I’m not a position to mock the many reporters who lined up to spend a few minutes with Margie Phelps and the four other unpleasant Westboro Baptist Church members who flew up from Kansas to spend their Sunday shouting slurs at same-sex New York couples.
After all, I spent hours with these attention-craving cultists, trailing them by train as they drove from Manhattan to Brooklyn to the Bronx and back to Manhattan. The trade for many reporters is that you give the church free press in exchange for a “shocking” bit of dialogue to drive ratings or traffic. After half an hour the group’s tape had already began to loop, as members began recycling their meager store of stock quotes.
For those who aren’t familiar with the church, whose double-digit membership consists mostly of the children and other relations of patriarch Fred Phelps, they believe end times are nigh owing to our un-Christian ways. To ensure their own salvation, members go to soldiers’ funerals and other charged occasions like the first day of same-sex marriage in New York and scream and sing slurs while trampling the flag and rotating an array of aggressively obnoxious signs in the hopes of drawing media attention — which they inevitably do.
As church members see it, the point of yelling at the damned (pretty much everyone but them) isn’t to save us, but only to ensure we sinners have been warned so that our damnation won’t be on their hands. It’s nutty and not very consequential, though of course the groups the church targets sometimes have a tough time seeing it that way.
Talking to Margie Phelps, one of Fred’s daughters and the most vocal by far of the New York contingent, she boasted about how the media spreads her message despite her open contempt for it. Reading the Voice, she said, “I just skim through with my finger looking for our words. I don’t care how you encase them.”
Church members, she continued, had mastery of “the press, and Twitter, and social media. We’re skilled social marketers,” she said, crediting God with that development. Throughout the conversation, she lapsed into media jargon, like “close the loop,” alternating those thoughts with an almost random stream of vitriol.
“You want to control the dialogue,” she told me apropos of nothing. “That’s how fags are.”
New Yorkers, though, didn’t take the bait, and, in the finest American tradition, an act that a few years back seemed shocking came off as banal.
Standing for a few minutes between the church members and the couples they were screaming at in Manhattan early Sunday morning, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of the GLBT-oriented Congregation Beit Simchat Torah said, “I wanted to create a block so our couples experience love this morning and don’t have to absorb” the attacks.
“Our love is bigger than their hate,” said the rabbi, whose shul was targeted by the church in 2009. The synagogue responded by raising funds, asking supporters to pledge a bit for every few minutes the demonstration went on. They pocketed $13,000 by the time Westboro was through screaming.
After a few minutes, Kleinbaum crossed the street to attend to the two couples in her flock getting married Sunday, away from the isolated holding pen where the NYPD had the group confined.
The cops assigned to watching them, and avert any potentially violent encounters, clearly weren’t happy with the post. One laughed and said, “I wish I knew,” when asked what superior she’d ticked off to draw the assignment. When they lacked police protection between rallies, the WBCers put away the upside-down flags they wore as rags, along with their signs and other most obvious markers and walked quietly, and very quickly, to their ride.
For much of Sunday, the WBC was trailed by a small coterie of anything but violent counter-protesters. They were followed throughout the day by a pair of young students, Chelsea Zane and Pike (he doesn’t use a last name), religious young Southerners (she’s Episcopalian, she’s Baptist) who came to the city this year to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. That pair was joined in Brooklyn and Manhattan by a loose group of about eight people, some of them affiliated with Queer Rising, including “straight allies” Jeremiah & Melissa Kleckner, sporting “Not Today Fred” T-shirts. All told, the motley gang of counter-protesters outnumbered the church members by two-to-one.
“I’ve seen them around,” Rev. Ann Kansfield, the co-pastor of the Greenfield Reformed Church said in Brooklyn later Sunday morning. She took care to note that “there are far more Baptists who disagree with them,” and lamented the tiny group’s co-opting of the doctrine’s name.
“I try not to spend much time devoting myself to them,” she added and then she too went back to the day’s more pressing business.