Originally published: July 22, 2012, 2:05 p.m.
Updated: July 22, 2012, 3:25 p.m.
CHARLOTTE — Protesters and street preachers with the anti-gay and anti-choice Operation Save America were outnumbered this morning by peaceful supporters at three churches’ worship services in Concord, N.C., a suburb minutes outside of Charlotte.
Several dozen protesters, including families with young children and teens, stood outside of Trinity United Church of Christ, Central United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church. An amplified sound system, audible from at least a block away, was used by protesters at Central United Methodist. Most of the protesters’ signs targeted the issue of abortion, showing gruesome images of allegedly aborted fetuses.
Several protesters attempted to speak to congregants about abortion and homosexuality, though most church attendees ignored them. As worship services started, protesters turned off their amplified sound and left, though some remained to attend services at the targeted churches.
The protests today were part of the Concord-based group’s national annual gathering, “The King is Coming.” Street preacher Flip Benham, who leads the group, is known locally and nationally for his anti-gay and anti-choice protests at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) churches and events and at women’s health clinics.
“There will be no protest,” he told qnotes. “There’s going to be a small proclamation. We’re not protesting. We’re gospel proclaimers and that’s what we do.”
Last July, Benham was convicted of stalking a local abortion doctor with hundreds of signs targeting local doctors. The signs listed the doctors’ names and photos and said, “”Wanted … By Christ, to Stop Killing Babies.” He was sentenced to 18 months probation and ordered to stop his intimidation.
Trinity United Church of Christ Pastor Nathan King counted approximately 35 protesters at his church. He turned away a few who tried to enter his church for worship. One protester, who did not interrupt services, did attend. He left halfway through the service where attendance was nearly doubled by the presence of about 50 first-time visitors and supporters.
“Love has won out today,” King told his congregation before giving the benediction.
King thanked several individuals from other congregations for attending Trinity’s services today.
“We’re very grateful for the peaceful, loving support and I just want to thank you,” he said.
Trinity has been targeted recently by small groups of other protesters. A father and young son protested there twice in June.
Central United Methodist Senior Pastor Andy Langford reported that protesters also attended his services. As at Trinity, they did not disrupt worship. Langford said it isn’t the first time anti-gay protesters have attended services, though today’s protest outside was the first time the church had been so openly targeted.
“We have gay and lesbian people in our congregation and we’re grateful they’re here,” Langford said.
Uniformed and plain-clothed Concord police officers were present at Trinity and Central.
Protesters were also present at Charlotte’s Myers Park Methodist Church and Myers Park Baptist Church this morning. A single police cruiser was also stationed at the Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte on Eastway Dr., a primarily LGBT congregation. Pastor Catherine Houchins reported that half a dozen protested outside her church early in the morning and later attended their worship services. Benham and Operation Save America have protested there before.
According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, other permits for street preaching or gospel preaching issued for Sunday in Charlotte included an amplified sound permit for the corner of Trade and Tryon Sts. in Uptown.
Operation Save America previously protested outside of Myers Park Baptist and the conservative Central Church of God during their national gathering in Charlotte in 2010. The group also held a “Mosque Outreach” that year.
Police officials said Central Church of God had reserved their own amplified sound permit near their property. Benham said he was not targeting any evangelical church this year.
Benham said the protests this week will prepare his group for their activities during this year’s 2012 Democratic National Convention, slated for Charlotte, Sept. 4-6.
“Because of the DNC, we’re plowing some ground to get ready,” he said. “Some of that ground that needs to be plowed might be right here in Concord under our noses.”
He said his members will be “at the gates of hell” during the convention.
“There are some abortionists in town that people don’t know are abortionists,” Benham said. “We want to make sure everybody knows who they are so they can talk with them and pray for them.”
Benham’s twin sons, David and Jason Benham, are planning a fast leading up to a large-scale prayer event at Verizon Amphitheater in Charlotte on Sept. 2. The men have partnered with several churches, including Hickory Grove Baptist Church, one of the city’s and state’s largest Baptist churches. Other participating congregations include Northside Baptist, downtown’s First Baptist and Elevation, a popular, youth-oriented Baptist church in Matthews, N.C. Concord’s FIRE Church, affiliated with theologian Michael Brown who’s come under scrutiny for his violent and militant religious rhetoric, is also a partnering congregation.
Pro-choice and women’s groups have voiced concerns about the Benham’s national gathering and are urging supporters to help defend women’s access to health clinics during Operation Save America’s week-long event, July 21-28.