A week ago, on a bitterly cold day in Bethalto, Illinois, I was invited to worship at the most hated church in America. I had just interviewed Margie Phelps, a member of Westboro Baptist in Topeka, Kansas, a small church where roughly nine out of ten members are related by blood or marriage to Fred Phelps, Westboro's 81-year old Pastor. Margie Phelps is one of the Pastor's thirteen children and one of the church's attorneys. I immediately accepted the invitation.
The day I met Margie Phelps and three other protestors they were holding signs on the side of the road near a funeral service for Lance Corporal Kenneth Corzine, a 23-year old Marine who died on Christmas Eve in Bethesda Naval Hospital after being wounded in action in Afghanistan. The signs included the messages; "Thank God for dead soldiers," "God hates fags," and "Fag troops." The signs are designed to grab attention and focus people on the "sins" denounced by the group, primarily homosexuality.
I repeatedly asked Ms. Phelps about her message and the way they delivered it. "Do you think Jesus would support holding up a sign that says 'thank God for dead soldiers?'" "Jesus is holding the sign that says thank God for dead soldiers," she barked at me. "This message is from the Lord Jesus Christ and the Lord, your God." She insisted Christ approved of their approach, and I kept asking questions challenging her. In the end, I told her I would like to attend church at Westboro. She invited me to visit on Sunday, and I accepted.
We arrived in Topeka on Saturday. Immediately, we drove to the church. Margie is the daughter of Fred Phelps, Westboro's 81-year old Pastor. Pastor Phelps has thirteen children and dozens of grandchildren. Most of them are members of Westboro, and live next to the church.
Saturday night we visited the home of Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of the Pastor's daughters and the most visible spokeswoman for the church. She showed us the Westboro "war room," which is a fairly large room with several computers and a copying machine. There are boxes filled with the group's infamous signs and flags in the room right next to a large collection of family photos.
Shirley is the unofficial point person for Westboro. She organizes the teams the protests. Church members say they pay their own way on the trips. Some members, including Phelps-Roper, told me they donate more than a third of their income to the church's mission of taking "God's word" to funerals and other events that they believe present an audience of "sinners" who need to hear God's warning about their behavior.
While we were in the "war room" Shirley received an email about the death of a Missouri soldier, and quickly sent a text to other members asking if they were able to go the the soldier's funeral and protest. Her phone quickly started beeping with responses, and it didn't take long to pull the trip together. It's a process that repeats itself every time Westboro senses "God is opening a door" for their brand of preaching.
Why take that message to military funerals? The Phelps family believes they are preaching God's word to sinners who defend a nation that is sinning against God. In their minds, it's simple, and a message of love, not hate, even though the Anti-Defamation League and many other organizations refer to Westboro as a "hate group."
On Saturday, after the Roper family had dinner, they gathered around a computer and watched grandfather Fred's latest video. In it he thanks God for the gunman who killed six people and wounded thirteen others, calling it "a marvelous work in Tucson. He (God) sits in the Heavens and laughs at you and your affliction. Westboro Baptist Church prays for more shooters and more violence...and more dead."
On Sunday, we attended the church service, which was brief, about 40 minutes long. It opened with a hymn, followed by a prayer. Then, Pastor Phelps read his four page sermon word for word hardly ever lifting his eyes from the paper to make contact with the members itting in the pews. His message was filled with judgement and God's wrath, barely mentioning love. The sermon was followed by a second hymn and what appeared to be an abrupt ending to the service.
There were about fifty people at the service on Sunday. The women wore scarves around their heads. Nearly all of them were related to Pastor Phelps.
After the service we met Pastor Phelps in his office for a thirty minute long on-camera interview. During our interview, Pastor Phelps told me the church was protesting at military funerals because it was "God's message" to him and that it was "none of your business." The fiery Pastor called me "a muckraker" more interested in making them look bad than spreading the truth about their mission. Pastor Phelps insisted he, and the other demonstrators, are showing love for people who see their signs because they love them enough to warn them that they may be "going to Hell."
I repeatedly asked Pastor Phelps "Why?" Why go to military funerals? Why carry signs celebrating the death of soldiers defending our country?
At one point he responded bluntly: "Why not?"