By Diana Chandler
PHOENIX (BP) — A protest that an LGBT advocacy group had billed as “historic” was hardly noticeable on the opening day of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix, bystanders said. But flyers distributed by the group included the SBC 2017 logo and theme.
About 50 people appeared to join in Faith in America’s (FIA) protest asking the SBC to remove homosexuality and transgenderism from the “sin list.” They distributed flyers and engaged messengers in conversation outside the Phoenix Convention Center before disbanding around 1 p.m., bystanders told Baptist Press. The exact number of protesters was difficult to judge, separated in groups of two or so and blended in with passersby, witnesses said.
Former SBC President James Merritt, approached by a protester he described as “respectful,” told BP the group’s presence was a blessing.
“I don’t believe they came on their own. They may think they did,” Merritt said. “I think God brought them here, and God did us a favor by bringing them here so we can extend to them the love of Christ and the kindness of the Holy Spirit.”
Merritt, lead pastor of Cross Pointe Church near Atlanta and host of the Touching Lives international television and media ministry, said he petitioned God in his morning prayers for all protesters to see the love of Christ in any messengers they meet.
“There was an older gentleman here who was from some church he said, who tried to give me a booklet,” Merritt said. “I just smiled at him and didn’t say anything…. They really were respectful. They have a right to be here.”
FIA flyers incorporated the SBC 2017 logo and language, reading “For such a time as this: Save yOur Kids!” followed by the “Pray for Such a Time as This” annual meeting logo. The annual meeting Scriptures Luke 11:1 and Esther 4:14 were clearly visible.
In addition to protesters, an FIA mobile billboard continued to quietly circle the block adjacent to the convention center’s North Hall, where the annual meeting was held. The billboard cited a statistic that 40 percent of homeless teens in the U.S. are LGBT, and invited messengers to a free meal a 6:30 p.m. at the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Merritt recalled the 2002 annual meeting in St. Louis during his presidency when pro- and anti-LGBT groups lined the sidewalks outside the St. Louis convention center. That year, about 50 homosexual protesters were arrested, BP reported.
SBC messenger Joe Sims, a member of First Baptist Church of Bremen, Ga., said he and his pastor spoke with a protester only briefly during the lunch hour. Around noon, he only saw about eight protesters.
“They handed us a flyer,” he said, “and of course the first thing I noticed on the flyer was they used our logo. I thought that was unusual for them to use our logo on the front, but I guess it was a way to get it handed out.”
The protesters wanted to talk, Sims said.
“My pastor, Herman Parker, he just made a statement,” Sims said. “We Christians are not the ones that called homosexuality a sin. We didn’t put it on the list; it was God. Therefore we can’t take it off the list. But we still love you.”
FIA markets itself as a non-profit group founded in 2006 “to end decades and centuries of using religious teachings to justify marginalizing and discriminating against others,” and is “dedicated to influencing media and faith community narratives on religion and sexuality.”
In a May 31 press release announcing the protest, FIA Co-founder and Co-chair Mitchell Gold said it would be a “historic moment.”
“This is not about conflict and division. It is about speaking the truth, and standing up for our kids and teens being hurt,” he said in May. “It is also about finding common ground around our children and youth.”