It was quiet outside Life Center in Tacoma on Saturday as family and friends gathered within the sanctuary’s walls to celebrate the lives of Charlie and Braden Powell.
The Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas - whose anti-gay members had at one point threatened to picket the service because of the Washington Legislature’s approval of a same-sex marriage law - stayed away.
A small group of people waved signs across from Life Center Church on South Union Avenue. But the only word scrawled on their posters – and on the T-shirts they were giving away – was “love.”
“We decided to come to protect the family from seeing any negative messages,” said Owen Anderson, 26, of Tacoma, who organized the small gathering with friend Stacy Chan, 27.
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Tammie Berman, 38, and her partner, Heather McCully, 34, stood on the corner clutching “love” signs. The Tacoma women said they know the Powell boys’ family faces a long road of grief.
“I (hope) they’re able to bury those boys in peace. And celebrate their lives and carry with them the memories...” McCully said, her voice trailing off as her eyes welled up with tears.
“I hope the family can move forward from this,” Berman said, as she placed a comforting hand on McCully’s shoulder. “It’s a tragedy, and there aren’t going to be a lot of answers in some respects. Hopefully as a community we can show support.”
A few blocks away at the Elks Club, about a half-dozen people gathered before the service, armed with boxes of candles.
They worried Westboro members might go back on their word and show up, so they were prepared to converge on Life Center if needed to shield mourners. They were glad not to have to.
“The best thing that could happen today is that we sit here and no one shows up (to the memorial service) expect people who know the family,” said Marco Godines, 32, of Tacoma.
As the start of the service drew near, hundreds of people filed through the church doors, many wearing shades of purple – the favorite color of Charlie and Braden’s mom, Susan Cox Powell. They walked past a line of motorcyclists, who formed a protective tunnel at the church entrance for mourners.
As they prepared to enter the church, several teachers from Carson Elementary School passed around a home-made scrapbook with photos of Charlie, a first-grader at the school, and some of his homework assignments.
Teachers and students wrote letters displayed in the book saying how much they miss and love him.
Teacher Sandi Ahlers recalled meeting Charlie in the school office. She said he was holding a giant red leaf and told her about science and why leaves change colors.
He was a smart and inquisitive student, Ahlers said.
“It will always be a special memory,” she said. “It’s really hard right now. We’ve had a rough week at school.”
Natasha Chapman, 28, of Tacoma, lives near Life Center and walked up through the parking lot with her mother, Alicia. They weren’t planning to go in but came by to show respect, they said.
“It feels like the right thing to do,” Natasha Chapman said. “We’ve been praying for them – those two little boys, the grandparents. Even though we didn’t know them, it feels like we did. They were right here in our backyard.”
Alicia Chapman said she can’t help but feel angry when she thinks of Charlie and Braden, who were so young and innocent.
“What helps me is when I see that picture,” she said, referring to one of the boys with their mom. “When I see the kids smiling with their mother, I know that’s how they are right now.”
The Salt Lake Tribune contributed to this report.
Sara Schilling: 253-552-7058