Disclaimer: I do not condone the acts of The Westboro Baptist Church.
This summer, I was given the opportunity to go on a research trip with my professor. I, along with Dr. Gray and seven other Miami University students traveled to Topeka, Kansas, home of the Westboro Baptist Church. There, we spent four days interviewing and observing the church members. The basis of our project was really to understand the empathetic strategies of this church. How do they interact within the church and how do they interact outside the church?
Among all nine of us, we each had our own personal reasons to be there. I won't speak for any other members, but I was there just to understand this group overall. I hope to be a psychiatrist after school, and a crucial part of that will be having the skills to listen to a person with no judgment and to truly understand them. This was my first step in gaining those skills. As a doctor, I feel it would be unethical to turn anyone away, no matter how strong my feelings are against them. This was also a skill that I felt I needed to bring out in myself, or at least discover that I already had it.
As I traveled to Topeka, I felt many things. The Westboro Baptist Church is a group that evokes very intense emotions within a wide range of people. I am usually a very understanding person, but I had never been around such controversial people. I had no idea how I would react to being in a room with them.
Another fear of mine was facing hostility that I had seen so often in public videos of the members. On the picket line, there were many videos of screaming battles. On news channels, things always ended the same way with WBC members screaming Bible verses. So truthfully, I was nervous. Dealing with confrontation is not my strong suit, and I wasn't sure how I would react to it.
Upon arriving in Topeka, our group settled in and had a "get to know you" session. I was starting to feel better, as members of our team who had been in the group before didn't seem concerned. During this, I really felt I would come out of the experience thinking incredibly highly of myself and my ability to keep a strict critical distance at all times.
We were split into two teams: The Topeka Twisters and El Rojo Gato (the best team of all time). That day, we had our first interview with Abigail Phelps, who works with juvenile offenders. Despite her tough demeanor and membership in the church, I did feel welcomed in the church with her. She had a silly demeanor at times and even teared up on multiple occasions. I remember being almost confused about how I felt. I wanted to stay skeptical and not take her comments and stories at face value, but when another human being is crying right in front of you, that tends to become much harder.
The day before our last interview, we had dinner at Steve Drain's house with his family. I felt incredibly welcomed in their home, and I've gotta say, they make some really good chicken. This was my first time meeting Steve Drain. To many, he is a very off-putting man, and that was something I was slightly nervous for. Still, other than a few jokes that were definitely meant to poke fun, the dinner and Bible reading were actually pleasant.
After that, we interviewed six women whose ages spanned from their teenage years to 30. These were girls that I really hoped I would be able to connect with. They've lived through basically the same things I have, so it should've been easier, right?
Well, not completely.
During the conversation, I almost felt them opening up, but then the girls' parents interjected their comments. They basically said that the conversation we were having was nice and all, but they needed to keep in mind that these two groups (the students and the church members) had nothing in common and that the girls needed to remember that. This was a defining moment for me on the trip. I was disappointed, almost hurt. We weren't trying to convert them, and we didn't have ill intentions, but I still felt like we had been treated like we did. A few days after, I found the words to explain what we had experienced.
I found out we are more alike than we are different.
But they don't feel the same way.
It's a different way of thinking, and I don't know if it necessarily is bad, but it was definitely hurtful to me. I really wanted to feel a connection between these girls my age that seemed like lovely people, but they just aren't interested in that connection.
What I'm really feeling now is curiosity. While in the church we noticed a shift from previous years. They still use hurtful phrases such as "God H8s Fags." That definitely hasn't changed. But they are going through some type of change. They're almost more open and considerate of what they say in person. Church members notice it but can't really associate a good enough word with it. Maybe a softening or lightening? Even these words don't do justice, but it is there. Maybe in the next few years, the world will see the change, too.
Overall, I didn't come out of this feeling so amazing that I had kept a critical distance the whole time because I hadn't. I am human, just as they are, and even though I know my job is to keep that distance, it's hard to not want to create a human connection.
Really, I learned that it's so important to keep reminding ourselves that humans make mistakes and humans, no matter who they are, have genuine feelings.If you would like to read more about this project and what we found, check out our blog.