On June 13, funeral services were held in Nashville, Tennessee for U.S. Marine Sgt. Kevin Balduf who was killed in action on May 12 while serving in Afghanistan.
The friends and family of Sgt. Balduf were faced not only with the task of mourning someone they cared for, but with the unwelcome attention of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, who announced their plans to protest at his funeral services.
Westboro Baptist is a church headed by Fred Phelps, which is primarily comprised of a rather large family clan and is situated in the Topeka, Kansas area. ABC News described that “Westboro preaches that because our country tolerates homosexuality, abortion, and divorce: all Americans are going to Hell.” Having protested at more than 200 funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan across the nation, as well as the funerals of celebrities, or of any persons who have captured media attention, any grieving family can be accosted by such protests when they go to bury their beloved dead (regardless of the deceased’s religion, race, or sexual orientation).
The news of Westboro Baptist’s planned protest of Sgt. Balduf’s funeral soon lit up the internet and social media sites, and supporters and volunteers sprung into action. According to a local news report about two thousand people showed up to support Sgt Balduf’s family, and to act as a visible and audible screen against the Westboro Baptist members. But what you won’t find in any other news report of that day, is the fact that among the vast crowd of anti-protesters, were two Heathens associated with the local White Oak Kindred.
Heathenry or Asatru, is a religion that worships the pre-Christian Gods of Northern Europe (Odin, Thor, Freyja, etc.), while also honoring the ancestors and the world around them. Today, the religion is known to be practiced in more than 32 countries across the world, though the largest concentrations are in the United States and Europe.
Heathen and 30 year old Michael Wilson learned of the funeral services from the Facebook Page “Say No To Westboro Baptist In Nashville.” Wilson then informed his friend 40 year-old Lagaria Farmer, who is the Troth Steward for the state of Tennessee about the planned anti-protest, to which she responded that they should get “a group together with some posters and counter-protest.”
The two former U.S. Army soldiers, created their own signs of support for Sgt. Balduf’s family to drown out Westboro’s infamous signs of hate, proclaiming that Odin/Freya loves our fallen soldiers. That morning they drove to predetermined parking areas, where they along with other anti-protesters and supporters were shuttled to sites around the funeral home.
“I have to admit,” said Farmer, “I was nervous. I didn’t know what folks were going to say. After maybe one or two minutes, a young man ran over to us and gave us a high-five.” According to Wilson there were some Pagans in the crowd who came by and gave “encouraging remarks.” Although he did note that they received “a couple of strange looks, especially by the ladies near us holding signs with bible verses on them.”
Daryl Baker, another Tennessee local and a former U.S. Navy sailor, had also joined the protest that day as a new member of the Patriot Guard Riders. He spotted Wilson and Farmer in the crowd, and says “I loved their signs.” He knew he “had to get the picture” so he could share it with his sister, a teacher of mythology at a school near Seattle, Washington.
During the couple of hours that Wilson and Farmer were at the anti-protest site, a woman asked them about their signs, and they explained to her that in their religion the God Odin, and the Goddess Freya each receive half of the warriors who die in battle. Wilson believes that this woman “may have been a family member of Sgt. Balduf’s.” Local news reports do say that members of the family did spread throughout the counter-protesters and spoke with many of them.
“Overall it was a great experience,” says Wilson. But the experience was soured for the two former U.S. Army soldiers and practitioners of the Asatru religion as they were leaving the anti-protest.
A woman that Wilson describes as being a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, stopped the two and told them to put away their signs as they wanted a peaceful demonstration. “She said that we couldn’t have our sign there, as I looked around counting at least 5 other people holding signs, I started to get angry,” said Wilson. No one else had been asked to lower their signs, but as Farmer puts it “what can you do? We were at a Christian Church.” Farmer informed the woman they were leaving anyway, and the two left peacefully.
While Daryl Baker did not see the exchange between Wilson, Farmer and the unidentified member of the Patriot Guard Riders, he notes that others were instructed to put away their signs because “they had extreme profanity on them.”
Despite the minor confrontation over the subject matter of their sign Farmer was “glad they did it” and notes that the overall “feedback was positive” to their presence. While Wilson and Farmer never saw a member of Westboro Baptist that day, according to local news reports a handful did show up, and then leave. Regardless Wilson “felt it was our duty to show up and give our support.”
In the end, the true story is about a dead marine. All the anti-protesters were there to give him and his grieving family support. Wilson and Farmer may not have personally known Sgt. Balduf, but as Wilson puts it “we consider him a hero and patriot none the less.”