MIDDLETON, Wis. – The people from the Freedom From Religion Foundation were probably encouraged when they managed to provoke a shouting match three weeks ago with Middleton High School students attending a weekly “Jesus Lunch” at a city park.

After all, the more shouting that occurred, the more controversial the lunches would become – probably to the point where more citizens would consider them a problem.

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That’s precisely what the atheist group wanted.

But the small group of local mothers who host the lunches put an end to the quarreling with a simple electronic message.

“It was crazy – there were probably about 900 kids there, and probably about 60 protesters,” said Melissa Helbach, one of the mothers who serves the weekly lunches and shares short Christian messages with hundreds of students every Tuesday at Fireman’s Park near Middleton High School.

“The protesters were screaming and heckling, and a couple of the Jesus Lunch kids retaliated. So after that we sent a Facebook message out, asking them to act like Jesus and turn the other cheek and ignore them.

“The next week all the Jesus kids sat on one side of the (park) pavilion, and they totally ignored the protesters. While we were sharing our message, which was about three minutes long, they started chanting ‘keep Jesus in the church.’ The kids didn’t retaliate. Then some of the protesters walked through with signs, heckling the kids, but they didn’t respond – they just kept eating.

“All of us volunteers were so impressed. It was the power of the Holy Spirit – it was a really cool thing to see.”

On the two Tuesdays since the verbal confrontation, the number of protesters from the Madison-based anti-Christian Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has dwindled, according to Helbach.

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Last week there were about 10 protesters, and this week there were four or five who showed up despite the rain, she said. Helbach only noticed one student among the protesters, despite FFRF’s offer of free pizza to kids who joined their demonstrations.

“We thought it was a little ironic that that were accusing us of enticing kids with food, then they tried to do the same thing,” said Helbach, who added that a few Jesus Lunch kids offered food on Tuesday to the handful of protesters, who declined.

“It’s been kind of fascinating. I truly believe that, because us moms are there because we love Jesus and we love these kids, the kids can feel that. From the protesters they feel animosity, and it doesn’t appeal to them.”

Will a larger number of protesters show up next Tuesday, if the weather is good? Helbach doesn’t know, but she doubts it.

“My guess would be that it’s died down,” said Helbach, who added that there are three more lunches planned for this school year. “I think ultimately it will be the same few people showing up now until the end. They are very dogmatic. They’re not going away. But they are welcome to stand off to the side.”

While Helbach admits it’s been stressful to have protesters disturbing a peaceful gathering, she said organizers respect the right of the FFRF to express its views, particularly in a public park.

“The great thing about America is freedom of speech,” Helbach said. “If they want their voices to be heard, well, that’s fine.

“Why are they doing it? I’m not exactly sure why. We’ve been scratching our heads about that.

“In this day and age, with kids all into their iPhones and video games and texting, we think it’s really cool how kids are coming together, eyeball to eyeball, and talk about spiritual and moral truths, like the need to be kind to each other and love your neighbor as much as yourself.

“We’re not resentful of (the protesters). We’ve gone ahead with our mission, to take a home-cooked meal to the kids every week and share a Biblical truth. We haven’t been impacted by them.”

The Jesus Lunch organizers were happy to learn last week that the Middleton school district had dropped its daytime lease of the city-owned Fireman’s Park.

Earlier in the spring district officials tried to convince the parents to move the lunches somewhere else, and even blocked off the parking lot one Tuesday and confronted the mothers as they arrived.

But school officials acknowledged last week there could be an expensive legal battle with the Jesus Lunch group if they try to stop the events, so they dropped their lease on the park altogether.

Helbach said her group has already leased the park pavilion for more Jesus Lunches in the fall, when school begins again, as well as next spring.

In the meantime, she said her group has found an ironic value in the national controversy that’s surrounded the lunches.

“It’s so great that the name of Jesus has been proclaimed all over the nation,” she said. “Our goal is for the name of Jesus to be praised, and that’s obviously happened through this conflict.”