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Conversations with God Hates Fags/Westboro Baptist Church [21 December, 2008]

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I promised I’d post a transcripts of my conversations with people in God Hates Fags, so here’s a brief account of my encounter made available only on Bilerico.  Links will take you to my previous Bilerico posts.

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It’s Monday, December 4, outside the Democratic National Committee Headquarters which also serves as Obama’s transition office.  233 S.  Michigan.

I’m here to cover the Westboro Baptist Church, also known as God Hates Fags because of the signs they carry with that message.  I’d already shown up earlier in the week at the Federal Building on Dearborn (Obama’s Senate office), where they were supposed to have appeared but didn’t.  So, I’m understandably thrilled to see the bright signs from inside the bus, as it pulls up at the stop.  These are professional signs, with large, bold images and simple phrases like “God Hates Pakistan,” and “Antichrist Obama.”

There are only five of them.  I’d expected a larger crowd.  It’s possible they’ve split up into small groups and dispersed all across the city and the state since, judging by the number of places they plan to visit as announced on godhatesfags.com, they’ve got quite a few places to protest.  I’m surprised by how young they are.

Except for a man who turns out to be Fred Phelps Jr.  and who seems to be about 50, none of them look like they’re even 30.  I start with Fred Phelps Jr., and it’s a relatively brief conversation, much of it involving scripture.  Throughout, my conversations with Phelps and another member of the church are perfectly civil.

I identify myself as a reporter from Windy City Times to each of them, assuming that they know it’s a gay paper; I’m sure they keep tabs on the queer community.  I expect them to refuse to talk to me or hurl sermons, but instead they’re quite forthcoming and even genial.  Which makes sense, given their professed desire to get the word out on as many channels as possible.

Fred Phelps Jr.

Yasmin Nair: So, why are you here and what are you protesting?

Fred Phelps Jr.:We’re here to do a little preaching to Obama.  He’s given over the civil rights movement to the filthy homosexuals and the baby killers.  He claims to be inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, but he’s ignoring the basic message: Thou Shalt Not Kill.  Have you read the Sermon on the Mount?

YN: Don’t remember much about it, actually.  [All I can remember is that there was a sermon.  On a mountain.  I think.  As I talk , I’m desperately trying to remember all my Bible/Moral Science classes from when I was a girl].

FPJ: It has the strongest language condemning homosexuals.

YN: What about the sign about Pakistan (God Hates Pakistan)?  What do you have against Pakistan?

FPJ: They’re not Christians.  They don’t believe in Christ.

YN: But a lot of people don’t believe in Christ.

FPJ: Yes, and God Hates the World.  (At this point, he starts quoting Scripture and talks about how the world is going to end).

YN: But what would happen to all of you?  Wouldn’t you be stricken just as much?

FPJ: No, it’s like the story of Sodom.  We’ll be like Lot and Noah.  Do you know the story of Lot?

(All I can remember about Lot is something about a pillar of salt.  I’m an aetheist, on top of being a queer lesbian, so can’t be expected to remember this stuff.  I tell him I don’t remember.)

FPJ: Well, this country is doomed.  Read Genesis chapters 18 and 19.  Lot was taken out of the city by angels.  And that’s what will happen to us as well.

We end our conversation on that note, and chat briefly about the weather.

Afterwards, I talk to someone who’s more theologically informed, and he reminds me of Lot’s incest story - about his daughters trying to get impregnated by their father.  I’m scarred.

Jon Trott, of Jesus People, is the lone counter demonstrator and stands on the opposite side of the street.  He’s got two signs, one that says “Gays are our neighbours.” I talk to him for a bit.

I don’t want to return hate for hate, but I certainly hate their message and believe God hates it too.  I think they’re cartoon theologians.  There’s an obvious psychological issue here, with the leader of the group somehow is getting his own strange reward from the hate message they’re spreading and the opposition that it stirs up among most sane people in the world.  But he’s in need of redemption and Christ loves him, whether or not he’s able to apprehend that.

I walk back across the street and try to talk to one of the women, who looks like she’s barely 17, but she purses her lips and shakes her head.  It’s clear I won’t get anything from her.  I circle around, tape recorder in hand, and see an animated female passerby arguing with another WBC woman.  They’re arguing about the Bible, and the conversation’s clearly not going anywhere - the WBC woman tells the passerby that she has the Bible wrong.  The passerby later tells me that she considers herself a servant of God as well, and is upset that people like the WBC followers might be tainting the reputation of believers.  I go up to the woman she’d been arguing with, whose name is Katherine Hockenberger.  She’s measured and polite.

Katherine Hockenberger

YN: What do you think of (Jon Trott) across the street?

KH: I think he is very misguided.  The lord has blinded his eyes.  He can stand over there all he wants to and all he does is bring more attention to our message because everybody that sees him wants to know why he’s saying that.  So they read these signs and they receive the word of God.

(By this time, passing cars are honking and they’re clearly not doing so in support of WBC; drivers and passengers are pointing third fingers out of their car windows.)

YN: So do you think you have a lot of support in a city like Chicago?

KH: Oh, of course not.  The whole round world has rejected the word of God and therefore rejects the Lord’s servants.  So there’s no support anywhere we go.  The Lord Jesus Christ said, “The emissaries of evil will hate you.” So.  We love it.  All we’re here to do is make sure that every single person, when they meet their maker, is without excuse.  They can’t tell the Lord God on Judgment Day that they didn’t know because we’ve been here, we’ve been telling you.

YN: How long have you been doing this?  You seem quite young.

KH: We’ve been doing this for 18 years.

YN: No, I mean you personally.

KH: I’ve been doing it since I was 8 years old.

YN: Did your parents bring you into the church?

KH: Yes.  I’ve been going to the Westboro Baptist Church my entire life with my parents.  We started doing this in Topeka in 1991.  There was a local park there where people would meet to have sex.  The government wouldn’t do anything about it, so we started putting up signs to warn people.  It pretty much just grew from there.  It grew pretty rapidly because it was very apparent to us that the people in the city, the churches in particular started making an issue of what we were doing because they were saying that it wasn’t right to tell people that it’s essentially not okay to have sex in a park.  Two men?  It was perfectly fine for them to go have sex in the bathrooms or in the bushes or whatever.  So they brought God into it, saying that God loves everybody.  Of course, God doesn’t love everybody.  The scriptures are very clear about that.  And so we responded, and the Lord has guided us and given us a wonderful ministry, and we’ve gone forth into this entire nation.  We’ve gone into other countries.  The world receives our message now, through our website.

YN: How are you funded?

KH: We work.  Just like everybody else.  I go to work and I use the money to support myself and my family and to travel to Chicago or wherever we need to be.

YN: So the ministry doesn’t cover any of your expenses?

KH: No.  No one pays our way.  I bought a plane ticket.  The other people bought plane tickets.  We get into the car and we go about our business.

Originally published on The Bilerico Project, 21 December, 2008.  Read comments here.


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