It’s a brisk, clear Sunday morning in a quaint Ferndale neighborhood, just three days before Christmas. Birds are chirping, joggers are wheezing, couples are walking dogs. It’s a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell.
Except for a colorful sign that screams “AIDS Cures Fags” in bold black letters.
It’s a Christmas card to Ferndale, courtesy of Fred Phelps.
If you haven’t heard of the 73-year-old pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., count your blessings. Infamous for his vitriolic condemnation of gays, Phelps is responsible for www.godhatesfags.com and www.godhatesamerica.com. He rocketed to national notoriety when his congregation picketed Matthew Shepherd’s funeral, “dancing” — as they put it — on the young man’s grave. Each year, his touring circus of hate traverses the nation to picket gay-friendly communities.
This weekend, the target is Ferndale, a city that, according to Phelps, is “a cesspool of pink swastika fag tyranny, terrorizing decent citizens who resent the filthy fag agenda being forced down their throats.”
Several of the city’s leaders, including openly gay City Council member Craig Covey, were added to Phelps’ ever-growing “Roster of the Damned.”
“He’s a clown,” says Covey, “but he’s an evil clown. He uses over-the-top, extreme language to bait people and to attract media attention. He thrives on attention.”
Phelps’ congregation seems to be just a Bible thump short of a cult. His disciples are an army of his offspring — 13 children, 52 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Phelps is not present this time. About a dozen of his offspring spread his message, singing hymns and brandishing signs scrawled with hate, as they picket half-a-dozen churches. Three or four times as many counter-protesters and media types create a quiet crowd on the church lawns.
Jacob is a Phelps grandchild — bespectacled, shy, and chubby-cheeked. He fidgets, calls me ma’am, and answers my questions politely as he stares at the ground. He grasps a sign in each hand, “God Hates Fags” and “God Hates America,” while he stands on a crumpled American flag.
Jacob is 15.
He’s flanked by another grandchild, Sara, 21, who has a mouth full of braces.
Sara flashes her huge grin of metal as she spouts forth preachings, her warm breath billowing out in steamy clouds.
“Our job is to spread God’s love and to warn his people that they’re going to hell,” she says. “God has commanded us to this job.”
I ask if she’s received any negative reaction today.
“Yeah, we’ve had a lot of people drive by and flip us off,” she says nonchalantly, “but I don’t care. I don’t control man’s heart.”
I ask if she’s cold and would rather be home in Kansas, and she laughs. “It’s a beautiful day today,” she says with an enormous metallic smile as she hoists her “God Hates Fag Enablers” sign even higher.
Several years ago, two of Phelps’ children accused him of severe child abuse and spousal abuse. Phelps has consistently denied the accusations.
“I feel very sorry for them,” says local Web site designer David Livingston, creator of godhatesphelps.org. “It’s a horrible way to have to grow up. They’ll end up just like the people they come from, or have to spend a lot of time in therapy. And God help those kids if they should have any predisposition to being gay or lesbian.”
Today the counter-protesters are silent, having decided not to egg on the Phelps crew.
A trio of students from Lake Orion High School have toted along buckets, mops and cleaning products; after the protesters leave each church, the teens gather and scrub down the sidewalk, washing away the proverbial hate. One of them is Paul Ahlborn, a tall, lanky kid with spikes of burgundy hair peeking out of his black hooded sweatshirt.
Ahlborn is clearly enraged and appears to be biting his tongue so hard he could sever it in half. Yet he refuses to cross the Phelps crew.
“That’s exactly what they want,” he says. “If nobody did anything and the press wasn’t here, they’d probably all go home.”
Ahlborn and his friends stand before the protesters, clutching a sign that says “God Loves Gay Children Too.” A protester begins taunting them immediately, calling them “little faggots.”
Ahlborn continues his grimace of restraint, but says nothing. A friend lays her head on his shoulder and hugs him.
As the Lake Orion teens wash down the sidewalks of the last church picketed, another Phelps follower comments — out of earshot from the television cameras — “Yeah, you’ll need that to wash the cum out of your mouths.”
The same protester later skips past the teens, nearly stepping on their hands, singing, “They’re gonna wash that feces right out of their mouths” to the tune of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” from South Pacific.
The teens look up from their buckets, sponges frozen in midair, jaws gaping in shock, but say nothing.
Finally, the picket is finished.
No one has shouted, argued, pushed or shoved. The Phelps crew collect their signs and leave.
A Ferndale police officer steps forward and calls the attention of the remaining crowd. I assume he’s going to tell us to clear out.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says as he looks at the teens. “I just want to compliment you on your behavior here today. You’ve made our jobs a lot easier for us.”
Ahlborn flashes a small, sad smile. The buckets and mops are packed up, and the crowd disperses.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org