Their reactions tend toward the unsubtle. Cars pull to a stop, and Opa-lockans dressed in their Sunday best roll down their windows, puffing up their chests and preparing for a little high-volume spiritual warfare. But just as they let loose their first full-throated broadsides (¨This is an outrage!¨ yells a woman with what appears to be a Chiquita banana hat on her head), 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 coreligionists from the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church have swooped down on the Opa-locka megachurch to give another taste of God´s tough love. The faces in the cars of the New Birth congregants are stricken, a level of piss-offedness that surely can be maintained for only so long before somebody starts some shit. I´m standing next to Phelps on 135th Street, behind a handful of police officers and a bunch of grinning, big-muscled New Birth congregants, drafted for this occasion to shepherd church members into the parking lot before they get distracted by the strange Christians from Topeka. A lot of them want to get distracted.
Phelps surveys the scene. She scuffs the ground with her sneakered feet and beams her signs east and west. Besides ¨YOUR PASTOR IS A WHORE,¨ she´s got a big one reading ¨FAGS DOOM NATIONS¨ and another reading ¨GOD HATES AMERICA.¨ She holds them tightly and sings softly. The song is about improvised explosive devices. She really likes improvised explosive devices. She thinks they´re righteous.
Phelps´ 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. This is a woman whose church has been bombed, who´s witnessed a septuagenarian member of her congregation savagely beaten by a tolerance-loving gay counterprotester. Angry motorists have tried running down her siblings in the street.
A year ago last May, in Delaware, an angry mob broke the windows of Phelps´ family´s police-supplied van when they tried to escape an especially angry conflagration of moderate Christians, homos, vets, housewives, and other assorted normal people. Footage of the event is available on YouTube under the title ¨Westboro gets their ass kicked.¨ In the comments section, the curious can find the response of the nation´s sane, secular, tolerant majority. As of this writing, there are 920 comments -- more than ten times the number of people in Phelps´ church -- and a quick scan of the first page can tell you everything you´ll ever need to know about the lie of civility that we tell ourselves every day. The posters suggest that Phelps and her fellow congregants be run over by trucks, shot with guns, and beaten by mobs. They are called ¨cunts¨ (debatable) and ¨niggers¨ (demonstrably false).
Being thusly regarded by one´s countrymen is no fun, but the men and women of Westboro Baptist Church have no choice. They know -- they know -- if they don´t do what they do, they´ll go to hell.
The patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Rev. Fred Phelps, led dual careers as a preacher and lawyer before getting disbarred in 1979. Before 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.¨
Westboro´s ¨street ministry¨ began in 1989, when Fred Phelps realized that 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 13 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 in Gage Park, and the city stalled. Phelps then appealed to Topeka´s churches, at the same time posting mild warning signs in the park´s bathrooms. The gay community of Topeka was aghast. They protested, and Westboro protested back. There was escalation, and the city´s mainstream churches came down firmly in favor of the gays.
Westboro was horrified by the antidoctrinal practices of its neighboring churches, and by the early ´90s, its members were picketing all over the country. They picketed 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 protests in a week. And yet, despite their work ethic and lack of subtlety, Fred Phelps and Westboro didn´t become near-household names until the fall of 1998, when the church picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard.