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Westboro protesters outnumbered and jeered in Joliet

Counter-protesters and bikers show up outside Cathedral of St. Raymond’s

The scene Sunday in front of the Cathedral of St. Raymond’s was described as “crazy” by one parishioner watching before Mass.

A row of motorcycles was lined up in front of the church. A dozen bikers and dozens of people with no intention of going to Mass lined up in front of the church and across the street.

They were there to protect access to the church and object to a group from Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas, a church known for demonstrations denouncing other churches, homosexuals and the American military.

But the actual Westboro protesters weren’t there.

The group of eight demonstrators, including two small children, had set up a half-block away at the corner of Raynor Avenue and Douglas Street. They were in no position to block access to the church.

“We would never do that,” Westboro church member Jacob Phelps said. “We’re for freedom of church. We’re for freedom of worship.”

One Westboro member held a sign using a slur to assert that God hates homosexuals. Another included a derogatory remark directed at preachers.

Other signs said, “Jesus will return in wrath” and “Most people are sinners.”

Meanwhile, taunts and jeers came from some of the counter-protesters on the other three corners of the intersection where they gathered once it was apparent the Westboro group would not be in front of the cathedral.

“Hateful [expletive deleted],” shouted one.

“Losers,” jeered another.

“Hey little boy, ask mommy what brainwash means,” one counter-protester called out to one of the Westboro children.

Several police were stationed on the corner with the Westboro group, and the police were taunted by one counter-protester for providing the out-of-towners with protection.

While the Westboro group may believe in freedom of worship, they do have problems with other Christian churches.

They demonstrated outside both the Cathedral of St. Raymond and Crossroads Christian Church on Essington Road on Sunday.

“This is one of those quote-unquote megachurches that preaches nothing close to the gospel,” Westboro member Karl Hockenberger said as the group demonstrated outside a bank building but near Crossroads Christian Church.

Margie Phelps said Westboro members had demonstrated outside thousands of churches that she said are “not teaching sin” and not preaching against it.

On the other side of the street, Jax West with Friends Who March gathered with other counter-protesters.

“They’re out here to preach hate, and we’re out here to preach love and acceptance,” West said.

A few of the counter-protesters, including West, eventually crossed the street. One confronted the Westboro members, calling the Bible “ridiculous” and “full of fairy tales.”

When Cindy Bennecke of Plainfield and the Westboro members began swapping what could be taken as inciting remarks, police stepped in. They could not convince the counter-protesters to return to the other side of the street, but they did persuade Bennecke to stop engaging with the Westboro members.

Asked why she confronted the group, Bennecke said, “Because they are advocating hate against anybody who isn’t just like them. This world is full of diversity.”

Jacob Phelps, meanwhile, pointed to two counter-protesters on their corner. One of them was holding a cape wide open and the other had opened a large umbrella to block motorists’ view of the Westboro signs.

“They’re out here like Nazis trying to block words,” Phelps said.

Both demonstrations ended without arrests or serious incidents.

The counter-protesters at Raynor and Douglas delivered a round of, “Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye,” as the Westboro group packed up, and one continuously mocked those who received police escorts to their vehicles.

Will County Board Member Rachel Ventura, who lives across the street from the Cathedral of St. Raymond and had called for counter-protesters to show up that morning, expressed her appreciation for their appearance.

“I want to thank everyone for showing our city is not hateful. We’re full of love,” Ventura told counter-protesters.

Police Chief William Evans said police at the scene “did a very good job, and I think the counter-protesters did a nice job of exercising their rights without provoking any violence.”

Some neighbors, who had ventured outdoors, appeared amused by what transpired but relieved it was over.

“As long as it was peaceful,” one said, “that’s all that matters.”