A layered portrait of hate

In a post last year, I shared my disdain for a Topeka, Kan.-based hate group:

If I never had to read another story about the Westboro Baptist Church and its “staged-for-media hatefests” ... I just might make my own sign. “Thank God for small blessings,” it would read. Or something like that.

I stand by that statement.

Yet the best journalists can turn even your least favorite subject into a riveting masterpiece that grips you from beginning to end.

As Exhibit A, I draw your attention to Kansas City Star writer Dugan Arnett's recent 4,000-word (4,000-WORD!!!) profile of Westboro "heir to hate" Megan Phelps-Roper.

From near the top of the fascinating piece:

She loves her iPhone and the band Mumford & Sons and the Showtime series “Dexter,” which is about a blood-splatter specialist for the Miami Metro Police Department who also happens to be a serial killer — a complex character both good and evil. She went to high school at Topeka West and got straight A’s. She went to college at Washburn University and got straight A’s. She thought about going to law school, sat down to write her admissions essay and decided she wasn’t all that keen on becoming a lawyer. So she joined the family business.

She is peppy, goofy and, by all accounts, happy.

Oh, and one other thing about Megan: She wants to make it perfectly clear that you and the rest of this filthy, perverted nation will be spending a long, fiery eternity burning in hell.

If you've ever wondered how the Phelpses spend their time when they're not waving "God Hates Fags" signs, the Star takes you behind the scenes:

One of the most reviled families in America is gathered in the backyard, enjoying an afternoon picnic. There are kids scurrying past in every direction and adults sitting on patio chairs, holding cold drinks and talking about work and the weather and upcoming vacations. A half dozen or so little girls cluster around Megan, clamoring for braids.

Megan loves braiding hair. On occasions when she is not picketing the funerals of dead U.S. soldiers or mocking the victims of natural disasters, she can often be found stationed behind one of her sisters or cousins, hair in hand, twisting away.

The remarkable thing about this story is the nuanced, layered picture of the main character (Megan) that it provides. At points, the full story of this young woman's life almost makes you feel sorry for her.

There's this:

Megan has little problem handling the vitriol that pours in on a daily basis. Not long ago, she brushed off a Facebook message in which someone told her he planned to travel to Topeka and rape her. But when asked whether she has considered the possibility that the countless people who consider her deranged, insane, nuts and “bat-s--- crazy” might be on to something, she smiles and says, “You can’t listen to the whole world tell you you’re crazy, without wondering, ‘Am I crazy?’?”

And this:

She has no real friends. Few acquaintances. The majority of her outside interactions comes with the people — journalists, mostly — who stop by to profile the family. Two years ago, after a group of student filmmakers from Holland spent a week in Topeka documenting the church, Megan cried when they finally had to go. She still keeps a voice recording of one of them, a handsome, 20-something guy named Pepijn, saved in her phone.

Into the account of Megan's life, the reporter weaves expert analysis from sources such as a Southern Poverty Law Center official who calls Westboro "the country's most obnoxious hate group" and a Massachusetts-based counselor who has written extensively about cults and religious fundamentalist groups.

The piece also provides exceptional insight on the family's inner workings from a cousin and former best friend of Megan's who escaped Westboro.

Now, generally, when your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas write about Westboro, we implore the mainstream press to make it clear that this group is totally independent and has no ties to other Baptist churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. This piece comes close, describing the group as the "family-run Westboro Baptist Church." Still, a clearer statement that this church is totally on its own would have been helpful.

At another point in the story, readers learn of Megan's baptism at age 13 in a backyard pool. I would love to have seen Megan explain her beliefs and reasons for the baptism at that point.

But all in all, there's a tremendous amount to like about this story. Even for those, like me, who hate seeing reports about this hate group.

By all means, read the whole thing.

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