A fun thing about my life is that I get to say “Oh, I’ve lived all over.” Part of “all over” includes Topeka, Kansas, for just under two years. That’s a long story, and not this one. (It’s explained in my very first blog here, though.)
Topeka happens to be the hometown of the Westboro Baptist Church. You’ve probably heard of it—that’s the merry mob out picketing military funerals. Other famous episodes in their repertoire include celebrating the Sandy Hook shooting and other massacres. According to them, these events are America’s punishment from God for tolerating homosexuality, adultery, divorce and remarriage, and the like. They hold up signs that read “God hates fags,” “God loves dead soldiers,” and other fun, pithy (not!) things like that.
Just for the record, Topeka despises the WBC as much as the rest of the world. The church is not a very good representation of the Topeka brand, which would be more…Mayberryish—and I say that with great fondness for both Topeka and Mayberry.
When I first arrived in town, I saw WBC members out picketing a regular Lutheran Church holding signs that said “Fag Church” and showed stick figures kind of simulating the act. We also saw them picketing Jesus Christ Superstar at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, where Ted Neely showed us that even at age sixty-five or so he could still bring down the house.
While I lived in Topeka, I worked in a bank as a Marketing Officer (another long story). Across the street from the bank is a funeral home. One day, a long line of flag-flying motorcyclists—the Patriot Guard Riders—formed a barricade around the funeral of a marine, protecting the mourners from the WBC folks. I still get chills all over me when I remember that moment. The Guard, mostly veterans, stood with stoic stability and reverence while the WBC protesters shouted their slogans with glee. For every crazy bad shadow in humanity, there are many more bright lights.
About the Westboro Baptist Church
The WBC is comprised of the extended family of Fred Phelps. Children are born into it and completely indoctrinated by their family. They are also physically abused, because, you know, Proverbs 20:30: “The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil.” (OMG.)
The family/church members honestly feel they are doing the work of God. To them the negative reaction they receive from counter protesters and the media is just “proof of their righteousness.”
They spend about $250,000 per year on their “picketing ministry,” as they call it. The church is entirely self-funded, mostly from tithes from its members, who are apparently very intelligent and industrious. Several work as lawyers. (Whaaaat? With all those brains and energy…never mind.)
Loving the Other
I posted a meme the other month, in the early part of the Black Lives Matter protests. An Indian guru is being asked by a devotee, “How do we love the other?” “There is no other,” is his answer.
Soooooooooo, well, that means the WBC. Trump, too—dang it all! Even the KKK. Actually, when I was traveling the world making a movie for peace, I talked to the Grand Wizard of the KKK. They were having a rally in the South Carolina town I was in, and I wanted to interview him. “Ma’am, I ain’t got nothing to say to you,” he told me over the phone. I didn’t get to see him, but we did end up talking for quite a while. I asked a lot of questions and peppered my comments with peace, love, and the like, as you’d figure I would if you know me at all. The more we spoke, the softer his voice became, until he finally told me he was very, very sick. I could say something, but I won’t. I don’t think he showed up at the rally.
In South Carolina I also interviewed a recovering racist, who’d grown up in a very racist household. It wasn’t until he moved away from that he realized how toxic that had been. He met “the other” he’d been taught to hate. But, he said about racism, “They’re just thoughts, and thoughts can be changed.”
WBC Children Growing Up and Out — Rapport
So often people love to say “people don’t change.” Oh, but they can and they do. Over the years, some of the children have left the WBC when they reached adulthood.
Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of founder Fred Phelps, had started posting on Twitter to spread the WBC word. It was there that a few people patiently started asking her questions. “How can you love your neighbor and wish them ill?” “How….?” “Why…..?” Things like that. They developed a rapport with her, which she says made all the difference. Their kind questioning started her thinking…which lead to her leaving…and now she travels the world speaking about how to combat extremism and how people can change.
Here’s Megan’s roadmap to dialogue, from her talk below:
- Don’t assume bad intent. Assume good or neutral.
- Ask questions—that maps the disconnect and signals to people that they’re being heard.
- Stay calm.
- Make the argument.
We are never going to get anyone to change his or her mind by yelling at them, scolding them, calling them stupid (Mika*) or deplorable (Hillary). As Megan said, her change came from people developing a relationship with her. She ended up becoming very close friends with the people who gently asked her questions. Here’s one of her amazing talks:
A LGBTQ group bought a house across the street from the WBC. They named it Equality House and painted it in rainbow colors. Right before Fred Phelps died, he walked out onto his lawn and called out to them, “You’re good people.” Wow, wow, wow—was he having a change of heart, a reckoning? His family didn’t comment on that.
The night he died, the church protested a concert in Kansas City. Counter protesters across the street had a banner, too: “We’re sorry for your loss.”
Within each one of us lies the power for good, for transformation. We can all turn baseness into higher forms. We are the love, the agents of change, the awakening ones the world needs now. All we need to do is ignite the magic, the miracle that we are.
I think some of the highest work humans can do is go through something evil and come out the other side with the desire to ameliorate that evil. We can alchemize it by putting to use the magic, the miracle that is…us.
Photo of the children, above: From CreativeCommons.org, “Westboro Baptist Church uses kids as propaganda messengers” by yksin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
* MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski asked diehard Trump supporters, “How stupid can you be, at this point, if you follow this president?” So not recommended. Questions like this just piss people off and make them dig their heels in more. Wouldn’t it do that to you if someone was dissing you and your beliefs?