'We are always cordial': Westboro Baptists and 'Equality House' forge bizarre neighbourhood truce

Feelings of neighbourly tolerance extend in Kansas between notorious gay-hating Baptist church and peace-loving charity

The Guardian, UK/September 23, 2014

By Paul Lewis

Few neighbourly disagreements are as peculiar, or as visible, as the dispute that rages at the end of Southwest Churchill Road, in an otherwise quiet part of Topeka, Kansas.

On one side of the street is the Westboro Baptist church, the insular and fiercely anti-gay group which has gained infamy for its its offensive protests and placard signs. There is an upside-down American flag in the churchyard and billboards informing passing cars that ‘God Hates Fags’, alongside CCTV cameras, threats to trespassers and a warning that homosexuals risk “the vengeance of eternal fire”.

Across the street, its antithesis. A whole house painted top-to-bottom in rainbow colours, the universal symbol of the gay rights movement. A rainbow flag – hung the right way up – flutters above the roof; hand-painted signs in the yard advocate peace and tell passersby: ‘Feel free to come on property for pictures’.

“This is the first amendment right here,” said Davis Hammet, one of three charity workers living in the rainbow-coloured bungalow, which they have called the Equality House. “Within 50 feet you have a rainbow house and you have people telling them to burn in hell.”

Yet something curious has happened in the 18 months since the property directly opposite the Westboro church was purchased by a peace-loving charity and, in one of the more entrepreneurial acts against a hate group, transformed into a multi-coloured haven for peace, equality and gay pride. Despite appearances, the two opposing neighbours have developed a surprisingly cordial, even amiable detente.

“I go out jogging in the morning, and they’re taking out the trash, and we have small talk,” said Hammet. “Like, ‘Hey, it’s a beautiful day outside’ or ‘This damn snow: I wish I could get warm’. Just basic things that you say to neighbours.”

Occupants of the Westboro church and Equality House have even exchanged phone numbers. Recently, when someone took all of the Equality House gay pride flags and, without their knowledge, deposited them in Westboro’s yard, Hammet’s phone beeped with a text message. “It said something like: ‘A criminal has taken your flags and put them in our yard. We have put them in your mailbox. We would like to return them to you.’”

“It is odd. I didn’t really think this was going to happen,” he concedes. “A lot of people would think that in a situation like this we would have two cannons pointed against each other.”

Stranger still, the feeling of neighbourly tolerance extends across the road. “We’re just very happy to have them here,” said Rebekah Phelps-Davis, a prominent member of the church’s 70-strong congregation. In a twist on that oft-quoted Christian axiom ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways’, Phelps-Davis said God must have determined “from eternity past” that the house would be purchased by the campaigners.

The arrival of Equality House, she pointed out, has been a publicity boon for the Westboro Church, drawing attention to their own, gay-hating message. “We’re always cordial,” she said. “We are friendly with them.” Then, frostily, she added: “But we will not be friends with them.”

That is hardly surprising for a church whose vitriolic diatribes against the gay community have offended millions. The Westboro church – banned from entering the UK or Canada – substitutes argument with shock tactics, traveling to New York to hold up placards thanking God for the 9/11 attacks, or picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in combat. Both, they claim, are God’s punishment to America for tolerating homosexuality.

Their military funeral pickets, in particular, have proven especially controversial, even though they received the backing of the supreme court on free speech grounds.

Phelps-Davis’s may have a point that the arrival of the rainbow house across the street has been a publicity magnet. But she also contended that her neighbours are “just regular Joes” and “as quiet of as the rest of the neighbourhood”, and that is not true.

The Equality House, owned and run by the charity Planting Peace, attracts a steady flow of supporters, campaigners, and eccentrics from all over the world. Few are the typical characters one would expect to see in Topeka.

“We just had a person just show-up and ask if they could be a unicorn in the space,” said Hammet, 24, the director of operations. “They just showed up in black leather bondage gear, plus rainbow tassles and a unicorn horn, and kind of danced around on the front lawn.”

The Westboro residents have looked on as their neighbours encouraged same sex couples to kiss on their roof, held a gay wedding ceremony in their front yard – directly opposite Westboro’s ‘Gay Marriage Dooms Nations’ sign – and even hosted a rowdy LGBT festival, to be repeated next month, called “Drag Down Bigotry.”

The house has predictably gained fame online, and its residents have become adept at viral fundraising. When a five-year-old girl set up a pink lemonade stand on its lawn, asking for donations to support peace and equality, the campaign took off, drawing soldiers from a nearby base to flock to the house, and raising $30,000.

After the Westboro church announced plans to picket Robin Williams’ funeral, the Equality House retaliated with a fundraiser for the late actor’s favourite charity that brought in $100,000.

The rainbow bungalow has also become a haven for disaffected members of the church, many of whom are related, by blood or marriage, to the founding pastor, Fred Phelps, who died earlier this year aged 84.

Lizzy Phelps, who left the group years ago and now mentors transgender teens, helped paint the house its rainbow colours. Zach Phelps-Roper, who left the church just a few months ago, has also made contact with his old neighbours.

The Equality House’s residents say their arrival was never intended to create an antagonistic relationship. The idea was to counter their hateful message with positivity – and they believe it is working.

When Fred Phelps died in March this year, Hammet sent text messages to Westboro church members, past and present, expressing his heartfelt condolences. A few hours later, he received a reply from a Westboro resident across the road. “I got a text that just said ‘thank you’,” he said. “That is all it said, but to me it was a really human, powerful, moment.”

Yet while civility, and sometimes even kindness, prevails in daily interactions between the neighbours, they are keeping up appearances online. Westboro, a prolific user of social media, is almost constantly trolling its neighbours with antagonistic tweets and Vine recordings.

Most of the time the occupants of the rainbow house ignore the bait, but once in a while they will respond, tongue in cheek.

When Westboro recently put out a video challenging the rainbow house to a weird deviation of the the ALS ice bucket challenge, pouring water over a ‘Hell Is Eternal’ placard, their neighbours reacted with their own, good-humoured YouTube clip, pouring water over their multi-coloured donation box.

“One time we tweeted them a picture of rainbow pancakes and asked them if they’d like to come over for breakfast,” Hammet said. “They just tweeted back that we should burn in hell.”

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