A gold Chevy Trailblazer bearing two “Support Our Troops” magnets rolls past flag-waving bikers and roaring motorcycles. Then it motors past men and women carrying signs thanking God for dead American soldiers.
The SUV parks in the lot across from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Independence. As the Samoan family exits the vehicle, Shirley Phelps-Roper says, “Oh, I’ve got a customer here,” then snaps into a loud song to the tune of “The Army Goes Rolling Along.”
First to fight/For the fags/Now they’re coming home in bags/And the army goes marching to hell.
Her voice is worthy of a church choir and carries across the lot.
The grieving family glares at Phelps-Roper with looks of hurt and disgust.
“Now, see, they’ll never be able to take those words away,” she brags.
Fred Phelps’ daughter is right. Her words stick to the memory like bubblegum to a shoe. She picks up the song in midverse.
Proud of all of your sin/No more battles you will win/And the army goes marching to hell.
Now it’s IEDs/The army’s on its knees/Count off the body parts all gone — Two! Three! — and where e’er they go/The dying soldiers show/The army keeps marching to hell.
Army National Guard Sgt. Michael Fuga was killed in action in Afghanistan on September 9. But his memorial will be anything but peaceful, thanks to the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. To them, Fuga is just another soldier burning in hell. His is just another funeral in need of gospel preaching, Another chance to mock the lawmakers who have tried to shut them up.
Those lawmakers can’t silence the Phelpses, although 30 states, including Missouri, have passed legislation to restrict picketing at funerals. In the Phelpses’ home state of Kansas, lawmakers have yet to pass legislation, but at a late-September press conference, Attorney General Phil Kline announced plans for legislation next session. The U.S. Congress also moved to hush the church’s followers, passing a ban on pickets within 300 feet of the entrance to a national cemetery and 150 feet from a road into a cemetery. President Bush signed it into law on Memorial Day.
Today, nine members of the Westboro Baptist Church have made the trip from Topeka to picket Fuga’s funeral. Shirley Phelps-Roper brought her oldest daughters, Megan and Rebekah; her mother, Marge; her sister Margie; and her brothers Fred Jr. and Jonathan and their wives.
There to confront them are the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of bikers acting as a human shield, showing up at military funerals to block the Phelpses’ signs with American flags and drown out their chants and songs with revving motorcycles.
Phelps-Roper spots a rider heading her way.
“Watch this,” she says.
The biker tries to smoke her out by backing up his cycle and kicking out exhaust fumes.
But just as the engine blasts with a vroom, Phelps-Roper darts up the sidewalk, leaving the leather-clad man alone.
“I am so in charge of these guys,” she says.
Phelps-Roper wears a purple “GodHatesFags.com” hooded sweatshirt and holds three signs — “America Is Doomed,” “God Hates Fag Enablers” and “God Hates the USA” — in one hand. An American flag stuffed in her khaki pants drags on the concrete.
For an hour, the members of the Phelps family bounce from sidewalk to sidewalk, frustrating the bikers. Jonathan Phelps walks on a pair of American flags in the street. Megan and Rebekah taunt the bikers. Fred Jr. holds a “Fags Doom Nations” sign. Marge’s sign reads “God Is Your Enemy.”
Conspicuously absent is Fred himself.
Over the past year and a half, the Phelps family has garnered a new wave of media attention by picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers. Lawmakers have played into their hands by rushing to ban the tactic.
At the same time, the 49-year-old third daughter of Fred and Marge Phelps has become the most visible member of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, eclipsing her father in news stories and television appearances. She serves as the church’s unofficial spokeswoman.
Her father gained infamy about 15 years ago when he began picketing gay-pride celebrations with his “God Hates Fags” signs. Phelps later drew nationwide attention for picketing high-profile funerals (Fred Rogers, Matthew Shepard and Coretta Scott King). Eventually, it seemed as if the media wised up and denied Phelps the attention he so obviously craved.
These days, other than a September USA Today profile that called the family’s 76-year-old patriarch “sharp and defiant,” Fred’s public appearances have begun to resemble those of Fidel Castro holding up the day’s newspaper to prove he’s still alive. His absence on the picket line — even in Topeka — is glaring.
“It is very uncharacteristic for him to not be front and center because he gets so much out of that,” says Fred’s estranged son, Nate Phelps, who left Westboro in 1980. “The fact that he’s been absent from the public says a lot to me.”
Rumors of Phelps’ declining health are widespread, but Shirley Phelps-Roper dismisses them as “wishful thinking.”
The idea that the picketing will stop when Fred gets too old and dies, she says, is “a vain hope.”
Especially as long as she’s around.
In the pastor’s absence, she is the mouth of God.
“She prays daily for the opportunity to be the Lord’s mouth,” her sister Margie tells the Pitch, “and he’s blessed her with that opportunity.”
Phelps-Roper answers all media calls. She does more traveling and picketing than anyone else in Westboro’s congregation. Unlike her brothers and sisters, Phelps-Roper doesn’t work full-time outside her home. When she does work, it’s for the family law firm, Phelps-Chartered.
This year, it seems, the family’s efforts have been more aggressive than ever.
For example, blood was still fresh in the one-room Pennsylvania schoolhouse when Westboro members announced their plans to go to Nickel Mines and thank God for the murders of five Amish schoolgirls.
Cable news commentators fumed with indignation. At the last minute, Phelps-Roper struck a deal with syndicated talk-radio host Mike Gallagher, who offered the Phelpses an hour of airtime if they’d call off the picket. The conservative Gallagher said he made the bargain to spare the Amish family members more pain.
So Phelps-Roper and her sister Margie — not Fred — flew to New York City on a day’s notice to claim their hour on Gallagher’s show. They also taped an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor — Bill O’Reilly chose not to interview the sisters, but he and Gallagher badmouthed them for a segment, calling them “evil,” “desperate publicity mongers,” “witch hunters” and “Nazis.”
The most memorable stop on the impromptu media tour was Phelps-Roper’s appearance on the October 4 edition of the Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes. There, Phelps-Roper butted heads with conservative alpha male Sean Hannity on live TV.
An angry God killed the girls, Phelps-Roper explained, because the Amish created “their own form of righteousness.”
Connect the dots, Phelps-Roper said. It’s God’s revenge for Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s treatment of God’s prophets in the Westboro Baptist Church.
“Shirley, you really are a sick woman,” Hannity said.
“Slight cold, but thank you,” Phelps-Roper said with a scoff and a smile.
“You are a sick, twisted human being. Where is your heart? Where is your soul? Where’s your compassion? Where’s your love? . . . Have you ever sinned, Miss Perfect here?”
“Of course, you know that I have sinned, and that’s not the point.”
Hannity, smelling blood, pursued her. “You have. What are your sins, Miss Perfect? . . . I want to know what your sins are.”
“I’m not going to talk to you about any such thing. I don’t glory in my shame like you seem to want to do,” Phelps-Roper replied.
“No, I just find this amazing that everyone else is a big sinner but you, and you admit to being a sinner.”
“Obey the commandments of the Lord your God!”
“Which ones did you break?”
FOX News’ Hannity and Colmes square off with Shirley Phelps-Roper on video.
Visibly agitated, Phelps-Roper repeated her admonishment about obeying the Lord’s commandments, and Hannity resorted to a string of insults, calling her “soulless, thoughtless, mean” and “brain-dead.”
“Thoughtless? Thoughtless? We go out there year after year after year on our own to warn this nation that if you obey God, he’ll bless you. Why don’t you just try it?”
Unable to get a word in, Hannity struggled to keep control of his show.
“I can’t get mad at you because you’re so pathetic,” Colmes added. “And what you’re saying is so horrible and mean-spirited.”
“You can do that and call me names,” Phelps-Roper said. “It doesn’t fix it. You have got the wrath of God pouring out on your head. You need to fix that by obeying.”
“Thank you for the lecture,” Colmes said.
“Repent like the men of Nineveh,” Phelps-Roper said. As they cut to a break, she turned to Hannity and smiled.
After the red light went off, Phelps-Roper tells the Pitch, a frustrated Hannity turned to her and said, “I just know that you’ve got some sins, and they’re big ones.”
“Get over yourself,” Phelps-Roper says she told him. “You guys just don’t get it. You bring all of these people in here, and you have them talk about a lot of nothing when you have this spot where you could use it to provoke your fellow countrymen to obey God…. You’re in a lot of trouble. Calling me names and talking about what you might be able to unearth about my lifestyle? Good luck with that.”
But Hannity’s hunch was right. Phelps-Roper had sinned — and it was a big one.
In 1979, Shirley Phelps gave birth to a child out of wedlock. Estranged family members tell the Pitch that she became romantically involved with a man who was staying at a halfway house where she was doing her college internship. At the time, she was majoring in criminal justice at Washburn University in Topeka. The sin was lust.
There would be no shotgun wedding. The child’s biological father wasn’t accepted into Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps-Roper, however, found forgiveness through repentance.
“I remember him being truly hurt,” Nate says of his father’s reaction to Phelps-Roper having succumbed to the pleasures of the flesh. “Not so much angry but hurt that she’d done it.”
“She was young. She made a mistake,” says Phelps-Roper’s sister Margie.
Margie’s words fly off her tongue like daggers. “She was extremely remorseful. The Lord have mercy on her because she was remorseful . . . a kind of remorse that most Earth dwellers don’t have the first clue about.”
Phelps-Roper doesn’t deny that her son Sam was born out of wedlock. She refuses to reveal the name of the biological father.
“His father is the father who raised him,” she tells the Pitch, referring to her husband, Brent Roper, who adopted Sam after marrying Shirley.
When she talks about Sam, her voice softens. She’s warm. She’s proud.
“Sam is a very good kid,” she says. “I don’t know how in this world I ended up with a child of the quality of a person that child is. While I probably wouldn’t say it to his face, it’s just the truth.”
Shirley Phelps married Brent Roper on November 25, 1983, at the Westboro Baptist Church. Four-year-old Sam was the ring bearer.
Roper had been a family friend. Growing up, he’d been an altar boy at St. David’s Episcopal Church; later, he was a high school buddy of Shirley’s brother Tim.
“One day he came to church and he never looked back,” Phelps-Roper says of Brent. “He was like a sponge.”
When Roper’s mother planned to leave Topeka and Roper didn’t want to go, he and Tim moved in together.
“I always liked him,” Phelps-Roper tells the Pitch. “He’s a very nice guy. He was very loyal. He was a good friend.”
Phelps family members call him “The Novelist” — not because he has written textbooks on law-office management and how to use computers in legal offices (which he has) but because of his wordy picket signs. In the beginning, Shirley would tell him that no one would ever be able to read all of his words. Roper would explain that his sign was meant to be read by motorists stopped at traffic lights. People just didn’t know scripture, he argued. If they knew, they’d change their ways.
Their relationship blossomed when he started college. Roper now works as a director of human resources with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
“We never had a dating relationship,” Phelps-Roper says. “I’m going to tell you straight up, the issue about having a spouse is not an issue that I ever gave any worry to or concern to. You understand? I didn’t worry about it.”
She was focused on other things.
At 14, she had gone to work for the family law firm.
“I made myself useful,” she says with a laugh. She answered phones, filed papers and memorized the phone numbers of all of her dad’s clients as well as those of the courts, judges and lawyers. “I would rather have done that than go to high school. You understand? I liked it. But of course, you’re going to have to go to school if you’re going to be a lawyer, so I had to do that.”
Phelps-Roper followed her older brothers and sisters to Washburn University in Topeka. She graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. In 1981, she earned her law degree.
She is now Phelps-Chartered’s office manager, handling administrative and accounting work but still covering tax-law cases and estate planning. Citing attorney-client privilege, she declined to say who the firm represents.
Shirley Phelps was born on Halloween — October 31, 1957 — two years after the inception of the Westboro Baptist Church. Shirl, as her brothers and sisters call her, was the fifth of 13 children. She’s never known a life outside the church. She’s never wanted one.
“She was just a spunky little kid,” Margie says. “My mom always used to say, ‘Margie is the dreamer. Shirley is the realist.’ Shirl was never one that could spin some pie-in-the-sky imaginary thing. She was very practical.”
“She was daddy’s little girl,” Nate says. “She was bossy and pushy and insisted on getting her own way. She manipulated situations to ensure that no one would take her authority away, her power away. But the power flows ultimately from my dad.”
According to Nate and his brother Mark, power wasn’t the only thing that flowed from their father. In the mid-’90s, the brothers went public with their claims that Fred Phelps had been an abusive father with an explosive temper; they recalled violent beatings that sometimes lasted for hours. The elder Phelps has denied his sons’ claims.
Of Fred Phelps’ children, Phelps-Roper has the largest family. Her brother Tim is next with nine children. Her sister Kathy has seven children. Rachel has six children with a seventh on the way in January. Fred Jr., Becky and Jonathan each have four children. Altogether, Fred Phelps has 54 grandchildren.
Nine of Phelps-Roper’s 11 children still live with her and Roper inside a massive beige two-story home on Southwest Churchill Road, a tree-lined street in West Topeka. Phelps-Roper says the family has built additions to the home as the family has grown; she and Roper also own a one-story ranch home a few doors down the street. The larger Phelps family owns all but two homes on the block.
It’s been called a compound, implying comparisons with Waco cult leader David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. Phelps-Roper bristles at the suggestion that their adjoining backyards constitute a compound. She says the common yard is fenced to decrease the liability of having a swimming pool and to keep the children safe from the outside world.
There’s plenty for the children to do back there — the pool, a trampoline and a jungle gym.
The Westboro Baptist Church sits across a grassy lawn. Phelps-Roper can see the church from her home office, which is full of family photos and computers. Across from Phelps-Roper’s desk is a massive printer-fax machine for blasting out press releases. The spacious home is immaculate. Nothing appears out of place. Hardwood floors shine in the kitchen, and jugs of vitamins line the shelves above the sink.
Sam lives a couple of doors down. He is now 27 and married with two children of his own. A Washburn grad himself, he works as a software developer.
Phelps-Roper’s second child, 23-year-old Josh, is also a Washburn grad and a software developer, but he’s no longer a member of the church.
Phelps-Roper says Josh isn’t welcome in her home.
Inviting Josh over to talk would be a slap in the face to the rest of her children, she explains.
“Before I could have him come over and sit and chat . . . I would first have to line up these young people who are come to years and are interested in serving God and know the standards set by God and kick ’em, each one, in the shin . . . or maybe punch ’em in the stomach, if I was the punching kind of person.”
Josh declined to be interviewed for this story, citing already strained family ties. In an e-mail, Josh wrote that he wasn’t surprised that his mother said he wasn’t welcome in her home. “Although,” he wrote, “if she ever wanted to see her grandson, she would be welcome in mine.”
Phelps-Roper’s estrangement from Josh repeats a family pattern; at least three of Fred Phelps’ children have left the family. Phelps-Roper has no contact with those who have left.
Noah, let’s go, babe,” Phelps-Roper calls to her 7-year-old son.
Noah is a second-grader at Topeka’s Whitson Elementary School. But today, citing religious expression, Phelps-Roper’s children will miss morning classes for a crosstown field trip to Sacred Heart Catholic Church for the funeral of Army National Guard Sgt. Bernard Deghand.
They were supposed to be on the road at 9:15, but she has yet to corral everyone into her navy-blue Ford Super Duty van.
Gabriel, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Landon Middle School, stares out the kitchen window. He spots a car pulling up to the house.
“Is that the BBC?” Gabriel asks.
It is. A camera crew from the British Broadcasting Corporation has been shadowing the Phelpses for a documentary.
Isaiah, 17, and Zacharias, 15, both students at Topeka West High School, wait with their cousin Timothy Jr. and their aunt Abigail Phelps. Also lurking is Phelps-Roper’s 9-year-old son, Jonah, a fourth-grader at Whitson Elementary.
Sam is missing; so are Grace, 14, an eighth-grader at Landon Middle School, and Luke, 4. Megan is home, but the pretty, raven-haired 20-year-old is staying behind to study for the LSAT — she, too, wants to go to Washburn University’s law school.
Looking like a track team in their sweatsuits, the family members pile into the van and roll off to picket.
Rebekah, 19, talks excitedly about appearing on The Tyra Banks Show last month with her mother and her older sister Megan.
Shirley Phelps-Roper defends her decision to protest at funerals.
The Phelpses’ appearance on the supermodel’s syndicated talk show was surreal — not just because Phelps-Roper took the unusual step of putting on makeup. A former neo-Nazi skinhead lectured Phelps-Roper and her daughters on the evil of their words, and Banks insisted that Phelps-Roper was angry and tried unsuccessfully to calm her. Phelps-Roper told Banks not to mistake her zeal for anger, then told Banks that she was going to hell. Rebekah called Banks a “fag enabler” for creating America’s Next Top Model.
The street outside Sacred Heart looks like a cross between the Sturgis bike rally and a Labor Day parade. American flags and motorcycles line the streets.
Phelps-Roper is clearly in charge. Her children ask her where to picket. She negotiates with police to stake out areas in front of the church. The BBC camera crew is always in her face.
Phelps-Roper and Noah claim a corner and proceed to step on the American flag dangling from Phelps-Roper’s pants. Noah can’t yet understand the significance of what he’s doing, but he looks happy because he has his mother’s attention.
Occasionally, Phelps-Roper screams, “Scooter sissies!” at the Patriot Guard Riders.
She and her children are gleeful in their taunts.
Her cell phone rings. (The tone is jangly pop by the Goo Goo Dolls.)
“Yeah, we’re doing great, hon,” Phelps-Roper says to the caller. “We’re about to call it good. We got here way early. Huge amount of scooter sissies. We were among ’em for a while, and it was all peaceful because there were cops everywhere. We flanked the two ends because that’s where all of the traffic for the funeral is coming. But ain’t nobody getting into this funeral without passing us by.”
“Another soldier in hell,” Jonathan screams from across the street. “Whoo-hoo, yeah, baby!” He starts to grind out a dance.
“Jon’s trying out something,” Phelps-Roper tells the caller. “I don’t know quite what.”
“He said, ‘Another soldier in hell, whoo-hoo,” Noah repeats excitedly.
It’s time for an exit strategy. Phelps-Roper stops a cop on a bicycle and explains that they want to leave, but she doesn’t want her crew walking across private property to get to their vehicles. She suggests to the cop that they walk down the middle of the street. The cop agrees. But first, the Phelpses pose for a quick family photo.
They bunch together on the sidewalk, prominently displaying their brightly colored signs, and smile.
Once again, Fred isn’t in the picture.
The house is eerily quiet. Quiet is good. After a week of ringing phones and flying to New York City for TV appearances, Phelps-Roper is worn “clean slick,” as she likes to say. On this Monday after the media storm, she’s stepping back.
“If this nation hadn’t brought the wrath of God down on their heads, you wouldn’t know and you wouldn’t care who I was,” she says. Sometimes, she says, the anonymity of such a life tempts her. “But we’ve searched these scriptures,” she says, and Westboro Baptist Church must sound a crucial warning. “There’s going to be a lot of people in trouble.”
Today, though, she’s Mom. She hovers over a pot of chili, reflecting on the past week.
There was the screeching “banshee” — Fox News commentator Julie Banderas, host of The Big Story Weekend.
“It’s personal,” Phelps-Roper says of Banderas’ tirade against her and her family. “It’s to the point that there’s not even a professional hint on the landscape.”
Not that the Westboro Baptist Church has ever been above personal attacks. But the paradox is apparently lost on Phelps-Roper, who’s trying to figure out why Banderas has it out for her family.
Megan pulls up a computer video of Banderas’ interview with Mike Gallagher.
“These people should be arrested, and I understand the right to protest,” Banderas says, “but when you disgrace not only our fallen soldiers, but when you disgrace innocent young children, I swear. Lock ’em up. Throw away the key. Uh, uh, give ’em the death penalty. I think it’s disgusting.”
Obviously, Banderas doesn’t quite understand the right to protest. (In July, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit on behalf of Phelps-Roper, challenging the constitutionality of the Missouri law restricting funeral pickets.)
“Give ’em the death penalty,” Phelps-Roper repeats. A smile of satisfaction crosses her face. “Did you see him [Gallagher] on Bill O’Reilly? All those words they said, it’s like we’re bigger than life.”
Fred Phelps established that legacy for his family.
Phelps-Roper has her father’s features — his round face and pointy nose. She’s lean like him, too. She admits she’s probably more like her father than she is like her mother.
“As I get older, all of a sudden I’ll realize, I’m just like my dad,” she says. “You just don’t realize how much of your parents you have in you as you get older, and then you start to realize it.”
Phelps-Roper denied the Pitch’s requests to speak with her father for this story. She says if people want to see her dad, they can go to Westboro’s newest Web site (one of four), Thesignsofthetimes.net. “You can see and hear him and see for yourself if you think he’s being ravaged by cancer or whatever.”
Fred Phelps’ schedule isn’t made public, she says, because of safety concerns.
“This is a violent nation, and he is a target,” Phelps-Roper says. “If you happen to turn up at the right picket, you’ll catch him there.”
Fred’s most recent appearance was on an October 10 “WBC Video News” report on Thesignsofthetimes.net, ripping O’Reilly, Hannity, Colmes, Banderas, Gallagher and CNN’s Glenn Beck for their treatment of God’s prophets. He called them a “satanic media mafia.”
Margie tells the Pitch that there’s never been any talk of a succession plan for when Fred dies.
“It’s improper,” she says. “We don’t pick. The Lord picks. Should it happen that he dies before Christ returns — and that’s highly unlikely, but should it happen — whoever is supposed to be the preacher in this church will become clear.”
One thing is already clear.
It won’t be Phelps-Roper.
“She won’t be the pastor of this church,” says Phelps-Roper’s mother, Marge. “We don’t believe in women being pastors. One of the males has to be the pastor.”
“I have absolutely no desire, and I wouldn’t dare do it,” Phelps-Roper tells the Pitch. “I just wouldn’t do it. I know better.”
That leaves Fred Phelps’ three loyal sons — Jonathan, Fred Jr. and Tim — as potential successors to the pulpit. Or Westboro could look outside the Phelps family to another member of their congregation, possibly Steve Drain, a filmmaker who joined the fold in 2000.
Though, for all practical purposes, she’s now the one in charge, Phelps-Roper seems content with knowing that her role will never be official.
“I don’t think there could be any better life than this,” she says. “I don’t think there could be anything that is more satisfying.”