Samuel Johnson once said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and ordinarily, I agree with him – but not today. I was driving through downtown Columbia, Missouri, and witnessed a remarkable demonstration of community solidarity and patriotism that caused me to pull over off of the town’s main street.
There were thousands of ordinary people dressed in red, many of them holding large American flags, forming a human wall of solidarity around a church where Sterling Wyatt, an American soldier killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan was about to be laid to rest.
The huge crowd was galvanized to action by a tiny group of anti-gay zealots from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, who believe that our soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan to promote gay rights at home. When word got out in Columbia and the surrounding region that the Westboro nuts, who run an appalling anti-gay website, planned to protest at Wyatt’s funeral, scores of people organized on Facebook and other sites to protect Wyatt’s family from having to encounter the protesters.According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Wyatt was a music lover who held a black belt in taekwondo and had just received a promotion four days before his death. The fact that he died so young is a monumental tragedy and everyone in the town seemed to recognize that he deserved a dignified burial. But no one could have predicted that he and his family would receive the warm embrace that they did.
I didn’t actually see the small group of protesters, but we saw the thousands who turned out in red to support the Wyatt family and the spectacle moved my wife to tears. Seeing all the flags and the red-clad people choked me up as well and I couldn’t help but conclude that the incident underscored what I love about America’s heartland.
In the small and medium-sized towns, in what some derisively call fly-over country, values, community and patriotism are still paramount. The fact that thousands of people would turn out on a day when the temperatures were in the mid 90s, to express support not for the war, but for one local family suffering the loss of their 21-year-old son is remarkable.
I talked to a married couple outside the church that were decked out in St. Louis Cardinals attire and they said they were so appalled by the idea of anyone protesting at a funeral that they decided to turn out to show solidarity with the Wyatt family.
“We want them to know they’re not welcome here,” the man said, referring to the Westboro protesters. “Columbia is kind of a big, small town, and we support each other here.”
According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, the Wyatt family came out of the church at one point to greet and hug the red-clad supporters. I didn’t see that moment, nor did I see any of the Westboro protesters, who apparently only stuck around for about 45 minutes, but what I did see made me proud to be an American.
Sometimes it’s easy to conclude that the whole country is lost, hopelessly adrift – especially after the tragedy in Colorado. But on this day I saw a community rally around a family in the name of decency and honor. If that’s not what America’s all about, then I don’t know what is.