Westboro Baptist Church
I first heard of the Westboro Baptist Church in the late 1990s when images of them with their extremely homophobic signs made them an internet phenomenon. Their theatrical, over-the-top brand of hate was so absurd that I had to wonder if they were real or an internet hoax. That shock factor and their ability to anger everyone from civil rights advocates to religious fundamentalists and ultra right wing conservatives is what I found interesting about them, but what fascinated me the most was that once I met them they were nothing like what I expected them to be.
In 2005 I was working on Pursuit of Happiness, my senior thesis exhibition at Pratt Institute, and I knew that I needed a photo that showed religious extremism within a family context. I had originally planned on photographing a Billy Graham crusade scheduled in Queens, but when I found out that Westboro Baptist Church would be picketing the event, I quickly diverted my attention to them. I photographed them for a couple hours and watched them verbally annihilate every passerby with warnings of their "hell-bound ways." I found myself experiencing a simultaneous disgust with everything they were saying and a bit of admiration for their circus-like showmanship and pure art of confrontation. After the fenced-in and police protected picket came to an end, the group was getting ready to go to St. Patrick's cathedral for their second picket of the day. I just came right up to them and asked if I could come along. They said I could, changed into street clothes and put away their signs, and blended into the crowd and it was as if they were never even there.
We took the number seven train into Manhattan and I don't know what it was but I just instantly felt this feeling of love between them. They were protective, nurturing and intelligent. As we were on this elevated train going through and overlooking the different neighborhoods in Queens I began to think about all the kids out there growing up with parents that are abusive or neglectful and how jealous they would be to see what I was witnessing and have a family like this. Granted, raising your kids in an environment like the Westboro Baptist Church can easily be classified as far extreme versions of abuse or neglect and you can't justify any of their actions just by pointing out how nicely they treat each other, but in my eyes the love was there and it was genuine. Shirley asked me personal questions about my upbringing and the conversation just flowed naturally back and forth. Once you took away the signs, there was nothing even remotely weird or crazy about them; they were well educated and well spoken middle of the road Americans.
With the photo from earlier that day of Grace standing on the American flag in her Napoleon Dynamite shirt sending out a text message, I felt like I had already gotten the best photograph that would ever be taken of them picketing but I was now more interested in finding out about their home lives than their public ones. A few years went by before I was able to acquire the equipment, money and courage to really put myself out there to continue this project but when I reached out to the church, Shirley instantly remembered who I was and was referencing things I had said in our conversation on that train ride into Manhattan. She gave me her phone number and told me to pick a date I wanted to come and giver her a call. A couple months later I found myself in Topeka for the better part of a week absorbing as much as I could about them.
I don't know exactly what I was expecting but I think something more along the lines of a religious fundamentalist compound shut off from all facets of popular culture; what I got was a bunch of kids who loved Spiderman and Spongebob and parents who jogged in the morning before taking the kids to school or leaving for their nine to five. The only thing more important than family was the unwavering dedication to constantly serve God. This wasn't David Koresh and the Branch Dividians, it was like some sort of post modern performance art version of Leave It To Beaver.
At one point I found myself in the back of Megan Phelps-Roper's Pontiac driving through downtown Topeka, Kansas. We passed by every suburban fast food chain and mega store you've ever seen. Her cousin Jacob was next to me pounding a store brand version of Mountain Dew explaining how he's tired of paying the big bucks for the name brands, and amusing us with anecdotes about his job at the local Target distribution center.
Megan's younger sister, Rebekah, was in the front passenger seat asking me if I listen to Akon, Young Jeezy and T.I.
"It's such a shame that their music is so good, but they're going to hell because they don't use their talents to serve God", Megan chimed in.
Rebekah turned around to show me some funny videos on her cell phone. Past the glow of her Motorola I saw the courthouse on the corner. Their grandmother stood on the sidewalk waiting for us as she clutched her brightly colored sign that read, "God Hates Fags."