There’s going to be three words at the end of this sentence that are going to provoke a very specific emotion: Westboro Baptist Church. Right now, you’re likely feeling some form of anger or disgust. You have every right to think that way about a cult who preaches abhorrent messages like “Pray For More Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God For Aids,” and “9-11 Gift From God.”
Deep within myself, I absolutely despised Westboro Baptist Church. Just the sight or thought of this group provoked instant rage. I just purposefully used the past tense twice: “despised” and “provoked.” I used to hate this group, until the spring of 2011.
@DearShirley Ok, I am following you now. Follow me back and DM me your #. Tmrw at 7pm eastern / 6pm central work for you? 30mins?— Vince Tornado™ (@vincetornado) March 8, 2011
For whatever reason and still inexplicable to this day, the Kansas-based cult fascinates me. I wanted to learn more about them and what drives Westboro to do what they do on a daily basis. So, I searched online to find some contact information. Phone numbers and emails were useless because they’re all posted online for anyone to give the “church” some “feedback.” My next option was Twitter to look for a spokesperson. The first one that popped up was Shirley Phelps-Roper – the daughter of “church” founder Fred Phelps. I sent her a tweet requesting an interview. Twenty-four hours later, we’re on the phone with the recorder rolling.
Listen to highlights from that interview here…
Can you believe some of the stuff she said? After the hour-long conversation, I hung up and had to process what just happened. Truly, it was one of the most bizarre but insightful conversations I’ve ever had. But, I couldn't shake that feeling of wanting to know more about the Westboro Baptist cult.
“The Most Hated Family In America” is a BBC documentary written and produced by Louis Theroux. It is single-handedly the best piece of journalistic work in regards to the Phelps family. While peppered with obscenities and mature themes, it’s incredibly well done and worth the time. (The first special is online HERE; second special is available for viewing HERE).
After the interview and documentary, I noticed they make signs featuring images of Lady Gaga, the Pope, and the President. So, this caused me to wonder, log on to Twitter and make a request. Shirley Phelps-Roper agreed and said they could make it happen. However, I didn't believe they actually would.
It’s the morning of May 10th, 2011. Today was the day Westboro was going to be picketing outside Hilliard Darby High School. I decided to not go and instead watch on Twitter. One of our reporters was on the scene covering it. I then clicked on a photo he tweeted and couldn’t believe what I saw.
My first reaction: “Oh my gosh - they did it. They actually did it.” The second reaction: “I need to get that sign.” I then remembered the “church” was going to wrap up their Hilliard protest and head over to Worthington-Kilbourne High School to speak in a political thought and radicalism class.
About a month after the interview and hours after their protest, my friend and I pulled into the parking lot of the high school to get the sign. Spokeswoman Shirley was speaking in the class at the time we were picking up the sign. So, Jason and I were meeting with her daughter, Megan Phelps-Roper. As we walked up to say hi, I wondered: “What is this chick gonna be like? Normal? Crazy? Who knows.” The conversation was not crazy at all. In fact, the only strange part was how seemingly-normal it was talking to a member of the most hated family in America. After about 10-minutes of cordial banter, we went on our way.
The best way to respond to Westboro Baptist Church is to not. The very thing they thrive on is the thing you and I all too often give them. It is the gas in their tank; the oxygen they breathe. The greatest harm we can inflict on them is to deprive them of this thing they crave the most: attention.
However, they should not be underestimated or discounted as some backwoods hicks. They are smart people. Much of the family is made up of lawyers. This means they can fund and legally defend their operation. They are not dependent upon any outside sources for anything. Members of this Kansas “church” will provoke to the point of begging for a fist in the face. But, you cannot give into that because they have a team of family lawyers ready to defend and continue their crusade. In fact, who was the attorney that represented them before the Supreme Court? One of their own family members.
Where anger once was I can now only feel pity. For generations, members of this so-called church have been deceived into believing their hateful message. They do not know the love of God nor will they likely ever experience His grace. While sometimes hard to believe, they truly believe everything they say. While I believe everything they do is disgusting and wrong, I pity Westboro Baptist Church because they are trapped in a sad culture of continuous rage.