always understand God’s Word.
“We’ve been talking about the fact that God loves them [the protesters] and us, in spite of our sin and in spite of our disobedience,” Noss said. “He seemed OK with that.”
Ron Cox described how his son and his pastor’s son who was with them had a lot of questions when the protesters made their way toward the front of the stage as James Merritt was speaking.
“They’d never seen protesting before,” said Cox, a messenger from South Fulton (Tenn.) Baptist Church. “I just told them that they didn’t believe the Bible like we do and we just needed to pray for them.”
Rick and Karen Patrick from Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in Hueytown, Ala., said they had a long talk with their oldest son, Rick, 8, when he wondered aloud why “the people across the street were saying these things about us?”
“We had the opportunity to explain to him about the persecutions that Christians face, and that when we tell people the truth, sometimes they don’t like it, because they didn’t like Jesus,” said the elder Rick Patrick. “We told him that we like these people, but we don’t like what they do.” Patrick added that his little boy did feel safe with the extra security around.
A 4-year-old girl asked her pastor’s wife, Lisa Albert of Hallsville (Mo.) Baptist Church, why the police were there. After being told they were there to keep everyone safe, the child asked about the protesters across the street and was reassured they weren’t going to hurt anyone.
Back to playing with her small brothers, she nonetheless took time to assure a passing stranger “the police are here.”
With reporting by Erin Curry, Sara Horn and Norm Miller.