Columbia came together on Saturday to remember a fallen soldier. A radical protest group had said it would be in town for the funeral, but it was overshadowed. The event was much more than a response to a protest.
Thousands of people in red shirts gathered in downtown Columbia to form a human wall around the family and funeral of 21-year-old Army Specialist Sterling Wyatt, who was killed while serving in Afghanistan earlier this month. The group surrounded First Baptist Church, covered the lawn, spilled onto the streets and stretched several blocks down Broadway.
The Patriot Guard, a group that attends military funerals to honor fallen soldiers, stood close to the church with their motorcycles parked nearby.
Some community members never saw the Kansas-based protest group that calls itself Westboro Baptist Church. The protesters were near the intersection of College Avenue and Broadway, and they left early in the afternoon.
Many people in the crowd didn’t even know Wyatt, but they came to support the family.
One of those people was Shaun Christopher Webb. Even though he didn’t know Wyatt, there’s still a connection: Webb is 21, and he’ll be in the Army soon. He leaves for boot camp in September. He stood outside the church with his arm around his mom.
“I believe this nation was built on e pluribus unum, you know, out of many there is one, and I think someone who is willing to die for our country deserves respect at his burial,” Webb said.
Just before the funeral started, the crowd outside the church fell silent. Some people began spreading out, lining the route to the funeral home. The roar motorcycles then started the procession, followed by silence as the hearse passed by. Some stood with their hands over their hearts; others saluted, or simply stood still. As the law enforcement officers at the end of the procession drove past, the crowd applauded.
This story was produced in partnership with ColumbiaFAVS, a local faith and values website coming soon.