Mourners approach a demonstrator who stood outside the L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center at Norfolk State University, where a memorial service for Sean Williams was held Wednesday. The sign that he and another demonstrator held denounced homosexuality. CHRIS TYREE/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
Norfolk State’s concert choir sang in tribute to Sean Williams, a freshman music student who was stabbed after he tried to aid a friend on campus Saturday.
They filled the L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center with songs about salvation during a memorial on Wednesday.
Even without Williams’ tenor voice, it was heavenly to hear them fill the hall.
Then I went outside, where there was a dispiriting display of faith.
A crowd had gathered near two preachers who stood on the sidewalk and held a sign that said homosexuals need not apply at the Pearly Gates.
Williams, as you may have read this week, was gay.
Some young people could not bring themselves to turn the other cheek. They criticized the preachers for being there. A few folks shouted.
A man tried to step between the preachers and the crowd, but the whole thing blew up. People rushed in and grabbed the banner, carried it to a trash can and stuffed it in.
Young men tried to light it on fire. It wouldn’t burn.
When I looked around, I didn’t see the preachers.
Roderic Powell, the man who tried to calm things down, chastised the young people who had snatched the sign.
“I’m Sean’s uncle,” he said. “You owe me an apology…. You can’t act like this. Regardless of what the man had to say, we need peace.”
I rode with him to another building. Musicians practiced. A collage showed pictures of his nephew.
He said Williams’ family is a Christian one.
“We loved him…. He was a good kid. He had a good heart…. I don’t condone homosexuality because the Bible says it’s a sin, but I love my nephew.”
Fortunately, Sean’s mother, Lisa Bland, didn’t see the disturbance.
“What we were doing had nothing to do with anything other than celebrating my son’s life,” she told me later.
“Sean was the best child. I have to say it was an honor to be his mother.”
She knew he was gay.
“It did not define him.”
Wednesday night, I walked back and pulled the sign out of the trash. Warning, be not deceived… No fornicator, or idolater, or homosexual… shall inherit the Kingdom of God. I stuffed it back.
A man drove up. It was one of the preachers.
“That’s my banner.”
He got his sign out of the garbage. He agreed to talk, but not there. We drove a bit.
The preacher said he and two others tried to deliver their message here last week but got turned away.
I asked him why he timed his return to the memorial.
“We knew that he was a homosexual. The banner is addressing moral law.”
He said it was about more than homosexuality. It was about murder, too. He talked, but I didn’t buy it.
He knew exactly what he was doing when he held that sign in plain view of people feeling a loss.
I asked his name.
“I’d rather not.”
Are you a pastor?
“I preach the Word.”
Like some kind of ghoul.