The first showed up before the sun on Nov. 23, huddling and shivering in the cold and the dark. Others soon came, and before long their numbers stretched a block on both sides of Mechanic Street in front of Harrisonville’s Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.
People drove in from three or four surrounding counties in west-central Missouri. Buses arrived, bellowing exhaust into the cold, bringing loads of school kids and senior citizens. People took off work. Some brought dogs. Farmers parked pickups nearby.
It wasn’t a fire, but a burning sense of what was the decent thing to do for one of their own who had given his all.
By 9 a.m., an hour before the funeral of Army Cpl. Jacob R. Carver, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people, many of them waving American flags, lined nearly a half-mile of the street in front of the church, making sure Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church/family congregation were crowded out, peacefully kept far from shouting distance of the funeral.
“This soldier died so (Phelps) could do what he does, as stupid as that is,” said Steve Nothnagel of Harrisonville as he looked at the turnout. “I’m so proud of what is happening here today. This is a community coming together. I know it’s not just Harrisonville; they’re coming from all over.”
The call had gone out by word of mouth and Facebook: Come to Harrisonville, line the streets. Let’s protect this family on this saddest of days.
Not long ago, the same strategy against Phelps was pulled off in Weston. As one woman that day said: “We’re like any small town. We fight a little between ourselves. But today, we’re all together.”
By the time the Phelps clan rolled into Harrisonville, the only spot open to them was next to a Casey’s Store nearly a third of a mile from the church.
The seven protesters got out of their van and waved their signs and ranted their slogans that soldiers’ deaths were God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
Opponents drowned them out with a rousing rendition of “God Bless America” and chants of “USA! USA!” and “Go home! Go home!”
“We can’t stop them, but we can be louder,” a man said.
After a near skirmish between the two groups, the Topeka group bailed before the funeral procession passed.
Angel Needham, 15, a sophomore at Cass Midway High School – from which Jacob Carver graduated in 2008 – said she believed in free speech and the First Amendment.
“I just don’t get why he (Phelps) has to do it at funerals,” Angel said.
With parental permission, Cass Midway students were allowed to attend the funeral and take part in the human buffer.
Carver, 20, a member of the 101st Airborne Division from Freeman in Cass County, was killed Nov. 13 along with four other soldiers in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan.
He came from a large family and joined the Army shortly after graduation from Cass Midway, where he played football, loved to dance, and was known as the boy who would take any dare.
“He was a really good kid,” said Principal Doug Dahman, who joined a group of letter jacket-clad students in the line in front of the church.
Next to him was a man from Platte City, who got up at 4:30 a.m. Farther down was John Yeager, who came as part of a group of Blue Springs firefighters.
“We’re here for the family,” Yeager said. “Nobody should have to hear that on this day.”
So many people agreed with that sentiment that officers from the Belton and Pleasant Hill police departments, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, and the Missouri Highway Patrol helped with crowd control.
Truck driver Tom Anderson said of the outpouring: “It’s heartbreaking and it’s heartwarming.”
As usual, the Patriot Guard Riders, braving subfreezing temperatures to get to Harrisonville, provided a motorcycle escort for the funeral procession.
“Look at all those flags out waving out there,” said Donna Byam, a member of the group. “He’s (Phelps) responsible for that.”
Her husband, Brad Byam, nodded: “A silver lining in a dark cloud.”