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Maybe it was ego, hubris, or a general lack of respect that led me to believe that it would be possible to infiltrate the inner sanctum of Fred Phelps and his family. I suspect in my mind it was as innocent as running away to a circus for a day. In actuality, it was more like donning one of my Bed, Bathroom and Way Beyond sheets to masquerade as a Klansman for an hour.
In January of 2010, the Phelps Corporation – otherwise known as the Westboro Baptist Church -descended on San Francisco to target the wicked, the sinners, and a high school production of ‘Rent.’ Reading their online itinerary of times and locations of the WBC’s manufactured protests led me to believe getting close to the Phelps wasn’t going to be that difficult. Looking back, I suppose the reason I thought I would be able to just sally up and join their demonic demonstration was because I didn’t take them seriously enough. I thought they were a joke.
Look at the absurdity of their moronic rallies calling for the demises of Swedish vacuum cleaners, San Diego’s Comic-Con and other diabolical threats to their Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omniscient God. Their subject matter undermined the seriousness of their other spectacles like protesting at military funerals or at the Elizabeth Edwards’ memorial or their insane clamoring over anything having to do with Gays, Jews, and virtually anyone else who wasn’t a parishioner of their 88-member church.
One lesson I learned was never to laugh at Evil.
Imagine if the Devil was your roommate. Before you’re leaving the house for a big night of partying, your roomie, Mephistopheles, kindly asks, “Hey buddy, listen…I’ve got a big day tomorrow. Morning meeting with Dick Cheney (he sometimes forgets who he works for), a Skype with The Voice people, followed closely with an Idol conference, and lunch with Kim Jong Un, the Koch Bros, and Kelsey Grammar. Then in the afternoon, Crocs franchises.”
Suddenly for an instant, The Roommate of Darkness’s eyes flash a deep crimson like red lasers as he pleads, “So if you could be kinda quiet coming in tonight, that’d be great.”
That night, you stumble in like a plow, knocking over stuff, giggling, announcing each misstep with, “That’s going to make a noise.” Tripping over the ottoman into Satan’s den, you become powerless to gravity, accidentally spilling his collection of bottle souls onto his Thomas Kinkade originals.
And because you didn’t take your roommate’s request seriously, you could have woken up with a tail…Or worse, he’ll eat your food and act like he didn’t.
That’s what that day was like. I thought it would be a goof. Something for a smile. Instead for almost an hour, I had a play-date with the Devil and his kin.
I had actually met the Westboro crowd at demonstrations in San Francisco before the fame. At the time, they didn’t seem different than any of the other groups bused in, calling for San Francisco and her inhabitants to throw away their butt-plugs, birth control devices, and the city’s woeful tolerance of those who are different.
They were still trying to find their way, their own voice, in those early days. They couldn’t even spell ‘God Hates Fags’ in the beginning.
Since those early encounters, I followed the ascent of the Westboro Baptist Church. Soon, their vitriolic march to stamp out the damnable started to receive some media attention. I thought their crazy shenanigans had to be stopped before they went Bieber big.
I had to do something. Thankfully, my brother-in-law came along and caught it on video.
In January of 2010, I read that the Westboro Circus was coming to town. They posted their tour dates:
Thursday’s Protests: tour of SF includes the Contemporary Jewish Museum (12:15 p.m.), the Anti-Defamation League (1:10 p.m.), Jewish Community Center (1:50 p.m.), Lowell High School (3:20 p.m.), and Golden Gate Theatre’s “Fiddler on Roof” (7:20 p.m.)
Friday: Gunn High School in Palo Alto (7:25 a.m.) to protest the spate of suicides, Stanford University’s Taube Hillel House (8:10 a.m.). Westboro returns to SF, at Congregation Beth Israel & Day School (10 a.m.), the Jewish news weekly (11 a.m.), the U.S. District Court (11:45 a.m.) — battleground for Prop. 8 — Jewish Community High School of the Bay (2:10 p.m.), George Washington High School (3 p.m.), and the school’s production of “Rent”at the Randall Museum Theater (6:50 p.m.).
The question was, how to get the confidence of these Yay-hoos so they let me in their special barricaded protest section built to contain the good Westboro people from the rest of the squawking agitators.
My genius idea was to endear myself to their anti-Semitic values in order to infiltrate their ranks.
Ever since I was kid, it cracked me up that most of the songs I heard at Christmas time were composed by members of my tribe. From “Christmas Song” to “Silver Bells,” all were written by Jews.
Little known fact: “White Christmas” was originally penned and released in Yiddish, but was later re-released in English when the label realized that the slow record sales might be due to American Christians unfamiliarity with the Yiddish language.
So I crafted an old protest sign to express my sentiments like the old anti-war days. There were phrases like, “Let’s put the White back into Christmas!” “No more Jew Songs—Enough Already!” “Is it possible to have one song to my Lord that doesn’t involve a Jew?”
Greasing my hair down to appear more mainstream, putting on my best holiday sweater from the Andy Williams Goyim Collection™, I escaped to the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco with my protest sign and Bro-In-Law, ready to connect with my future brothers and sisters of the Westboro Church for as long as they would have me.
Once again to be clear, I thought I knew what I was doing.
I was a stand-up comic for almost 20 years, sometimes performing at 3AM for ten people or worse, opening for bands before they became that household name that everyone knows now. Since I was 15, I’ve white-water rafted on some of the wildest rivs in the States, almost drowning in West Virginia. I was a commercial fisherman on big boats and worked all over the globe, in some of the most raging seas (oceans!) in the worst weather with angry skippers yelling at me. I’ve been in tight spots where people get hurt or/and sometimes, die.
None of that matters. Whatever power I’d previously had in overcoming fear was gone when I came into their proximity. There isn’t a life experience that could prepare one for the hate and pure mind-control rhetoric that exuded from the Phelps family.
The Westboro Church plans these shows like any other touring company. The local police are notified ahead of time so they can sequester the Phelps with riot barricades from the counter-protesters they attract and the loonies like me, who are curious about dues and if you join, do you get a t-shirt?
Cameras and TV crews lined the sidewalk in front of the SF Jewish Community Center filming the throngs of Westboro opponents, some in thongs, spreading words of love or asking the church folk to take their hate show back home. For every 4 San Franciscans doing the Hare Krishna thing – part performance piece, part message of love – there were almost as many militant anti-Phelps alliances screaming for the WBC to get the fuck out of here.
Worming my way through maze of cops, barricades and Fags who love God, I was able to stand next to the daughters or maybe granddaughters, who were being presided over by an aunt who looked like she ran a girl’s hockey dorm in Bulgaria. When the girls’ matron became distracted elsewhere, I took the opportunity to engage the young women with a few holy come-ons. They were programmed with sound bites and buzzwords. I definitely wasn’t their first.
Me: Hey, how can I join the church?
Them: Your soul is already in Hell.
Me: Okay, can I get a discount or can I enroll in a Westboro Church class or something to save my soul?
Them: You have rocks where you should have brains.
Me: Can I be saved?
Them: God Hates Fags
It would have gone like that back and forth, trying to get one of the ladies to speak candidly, off of the scripted book to uncover something real, a thought not driven into these women’s heads by their leader, the ousted Baptist Reverend Phelps. But in the middle of my hastily contrived plan to penetrate the Phelps barricaded domain, mitendrinen, from out of nowhere one of the hundreds who are protesting the Westboro Church’s appearance in the city, starts in on me.
While I’m trying to engage one of the young women in conversation on what they do and what life is really like in the church, this Jewish person from the community center accuses me of being Jewish: I’m being outed by one of my own! I begin to Lutheran-up my behavior, in effort to dispel the crowd’s growing Semitic taunts like, “You’re a Jew, just admit it.”
I’ve watched the video on the YouTube a few times. I think my mistake is when trying to deny my Jewishness, I used my hands for punctuation like a Borscht-Belt comic when I spoke. Culturally, that’s where they got me. I tried arguing but their Jewdar was stronger than my jew-ju.
Then, the daughters of the Westboro Church became a little confused: was I friend who needed protection, or was I one of the many who’ve tried to sneak into their ranks for a little pious kiss ‘n tell?
Either way, the Mother Sheppard wasn’t taking any chances; she stood between me and the young women, preventing any further conversation.
For about 45 minutes, I stood the thin side of a 2 x 6 board away from Fred Phelps and family. I saw how orderly and prepared they were. The messaging was thorough and thought out. Never was an unscripted sentence or phrase uttered that wasn’t prescreened.
Just like the way great magicians can distract a pack house, the Westboro Church’s most magnificent tricks are diversion and agitation. Their goal is to incite the crowd in order to provoke violence…against the church members. To take a punch or other acts of aggression so their legal team can sue.
It’s what they do for their real income.
If you live in Kansas, and you need a good lawyer, the Phelps family has built a haven of jurisprudence in Topeka bar none. You might be the most liberal freak in all of Kansas, hate the Westboro Church and the Phelps, but the locals know: if you don’t want to do time or win at all cost, the Phelps Law Center is where you go.
God Hates Fags is their come-on. It is their Big Joke. It is estimated that the Westboro Church spends around $250,000 per year on their showboating tirade parades. Whatever they really believe, lawsuits are their bread and butter. Inciting the crowds is the platform they use for their ungodly revenue stream.
There’s rumor going around that on his deathbed, Fred Phelps admitted he was Gay. To many of my friends who believe the rumor to be true, it kind of makes sense. The reason he hated Gays so much was…
Today as I write this, the Westboro Church’s Tour of Hate still goes on, according to their website. Their next political action is going after Lorde, the Kiwi Bjork, for some reason.
The only truth I know about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Church is from what I’ve read and from that day standing too close to the most dysfunctional family in all of America. I had never been as scared as I was when I looked into those young women’s eyes. I had been close to a clan that exists with an absence of logic, propelled by one man’s beliefs.
I could see neither honest truth nor the luscious promise of the rapture in their aging, youthful eyes. I felt terrible for these teenagers who seemed to be deprived of any worldly connections except for the view from inside the family’s bunker.
What I saw was a future for them to do exactly what they’re told – as long as Fred was in charge.