If Walgreens is on the corner of Happy and Healthy, Westboro Baptist Church is on the corner of Triggered and Deranged.
Triggered because I can’t imagine these people being happy more than a couple times a year, Deranged because no matter how badly you want to look away from the wreck, you’re rolling down your window and looking anyway.
For many students, Tuesday afternoon was their first taste of what might be the most heinous spectacle to roll through town since Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy came through last November.
For me, though, this was a chance to catch up with old friends I made at the Indianapolis 500 in May. Yes, I’ve been there and done that with the Westboro gang, a dream of mine since I started eye-guzzling their videos on YouTube and Vine.
I was covering the Indianapolis 500 for the Sports Capital Journalism Program here at IUPUI, and when I saw Westboro would be on hand to protest whatever it is they protest, I knew I had two jobs that day: pretend to know something about IndyCar racing, and find time to talk to these people I’d only heard through headphones for so long.
The first person I talked to was Chris, who donned a “GOD H8S SIN & SINNERS” sign. Chris didn’t want to share his last name—probably a calculated move—but that was pretty much the extent of his lack of transparency.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Strangely enough, this is Chris talking, not me. I said yeah.
“Do you read the Bible?”
I said I’ve read parts of it.
“I can’t talk you into a Heaven and Hell,” he told me.
Chris went on to tell me he and his pals were simply there to “warn” people of God’s wrath and judgment. At this point, I admittedly stopped listening to Chris and was enjoying a beautiful rendition of “Need You Now” by Lady Antebellum, except the lyrics included things like “God will wipe you out” and “Your destruction has begun.”
But back to Chris.
“Look at these people flipping us off!” he told me. And to be fair, there were a lot of people flipping them off. (This brings me to an important point, though, and it’s applicable to a wide range of situations: No matter who you’re dealing with, giving them the time of day and not provoking them will make a positive impression, and you’re much more likely to have an engaging conversation.)
The last thing you’ll care to know about Chris is that he brought his son with him, a boy who looked like he probably wasn’t older than 14. His sign said “FAG = LIES.”
Margie Phelps, the daughter of the late Fred Phelps, who founded Westboro Baptist Church in 1955, is sort of a celebrity in the hate community. If you’ve ever watched a video of Westboro picketing or preaching, she was most likely prominently featured.
I asked Margie how she feels about the science that seems to fly in the face many of their stances, and she was quick to let me know she’s not a fan.
“Junk,” she said, perhaps thinking we were playing a fill-in-the-blank game.
“The scriptures say the human heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things,” she said.
I wasn’t sure what that had to do with science, but I rolled with it, and she eventually came back to my question.
Talking about something to do with “catering to your flesh,” she went on to say, “If that’s what you call science—‘I felt like it, I was born with it’—well we’re all born with it. That’s not science, that’s just reality.”
After dropping that knowledge on me, Margie became more interested in singing than talking, and that was that. My butterflies weren’t even gone by the time our conversation ended.
The saddest encounter I had that day was with two boys—one the grandson of Fred Phelps, and the other part of a family that joined the church. To my recollection (I didn’t write this down), they were both 13.
I asked the boy not connected to the Phelps family if he ever had the opportunity to leave the church. He hesitated, so the Phelps boy hopped in and reminded him that he had that opportunity when he was 11, just two years ago. Obviously he decided to stay—who’s choosing to leave their family at age 11?—though that seemed to be a foggy memory.
I didn’t take many notes at all during my encounter with Westboro, probably because I was too excited to be thinking like a journalist. But there’s something I wrote down that I think perfectly sums up the entire experience.
“High octane – dope beats.”