Father Knows Best

Ron Berg/Santa Fe Reporter

Fred Phelps Sr. is the spiritual leader of a church whose doctrine can be summed up in three words: "God hates fags."

Santa Fe Reporter | April 20, 2005
Gramps is smiling.

It’s a beautiful April afternoon. The sun shines. The birds chirp. And the old man surveys a harvest reaped from the seeds he has sown.

His daughters flutter to replenish food and drink. His sons sit in patio chairs and pick at bowls of homemade chili. Grandchildren let out excited shrieks as they chase one another around the swimming pool, bounce on the trampoline and play basketball on the full-length court.

Life is good. And this—a birthday party for seven sheep in the old man’s flock—is a celebration of life. Even if a death has provided the icing on the cake.

A bitter enemy of the family passed away a few hours before. A loathsome man. A despicable charlatan. A person Gramps will acknowledge the following day by shouting, for the world to hear, “The Lord God almighty held that serpent, that spider, that insect, by a slender thread over the fires of hell for 84 years and then threw him in!”

The incinerated insect in question is Pope John Paul II.

You see, “Gramps”—as he’s known to the select few who don’t wish him dead—isn’t merely the patriarch of 13 children, 53 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He is also Fred Phelps, Sr., spiritual leader of the most widely reviled congregation on the planet. A man—and a church—that can be summed up in three words:

God. Hates. Fags.

A message that has been spread far and wide over the past 14 years at picket demonstrations the church affectionately calls “Love Parades,” the latest of which is scheduled to roll into Santa Fe on April 23.

The Southern Poverty Law Center—a preeminent civil-rights watchdog organization—considers the congregation to be in the rarefied company of Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan in its profile of active hate groups. The Anti-Defamation League issued a special report detailing bigotry the church has allegedly shown toward gays, Jews, blacks, Christians and America in general. Elizabeth Birch, the former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, has called Phelps “a walking hate crime.”

Right now Gramps is more of a shuffling hate crime as he gingerly makes his way toward the buffet table. He is wearing a red-and-blue University of Kansas windbreaker, his trademark white cowboy hat and the grin of a man who loves to be loathed.

The 75-year-old is a prophet. At least to the people gathered on this green expanse behind the Westboro Baptist Church. The manicured lawn serves as the communal backyard for the church and five affiliated houses, all of which sit—fenced off from the world—on one square block of a middle-class neighborhood in a middle-class city in Middle America. It’s the only middle ground these folks inhabit.

Rand and McNally call this patch of earth Topeka, Kansas. The congregation calls it a Godly oasis within a worldwide Sodom and Gomorra. Critics of the church simply call it The Compound because they see hints of Waco (or just wacko) when they look over the walls at the “godhatesamerica.com” banner hanging outside the church and the American flag fluttering upside down from atop the pole out front.

The flag is upside down —Phelps will explain later—in accordance with the international symbol for distress. And this country is in irrecoverable distress, according to the congregation. The end, they say, is nigh.

Nothing puts the damper on a party quite like an impending apocalypse. But the idea is so interwoven in the tenets of the WBC that its members can deftly sing “Happy Birthday” one second and discuss the inevitability of Judgment Day the next.

The Second Coming has been momentarily postponed to allow Gramps to nibble on a blueberry muffin and lovingly pat the head of the granddaughter presently attached to his leg. The little girl eventually relinquishes the appendage to its owner and Gramps proceeds to extol the virtues of Simmons Popcorn Chicken and expound on the individual merits of the muffins on the table.

“Well, those ones are 45 calories and those ones are 40,” Phelps says with a grandfatherly twinkle in his eye. “If you’re watching your calories.”

The congregation is. Each dish is accessorized with an index card delineating the nutritional value contained within. The feast includes Newman’s Light salad dressing for the greens, low-fat Tostitos for the snacks and Diet Dr. Pepper for the drinks. There is no Kool-Aid.

The congregation—about 100 people strong—is not wanton for motivation to eschew gluttony. Each member could recite the Seven Deadly Sins backwards in their sleep. But a servant of God must also be in good physical condition to maintain the WBC’s hectic social calendar.

Phelps established the church in 1955, but it wasn’t until 1991 that his gospel was taken to the streets with arguably the most offensive and ingenious theological campaign in modern memory. The group has since conducted more than 22,000 demonstrations while hoisting picket signs scrawled with messages—“God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for 9/11,” “AIDS Cures Fags”—that would give even the most desensitized misanthrope pause.

And to hell with the postman; neither rain, hail, sleet, lawsuit nor dark of night will keep the WBC from its appointed rounds. The group picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepherd with the same vigor they protested the crusades of Billy Graham. Nobody is immune. Nowhere is safe. Nothing is sacred.

And now they’re coming to Santa Fe.

But you already knew that. The WBC made sure of that weeks ago when it sent out one of its infamous press releases announcing its intention to protest a community whose culture of acceptance has created what the church calls a “hellish zeitgeist in which…sodomite abominations thrive.”

Which, come to think, might make a catchy—if cumbersome—addition to the sign welcoming visitors to town. Not that Santa Fe is exactly rolling out the red carpet for this particular tour bus.

“Those people aren’t real happy about us coming down there are they?” WBC parishioner Steve Drain laughs. “Oh, man. That’s going to be a wild scene.”

In the wake of the group’s announced visit—which was subsequently postponed a week—the city was in a frenzy as government officials, religious leaders and community activists scrambled to circle the wagons.

Now the city waits with anxious anticipation for this weekend when the WBC begins its vacation at the University of New Mexico on April 23 and ends it at City Hall on April 25 with visits to eight area churches in between.

Santa Fe is prepared. And so is the WBC. The trip isn’t exactly a novelty. It’s just another stop in a ceaseless crusade to warn sodomites and reprobates of their sins.

But even Chicken Little needs a reprieve from telling the world that the sky is falling. The group’s whirlwind schedule barely leaves room for something like a birthday party. Which is why—three weeks before WBC representatives arrive in Santa Fe—there are seven parishioners celebrating on a single day. It’s a rare moment of respite. Even if the group has already made four picket stops in Topeka before the cake is cut.

And, contrary to expectations, the cake is not adorned with a peanut butter Jerry Falwell hanging from a chocolate frosting noose. It’s just a plain, white cake with a few candles and a Spiderman topping for 8-year-old Jonah Phelps-Roper. When the congregation—most of whom are related by blood if not by faith—gather around the cake and sing Happy birthday to Faith, Luke, Jonah, Libby, Sara, Theresa and Brent…they seem very much like a family. Any family.

Those who dismiss the Westboro Baptist Church outright severely underestimate the complexity—and potential danger—of the group’s message. Many subtleties lay beneath the congregation’s not-so-subtle “God Hates Fags” platform. Namely, that they hate homosexuals.

“People say we hate just because we are preaching that God hates you and you’re going to hell if you don’t repent,” Phelps says. “We never said that we hate fags. We’re the only ones who love the filthy little perverts.”

The sun is fading on April Fool’s Day.

As apt a day as any—some would say—to track down the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. But there are only smartly dressed couples walking hurriedly through the parking lot of the Topeka Civic Theatre to catch the opening curtain of Man of La Mancha. Nobody is patrolling the sidewalk outside with “Fags Doom Nations” signs in their hands. They were here though, judging by Carole Ries’ weary face.

“They’re here every Friday,” sighs Ries, the theater’s executive director. “But it’s not just Man of La Mancha. Sometimes they picket our children’s show Stuart Little too.”

That filthy little rodent.

Ries—and most Topeka residents—are resigned to the sight of neon placards. The WBC began its picketing campaign at nearby Gage Park—a purported haven for gay men looking for casual sex—in 1991. And the city still bears the weekly brunt of a group considered radical even by Topeka’s conservative standards.

Few residents bother mustering opposition anymore, worn into submission by the congregation’s relentless determination and litigious expertise. Sixteen members of the WBC—including Phelps and 11 of his children—have gone to law school. Officials and ordinances intent on curtailing the group have come and gone. The church remains.

Nobody seems to pay the picketers any mind as they stand outside a Sonic Drive-In after night has fallen on April 1. The group is protesting a local synagogue a few blocks away. They’ve chosen this spot for its visibility because Lord knows there’s no point in yelling “Fags Die/God Laughs” if nobody hears it.

More than a dozen people stand on the corner, in the dark, holding signs like “It’s Just the Fags Stupid,” “2 Gay Rights: Aids and Hell” and “Fag Jews.”

The only visible counterprotest comes from the Sonic reader board, which offers the sheepish rebuttal: “Try our new Ranchero salad.”

When a person walks toward the group, someone mutters “Walker” to alert the others of the advancing presence. They have reason to be paranoid. The congregation has endured almost as much abuse as they’ve dished out. Members have been punched, kicked and spit on. One pastor swung a hammer at a picketer. One person attempted to run the group down in her car. Another set off a pipe bomb on the church grounds.

Despite the backlashes, no church members have been seriously injured, a fact that further emboldens their belief in the righteousness of the cause.

“We are protective of each other on the picket line,” Drain says. “We’re not cocksure, we keep our heads up, but the fact of the matter is the Lord protects us.”

And damn is the Lord busy. WBC members are equal-opportunity instigators not content with relying on anti-gay rhetoric as their lone font of provocation. The group lambastes America with equal fervor, frequently dragging the American flag on the ground at protests.

“I do it so that it can be a springboard into conversation about idolatry,” Drain says. “The fact is that these people have more respect and reverence for a piece of cloth that’s colored in a certain way than they do for the word of God.”

That isn’t a problem for this congregation. And while most members have encyclopedic knowledge of the Good Book—if one person misidentifies scripture, another corrects them within seconds—much of the church’s campaign is summed up in three verses from Leviticus. The gist of the first (Leviticus 18:22) is that a man should not lie with another man as he would a woman. The other two (Leviticus 19:17-18) purport to establish the premise that the WBC is the only church that truly loves homosexuals.

“‘Love thy neighbor as thy self’ is what all these false religions want to use as a way to hug each other at potluck dinners,” Drain says. “It’s not some buddy-buddy concept—let’s go bowling or I’ll mow your grass—[Leviticus] says that how you love your neighbor is to warn them about their sin. The irony is that we are the only ones who biblically love our brother as ourselves.”

It’s tough for most people to feel the love when they see “Thank God for the Tsunami” on a sign. But parishioners insist it’s merely a sincere warning. And one predicated on the assumption that many of those caught in the swirling waters were destined for destruction by their sinful intentions.

“The wrath of God abides honest,” says Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of Phelps’ eight daughters and manager of the church’s day-to-day operations. “They couldn’t even go over and have sex with little children without getting snagged by the tsunami.”

Phelps-Roper identifies three reasons to be thankful for such an event. Namely, that we should be thankful for all God’s judgments, grateful he didn’t kill us all and that people can find tangible evidence of God’s wrath manifested in such disasters.

Not that the WBC particularly cares what you think. Their task is to tell you to repent or perish. Whether you do either isn’t their concern.

“We don’t own salvation,” Phelps-Roper says. “We do not want to reform the devil. What we want to do is deliver a faithful message of the Scriptures. After that, we’ve done our job. We don’t care how you receive it.”

It can be difficult to grasp that the WBC parishioners—many of whom appear kind, compassionate and intelligent away from the picket line—could be cold-hearted toward their neighbors, coworkers, friends and family outside the church.

“I’m not trying to be callous,” Drain says. “But…if the Lord has it that these people won’t believe in him, there’s nothing I can do for them.”

That indifference extends to those who stray from the flock. Three Phelps children—Mark, Nathan and Dortha—left the fold years ago. Mark and Nathan moved to California. Dortha stayed in Topeka and changed her surname to “Bird” (reportedly because she felt “free as a bird”). Phelps-Roper hasn’t spoken to them since. But does being estranged from her siblings give her even a hint of sadness?

“No,” she says flatly. “Life is too short. My prospects for eternity are too important to worry about anything else.”

Despite the group’s condemnation of anyone—which means pretty much everyone—not in lockstep with the WBC’s teachings, the congregation does not shy away from the world. Contrary to popular assumption, the children of the church attend public schools with the same neighbors they regularly picket.

“There are compelling reasons to have our children in public schools,” Phelps-Roper says. “It’s too easy to marginalize us—to say we’re brainwashing our kids in ‘the compound’ if we home-schooled. Plus, when they see what kind of people we are, it makes it a lot harder for people to say ignorant things.”

Like using the “c” word—cult—to describe the WBC. While the congregation is certainly close-knit, these folks aren’t exactly Amish. They wear Nikes. They eat McDonald’s. They go roller-skating. They go to the movie theater (even if it is to see The Passion). They ski (even if it’s during a picket trip to Colorado). And they’re big sports fans. On the picket line and even during worship services many wear apparel supporting the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas State Wildcats.

“We’re just people like everyone else,” Phelps-Roper says, “and we are entitled to use the things of this world.”

But they also tout their resilience to the corruptibility of worldly things.

“Christ says it’s not what goes into a man that defiles him but what proceeds out his mouth,” Drain says. “God’s people aren’t going to turn corrupt because somebody holds a porn poster in front of their face or smokes a joint around them. It’s not a Kiwanis Club, it’s a supernatural set of beliefs the Lord imbues us with.”

Drain was imbued relatively late in the game. He came from Florida to shoot a documentary on the church and eventually stayed. The 40-year-old freely speculates that Marilyn Manson’s odds at heaven are better than Jerry Falwell’s. He discusses psychology and Scripture with equal aplomb. He listens to Soundgarden and reads books about Quentin Tarantino.

“But the fact of the matter is that I could do without all that,” Drain says. “It entertains the mind a bit. It’s no different than having a Tootsie Roll. It’s just mind candy.”

But he also knows that pop culture confections are largely responsible for the church’s notoriety. The group is savvy about utilizing the very institutions they abhor, knowing that shock-and-awe tactics will seize public attention. They understand how any one picket—Matthew Shepherd’s funeral, for instance—can earn the church and its message international infamy.

“It’s kind of a divine irony,” Phelps-Roper says. “We worked so hard for years to get this message before the face of this generation. Now—like weeds all over this country—that Laramie Project is springing up. And you don’t go to the Laramie Project without seeing the signs and hearing the words… So no matter how they’re delivered, they land in the ears of these people.”

The machine is in neutral.

It sits idling during the Sunday sermon. But as soon as the congregation is dismissed, the engine revs again.

The gears of the Westboro Baptist Church’s ministry reside in a small office next to the chapel. There are a couple of desks and a large fax machine through which the lifeblood of this operation—incendiary press releases—courses.

This is how the Phelpses get invited on the Howard Stern Show. How they earn spots on television talk shows. How they earn ink in virtually every major newspaper the world over. They utilize the same technology that they contend to be evidence of the impending apocalypse to spread the same gospel that netted Fred Phelps his public coronation in a Time Magazine profile back in 1951.

The walls of the office are lined with commendations and large, framed photographs of the congregation. On the bulletin board, an upside down American flag is depicted with red, white and blue thumbtacks. Manila folders lay on the desks like rows of toppled dominoes. Each bears the name of a target. Lawton. Plattsburgh. Thibodeaux. Texas City. Lincolnshire. These are the dossiers the group compiles on cities they plan to picket.

“New Mex” sits on the top of one pile. It is 20 days before the group lands in Albuquerque and Shirley Phelps-Roper is assuring her father that arrangements have been made with Santa Fe Police Chief Bev Lennen to ensure the safety of the congregation.

“How’s that, hon?” Phelps says, nudging his daughter, “Her name is ‘Lennen.’”

The Iron Curtain still hangs heavy in Phelps’ mind. Which is why he is prone to suggest that any attorney who opposes the WBC “must have gotten his degree from the University of Moscow law school.”

Phelps got his from Washburn University in Topeka, as did 11 of his children. The family’s law expertise is largely responsible for sustaining the church’s campaign and a trail of litigation marks the spots where others have stood in the way over the years.

“Clearly they know the law very well,” Chief Lennen said at an April 11 press conference. “They are very well versed…They know where the line is drawn and they know how to do what they do without crossing that line. Our challenge is to make sure that, no matter how we feel about this issue, we do not cross that line.”

Phelps crossed the line often enough to be disbarred from practicing in Kansas state courts in 1979 before retiring from trying federal cases a decade later. Now his children keep the legal embers glowing through the Phelps Chartered law firm. And though the family occupation is crucial to the church’s vitality, Phelps-Roper insists it was not by design.

“Not our design,” Phelps-Roper says. “But we look up and that’s the way things have fallen out. When you look at the personalities and skills —it all just works nicely. It’s actually kind of awesome to watch.”

But while the initial plan may not have been for parishioners to hold positions that benefit the church; future generations are being geared toward just that.

“The stones fit the frame, that’s what it is,” Drain says. “Some of our people will spend more time in the workplace because more money is needed either for their family or to take on needs of the church. Some have jobs that aren’t as lucrative but they’ll have more free time to do chores and errands or go on picket trips.”

But those ecclesiastic excursions come with a hefty price tag that can’t be paid with tithes alone. So how does the WBC fund its traveling ministry?

“Some people buy jet skis or go to a French chalet with their disposable income,” Drain says. “We go on picket trips.”

The church also pools its manpower to offset the cost of things like building homes and fixing appliances while maintaining fierce independence from accepting money from its few outside supporters.

“We don’t take money from anyone,” Phelps-Roper says. “We don’t ask anyone for money. We don’t want their money.”

But the church readily invites anyone and everyone to its weekly worship services. The Phelpses dismiss charges of racial prejudice by pointing to the civil-rights cases that Phelps championed—and was commended by the NAACP for—during his legal career. Charges of anti-Semitism are also disregarded under the notion that the nation’s synagogues are merely corrupt institutions alongside the country’s “mainline” churches and mosques. But parishioners also harbor disdain for those who express support for what is perceived as an anti-homosexual campaign.

“It’s not a crusade against homosexuality, it’s preaching the gospel,” Drain says. “It’s the whole council of God. The reason we talk about homosexuality is because it’s a front-burner issue.”

They should know. Church members constantly pore over newspapers, television programs and Internet sites in order to identify picket-worthy sites.

“So many events, so little time,” laughs Margie Phelps, another daughter in the Phelps brood. “As we sit here there’s probably about 30 events going on that are picket-worthy by the hour. And it’s going to double by this time next year if the Lord tarries.”

Given the number of sinners demanding their attention, the congregation has to choose its battles using a strategy that has been honed to perfection.

“We could write the script,” Margie Phelps says. “You see where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. As soon as we put a press release out, the city council and the local clergy and the local fag groups will get in bed together and run their mouths incessantly. By the time we get there, there’s a nice big counterprotest group and a whole bunch more media. It’s like taking candy from a baby.”

In this case, the little bambino is Santa Fe.

The city has thus far followed the script faithfully. An ad hoc committee—comprised of representatives from the faith community, the City government and human rights groups —was formed to coordinate the city’s response. But the committee had to announce a press conference just to urge citizens to ignore the WBC.

Subsequently, more than three dozen people sat in the City Council chambers on April 11—including Chief Lennen, City Manager Mike Lujan and Councilors Patti Bushee, Karen Heldmeyer and Miguel Chavez—as the committee urged citizens to focus on community displays of diversity, including displaying rainbow flags in the windows of homes and businesses and participating in the annual CROP walk for hunger.

“These people are skilled provocateurs,” said Rev. Holly Beaumont, the committee’s chairwoman. “The more that people can be prepared and desensitized to what they’ll encounter, the less they will be provoked.”

But when the WBC finally arrives in town on Saturday, Santa Feans may be surprised to find not a battalion of hatemongers led by Phelps himself but a small group of women representing the church.

“They may be disappointed,” Phelps-Roper laughs. “It’s going to be almost all girls. If nothing else, they’re going to get some good singing.”

But there are always the signs. And the WBC knows it’s the brightly colored “God Hates Fags” placards that really incite the ire of citizens. Church members chuckle at the seeming irony of the message they are vilified for.

“The thing that they’ve been demonizing all this time—it’s so beautiful—is a message that’s been right in front of their noses,” Drain says. “There’s going to be wailing and gnashing of teeth and men begging mountains to fall on them. The whole thing is going to be a glorious affair and these words will have been ringing in their ears the whole time.”

Gramps is scowling.

The genial old man of birthday parties past is gone. There is no smile. No twinkle in his eyes. No white cowboy hat. No doll-faced scamp hanging on his leg. No blueberry muffins in sight.

No, it seems as if Straight Eye on the Queer Guy has refashioned the gentle grandparent into a dour undertaker overnight. Phelps wears a dark blue suit and red tie. His wisps of gray hair are parted like the Red Sea to the sides of his scalp. His eyes have narrowed, hunkering deep in the foxholes of their sockets. His gaunt face has creased into the kind of seething grimace normally reserved for stone gargoyles surveying Paris from atop Notre Dame. His voice is rigid and concentrated with purpose. The man has something on his mind.

Oh, right. The Pope.

“Under his watch, the Catholic Church became the church of the holy pedophiles,” Phelps bellows. “Sodomite feces replaced the wafer for their communion service and sodomite semen replaced the wine that the pope drinks!…It’s a massive sodomite whorehouse masquerading as the Roman Catholic church. And…the madam of that whorehouse died yesterday and split hell wide open!”

Phelps’ sermons have little regard for the feeble constraints of man-made punctuation. His sentences shatter any exclamation points that foolishly stand in the way. And as he lords over the pulpit—etched with the words “Do this in remembrance of me”—his hands are clasped tightly to either side of the lectern as if to brace his frail frame against the blasts exploding from his tense lips, which are fixed in a frown of fury.

“They say he talked eight to 12 languages fluently,” Phelps continues. “Big deal! He lied in all of ’em! He blasphemed God in all of ’em! And we’re the only ones telling the truth about the sorry son of a bitch.”

Truth is a concrete concept to Phelps. Either you have it or you don’t. And Phelps believes he does. It’s hard to disagree when he’s delivering a verbal bludgeoning one moment and warbling comically the next in ridicule of his opponents. There is only space for one truth in the narrow, windowless room that is the Westboro Baptist Church chapel.

“God hates people, not just their sins,” Phelps shouts. “God sends people to hell, he doesn’t send their sins to hell. And all these theologians in the United States—including the Pope and his minions—jolly well know ‘God Hates Fags’ is a profound theological statement and the only truth of God being preached in the world today!”

This is fire. This is brimstone. But even though the women keep their heads covered with scarves during the sermon, the congregation is remarkably casual. The prevalent dress code on the first Sunday in April is T-shirts and shorts. The parishioners sing from the Primitive Baptist Hymn Book (first published in 1887) even as one young man sits with a laptop, ready to upload the sermon onto the Internet within minutes of its culmination. As Phelps preaches eternal damnations, the worshipers’ heads are bowed—out of reverence or submission is anyone’s guess.

“You got Phelps preaching to you, you sorry bastards,” Phelps screams. “He’s preaching Bible truth to you. That’s all you gonna get. You’re headed for hell if you’re not going to repent at the preaching of Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.”

Staring at Fred Phelps in the eye of a sermon is like staring God in the face. And, man, are they both pissed. Phelps’ admonitions lick your cheeks as if they were the flames of hell. At any moment the faded carpet could split into a chasm revealing the simmering cauldron of Hades and nobody would be surprised.

Two aisle boards flank Phelps at the pulpit. On the left sits a placard with the words “Hail Mary” sandwiching two human outlines that are either playing leap-frog or about to do the deed.

The placard on the right is an excerpt from a textbook entry on Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century preacher whose sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” appears to be Phelps’ favorite bedtime story.

“It is an exemplar of the way they preached in 1784,” Phelps shouts. “They all preached it that way. At the beginnings of this nation people feared God.”

Now they fear Fred Phelps. The man will scare the hell out of you. Or, more aptly, he’ll scare the hell into you. Which perhaps explains why the children in the congregation don’t flinch around foul-mouthed counter-protestors. You can withstand anything if you can endure Gramps’ sermons and fundamentalist child-rearing.

“It’s so foreign to the rest of the world how these children are raised,” Drain says. “It’s only foreign to them because of the way they’ve been raised. Three-hundred or 400 years ago—even 200 in some places—most people raised their kids in the same kind of strict nurture and admonition of the Lord as we do.”

Sounds like fun. But aren’t kids still kids? Particularly when they’re exposed to the sins of sodomites in public school classrooms?

“Their lives are blessedly simple,” Phelps-Roper says. “These kids don’t have to think twice. What we do is elevate the dialogue and teach them what God requires of them. And we do our Deuteronomy 6 duty. After you read that you’ll be thinking ‘saturation.’”

Saturation. Brainwashing. Tomato. Tuh-mah-toe.

But lo be to any child in the flock who—like Mark, Nathan and Dortha—strays from the herd. Parental compassion is cinched off for hell-bound offspring.

“Once they come to years, they’re in the same boat as every other son and daughter of Adam in the world,” Drain says of his four daughters. “If the Lord doesn’t imbue them with his grace, they’re going to leave and it won’t be a matter of me having to go rouse them and kick them out. They’ll slink off.”

Phelps-Roper has no such problem with her 16-year-old son Isaiah. He is the latest person to be baptized into the church. The congregation sings a cheery ditty called “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” before transitioning into “Shall We Gather at the River” as a curtain is pulled back to reveal Phelps and his grandson standing thigh-deep in the baptismal pool.

“On the authority given to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Phelps says as he places a cloth over Isaiah’s face. “I baptize you my brother in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

Isaiah’s mom sits in a pew with tears of joy streaming down her face.

After the service, Isaiah looks like he’s seen the Holy Ghost. The gangly, shy teenager fumbles awkwardly to explain to a stranger the levity of the event.

“I was being baptized because…um…because…uh…it’s important,” Isaiah stammers. “And…to be...uh…In Mark 16:16 it says ‘he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved and he that believeth not shall be damned.’ I believe.”

Belief doesn’t guarantee salvation. Even as the excitement of the baptism hangs in the air, it’s clear Phelps isn’t certain his own grandchildren will even be saved.

“You know, a lot of these children give strong evidence that they love the Lord and that’s satisfying,” Phelps says. “[But] some of them don’t. I love them all. It’d be good if [they] stay in the church and go to heaven. But that’s all the Lord’s work.”

Phelps can’t be bothered. He is only the messenger. It isn’t his place to worry whether or not the message is falling on deaf ears.

“Noah preached for 120 years and didn’t change a single mind,” Phelps says. “My job is to preach it in-season, out-of-season, reprove, rebuke, exhort, cry loud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet and show my people their transgressions. Anytime, all the time, anywhere, everywhere.”

Phelps can’t carry that burden for much longer. Vegas oddsmakers speculate the old man will die before the apocalypse arrives. And even with the congregation’s collective youth, there is no clear successor. For all intents and purposes he is the Westboro Baptist Church.

“He is our pastor,” Phelps-Roper says. “I see us living in the last days…so I don’t expect us to need another. If we do, the Lord will either send us one or raise one up from the people here. But that’s not my concern.”

Phelps, for one, expects his ticket to be punched sooner rather than later. But as he stands on the precipice of the pearly gates, doesn’t he harbor at least some hope for the world’s salvation?

“No,” he says in a near whisper. “The line’s been crossed…it’s forever too late…Every morning when I wake up I look out the window to see if the Lord’s coming.

“When you get an apostasy…that broad and that systemic…it doesn’t leave much except doom. So I’m a prophet of doom,” Phelps says, his smile returning. “A prophet of doom, that’s what I am. And mighty glad to be one.” SFR

Santa Fe Reporter

When it was founded in 1974, the Santa Fe Reporter's mission was to create lively competition for a stodgy and timid daily press. That tradition continues today. The Reporter investigates beneath the surface, presenting in-depth stories often overlooked or uninvestigated...
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