OGDEN, Iowa — The soldier’s flag-draped casket is set on the gymnasium floor, below the unlit scoreboard, before bleachers crowded with mourners.
They are there for Sgt. Daniel Sesker, the young man known for an infectious laugh and a wide smile, his life taken abruptly by an improvised explosive device outside Tikrit. Inside his high school, those who loved him are just beginning to grieve.
Outside, near a cornfield awaiting planting, picketers thank God for Daniel Sesker’s death, talk approvingly of his entrance into hell, and mock the mourners. Amid gusting winds, they struggle to hold up signs that read “Thank God for IEDs” and “God Hates Your Tears.”
And back home in Kansas, tucked away in an office over Westboro Baptist Church, Pastor Fred Phelps need only think of what he’s done, and he cracks a smile.
He has, for 15 years, directed a campaign unlike any other.
At curbsides, outside funerals and before state capitols, Phelps and his followers have branded this a nation of sinners, of people bound to live eternity in a fiery hell. They have called homosexuals the disgusting face of evil, and fallen American soldiers proof of God’s wrath. And they’ve sneered at every other faith.
They are unapologetic in delivering their message and have no hope of convincing you, just as they say there is no hope for this doomed nation.
It’s simply their duty, they believe, to let it be known that God hates you. That you’re going to hell. That you’re wrong and Fred’s right.
Phelps and his followers began appearing outside funerals of American troops killed in Iraq since last June. They’ve already attended about 100 – offending communities and lawmakers so thoroughly that 31 state legislatures have debated bills to curb such protests, and Congress passed a law restricting demonstrations at national cemeteries. President Bush signed the bill on Memorial Day.
Westboro’s protesters first gained widespread national attention in 1998. A 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, had been lashed to a split-rail post, pistol-whipped, robbed, and left in near-freezing temperatures – all apparently because he was gay. Millions were horrified.
But not Phelps.
He and his followers showed up at the funeral with signs bearing their trademark message: “God Hates Fags.” They chanted “Fags die, God laughs.”
There have been thousands of protests since, at the funerals of homosexuals – but also at memorials for Mister Rogers, victims of Sept. 11 and West Virginia miners. There have been more than 25,000 such demonstrations, by the church’s count.
No army of zealots is waging this campaign. Westboro Baptist has only about 75 members, nearly all of them Phelps’ relatives.
Those who choose to stay in the Topeka, Kan., church must be willing not only to live an insular life, but to thrive on it. They must give at least 10 percent of their earnings to the church and spend thousands more traveling to spread its message.
Their belief in predestination – the idea that God determined at the time of one’s creation whether they were bound for heaven or hell – is not unique. It stems from John Calvin’s branch of the 16th century Protestant Reformation and is taught in mainstream churches.
Where Westboro parts ways, of course, is its emphasis on God’s hatred and the way it spreads this message. Members believe they must alert the world’s depraved sinners of their fate even though such people have no chance of going to heaven. They’re not doing this to save you – they’re doing it to save themselves.
The Westboro flock is out there all alone, both in their beliefs and in their methods. No other religious group has stepped forward to join them.
In the small sanctuary at Westboro Baptist – amid wood paneling, mauve carpeting and burnt-red cushions that recall a 1970s living room more than a house of worship – the congregation prays that all of God’s chosen people will hear the call and make their way to this church. When the last person comes, they believe, Christ will return and the world will end.
The fluorescent lights shine on no crosses or paintings or statues, just a world map and a few signs. “Thank God for Maimed Soldiers,” reads one.
Two hymns sung in perfect harmony serve as bookends for the service. The centerpiece is an impassioned sermon by the lanky, 76-year-old Phelps.
As he often does, he fixates on the media, and on lawmakers’ attempts to silence him. He talks of God’s hatred, and celebrates deadly events so many others mourn.
“We pray for more tornadoes, we pray for more hurricanes, that Katrina’s just a tiny little preamble,” he says near his closing. “That’s what we pray for.”
The path that brought Fred Phelps to this point is not a straight one.
He grew up a Methodist and enjoyed a childhood in which, he says, he was “happy as a duck.”
Thetis Hudson, an 85-year-old Meridian, Miss., woman, lived across the street from Phelps’ boyhood home. She remembers his mother playing sweet tunes at the piano and his father working as a railroad detective when it seemed no one else had a good job.
“They were good people. If you were going to pick a typical American family you would have picked them,” Hudson said. “There was no hate.”
Fred was 5 years old when his aunt came, sat him on a log and told him that his mother “had gone with the angels to be with God in heaven.” He doesn’t remember crying.
Phelps was bound for West Point when he attended a Methodist revival meeting and said he felt a calling to preach.
Phelps became a civil rights attorney, honored by minority groups for his dedication to cases of poor blacks. But he picketed the funeral of Coretta Scott King, and ultimately was disbarred from state courts for improprieties.
He ran as a Democrat for mayor, governor and senator who opened his law office to staffers on Al Gore’s 1988 presidential bid. But he failed in each campaign and is uniformly derided by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
He raised 13 children, nine of whom defend him unwaveringly. Others tell of an abusive, unstable patriarch driven to fits of rage by nearly anything – from the way a child peeled an apple to forgetting to wipe one’s shoes.
Family, for Fred Phelps, is second to his precepts.
Once Phelps was on the path to ministry, contact with his father – who he now calls a “wonderful, good old man” – began to wane. The elder Phelps had remarried a woman who was divorced, the sort of evil his son was beginning to preach against.
Others have been similarly marginalized: A sister, in-laws, children.
“These doctrines and things you believe have an inherent power and effect of sequestering you from all mankind on a close personal level,” Phelps explained.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of the pastor who frequently acts as a church spokeswoman, lost one of her sons to the outside world.
“Of course it’s heartbreaking, on a level, for a short period of time,” she said. “Because what you come to terms with is that the child is going to hell.”
Fred Phelps’ steps are cautious, his stare vacant, his speech slightly drawled. At a family picnic, when others line up for food, he stays behind. When songs are sung, he just looks on. He sits quiet most of the time, holding a 4-month-old great-granddaughter.
His demeanor shifts easily, quickly. He laughs, then looks sullen. Calls a granddaughter “love bug,” then launches a brief tirade against Jews.
Many of Phelps’ detractors admit he is brilliant. He has a habit of making it known by belittling those who question him. He makes it clear – there is no room for debate.
“That’s one of the luxuries of being 100 percent right, absolutely 100 percent right,” he said. “If you can read, you would agree with me.”
Phelps’ followers take that message to heart.
“They believe that what my dad says is law. He’s the shepherd of the flock and he gets his inspiration from the Bible – he’s the voice of God on earth,” said the former Dortha Phelps, an estranged daughter who has taken the surname Bird to signify her freedom from the family.
Neither Phelps nor his congregants – who believe both he and they are prophets – claim to be without sin, but the pastor is infuriated when asked about their wrongdoings.
Children have had babies out of wedlock. Some have drifted from Westboro, which they believe to be the only true church on earth. The Bible’s messages – as Phelps preaches them – have, at times, been ignored with this very family.
Why are some sins different? Why are followers forgiven for sins that would gain an outsider the label of hellbound whore?
Phelps rises from his chair and walks away.
It’s an unseasonably cold day in Ogden, Iowa, outside the funeral of Daniel Sesker. Shirley Phelps-Roper has an American flag tucked in the waistband of her sweatpants, dragging it on the asphalt as she walks. Westboro’s emissaries pose for snapshots like they’re at a scenic lookout.
“I enjoy this,” Phelps-Roper said. “This makes my day.”
Her father is at home, in his office. The church library is nearby, and so is one of his favorite books – John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
Phelps compares himself to the allegory’s main character, Christian, who arrives in a lush, elevated land known as the Delectable Mountains.
“The fruit on the trees was sweeter and it was so close to heaven that you could, every now and then, imagine that you see people in white clothing,” Phelps said. “I’ve reached the Delectable Mountains.”
He will die soon. His lifetime of preaching God’s hate, he believes, has earned his place in heaven. And as his spirit ascends, protesters, no doubt, will assemble to celebrate his death.
Phelps has made it clear that he is overjoyed by the prospect. Bring a sign, he implores. Denounce me, defame me, he says. Dance on my grave, spit on my casket, laugh at my passing.
He knows the truth, he says. And in heaven, he’ll just smile.