CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Teo Armus//The Charlotte Observer) - She had followed them the entire afternoon, moving down South Tryon Street as they carried their scripture signs and rolled out speakers that blasted the gospel.
Every so often, they moved closer to the crowds, their presence a little more unavoidable. So she moved closer, too, hoisting her arms a little higher to show off the piece of white card-stock where she had scribbled “God <3’s U” — God Loves You.
As a dozen demonstrators read scripture to the crowds at Charlotte Pride, it was the message Cindy Deutsch, 48, wanted them to hear instead.
“We need to follow the protesters,” she said, “because that’s where the most love is needed.”
With six other members of PFLAG, an organization for parents with LGBTQ children, she came to the annual event to hand out “free mom hugs” to any passersby who thought they might need her embrace.
This was the scene in the middle of the festival for most of the afternoon, as religious protesters in long-sleeved button-downs stood besides Deutsch and her fellow moms and grandmas, competing for attention.
One by one, young people passing by stopped and noticed and leaned in for an embrace. A shirtless man, wearing only black platform shoes and white booty shorts, asked for a photo. One young woman began crying in her arms.
For Deutsch, who lives in Huntersville, the mission was personal.
Three years ago, her daughter Heather came out as trans, she said, prompting a personal struggle unlike any she had faced before. Raised a devout Catholic, she felt like she was being forced to choose between her faith and her daughter.
She chose the latter, abandoning her church.
But it wasn’t without regrets, she said, like the time she heard her pastor call trans women “men with long hair” and she remained in the pews, rather than walking out in the middle of the sermon. Deutsch, who still considers herself religious, felt as though she needed to do more.
So last year, as Heather headed off to college, her mother came to Pride to pass the love onto anyone who wanted it.
“Even if they don’t know me when they leave here, they know someone’s fighting for them,” she said. “When these people are standing here telling them they’re going to Hell, someone needs to stand here and tell them they’re loved.”
A few feet away, a man in sunglasses and a long-sleeved yellow T-shirt that said “Trust Jesus” on the back would only identify himself to a reporter as a “Bible-believing Christian.” (The man said it was his right to refuse to provide his name.)
He does not live in Charlotte, he said, but rather came from “further north” in North Carolina to read from the Old Testament and “evangelize” festival-goers.
“We’re here for love,” the man said, “the real love of God.”
One parade-goer held a towering rainbow umbrella to block the man’s sign, a black tarp that hung precariously from a skinny yellow pole. Flames at the edge and the image of a screaming face surrounded the lines of John 3:3:
Where do sinners go when they die? Hell. You must be born again.