January 19, 2014

Free Hugs at Mormon Conference. ~ Darren Lamb

Twice a year in Salt Lake City the LDS church holds their General Conference and people from all over the world come to attend.

I joke with my Mormon friends and call it Mormon-palloza and say it’s Mormon Comic-Con except with lamer costumes. But for them in many ways attending conference is like a pilgrimage and it’s great seeing so many people come together to celebrate their faith.

Along with thousands of Mormons, General Conference also brings its share of religious protestors. One can always count on seeing them with their signs telling the Mormons how they are not truly Christians and how they need to find a real religion. Picture the Westboro Baptist Church waving their “God Hates Fags’”signs, spreading hatred and you will get the picture.

I’ve seen protestors like this in many parts of the world. They were there protesting me and thousands of my military brothers and sisters as we came home from various wars. At a Comic-Con in Long Beach, one told me I was going to hell because I was dressing up like the Devil (I was dressed as The Flash but close enough). I’ve seen them at funerals, book signings, movie premiers, weddings and I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve told me I’m damned.

In so many parts of the world my religion cannot be practiced. It’s either illegal or simply too dangerous to openly worship. During the Prayers for Compassion celebration last July I remember reading how a monk in China had been killed because he wouldn’t stop praying for peace. In places like Myanmar (I will always call it Burma) some Buddhists are forgetting their vows and wrongfully turning to violence because they are frustrated and angry.

Like the Jews, millions of Buddhist have been slaughtered because their spiritual path is somehow less valid or misunderstood.

Along with being a Buddhist I am also a United States Marine who believes people should be able to worship however they wish and will defend their right to do so. There’s a reason this is the first amendment and not the 30th.

So few people are on a spiritual path, any spiritual path, that it would be a shame to see someone stop practicing because of hate or prejudice or fear. Unfortunately the protestors have the freedom of speech which is also protected in the first amendment. You can’t shut someone up simply because you disagree with them. If you do so then you’re no better than they are.

So how can we peacefully fight things like this?

One method I’ve discovered is the Free Hugs Campaign. If you’ve never done a Free Hugs event I highly recommend it.

It will change your life.

The happiness and euphoria you experience by hugging two hundred plus people in a few hours is indescribable. It’s also very easy to do; make a sign, go to where people are, and hug whoever comes to you. This is also a great exercise in being open and accepting because you don’t get to pick who you hug. If you hold the sign you will be hugged.

So many fun things happen when you hold the Free Hugs sign. There are the people who will see you from across the street and come running for a hug. There are the ones you can see really want to hug you but embracing a complete stranger is just a little too far outside their comfort zone. Surprisingly are the number who break down a little and tell you just how much they needed that hug. You will get all kinds of hugs; long hugs, tight hugs, the guy hug, the pat hug, the X- hug (one hand high the other hand low) the = hug, and so many others you will be amazed at all the different ways there are to embrace a person.

You will receive even more smiles. I have done this dozens of times and have never been met with aggression until we tried to do it with the religious protestors at General Conference.

It gets interesting doing this because the police always put us in the same area as the protestors. We are literally right next to them and they always pick fights with us and say hurtful things. I don’t mind this because if they’re yelling at me, they’re not yelling at others and I’m usually thick skinned enough to take it.

One time there was this protestor who was particularly nasty.

He would instigate all of us passing out hugs and at one time or another I had to remind everyone in our group why we were there and that fighting is counter-productive.

Then this man called my daughter a slut.

Everyone had to remind me why we were there and how fighting is counter-productive.

After Conference starts there is really no reason to stay because everyone is inside the building and the sidewalks are empty so our group decided to go get breakfast at a nearby restaurant. The place is empty because the Conference rush has passed and the only other table being occupied is a large table with all the protestors. I thought this was hysterical because it was a scenario I never imagined and there is something funny to me about that group all going to breakfast together.

Visualize the Westboro people shouting for two hours about how everybody sucks except for them and then saying; “Hey, let’s get pancakes!”

The hostess put us at the table next to theirs and I started thinking of people I could call for the eventual bail money. I sat on one end of the table and not three feet away from me was the man who had spent all morning trying to start fights with us. He picks up right where he left off and I’m called a sinner, a fag, a queer, godless and a blasphemer all before I can get a cup of coffee. He accuses us of being employees of the LDS church who were planted there to make him look bad, then tells us how we have no religion and need to find life’s meaning before it’s too late.

We all try to ignore him but it’s not easy. In a moment between insults he asks why we were there and what we were doing. Nobody says anything but then we realize he’s seriously asking. I think a lot about what to say. I want him to understand, and the compulsion to change him is something I struggle to let go of. Then my daughter sums it better than I ever possibly could.

“Because I would rather carry my sign than yours.” She says and everything goes quiet.

Somehow, he gets it. Or at least gets it enough to stop yelling at us while we eat.

They finish their breakfast before we do and as they get up to leave, this man walks over to my daughter who he had called a slut just an hour before and offers her a hug. Without hesitating for an instant, my daughter hugged him. I was very proud.

Soft things will always break down hard things. Love will always be stronger than hatred. Opening our hearts is always better than closing them. What sign are you carrying?


“The living are soft and yielding; the dead are rigid and stiff.

Living plants are flexible and tender; the dead are brittle and dry.

Those who are stiff and rigid are the disciples of death; those who are soft and yielding are the disciples of life.

The rigid and stiff will be broken; the soft and yielding will overcome.”

-Tao Teh Ching #76

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 Assistant Editor: Dana Gornall

Photo Credit: David Cintron/Flickr Creative Commons

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