Oct 092002
 
Authors: Patrick Crossland

TOPEKA, Kan. Oct. 6 — Bearing the faces of Matthew Shepard and

Laura Bush, signs reading phrases such as “CSU Fags” and “Fag Pimp”

were displayed from the pulpit of the Westboro Baptist Church.

“Every time a little faggot sneezes, the Colorado State

University, the president on down salutes them,” said Fred Phelps

from the pulpit of a church comprised of nearly 60 people. “Shame

on them, you need to be preached too, and I’m elected.”

He leaned over the pulpit pointing his finger and holding up

documents and pictures of adversaries. His voice billowed as he

justified his coming to areas such as CSU to preach.

Phelps is scheduled to bring his controversial message to Fort

Collins Saturday outside Hughes Stadium before the CSU-Wyoming

football game.

The congregation, composed of mostly family members, sat

motionless and silent except for an occasional chuckle as Phelps

filled the room with talk of fornication and graphic sexual

metaphors. However, for Westboro Baptist Church the day started

long before Phelps’s 11 a.m. sermon.

At 9 a.m., church members referred to their weekly schedule of

pickets and lined themselves on sidewalks and street corners

adjacent to other churches in the area.

“We picket to preach and spread our message that it’s not OK to

be gay,” said Sam Phelps-Roper, a church member and grandson to

Fred Phelps. “To make it an innocent alternative lifestyle is

sending yourself to hell. We’re about simply spreading that

message.”

They call it “crying against the altars,” which involves

picketing other churches because of their message of love rather

than hate, of mercy and grace rather than disdain and

intolerance.

“We pray for them,” said Wesley Smith, pastor at St. David’s

Episcopal Church in Topeka. “(Phelps is a) classic example of how

religion can be abused and become a weapon. It’s very

frightening.”

Churches have held counter-demonstrations and have rallied to

oppose Phelps’ message, but many say that the best thing to do is

ignore them.

“They have no influience on the community,” Smith said. “Saint

David’s did counter-demonstrations on God’s love. We find their

behavior, signs and mentality grievous and embarrassing. They have

no influence; naturally no one takes them seriously.”

According to the Westboro Baptist Church Web site, leaders such

as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, have “turned to

an impotent god that doesn’t exist.”

“‘God loves everyone’ is the big lie,” said Shirley

Phelps-Roper, a member of the church and daughter of Fred Phelps.

“(Other churches) pass ordinances and try every way to make us stop

picketing,” she said.

The Westboro church sued another church because of an ordinance

saying that picketers had to remain 90 feet away. They sued the

church, and were then allowed to picket 50 feet from the

building.

Picketing isn’t limited to the adults. Children are encouraged

to join church members at pickets. Many go eagerly.

Zach Phelps-Roper is in the sixth grade. He, like many other

children his age, likes to play video games and the piano. But

every week before church, he joins his family members at pickets,

often holding signs bearing phrases like, “Thank God For September

11th,” or “God Hates America.” At the age of 11, he already seeks

to fulfill a call and sees himself on a mission.

“We need to warn these people about hell for eternity,” he said.

“That’s where you’re going to go if you’re not going to

repent.”

Zach is one of many children who rally at the pickets, standing

holding signs, or playing with swords with their friends.

Many members of the Topeka community don’t support Phelps’ views

and have grown tired of the picketing.

“I think in general people dislike it,” said Kyle McDonald, a

senior studying computer information sciences at Washburn

University. “Most disagree with how he’s going about things and

what he has on his signs.”

The picketers are diligent and disperse themselves throughout

the community so that there are several pickets going on at one

time. Everyone in the congregation attends the pickets, including

children and elderly.

“They’re out everyday rain or shine,” McDonald said. “I think

it’s pretty disgusting. I wouldn’t be proud having my kids see

what’s on his signs. A lot of people tend to ignore him, most just

wish he’d leave.”

Nevertheless, the picketers remain unmoved and irrevocable, a

seemingly permanent fixture to the streets and sidewalks of Topeka.

They strategically place themselves and their signs to reach the

greatest number of onlookers.

“You can’t help but not miss them,” said Gary Shewmake a

community member of Topeka. “Personally, I wish they’d take their

signs and pitch them. Phelps is basically what some people say is a

cult. Nobody likes them.”

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