Originally published Aug. 27, 2008
TOPEKA, Kan. -- Like Dundee in Omaha, Westboro sprouted up on the bluff above Topeka around the turn of the century, an early version of the suburbs that continued to stretch west from both cities.
Most people outside Topeka know Westboro only as the home of Westboro Baptist Church, the small splinter cult mostly made up of Phelps family members that is best known for protesting at the funerals of U.S. soldiers.
From this chapel in what otherwise is a lovely neighborhood of tree-lined streets and charming bungalows, Fred Phelps preaches on the sinful behavior that has led God to kill American soldiers.
If you hadn't heard, Phelps' new favorite target is the state of Nebraska, which, at various levels of law enforcement and the judiciary, has done better than most states at finding constitutionally accepted ways to shut these folks down.
A recent Phelps sermon was titled, "Nebraska -- Land of the Sodomite Damned." In it, he argued that those two UNL wrestlers who posed nude for an online gay porn Web site provided further proof that Nebraska was now in the devil's hands.
With the football season firing up, distant friends have peppered many Nebraskans with emails linking to the sermon. (I received three links myself.)
I felt like I should chat with Phelps, or maybe stage my own protest of him, so on my weekend trip to Kansas, I stopped by the church. I hadn't been through Topeka in two decades.
Before I headed down, I made a quick stop in Lincoln to pick up supplies for the trip: One T-shirt with the Nebraska map on it, one garish Husker bandanna and one of those big red foam fingers.
In full regalia, I rang the doorbell outside the church, which you can tell is an old house expanded and retrofitted with the traditional architectural cues of Christian houses of worship.
This house/church, though, has a banner guiding passers-by to "godhatesamerica.com" and someone's rebuttal to this concept, scrawled in red spray paint on the otherwise empty message board, that "God Hates the Phelps."
Nobody home. No service times posted. Nothing.
Looked like the clan was on the road.
"Not many of them around this week, " said a twentysomething man across the street. "Kind of boring right now."
Turned out they were heading for the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
No big deal. I could protest without them.
So I pulled out my lawn chair and sat down outside the church's black iron gate.
One passer-by yelled "Go Huskers." Another passer-by yelled, "You (stink)!"
After 10 minutes or so, I left without incident, with a greater respect for those who do this kind of thing for genuinely noble causes.
I toured a bit more of the town, stopping to talk with people, including revelers at the openhouse festival of a church downtown.
At that church, they said they didn't have any real gripes about Nebraskans other than all the water we steal from them.
They did have opinions, of course, about Westboro Baptist Church.
"I think all of Topeka wishes they'd just leave town, " one man said. "They put a black mark on us all. They don't represent anything but their own madness."