My day at Westboro Baptist: "Yes, Jesus hates you"

My devout mom wailed when I came out. My quest to figure out sex and God brought me to Westboro Baptist

Published March 24, 2013 11:00AM (EDT)

       (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Excerpted from the book "Does Jesus Really Love Me?"

The term Christian means radically different things to different people. There are social justice Christians, moral crusader Christians, Christians who believe in “Jesus-as-good-man-but-no-more,” and those who hold to a “Jesus-is-the-only-way” Christianity. But gradually over the last few decades, the word Christian has become associated with condemnation. Nearly all former Christians I interviewed cited judgmental behavior as one of the push factors that sent them running from the church. And no institution has been more associated with being extremist and anti-gay than Westboro Baptist Church.

No congregation in the world spends as much time preaching against homosexuality as this small Topeka band of believers. No church is more disliked by homosexuals, their allies, and even other Christians who would never ordinarily align with the gay rights movement. At a protest against New York State’s legalization of gay marriage, I witnessed Maggie Gallagher, a pugnacious, Roman Catholic leader of the anti-gay-marriage lobby, scream at a group of Westboro members: “You blaspheme the name of Christ!”

Gallagher’s fury had not a little to do with the semantic choices that Westboro has made—and which have made it famous. Nobody else today uses, with total impunity, the “f” word that has become integral to Westboro’s unbelievably widespread brand:

God hates fags.
Fags go to hell.
Fag lover Obama.

But every time I saw a photograph of church members picketing with these signs and every time I read an article about Westboro—and there have been many in recent years—so many questions arose. Why do they hate gay people so much? Why do they believe homosexuality to be worse than other sin? How did a church with just forty members manage to gain such outsize influence, provoking the media, politicians, and even the U.S. Supreme Court to help them spread their message of hellfire and damnation? Why do they look like they’re having so much fun?

So, early in the summer of my pilgrimage, I packed my bags for Topeka.

I was scared. Some nights before my departure, I had nightmares, and many mornings, I’d wake with my jaw tight and teeth clenched. Friends tried to convince me that it was morally wrong to give the church any more ink than it has already received, and one pastor, upon learning that I’d be visiting Westboro, rejected my interview request, saying there was no way he’d be quoted in the same book.

Loved ones repeatedly asked if I was going alone; I was not. I asked a multimedia journalist and friend named Tim Meinch and his photographer fiancée, Dana Halferty—both strong Christians with a good knowledge of Scripture—to come along as photo and video assistants (read: human security blankets). My boyfriend, having already given up on persuading me not to go, had visions of me getting bashed in some Kansas parking lot, so he asked me to stay in a hotel far from the church and with interior hallways. (Priceline defied him on the first count, but obliged him on the second.)

My own biggest fear wasn’t my safety; I figured that Westboro was too media-savvy to hurt me physically. Rather, I was haunted by a more appalling thought: What if I found that they were not in fact crazy? Worse, what if I decided that they were right?

* * *

On a good Sunday in Brooklyn, I slip into a pew at around 11:03 a.m., just as my pastor has opened the service with the standard litany. But on my Sunday in Topeka, I go to church four times—or rather, I go to four churches. Every Sabbath day, before their own noon service, Westboro’s members protest outside other Topeka churches as worshippers arrive.

Tim, Dana, and I had asked if we might shadow church members on the picket line, so we are assigned to Team B, led by Jonathan Phelps, an affable lawyer who is the third-eldest of Westboro founder and pastor Fred Phelps’s eleven children. This morning’s itinerary features an Evangelical Lutheran church, a Methodist congregation, and finally a Catholic parish. “It’s going to be a good morning,” Jon tells us as we gather outside his house. “Sometimes it’s just Methodist, Methodist, Methodist. This is a good mix!”

Outside Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, the ten-person team sorts through the signs they’ve brought along. “You can take a Fag Priest one if you want to,” Jon says cheerily to one of his sons, before explaining to me that the signs “are almost universally applicable. God hates fags works everywhere.” He points to one that reads U.S. Army and has stick figures simulating anal sex. “We’ve had U.S. Army ones since 1991 or 1992, just after we started doing this,” he says. “We know the military is dominated by homosexuals.”

For Our Savior’s, Jon chooses a sign that says Lutheran Fag Church. (In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had approved the ordination of gays and lesbians.) Another team member has picked a poster that reads, You’re going to hell. Frankly, I feel as if I might already be there. It’s a stick-your-head-in-the-icebox kind of day; the weather forecast said the mercury would rise to 105, and with the humidity, the breezeless air would feel like 118.

When we move on to the Methodist church, I spend a few minutes with one of the youngest picketers, a towheaded, slightly pigeon-toed, unsmiling six-year-old boy named Ben. Ben tells me that his favorite thing in the world to do is to jump on the trampoline in his backyard. It’s barely summer, yet he’s already worried about starting public school in the fall—all Westboro members send their kids to public school, in part because they consider their children, well known to everyone as Westboro youngsters, to be walking picket signs. He has heard that his school does not have a trampoline. Also, he says, “home school is more funner.” Tucked under Ben’s chin is a child-size sign that says, Fags doom nations.

Because of the heat, Jon decides we’ll move on to St. Matthew, a nearby Catholic parish, earlier than planned. When we get there, a few cars are just pulling in for ten-thirty mass, and the picketers choose from a range of Catholic-specific signs: Dyke nuns, Pope in hell, False prophet, which features a menacing photo of Pope Benedict XVI. Jon’s sister Abigail, who is wearing a tattered American flag around her waist and dragging it on the ground, holds four signs at once, including one that says, Destruction is imminent. She’s belting out a Westboro version of the Vanessa Williams song “Save the Best for Last”—retitled “God Saved His Best Wrath for Last.” “God’s day of wrath is coming soon,” Abigail sings. “The day the sun won’t light the moon. God saw the lust that filled your lives. We told you truth—don’t act surprised.”

A few feet away, Jon’s wife, Paulette, stands with a sign that reads Hail Mary, with two stick figures, one bent over in front of the other. “You know what a Christian is?” she yells to a parishioner who’s locking up her car. “You’re supposed to follow Christ!”

I ask Paulette’s niece, Sara, whether she thinks these messages— written, sung, shouted—will actually get through. She shakes her head: “If the Lord hasn’t given you the heart to hear, you just won’t understand.”

The reason they preach anyway is that you never know who has that heart and who doesn’t. Spreading their gospel is their duty and their gesture of kindness to a hell-bound world. They cite Leviticus 19:17, which instructs the faithful—in the words of the King James Version favored at Westboro—to “not hate thy brother in thine heart,” but “rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him.” In other words, if you don’t point out your neighbor’s sin, you not only fail to show that person love but also share in his guilt.

“A day doesn’t go by that I’m not constantly searching out preaching opportunities. Every day, we say to the people of this earth, ‘The Lord is soon returning and will destroy the earth with fire,’” Jon says. “People say to us, ‘What ever happened to ‘love thy neighbor’? That’s exactly what we’re doing. We have words that cut to the heart. If you truly know what the Lord said, then you know we are loving our neighbor.”

* * *

Westboro meets on the ground floor of a brick building that doubles as the longtime home of Fred and Marge Phelps, who have lived in Topeka since 1955. The décor of the sanctuary, just off the Phelpses’ kitchen, is 1960s suburban ecclesiastical-standard-issue pews, wood-veneer paneling, and shockingly mauve carpet. Many of its accouterments would be familiar to most churchgoers. At the front of the sanctuary, there’s a small, boxlike electric organ, and a small elderly woman who plays it. And there’s a traditional wooden communion table not so different from those in thousands of churches around the world, featuring Jesus’s familiar words from the Last Supper: “This do in remembrance of me.”

There are two remarkable things about the space. The first is the overwhelming smell; an olfactory mixologist might describe it as sour, almost chemical, with overtones of formaldehyde and must. The other is the set of posters that flanks the pulpit. One says God hates fags. Another has a photo of the president of the United States and the words Fag lover Obama.

The sanctuary aptly reflects the church’s dogma: While Westboro’s attention-grabbing teachings are the unconventional ones—the Obama poster, for example, reflects their belief that he’s the Antichrist—the church shares many other beliefs with scores of conservative Christians. Westboro, an independent church that doesn’t belong to a denomination, shares some views with strict Presbyterians, including the idea that God handpicks which people will go to heaven and which will go to hell. And a host of people across the theological spectrum, from Catholic to mainline Protestant to all manner of evangelical, would agree with the basis for Westboro member Steve Drain’s call for homosexual repentance, if not quite his delivery: “Quit being homosexual!” he says. “If you’re not doing it, you’re not homosexual. It’s not an immutable characteristic, like being black or a woman. It’s a behavior. So just stop the behavior.”

Westboro fixates on sexual morality, and it’s strict on these issues: There should be no premarital or extramarital sex. Remarriage after divorce is adulterous; Ben’s father, one of the church’s recent converts, was forced to leave his second wife before being admitted as a member, because his first wife was still living. But in promoting such morality—by which I mean calling out other people’s immorality— Westboro members often deploy extremely profane, totally un-churchy language. For instance, at a picket in Manhattan on the first day of legal gay marriage in New York, Margie Phelps, who a few months earlier had delivered an erudite and ultimately winning argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, maniacally screamed, “I don’t even know what’s growing inside your crusty assholes!” at gay men who were in line to wed at the city clerk’s Marriage Bureau.

Westboro’s Sunday service, on the other hand, uses more of the ecclesiastical vernacular of centuries past—lots of “thee” and “thou.” The service is quick and simple: hymn, prayer, sermon, and hymn. The music is equally throwback; the closing hymn, “On the Mountain’s Top Appearing,” is from 1802. Fred Phelps, who preaches every Sunday, invokes more than a dozen different passages of Scripture, Old Testament and New, in his rambling discourse about the nature of God’s love. Later that afternoon, when I stop by the home of Phelps’s son Tim, he explains that the worship service reflects their understanding of what the Bible says church should be. There is no Sunday school, for instance, because “there is no biblical support for Sunday school. The body of Christ is supposed to meet at one time.”

The traditional music, the ye-olde prayer language, the “for the Bible tells me so” worship style—all are manifestations of Westboro’s strong nostalgia. The church believes that society has never been more wicked or more ignorant of what God requires of us and who He is. Homosexuality is technically no worse than any other sin; they just focus on it because our tolerance of it shows how bad things have gotten. Nor do they believe that they are morally superior. “I am not worth a crap,” Jon Phelps says to me at one point. “I am not even a worm.”

Few things irk Westboro’s members more than the widespread belief, even beyond the church, that Christ was a sweet, all-loving man. God does not actually love everyone, they say, only those whom He chose for heaven. “God foreordained some people to go to heaven and some to go to hell. But people can’t stand that they got put in the wrong category. That’s a buzzkill!” says Steve Drain, who came to Topeka in 2001 to make a film debunking Westboro’s beliefs and ended up converting and moving his family up from Florida. “But Jesus did not die for everyone.”

This kind of thinking isn’t unique in the American church. Mark Driscoll, a prominent pastor who leads Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, which regularly draws more than ten thousand worshippers, gave a sermon in the fall of 2011 in which he said: “Some of you, God hates you ... He doesn’t think you’re cute ... He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you. He hates them, too. God hates—right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.”

It’s almost an echo of Tim Phelps, who tells me: “We’ve got to get off this notion that Christ was a kissy-poo preacher. He was a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher.”

* * *

Finally it was time to meet Fred Phelps, and boy did things not go well.

Dana, Tim, and I arrive in Phelps’s book-lined office, upstairs from the church sanctuary, just before noon. The wall behind his desk reflects the complexity of his history: Phelps was an Eagle Scout and to the right of his merit badges is a plaque from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Before Westboro launched its quest against homosexuality, Phelps, a lawyer, was respected for his ardent advocacy of racial equality. And to the left is one of the church’s original protest posters. Compared with today’s invective, the 1991 version is surprisingly gentle: Watch your Kids, it reads. Gays in restrooms! Said restrooms were in Gage Park, a few blocks from the church, and the picketing began after a few teenage Phelps boys were propositioned by cruising gays.

Slouched in an office chair behind his desk, his skin sallow, Phelps looks all of his eighty-two years. His frosty eyes, peeking out from the brim of his white cowboy hat, are several shades paler than the blue of his Kansas Jayhawks jacket, which seems to protect him from his own chill.

It’s a struggle to draw out details of his personal history. When I try to get him to talk about how he was called to the ministry, he shoots back: “Is that a real good question you got there?” He eventually admits that he has always been a rabble-rouser. In 1951, he proudly notes, Time featured him preaching at John Muir College in Pasadena, California. Phelps, then twenty-one and “a tall (6-foot-3), craggy-faced engineering student from Meridian, Miss. ...  [would] walk up to groups of boys & girls munching their lunchtime sandwiches in the quadrangle, ask ‘May I say a few words’ and launch into a talk,” the Time article says. “Over and over he denounced the ‘sins committed on campus by students and teachers.’”

“That was the best issue Time ever put out,” he says. His father didn’t think so. “My daddy told me, ‘Bubba, you seem to know how to get everyone mad—and we don’t like it. I recommend that you take a short-cut. Just haul off and kick them in the shins,’” he says with a satisfied smile. “He didn’t really want me to do it—or maybe he did! Well, I haven’t made all the people mad all the time, but I’ve come close.”

Finally, after a few more strained minutes of back and forth, he goes for a little kick at our shins: “You guys planning on staying much longer?”

“I’ll take as much time as you have,” I say.

“It’s three minutes after twelve,” he says, glancing up at a clock. He suggests we be out of his office at five after twelve—“fifteen, if you insist.”

I just keep asking questions. In the end, it was my grandfather, along with some stuff I learned in Christian school, that saved me.

Phelps seems to approve of a question I ask about Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-century theologian who traveled colonial America stoking Christian revival. Nobody preaches truth anymore, Phelps tells me, because “there are no good preachers left.” (“Present company excluded” was quickly understood.) “We need about fifty Jonathan Edwardses let loose!” he continues. “And I don’t know any!” He cites Edwards’s most famous piece of oratory, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” as “an ideal sermon.”

When I ask Phelps what biblical figures have inspired him, he cites the long line of prophets and faithful servants of God from the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews.

“The faith hall of fame!” I reply, using the nickname for that passage of Scripture.

Phelps seems surprised that I have any idea what he is talking about.

A little later, I make a reference to Scripture that catches him off guard. For a moment, he looks confused. “You know something of the Bible?”

“I hope so,” I say. “My grandfather was a Baptist preacher.”

He narrows his eyes. “How old was he when he died?” Among some Westboro members, living to what the Bible calls “a ripe old age” signifies God’s blessing, while an early death can be an indication of divine disfavor.

“Ninety-one,” I say, whispering a silent prayer of gratitude that Grandpa hung on as long as he did.

“I think we might be able to have a little bit of friendship,” Phelps responds, a touch of softness entering his voice.

But just a little bit—Phelps no longer holds much hope for me or for the rest of the world, given that we haven’t joined Westboro. He has stopped praying that America would be saved. He likens the moral situation today to ancient Israel in the days of the Prophet Jeremiah. “Three times the Lord told Jeremiah, ‘Don’t pray for these people anymore. I’m not listening,’” he says. “The message now is that it’s too late.”

Perhaps he’s right and this is society’s twilight, but the evidence seems stronger that Phelps himself is close to his own end of days. He still mounts the pulpit and preaches every Sunday, though his voice doesn’t thunder as it used to. You can still see the fight in his cold blue eyes, and though he rarely goes picketing anymore, he revels in the loathing that the church’s activities generate among the rest of society. “Blessed are ye when men shall hate you. When they do that, leap for joy,” he says to me, paraphrasing Jesus’s words as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. “When they do that, I dance a little jig.”

“Then you must do a lot of dancing,” I reply.

He turns to Steve and says with a half smile, “That was a good one.”

When I ask what will happen to the church when he dies, he glares at me and says sharply: “I’m not expecting to die.”

I ask him what else I might read to better understand the teaching that he believes is sound. He gazes around his book-lined library and thinks for a long moment. “'Precious Remedies,' with 'The Doctrines of Grace,'” he says, citing two works by the seventeenth-century Puritan writer Thomas Brooks. “That wouldn’t be bad.” He names John Bunyan’s "The Pilgrim’s Progress" (“heartwarming”) and Jerome Zanchius’s "Absolute Predestination" (“what I quote out of more than anything else”). And finally, he points at two massive, leather-bound volumes on a table to his left: Joseph Caryl’s exposition of the Book of Job. “That’s a good book,” he says. “Bless the cow that gave his life for that book.” (Later, when I study his recommended-reading list, I realize that every text that he mentions is from the seventeenth century.)

Just as we are leaving—we made it nearly to one o’clock—he has another thought. He pulls out a newspaper article that accuses him of misinterpreting Scripture. “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination!” he thunders, quoting Leviticus 18:22. “They say I twist the Scripture to provide me with preaching material to persecute poor little homos? You don’t need any expositions at all. Those are pure Bible words. And I’m twisting it? Whoever wrote that article is dumb!”

He rambles on for a few more moments, unspooling a mini-sermon on God’s judgment, leaping from Leviticus to 2 Chronicles and on to Jeremiah and then the Gospel of Luke.

Finally, I thank him for his time and ask if I can take a photo with him before we go. He nods, and I step around his desk and position myself behind his chair. For a moment, he can’t see exactly what I’m doing or where I am, and he startles, turning his head left and then quickly right.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m right here.”

* * *

Shortly after the first pickets in Gage Park, Phelps had an epiphany that gay was not the right word at all. He decided that fags would be more appropriate, and explained it as the short form of an antiquated word for kindling. Appropriate, Westboro’s argument goes, because such sin is sending the whole world into the flames of hell.

The members of Westboro use the word fag constantly and casually. When I asked Jael Phelps, one of Fred Phelps’s twenty-three grandchildren, whether she’s a fan of "Glee," she said she used to be something of a Gleek “until those two fags started kissing! Then I couldn’t watch it anymore.” And during a chat with Jael’s cousin Rebekah Phelps-Roper, Rebekah confesses merrily that she didn’t always understand the signs she would hold during pickets. “We started picketing when I was three,” she says. “I remember I would usually hold a sign that said No fags and it had a happy face in the middle. I always thought it meant No happy fags. I guess it wasn’t until I was fifteen or sixteen that I really knew.”

Fag isn’t the only pejorative term they regularly deploy. Whore is another favorite, slapped on everyone from former first lady Betty Ford (because she was a divorcée when she married Gerald Ford) to Billy Graham (“lying whore,” for not preaching the gospel as they see it) to Elizabeth Taylor (“world-famous filthy Jew whore”). Paulette Phelps, Jon’s wife, even describes her own sister to me as a whore, because she is not a Westboro member.

This kind of talk is especially jarring because every member of the church we meet, except for Fred, is warm and welcoming. They’re good, easy conversationalists, chatting about everything from the Harry Potter books to photography to the movies. And they can be charmingly self-deprecating. One evening, we go over to Steve Drain’s house for pizza. “Do you want anything to drink?” he asks, opening the fridge to do a quick inventory. “We have Coke, Diet Coke, iced tea, juice, water. But we don’t serve Kool-Aid. It makes people a little nervous!”

Steve explains the language choices as pragmatic: They’re just trying to speak to people in the current vernacular. “How all this lands on a person’s heart is God’s business,” he says. But this multi-part defense of the use of fag is like me telling my mother that it is okay to say “fuck” instead of “sex,” because it has a long and rich history (which it does), lots of people say it, and the responsibility for interpretation is ultimately God’s. That’s not only disingenuous but also dishonest. They know precisely how that word will be received—as a marker of their hate. They also know that it will provoke strong, equally colorful responses, which help them amplify their message that the world revels in its sin. Steve still remembers one from a picket in Missoula, Montana, that said, “Love thy neighbor in the ass.” “Really? Seriously?” he says, incredulous. “They get as filthy as they can.” Adds his wife, Luci, a cheery mom of four who makes the best iced tea I’ve ever had: “It’s just a sick scene, the youth of this nation.”

* * *

It’s impossible to understand Westboro according to the logic of the outside world. In some ways, this is little different from any religion—in fact, it’s an inherent quality of faith, which requires belief in things unseen and unprovable. When others try to reason with Westboro’s members, a common response is that God has not opened their eyes, so they just can’t accept the truth. “Sometimes you look at people going by, and you think, Why are we the only ones who see this?” says Rebekah Phelps-Roper. “Well, who am I to question my Creator? This is the Lord’s will, and it is perfect.”

Jon Phelps says that he often hears from counterprotesters that Westboro is a cult, that it’s weird that the church is largely from one family. “Who got on the ark?” he asks. “Everyone that got on the ark was related to Noah.”

Drawing a firm line between “us” and “them,” the sheep and the goats, the chosen and the un-, allows church members to rationalize the shunning of those who have left the congregation. Not that they are entirely able to eliminate the pain of seeing their children, brothers, sisters, cousins depart.

Rebekah recalls when one of her older brothers left. She had just had a cross-country meet. “He picked me up from the bus. The next morning, we were going white-water rafting in Colorado, but he was not there,” she says. “I saw some of my brothers and sisters crying, but I’ve seen other people leave and I did my crying then. My mom explained it to me then: They were not of us. If they were, they would have stayed. It’s the perfect will of God.”

Jon still occasionally thinks about the two of his four children who have rebelled. “I wish it was otherwise. It’s a little bit discouraging that they didn’t take advantage. We gave them as much tools and gospel teaching as we could. But it’s sad in the sense that they weren’t granted the grace,” he says. Normally garrulous, he falls silent. “People who are constrained to do something are not happy people,” he continues. “They were given the chance.”

Jon’s eldest brother, Fred Jr., has watched two of his four children leave the church, too, but they still take care of their apostate daughter Sharon’s young daughter. “The baby’s a cutie!” Fred Jr. says. Adds his wife, Betty: “Any grandparent would like to see their grandchild have a nice life and be exposed to the truth. But we cannot control their hearts. That is God’s business, and if their hearts turn, it’s not because of us.”

* * *

Many of us are bedtime theologians. For good or ill, that’s one of the few times I’m alone with my thoughts. And in those too-quiet moments at day’s end, when sleep has not yet rescued me, sometimes epiphanies come. Often, I get panicky. Always, I have questions—and there is no better and no worse time for those big What-ifs.

I asked most of the Westboro members we met to tell me the stories of how they came to believe. When did they know?

Sam Phelps: One night, I was lying in bed, and I was overcome with fear—a fear of hell. I knew the only way to not go to hell was Jesus Christ ... It’s not a question of whether the Lord lives or whether his blood is effectual to save me. The only question is, was it shed for me? I hope that it was, but no man can have that certainty. At some level, absolutely that fear is still there.

Vicky Phelps: I was in my room and getting ready for bed. It hit me like a ton of bricks that this was real. It’s not just words that people say. If I’m not a part of the church, I will go to hell. For eternity. That’s a long time. I thought, I don’t want to be in pain for eternity. It’s a scary thought. I told my parents I didn’t want to go to hell. And I kept hoping that Christ wouldn’t come before I got baptized. I kept hoping it wasn’t too late.

Tim Phelps: It was cold, and I was lying in what we called the dryer room. They were these big old Speed Queens— industrial size—and you could open them when they were running and the warm air would come out. It just hit me like a ton of bricks: I was going to hell. I was doomed. And I still walk in the fear of the Lord every day.

I can’t count how many times I’ve thought similar things. How many nights have I spent, sweaty and panicked and drained of tears, because I thought I would go to hell—for being gay, for being me? Other sins I had repented of, but this one didn’t go away. It was different—fixed. How many nights did I spend, in sleepless anguish, praying that God would take these feelings from me? How often did I imagine what hell might be like, wondering, If he didn’t make me straight, what the fire and brimstone would feel like?

Before I went to Westboro, I expected that its members would take every opportunity to remind me, not only because I’m gay but also because they now believe that they are the only true Christians left on earth. But in my four days in Kansas, nobody ever asks me about my sexuality. Nobody says a word about my salvation, except for Jon, who at one point generically and somewhat blandly says, “We have to tell you you’re going to hell.”

The closest we come to discussing my faith and my fate is as we’re leaving Fred Phelps’s office. Steve Drain is walking us back to his house. “You’re searching for something, aren’t you?” he says gently. I am, of course—this journey is about finding God, but it’s also about finding a church—but I don’t respond. He glances at me. “Well, I really hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Steve says this so sweetly that, for as many seconds as it takes for the words to form in my mind, I think, What if they’re right? Maybe they’re right. Damn! But just as quickly, I know this in my heart: Their god is not my god, and their faith is not my faith, and there can be no middle ground. My logic is unacceptable to them— nothing more than the devil’s lies—just as their logic makes no sense to me. My heart and my head cannot accept a god so cruel as theirs, so cavalier that he would create people just to destroy them. And I cannot believe in a fear-based faith. I don’t want to be scared into belief. I don’t want to be frightened into submission.

The wonderful film "You Can Count on Me" chronicles a period in the relationship between a sister and a brother, played by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, as they grapple with sibling stuff. It uses no huge set pieces, no big action scenes. Instead, it finds its power in small, intimate moments, which collectively offer one of the truest depictions of real life in recent cinema. Linney plays Sammy, the churchy, stable sibling; Ruffalo is Terry, the peripatetic one. At one point, Sammy asks her pastor, Ron, to sit down with them to talk.

In a rare moment of clarity, Terry answers a question that Ron has posed about whether his life is important and—by extension—about the nature of his faith. “I don’t know: A lot of what you’re saying has a real appeal to me, Ron,” Terry says. “A lot of the stuff they told us when we were kids ... But I don’t want to believe something or not believe it because I might feel bad. I want to believe it because I think it’s true.”

He could have been speaking for me.

* * *

On our last morning in Topeka, I wake too early. As quietly as I can, given the squeaky Holiday Inn sofa bed, I pull the Gideon Bible out of the nightstand to play that game where you open the Bible and see where God sends you.

Daniel 6.

This is the story of the Prophet Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den by his enemies and surviving, miraculously unscathed. My eyes settle on verses twenty-six and twenty-seven, where it says: “For He is the living God, and steadfast forever; His kingdom is the one which shall not be destroyed, and His dominion shall endure to the end. He delivers and rescues, and He works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, who has delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.”

“He delivers and rescues.” These words are encouraging. But here’s the thing about Scripture. You can play that game of biblical roulette. You can tell yourself that this is your word from the Lord and imagine yourself as a Daniel. You can believe that God is on your side. But your adversary can do the same thing. I know Fred Phelps feels like a Daniel, too, clinging to his God at a time when others tell him and his people that they are wrong.

Before I put the Bible away, I turn to Proverbs 12. When I was a young boy, my grandmother taught me that since there were thirty-one chapters to Proverbs, I could read a different one each day of the month.

Each couplet in Proverbs 12 contrasts good with evil: A good man does this, while a wicked man does that. I fixate on verse eighteen: “There is one who speaks rashly like the piercing of a sword, but the tongue of the wise heals.”

One of the few biblical expositors respected by Westboro is John Gill, who lived and died in the eighteenth century. He explains this verse by noting that words that heal are “comfortable, cheerful, and refreshing words to the injured and abused; especially the tongue of a wise minister of the Gospel is health, or healing, to wounded souls.”

But if Topeka teaches me anything, it is that many words—healing, health, wisdom, love—mean such different things to different people. It’s almost as if people are speaking entirely different languages. And it’s almost as if people are preaching totally different faiths.

From the book "Does Jesus Really Love Me?" by Jeff Chu. Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Chu. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

By Jeff Chu


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