ORLANDO — About 200 people blocked the main street in downtown Orlando to form a human chain to counteract the demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church.
A handful of the church’s members raised their now iconic anti-gay signs across the street from St. James Catholic Cathedral, while more two dozen police officers stood between them and the rainbow-adorned assembly.
The human chain group formed organically through Facebook, after rumors surfaced that the group would demonstrate at several funerals of the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub. The funerals began Thursday, however, the church did not apply for permits until Friday with plans to picket on Saturday.
The amalgam of humanity who came out against Westboro included bikers, priests, young people, members of the LGBT community and locals carrying signs saying “God is love” and the motto the City Beautiful adopted in response to the massacre, “Orlando strong.”
Angel Gabriel Vasquez and his husband, Adam Vasquez, came to the counter-protest in downtown Orlando wearing a rainbow-colored Puerto Rican flag draped around their necks like a cape.
They live in Pennsylvania but flew into Orlando, their former home, Saturday night after watching the news coverage of the shooting massacre.
“This is where we grew up. This is where we matured as young gay men. And to be Puerto Rican, Latin night was one of our favorite nights,” Angel Vasquez said. “This is where our hearts is.
After hearing about the church’s plans on Facebook, the couple decided to join the counter-protest.
Westboro has “just a sick, twisted view. They push people away from Christian religion,” Adam Vasquez said.
For Angel Vasquez, the church’s actions are particularly maddening for him as a gay Christian, he said.
“God loves everyone,” he said. “He made me this way. I can’t help it. I tried to be normal, straight, but it’s who I am. It’s who I was made to be.”
Throughout the demonstration, “Amazing Grace” reverberated softly among the demonstrators who quietly sang in unison.
Soon, a line of “angels” mounted with wings constructed from PVC pipes and white sheets walked in front of the throng, saying nothing as the crowd cheered. The wings were the idea of the Orlando Shakespeare theater, which outfitted their volunteers with sheets wide enough to block view of the church members.
Just past 11 a.m., the Westboro church members left and retreated toward their vehicles, and the crowd roared. A large contingent of the counter-demonstrators drew in close into a huddle and chanted, “Orlando strong! Orlando strong!”