It wasn’t pretty, but it prepped me for a move to the Kansas City suburb known as Lawrence. Wanting to make the most of my exile I contemplated going undercover at the Westboro Baptist Church.
You know, that bastion of fear and loathing, known to most primarily for its endearing slogan, “God Hates Fags.”
Between not being able to con my wife into participating, the endless commute to and from KC, house hunting and moving, I never got it together. Yet my curiosity remained and still does.
Enough that I’ve been slowly working my way through exiled Fred Phelps devotee Lauren Drain’s blockbuster expose of the cult, Banished.
You may have read reviews of the book, but while overall it’s an interesting tale, the main news action doesn’t start until Chapter 13, nearly 200 pages into the 281-page beat down of the pathetic pastor.
Which is why I want to share with you a startling anecdote that illustrates just how weird these folks are. Oh I know, the picketing stories alone are more than enough to paint just such a picture, but the internal politics of the group are a whole nother matter. And turns out the picketing coverage is what fuels this cult’s zeal – closer examination is not what they are seeking.
The Drain anecdote that follows is how Phelps clan keeps church members in line and how they pay the price when they fail to measure up in even the subtlest of ways.
“The saddest event was when Bill and Mary Hockenbarger, after having been in the church for almost five decades, found themselves under intense scrutiny,” Drain begins. “For years, the pastor had been trying to get them to move to the block (near the church), saying the world was ending soon. They lived about a half an hour away, but the Phelps’s wanted everybody close.”
Phelps oldest daughter Shirley had lead the charge to buy up the houses closest to the church to create something approaching a colony, Drain explains.
“And they had one they thought the Hockenbargers should occupy,” Drain continues. “Bill and Mary said no, they were happy where they were. Shirley thought it was because they were older, so moving would be too much trouble for them.
“She started to send emails about them, beginning with lines like ‘I wonder what is going on with them.’ Emails and church gossip started to intensify. ‘I kind of want to go over to their house and see what is going on, because maybe they have too much to do to move, Shirley would say or write. The Hockenbargers had no idea they were the center of discussion, because they were older, didn’t use email, and weren’t around the church to hear the gossip. Finally one day Shirley said, ‘Let’s just go do it. Let’s go help them move.’ Everyone listened to Shirley about things like this. She had a good, generous heart and knew the collective action of the community would really make the task manageable, like a barn raising.”
“One day about 30 of us showed up at their house,” Drain writes. “As was typical, the workforce was mostly young people, sprinkled with a few elders like dad and Shirley, who liked this kind of hands-on work and acted as overseers. Two of the Hockenbargers’ grandchildren, Charles and Katherine, were also with us that afternoon. We descended on the Hockenbarger property in a few vehicles and parked along the street to begin the surprise cleanup, pack-up and move. Mary and Bill met us at the door.
“We were almost in shock when we saw what was ahead of us. We’d known that the Hockenbargers had a hobby of going to garage sales and buying up things, but we thought it was a casual pastime, something they did on Sunday afternoons. It turned out they had so much stuff, we couldn’t get through the rooms. It looked like a horder’s mess, with garbage, clothes, and useless things everywhere. The garage and shed were filled with rusted tools, an old tractor, and a big, rusted snowplow.
“Shirley ordered a dumpster to be delivered immediately to get rid of the ‘idols.’ She was always talking about ‘idols,’ which weren’t just images but any worldly possessions you had become attached to, as well as attitudes and behaviors. Anything that was put before God ion somebody’s life, such as pride, vanity or even a child could be labeled an ‘idol.’ The church members would find your idols if you did something wrong before God.
“As soon as the dumpster arrived, we followed Shirley’s order to throw everything in it. The Holy Ghost was telling Shirley to tell us to clean this house now, and we got started immediately. There was no reason to postpone a decision to think it through. If you were not doing it right away, you were not serving God.
“The 30 of us began throwing away everything in this house of idols, from lamps and knickknacks to household appliances that no longer worked. We began tossing things into the dumpster with abandon, and having all the kids together made the gigantic task fun. Bill Hockenbarger had no choice in the matter. He was stunned and shaken. ‘Your idols are gone,’ Shirley preached at him in front of everyone. She was practically taunting him. ‘Are you upset we are doing this? If you are, then you are going against God.’
“My father was trying to use a more practical approach, explaining to Bill that getting rid of things that had no function was for the best. He found a pair of rusty levels that were totally outmoded. Dad thought he needed to show him how useless these tools were by demonstrating how the metal piece of the level topped over when he tried to use it. He was trying to reason with him, but he was being really overbearing and controlling. I wasn’t sure why watching the way my father was speaking to Bill struck me as really funny, when it was really so sad.
“This was Bill’s lifetime hobby, collecting all this stuff. He was freaking out and pacing. When we moved toward his old snowplow in the shed, he began screaming. Normally, he was a soft-spoken, gentle, skinny old guy, but the anxiety was killing him. ‘You are not throwing this way! Get out!’ he screamed, throwing himself onto the plow. A few people wrestled him away, picked up the rusted heap of metal, and dragged it into the dumpster.
“We all stopped what we were doing. We looked to the elders for what to do next. Shirley said, ‘We are done, we are done with them.’ She looked at Bill and said, ‘You are over. You are out’ – just like that.
“ ‘We’re leaving them with their idols,’ Shirley announced to the group. As we walked to the vans, she threw up her hands. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘we had to kick someone out because of their love of trash.’ As quickly as we had arrived, we left the Hockenbargers with half their possessions in the dumpster…”
Take my advice and do so, it’s an insightful window into the twisted mind and world of Fred Phelps and his disciples. Absent any Jim Jones Kool-Aid action, the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church are really pretty mild if distasteful.
Yet for a bunch of boring Topekans who eat Burger King, shop Wal-Mart and run marathons alongside what pass for normal Kansans who inhabit this dull as dishwater town, they’re a bizarre lot.
The $64 million question being, can Phelps cult survive his death. Frankly after reading what I have thus far in Drain’s book, it’s hard to imagine that it will.
I will tell you this though; going forward, count on me to take advantage of my proximity to T-Town to do some followup reporting on Phelps cult. And I’m not talking about the picketing.