Love drives out hate.
That was the message a group of volunteers dressed as angels sent to the Westboro Baptist Church on Sunday, after the right-wing hate group attempted to protest the funeral of Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, 32, who was one of the 49 killed at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. On June 12, a lone gunman opened fire on the Florida gay bar in what was the deadliest shooting in U.S. history.
The contingent from Westboro was reportedly very modest. Just four showed up from the Kansas-based group to picket Leinonen’s service, while an estimated 200 people gathered in support of Leinonen, his family, and the rest of the victims.
To drown out the sounds of the WBC protesters, the angels sang “Amazing Grace” and Dionne Warwick’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” The antigay group routinely shouted at the crowd to disrupt the memorial, but supporters were undeterred. When one Westboro member yelled, “Why did God destroy Sodom?," someone from the crowd responded: “It’s OK. We love you, too.”
Fashioned with PVC pipes and white linen, the group’s 10-ft. wings further blocked Westboro from the scene. According to those present, the protesters may as well have been invisible. One funeral goer told NBC News, “All you could hear was peace and love.”
The angels were volunteers from the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and Angel Action Network, who has been counterprotesting Westboro since 1999, following the death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wy. In the two decades since, the group has offered support to the 2015 Atlanta Pride Parade and the funeral of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green in Tucson, Ariz. Green was killed by an armed gunman who opened fire on a rally for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2009.
“Angel wings are meant as a loving support to the fallen, not to create more anger or violence,” the theater said in a press release.
“I don't have any money to give, but I can spread love and I can spread hope,” Jeannie Haskett, who volunteered to help stitch the angels’ wings together, told the Miami Herald. "I was just waiting for an opportunity to use one thing I do have, which is the skill to sew."
While thousands chanted “Orlando Strong!” outside the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in downtown Orlando, Leinonen’s loved ones gathered together to remember the friend and the son they lost. Leinonen was originally scheduled to have a joint funeral with his boyfriend, Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22, but that did not take place.
Leinonen’s friend, 27-year-old Brandon Wolf, said that the love between Leinonen and Guerrero, who hoped to be married someday, should be a message to everyone.
“He [Leinonen] and Juan were the love we wish to see in the world, the kind that pulls people together, breaks down walls, the kryptonite to hate," Wolf said. “So you see, the mission is simple: Every day, every single one of us is called on to love … a pure, unconditional love. A Drew-and-Juan kind of love.”
Wolf was with the couple when they died and said that Leinonen used his final moments to comfort his friend. “He looked me in the eyes that night and did what Drew always did,” Wolf said. “He said, ‘I love you.’ That is Drew’s lasting message to us, ‘I love you.'”