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New Birth Baptist Church members are noticeably excited when they get their first look at the sign resting on Marge Phelps's right shoulder: YOUR PASTOR IS A WHORE.
Their reactions tend toward the unsubtle. Cars pull to a stop at NW 135th Street and 23rd Avenue, and Opa-lockans dressed in their Sunday best roll down their windows, puff up their chests, and prepare for a little high-volume spiritual warfare. But just as they let loose their first full-throated broadsides ("This is an outrage!" yells one woman), the beefy bouncers are there, grinning, soothing: "Now just get inside, just get inside. Move it along, baby. I'm serious."
It's Sunday, June 10, and Phelps and her three nieces from the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church have swooped down on the Opa-locka mega-church with a taste of God's tough love. The faces in the cars of the New Birth congregants are stricken, a level of pissed-offness that seems likely to start some shit.
Phelps surveys the scene. She also has a sign reading FAGS DOOM NATIONS and another that says GOD HATES AMERICA. She holds them tightly and sings softly. The song is about improvised explosive devices.
Phelps's face is steely during these pickets, a look of calculating hyperawareness. She knows better than anybody how seemingly peaceful afternoons can erupt into dangerous craziness. Her church has been bombed, she has witnessed the savage beating of a septuagenarian member of her congregation, and angry motorists have tried running down her siblings in the street.
The patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church is Rev. Fred Phelps, Marge's dad. He led dual careers as a preacher and a lawyer before getting disbarred in 1979. Prior to that, he achieved a small amount of notoriety for taking on difficult civil rights cases back when civil rights cases weren't especially hip, winning numerous lawsuits for penniless black families in Kansas. Years later, asked to explain the discrepancy between his friendly treatment of blacks and his vicious treatment of gays, he said simply: "God never said it was an abomination to be black." The church has even championed Fidel Castro because of the dictator's anti-gay stance -- though they'd add he's probably going to Hell anyway.
Westboro's "street ministry" began in 1989, when Fred learned a corner of Topeka's Gage Park was a place where gay men trolled for anonymous sex in the bramble. The sprawling Phelps clan -- which, at the time, included thirteen children and dozens of grandchildren -- contained many avid cyclists, all of whom regularly used the park's bike trails. Phelps appealed to the city to do something about the goings-on, and officials stalled. Phelps then appealed to Topeka's churches and also posted mild warning signs in the park's bathrooms. The gay community of Topeka was aghast. It protested, and Westboro protested back. The dispute escalated. The city's mainstream churches came down firmly in favor of the gays.
Westboro was horrified by the anti-doctrinal practices of its neighboring churches, and by the early Nineties its members were picketing all over the nation. They protested at churches (YOUR PASTOR IS A WHORE), conventions of mainline denominations (GOD HATES FAG ENABLERS), gay pride rallies (GOD HATES FAGS), and the funerals of AIDS victims (AIDS CURES FAGS), often holding as many as 30 demonstrations in a week. Yet Fred Phelps and Westboro didn't become near-household names until the fall of 1998, when the church picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. It was a seminal moment in gay American culture, and the church did not win many friends.
When Westboro began picketing soldiers' funerals, it got even uglier. In May 2006, Congress passed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, banning protests within 300 feet of funerals. It was written because of the church's activity. Since then, the demonstrations have drawn national scorn and at times childish name-calling. Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts penned a taunting piece that began: "Allow me to share with you an epiphany. I think Fred Phelps is gay."
Back at New Birth Baptist, few people confront Marge Phelps. One congregant, a fellow named Ted, tells Marge that, hell yes, God sure does hate fags, but this ain't the way to go about preaching it.
Marge responds, "Your words are neither timely nor topical."
A few minutes later, an older gentleman in a gaudy blue hat comes tearing toward the church entrance in a pissed-off power walk, and the bouncers get in front of him. He's yelling; they're trying to cool his ardor: "Langford! Calm down! You just calm down!"
Langford: Roar, roar, roar.
"Langford! I am not playing with you! You just get on inside!"
Marge, facing the road, mumbles to herself: "Might Langford be a fornicator?"
She pauses, considering. She says it again, a little louder. Then she adds, "I wonder what filthy little sin Langford is sucking on."
She seems to make up her mind about something. Tilting her signs at angles to project her voice over the assembled cops and congregants, she turns and yells, "Oh Laaaangford!Might you be an adulterer? That is the only very pertinent question right now, Langford."
This or something else sparks laughter from behind the gate.
Then Marge and her nieces travel to St. Mary's Catholic Cathedral, at NW 75th Street and Second Avenue, where she reprimands several sets of parents for bringing their children to this place. Their children, she says, might be raped. She adds, "Look at your hands! What you see is the rectal blood of all those raped altar boys! What you see is the blood of every soldier killed in Iraq!"
The families look on blandly, and eventually Marge says, "It occurs to me right now that I may be facing an audience that does not understand English." She shrugs and hoists her sign a little higher. "Oh well. They'll still get the message, one way or the other." Then Marge and her nieces sing, "The Pope! The Pope! The Pope is on fire! He don't need no water! Let the pedophile burn!"
What Westboro Baptist Church is really doing here is posing a question: Who is a Christian? Westboro's dogma comes unsweetened from a very old book of Middle Eastern origin. It is the most widely owned volume in the world and one of the least frequently read. The Westboro Baptists have read it, and they found rage and smiting and violence; it outlines an extraordinarily strict code of behavior, demanding swift and savage punishment for those who don't comply. They found the book Jonathan Edwards wrote about in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, the book of Cotton Mather and John Calvin.
Which means Westboro Baptist Church is not an aberration. It is a reminder of what real religion and real belief look like, divorced from the influence of secular culture. It is the Middle East condensed and put on display in a Midwestern terrarium. The atavistic believers of Westboro are frustrated. Either take the mean old God of Abraham seriously or don't, they say. You're either for the kingdom of man or you're for Heaven, and if you're for Heaven, you've got some very heavy summer reading and a lot of tricky thinking ahead.
They want us to pick a side: The Book or the world. And it's heartening to realize that, whether we know it or not, we already have.