This weekend was the Charlotte Pride Festival & Parade. Initially, I had not planned to attend. We delivered Heather and her belongings to University on Friday. As an ardent follower of the Facebook page Grown & Flown, I spent the past several weeks reading post after post about how awful college drop-off is; followed by tip after tip about how to survive the aftermath. My plan was to stay home and be sad. According to the instructions I read, there was no other way to spend the weekend aside from curling up on Heather’s bed and sobbing into her pillow.
Last week, Jen Hatmaker, a Christian author, blogger, and speaker from Austin, Texas, posted photos on Facebook of herself, her husband, and their congregation at Austin Pride. She and others held up signs that said, “Free Mom Hugs,” “Free Dad Hugs,” and “Free Pastor Hugs.” Her testimony about the experience was very moving. So much so that I went online to Vistaprint, created myself a “Free Mom Hugs” t-shirt, which Heather said mimicked “Straight Outta Compton,” and paid for rush shipping. Instead of being sad all weekend, this girl was going to Pride!
On Monday, at our monthly PFLAG meeting, we made signs for Pride. As if my “Straight Outta Compton” mom hugs t-shirt wasn’t enough, I created a sign emblazoned with the words FREE MOM HUGS and decorated the letters according to the colors in the rainbow and transgender flags. I didn’t trust myself not to fall back on Plan A, which was curling up on Heather’s bed and sobbing into her pillow, so I signed up to volunteer Saturday in the PFLAG booth at Charlotte Pride from noon until 2 p.m.
On Saturday, I headed to Charlotte Pride for my shift in the PFLAG booth. My husband dropped me off. I asked him to pick me up at 4 p.m. That would give me 2 hours after my shift to find a spot, hold my sign, and give free hugs. I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure where the best place to stand would be? I shared my plan with the woman who was volunteering with me at the PFLAG booth. She suggested I stand where the protestors are. PROTESTORS? Um, Jen Hatmaker never mentioned protestors?! This was my first Pride event ever. It never occurred to me that people would come to Pride and protest! I was beginning to have serious doubts about whether I could actually carry out operation “Free Mom Hugs.”
When my shift ended, I walked up Tryon Street to check out the other booths. I passed tent after tent of community advocates and allies. Every major company in Charlotte was represented at Pride. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, PNC, BB&T, T-Mobile and Duke Energy all had prominent booths. As I came upon 4th Street, I saw the protestors. I could not hear them over the Charlotte Pride Band, who was performing at the intersection. The protestors held a sign with flames on it and some bible verse. A man was standing on a ladder and shouting his inaudible message into a bullhorn. The scene was chaotic. I immediately said to myself, “what the hell are you thinking?”
I continued walking along Tryon Street. When I reached the end of the festival, I looked down at the bag containing my sign that I had confidently carried all day. I thought about Jen Hatmaker’s testimony. I walked back to 4th Street. By now, the band had finished playing and was gone. The protestors were still there and now I could hear the man’s ugly message. A few feet away from the protestors, I saw a man and a woman. I hadn’t noticed them previously. They were each holding signs above their head that read “Free Hugs.” I pulled my sign out of the bag and asked if I could join them. They both hugged me. I took a deep breath, held the sign above my head, and started hugging.
I hugged a lot of people. I was the only one at the intersection giving out free MOM hugs. This made me quite popular. The looks on some of the kid’s faces were priceless. It was as though they thought they were being punked. As they walked up, they would hesitate and say, “Really?” And I would reply, “Yes, really, come get a Mom hug.” They were SO excited! Most hugs went to teenagers and young adults, but I also gave hugs to many other Moms and Dads.
Here are some of the comments that touched my heart the most:
“You’re so awesome for doing this”
Aw. Not really.
“If my Mom were still alive, she would be standing right next to you.”
Aww. I bet she IS standing right next to me.
“My Mom hasn’t hugged me in years. She still calls me it.”
I’m sorry. I think you’re beautiful just the way you are.
(I’m not gonna lie, I had to keep myself from crying as I choked out that response.)
“Will you be my Mom?”
Awww. Come to a PFLAG meeting!
“Can I come live with you?”
Awwww. Happy Pride!
“I’m sorry for getting glitter on you.”
Don’t be sorry, it’s just glitter.
“I’m sorry for getting purple lipstick on your shirt.”
Don’t be sorry, it’s just lipstick, and my shirt is black.
“I’m sorry for hugging you too long.”
There’s no such thing as hugging too long!
“I already got a hug from you, can I have another one?”
You can have as many hugs as you want.
I gave out hugs for 90 minutes. During that time, a few other Moms walked up. They stood on either side of me and we all gave out hugs. Sometimes, we even gave group hugs. At some point, the protestors left. They didn’t go very far though. I saw them nearby and assumed they were taking a break. It was finally quiet at the intersection of Tryon & 4th Street. There was no hate, only love & hugs. So much love, and so many hugs, that I didn’t realize when the protestors returned from their break. In fact, the man startled me because when he began yelling into his bullhorn again, he was standing directly behind me!
I held my sign up higher, I stood in front of him and his bullhorn, and I started screaming at the top of my lungs, “GOD LOVES EVERYONE” and “GOD LOVES ALL.” My friend, I wish I was kidding. At that moment, I decided my job was to speak over the man with the bullhorn and block his face with my sign. In the midst of all that, I was still giving out hugs! The intersection became crazy and chaotic again. I continued yelling “GOD LOVES ALL” and standing in front of the protestors until pedestrian traffic died down. Then, my phone began buzzing. It was my husband. He was waiting for me nearby. It was time for me to leave. I was a hot, sweaty, glittery, exhausted mess. I bid farewell to my fellow huggers and we all promised to come back to the same spot next year. I know without a doubt, I will be there.
It turns out, Jen Hatmaker’s testimony was spot on. Giving out free MOM hugs was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I hope you’ll join me next year!