Notes from the Field

Community leaders, institutions, and even entire communities can inspire us to do great work ourselves. They can serve as role models, spark new ideas in us, or provide us with a place to place our energy. There are a great deal of community members and places left unsung or only recognized by a narrow population and while we can never show all of the people that deeply affect and serve their communities, we hope to shine a light on and share the stories of some of those people and places and what they mean to their community.

Little Piece of Paradise

March 21, 2018
Submitted by: James Riley

If you wait near the Westboro Baptist Church for more than twenty minutes you will see people pull up, get out of their cars, and take pictures of the house across the street with starry-eyed delight.

The oddest thing about the Westboro Baptist Church is that there are houses across the street. It is, for all it's infamy, just a house on a street corner. But all places must be on a street somewhere, even hate groups. Still, it is strange to sit in a car on some suburban street in Kansas and look up in one direction and read "GOD HATES FAGS" only to turn your head and see a house all painted up in rainbows.

I fiddle with my newly purchased iPod. I bought it at a garage sale, less than two miles from where I am sitting. The woman assured me it worked, though she didn’t know what was on it, except for "Thunderstruck," which she had just played for a man who had bought speakers an hour prior. For five dollars, even if it is a swindle, well, I have been swindled for more. I look at the rainbow house and I too smile.

Women, while I am there they are only women, arrive about every ten to fifteen minutes to make a pilgrimage and pay homage to the rainbow house. They get out of their car and snap a few photographs of the house, smiling, beaming even. They investigate the free lending library box. They coo over the community garden plot. They chat politely or not at all. But they never look back over their shoulders to what they know is there.

There is a short man here, but he was not a visitor. He looks like Jeff Bridges in a David Crosby biopic. He lives here or works here. I am not sure. He doesn't seem to be extraordinary forthcoming with who he is or what his connection is to the place and I don't feel any need to question him. We chat and he smiles with his eyes the way old hippies do. He does not seem overly concerned with any of the people going or coming.

But the woman who lives next door is more talkative. She has many barking dogs, but smiles at me. She seems pleasant enough, so I ask her, "Do you mind if I come talk to you?"

She is more than excited to do it. "Oh yes please! Meet me on my porch."

The woman comes out her front door with six bottles of water. "Here," she said and hands me one. It is a hot day in Topeka and I am thankful for the water but I doubt I could drink even my share of it, at least not without staying longer than I want.

At the door, on her porch, two of the three dogs bark and bark.

"They aren’t even mine," she says. "Well Bandit is. But the other two, they are my neighbor’s. I don’t know when she is supposed to get back, but I hope it is soon."

When I ask her what it is like to live here she calls it her "little piece of paradise." She had a rough time of it in her life. She alludes to some bad people that were perhaps her family once. She smiles and offers me water again, and apologizes for the dogs again. I say not to worry and sip on the first half-filled water bottle.

"But what is it like to live here?" I ask motioning to the twin temples across the street from one another. Polar opposites in form and function. She nods a little and says that it is different in some ways but really not at all that abnormal. She says that she supposed that everyone has their own sins to deal with and she couldn’t condemn anyone. They are just people after all.

"Besides," she says, "I get to talk to such wonderful and interesting people coming here just like you did."

"Is that so?" I ask.

"Oh yes. There was a lovely young man hear the other day who helped me plant tomatoes."

"Well, now I wish there was something I could help you with."

"Actually, now that you mention it…" Me and my big mouth.

After weeding a few rows of the garden, I dust off my pant legs. I think about how I am going to be sitting in them for the rest of the day, and probably several days after, driving through other towns and states. The woman thanks me, and I finish the third bottle of water. I say goodbye and start toward my van. I am about to get in, when I listen for the first time to a sound that I must have been passively hearing for a little while now. It is the uneven smack of someone shooting around on a basketball hoop. I realize that it is coming from behind the stockade fence of the Westboro compound. I think about the middle school boy who might well be behind the fence playing basketball by himself.

In truth, I know very little about the Westboro Baptist Church. I know that it is mostly one family, that of the founder Fred Phelps. I know that they have been denounced by many other Baptist churches. I know that there have been public defectors, like Megan Phelps-Roper, that have had to leave not just their ideological and religious beliefs, but their family as well.

But really, I only know them for the worst thing about them. I only know the Westboro Baptist Church, because the worst thought that they ever had is emblazoned on their home and church and on the signs they carry. And though I find their theology unforgivably grotesque, I can't say as I know about the rest of them. I know literally nothing else about them besides that one heinous belief which they seem delightfully proud of.

To look at something differently does not change the way that that something is. To look at a cloud and imagine it into shapes will not turn water vapor into a whale or a rocket ship. To stand on one's head will not reverse gravity. Likewise, I hope, this thought experiment will not diminish anyone's grief or anguish by seeming to excuse the hateful rhetoric and actions of this group and these people.


Imagine that the slogans these men and women sling on signs or shout at mourners were not a choice but a curse. That they were not designed to shock others into a warped morality but were a punishment for some unknown crime. Imagine these people were damned to wander with these chains proclaiming their worst belief, the worst thing about them, for all to see. Would that make them more pitiable? Would people look upon them as one would the leper or street urchin of their day? Or would they be just as hated as they are now? Might they even be more ignored?

Still further I wonder, as I begin to drive away, were I under that curse what would my house say? What would be my ugliest secret thought? What horrible violence have I done in the oyster-part of my heart with me the only witness, that would be brought up and trumpeted above my head in neon fire? And what if I, through some mistaken interpretation, believed it was my sacred duty to crow out this terrible thing, everyday and everywhere? How tragic I would find my lot. How lonely.

Then again, and here is where the thought experiment ends for far too many human beings or else lands too close to the bone. Many human beings grow up in a world in which the most shameful secret is not whom they hate but whom they love. Because of those around them, the most shameful thing about these human beings is not an ugly opinion but a core piece of who they are. And that is why the compassion for the hypothetical cursed we imagined above can only go so far. The questions become what if my most shameful secret was the type of person I was attracted to? The kind of human being I loved? And what if instead of being able to share it, I forced themselves to hide that away forever? How much more tragic would that be?

I am glad that rainbow house is on a street corner somewhere.

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