A Rare Look Into Westboro Baptist Church

Mar 03, 2011

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Photojournalist Anthony Karen has gone where not many people have gone before: inside the church, homes, protests, and minds of the Westboro Baptist Church members. Karen is here to answer your questions through his experience of photographing and interacting with the congregation.

My name is Anthony Karen, I'm a freelance photojournalist based in New York. I had the opportunity to spend time with members of the Westboro Baptist Church in their home in Topeka, Kanas.

There has been mention in the media that the reasoning for their actions is based on their interpretation of the bible and that they see the many tragedies which have befallen the US as God's punishment for homosexuality. I'd like to know if any of the members of their church explained their reasoning and beliefs from their perspective while you were there. If so, what did they say? Did they have opinions about the pain their actions have caused grieving families? If media portrayal of their reasoning is accurate, why did they say they feel it necessary to protest at funerals of, among others, straight vets?

 

Also, what were your impressions? Can you tell us about your experiences with them? 

Yes, I had a few discussions regarding their beliefs. They see it as their obligation to God to carry out a message. They see it as wrong for not saying "the words."  They don't feel bad for people, because their situations are all predetermined by God.

How do the Westboro church members/ family interact with their neighbors in real life? Do they annoy their neighbors, try to sue them, or just keep to themselves?

I only spent a week with them in Topeka. This was at the home of Shirley, who is the daughter of Fred Phelps. There were four homes on a normal block, but they share a fence encompassing the properties. The back yards are a communtiy property of sorts. I got the impression that neighborly interaction was at a minimum. I do know that the the children attend public schools for the most part and hold normal jobs, such as correction officer, lawyers and some in the medical field.

I have heard it said that the WBC is simply a front for a litigious machine.  That it's followers only spew their bilious tirades in hopes of inciting a violent reaction, from which they can sue for damages.  When faced with the prospect of a non violent response, they pack up an go home.  Would you agree with this assessment, or are the members of the WBC really consumed with the hatred they dispense?

I saw it as them not hating, but being in absolute fear of God. I didn't feel hatred at all, I feel wrath in the words spoken by Fred Phelps, but it was different with the rest of his family. They had multiple bible readings throughout the day, Shirley was very loving towards her children and I felt as if their time with me was geninue. I do have the opinion that a lot of their words are spoken in a robotic fashion without true feeling, but yes in general, they are consumed with what they believe in my opinion.

 

Finally, describe the timeframes for, and your time commitment to, such projects?

 

I made my initial contact in January, 2008 and shot my first images of them during the Pope's visit to New York in April of that year. After trying to coordinate a visit, I made it to their home in Topeka in July. Being that I was with them on a daily basis, a week gave me the material I needed. I followed up several times at various protest locations throughout the country. Of course, different projects have different time commitments.

Did you ask anyone you met from the church how they can consider themselves part of a church that has nothing to do with God and God's teachings? Did anyone of the church explain how they can bring themselves to use the word 'hate' with God?

Yes, I did. This is one of the answers I was given:

"No man is without sin…everyone is a sinner.  The difference between the reprobate and the elect is that if you are one of God’s elect and have received the gift of grace you will also receive the gift of repentance, therefore you are a penitent sinner and the Lord gives you a way to get out of that sin that so easily besets you.  If you are a reprobate, the Lord will pickle you in that sin and blind your eyes and stop up your ears and harden your heart so you will never have a means to escape."

Have the WBC vehicles ever been sabotaged to hinder their arrvial at an intended "protest"?

I was told several months ago that the tires to their van were slashed while picketting in New York. I can go out on a limb and say it's hasn't been the first time.

They appear to be well funded. How large is their congregation? Do they receive contributions from non congregants? Who is paying the bills? They do get around more than most congregations.

Fred Phelps was a very succesful civil rights attorney. Most of the members have gainful employment from what I noticed. I've read that the congregation has about 70-something members, but I can't confirm or deny that...

As a former Marine, how difficult was it to deal with these people who so actively protest the funerals of fallen service members?

As a Marine and with a son who's just about to graduate bootcamp. They can protest my funeral all they want, as long as the people in attendance can mourn without being drowned out by Westboro's singing... go ahead, stand across the street and knock yourself out. It's anonymous, they don't know me deep inside, so whatever floats their boat. But that's me.

Do the Westboro Baptist Church members believe that their hurtful, in-your-face campaign can win them hearts and minds? Or are they just seeking publicity for their unorthodox view? Would like to know and understand their viewpoint.

To me, it compares to the person on the corner screaming the world is coming to an end. I don't hear it for the most part, same as when I tried to have a rational give and take discussion with one of the girls in the group - she didn't know how to have a conversation without preaching at me. When I tried to talk, she didn't have time to hear my opinion, so she walked away. I asked one of the girls why wouldn't they try a more civil approach when spreading the word. I told her people don't always like to be preached at and I'm genuinely interested in your interpretation and understanding of the bible, but when you robotically recite verses, you're actually pushing me away and losing credibility in my eyes. If you are the true prophets and your job is to spread the word, you are failing by not engaging your audience. Therefore your existence is self guided. I figured that would invoke a deep convo, but it did not - with that particular member.

A TV news clip showed one of these people kicking and standing on the American flag. Do they hate this country that much?

I aksed that question, I honestly don't remember their response!

Anthony, did you get any pictures as you got to know the Westboro folks?

Yes, you can go to my website to see more of the Westboro story.

Has your interaction with these people impacted or changed you in any way. How can you work so closely with people that for the most part are viewed as cruel and wicked, and not become like them. On the other hand, do you feel that you may have changed anyone you came into contact with.

I think it's possible I may have affected a couple of individuals during my discussions with them, but once I left, I would imagine they returned to their 'normalcy' - without anyone there to challenge their views, and being in that environment, it's probably hard for anyone to change.

Did they ever mention Mark, Nathan or Dortha? Did you ever see them discipline the current crop of youngsters?

I'm not sure of those names, with the execption of another photographer that visited there in the past. I didn't notice any discipline out of the ordinary. In fact, Shirley was quite loving with the kids.

Have any of the extended family had to bury a member? Has anyone ever asked Fred or Margie how they would feel to see such hate filled signs at one of their funerals?

Not that I know of, but I did ask that question. I was told it wouldn't bother them. 

Having spent time with both the Westboro Baptist Church and the KKK, do you see a lot of similiarities between them? Especially in how each member associates with the group as a whole, have you seen people display a sense of belonging, or more of a duty being fulfilled in either of these groups. Reading from the outside about these types of organizations, it can seem easy to draw corresponding lines between cults such as The People's Temple to other similarly structured, ideologically fueled organizations such as WBC and the Third Reich. With your inside eye, are you able to bring further light to these seemingly common attributes, and how they affect the people both in and proxy to the organization?

I don't have the time to go into a full answer, but many members of the KKK that I've spoken to do not like the WBC and thought they were "nuts".

Do these people (not sure people is the right word) inter-marry within the family?

Not that I know of.

Did being in their compound make you want to grab a brillo pad and scrub down with bleach? You got some artistically great shots but they still made me sick.

They kept a tidy home.  :-)

 

 

One of Fred Phelps children has recently talked about how abuse his father was to the children and his wife. Did you see any indication of an abusive personality in Fred Phelps when you visited the compound?

Pastor Phelps is a fire and brimstone type of preacher. I can't imagine him tolerating any cry baby antics or misbehaving within his family. I found him to have a quirky sense of humor, but at the same time he's strictly no-nonsense. With that,  I didn't notice any abuse.

Do they believe they are going to hell with the rest of America? Or do they believe they will not because they are spreading the true message?

They aren't sure if they're actually "the elect" or not, that's why they seem to live in fear of God's wrath and are set out to preach His word.

After Fred is gone, is there a member being groomed to take over?

I'd assume it to be his daughter Shirley.

Based on your previous experience as a Marine, did you ever experience any animosity toward your host or their views for their actions at military funerals? Did they preach to you for your role in the military?

Not that I noticed, they even offered to take me out to lunch. No mention of my military service which I was totally upfront about when making my initial contact.

Do any of their family members NOT agree with their extremism?

Yes, there are at least two members that have left since my contact with them in 2008. I've heard of other members who've left in the past, most notably Fred's son, Nate.

In This Chat
Anthony Karen
Anthony is a photojournalist based in New York. His passion for photography began in Haiti, where he documented the various Vodou rituals and pilgrimages around the country. His project was interrupted when an opportunity to photograph a Ku Klux Klan cross lighting came through. Over the next few years, Anthony found himself with unrestricted access into America’s most private White Unity organizations. Anthony also served in the Marine Corps, is a cancer survivor, has traveled extensively worldwide, and works with many charitable and humanitarian organizations.
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