TOPEKA, Kan. Oct. 6 – The sun sets low to the left of me, sinking deep behind the Washburn University campus. The school’s football team has scores of fans cooking brats and drinking Pepsi in the parking lot, anticipating the game. And on the fringe of the parking lot, just as they will be doing this Saturday at Hughes Stadium, the Westboro Baptist Church is picketing.
The signs are hugely colorful. They must have cost a fortune at Kinko’s. And the picketers, most of them members of The Reverend Fred Phelps’ immediate or extended family, hold them up somewhat absentmindedly, talking with each other about the results of the afternoon’s Kansas State/Colorado game.
The people don’t look angry. They leave the anger for the signs, which scream in bold letters, “God hates America.” And, “Thank God for Sept. 11.” And then, of course, the inevitable. “God hates fags.”
This Saturday, Fred Phelps will be bringing a contingent of his small and abrasive congregation to picket the CSU/Wyoming football game, “In celebration of the 4th anniversary of Matt Shepard’s entry into Hell.” They will bring their signs; they will bring their hate. And they will bring their children.
Perhaps the scariest aspect of Westboro Baptist Church is the fact that they are diligently adhering to the biblical principle of “training up a child the in the way they should go.” There are as many children, small children, among the picketing congregation as there are adults.
In one of the early Sunday morning pickets I attend, a toddler crawls through a two-sided placard that reads, “God hated Sodom.” They are adorable kids, exceedingly friendly. Except, of course, for the wrathful and hateful sentiments that spew from the signs clutched in their small hands.
Grace Phelps-Roper is a granddaughter of Fred Phelps. After I attend the Sunday morning church service at the compound-like Westboro Baptist Church, another reporter and I are asked to stay for Grace’s birthday party. There are hot dogs and chili and Fritos by the bagful. Grace runs up to her grandfather, easily the most despised man on our campus, one of the most despised in America, and asks him for a picture since it’s her birthday. The two get up, pose and smile, the upside-down American flag that is the war banner of Phelp’s organization flapping anticlimactically in the background.
Grace Phelps-Roper completely buys into the ideology of her grandfather, and mother, and cousins. An ideology that has created a little army of hate out of this extended family, an army that sparks constant annoyance and anger in the city of Topeka and anywhere else they can broadcast their message.
At the picket, I ask Grace why she has come to hold signs on a street corner.
“I asked if I could come,” she said. “I like to do it because we’re preaching the truth.” Grace is the type of kid you’d feel lucky to have. She’s cute and smiley, and talks easily to adults. A feat a lot of college students can’t accomplish.
I press her a little more. I ask her what the truth is.
“You’re going to go to Hell for being gay if you don’t repent.” She smiles at me. Grace Phelps-Roper is nine years old.
If a close observation of Fred Phelps reveals anything it is that Fred Phelps is completely sold on being Fred Phelps. There will be no changing his mind. Even by writing this column, I am doing exactly what he wants. Even if I say that Fred Phelps in no way embodies a Christianity that is based on the New Testament, that he in no way knows the Jesus that I do, he will consider this column an instrument in the dissemination of his message. In a way, I have played beautifully into his hands.
This weekend’s game will be fraught with enough tension, even if the visitors from Kansas were not going to be there. Any engagement of Phelps or his group members will be to them a welcome affirmation that their brand of hate hits some sort of chord with us. Do not let them rile you. Conduct yourself with grace and dignity, and do not let the evil disguised as pious righteousness alter your day. You will not change their minds. It’s best to walk on by.
Sarah Laribee spent the weekend in Topeka, interviewing the members of Westboro Baptist Church, and consuming large amounts of Pringles with another reporter. She welcomes comments.
Turn to the Collegian Thursday and Friday for full coverage of the CSU-Wyoming game and the planned Westboro Baptist Church protest.