What started as a Twitter spat between author J. K. Rowling and the Westboro Baptist Church ended on Sunday afternoon as a same-sex “marriage” in Topeka, Kansas between two wizards walking the aisle across the street from Westboro’s family compound where signs saying “God Hates Fags,” were plentiful and upside-down American flags fluttered in the breeze.
After Ireland approved marriage equality by a landslide, J. K. Rowling congratulated the LGBT people of Ireland and posted this meme:
The news picked it up and, soon, Westboro and Rowling were at it:
Less than a week later the Equality House, owned by non-profit Planting Peace and situated directly across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, announced it would happily host a wedding of Dumbledore and Gandalf.
“We are delighted to be hosting the Dumbledore and Gandalf wedding and stand with them in the face of bigotry and celebrate equality for all,” the founder Aaron Jackson said in a public statement to the Irish Times.
A date was set and two local Topeka volunteers, Nicholas Orozco and Daryl Hendrix, agreed to dress up as wizards and “marry.”
Donations poured in; local businesses provided flowers, two rings, and even a cake.
I spoke with Nathan Phelps who grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, but left it not long after he turned 18.
Nate is the son of Fred, Sr. who built the WBC. Now 57, he left the church in 1980 when he was in his early 20s because he didn't agree with the message. He is now an atheist and an activist for LGBT rights.
The original church, he told me, sits at the corner of 12th and Orleans but, over time, the family was able to buy the entire square block and fence off a compound made up of the church and six separate homes.
The day before the wizard wedding in Topeka, Nathan officiated a wedding between a lesbian couple, Meagan and RJ, after meeting them at a Omaha convention in 2013.
When I mentioned wanting to attend a Westboro church service before the wizard wedding at 2pm, Nathan told me that “they often change the time of the service to confuse media, so you might call in advance the day of if you really want to go."
He said if the door to the church was locked and nobody answered I could go around the block to Shirley’s house in case they were meeting there instead.
Since the death of Fred, Sr. in March 2014, though there is a Fred, Jr. who's in charge of the family, his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper gets more attention, and is now the best-known of the WBC clan.
So, today (Sunday), two hours before the Dumbledore and Gandalf wedding service, I stepped through the front door of the Westboro Baptist Church; the door was unlocked and I walked in at 11:55, just before the 12:00 service.
“Did you knock?” A teenage boy was standing in front of me, blocking my way as soon as I walked in, and Shirley Phelps-Roper came from behind him.
"Yes, did you knock?” she said.
“Well, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t knock," I replied. "I just walked right in. I’d like to attend the noon service today if that’s possible.”
The teenager looked at me quizzically. “You’ll be quiet? You won’t disrupt? OK, then, let me take you to a pew.”
Entering a low-ceilinged, narrow sanctuary I was led to my own two-person pew and handed two hymnals by a smiling Jonathan Phelps, another son of Fred Sr.: “The first song will be in the purple and the second from the blue.”
The congregation spoke in low voices and the air conditioner hummed over the sound of the organ behind a large podium that read, “This Do In Remembrance Of Me.”
The decoration: thin beige carpet, lightly-worn; pews showing their particle board innards along frayed edges at their base. Beneath the pew in front of me, hard-backed books filled a plastic tub alongside a well-worn The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. The women’s heads were covered, including the girls.
We stood and sang Hymn 107 from the purple book, 'And Can It Be That I Should Gain?'
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”
Benjamin Caleb, who was married into the family a few years ago by Fred Sr., spoke: "Guys we've had a lot of doors opening this last week. We've had Beau Biden's funeral, which was a a wonderful thing, yesterday, we've got some people in Florida today, and J.K. Rowling, I don't even know what to say about that.
"One tweet--international news--our message is all over the world translated into different languages everywhere. And just when that started to dry up, our friends across the street here have given us another wonderful gift.
"And now we have a second round of it--it's a great thing the Lord has done and we should give him thanks. So, today, we’re gonna talk about submission.”
Benjamin talked about submission, drily, lethargically, for the next forty-five minutes. My right foot went to sleep several times, but the congregation didn’t appear restless.
After the service I talked to Shirley Roper-Phelps, one of the most outspoken members of the Westboro clan.
I’d spent several days beforehand watching videos of her on YouTube and had developed a sort of crush on her: though she’s most often seen yelling on street corners that "God Hates Fags," there’s also this - the most amazing parody of Gaga’s Poker Face you’ll ever see.
Watch her face throughout the video—Shirley’s mastered the fine art of trolling and seems to love every minute of it.
She immediately apologized for confronting me earlier as soon as I walked up, and seemed eager to talk, especially after I divulged that my grandfather was the late televangelist Oral Roberts.
“Wait, how many grandchildren are there,” she asked me, “because I read about one?” That’s probably me, I told her. “He was married to a woman and then he decided he wasn’t going to do that anymore.”
“Yes,” I confirmed, “after a lot of years of struggling, I came out gay.”
“Well,” she said, looking at me wistfully, “I’m sorry.”
“We picketed your grandfather’s funeral you know, right between those big hands, underneath the marquee on the corner.”
I was emotional that day, and told her I didn’t remember any picketing—“well,” she said again, “there were a lot of people that day. But we picked the busiest intersection.”
Filing this report later, I realized most people would be upset to hear the WBC picketed their family funeral. But when your grandfather was often a clown, it seems fitting clowns would show up to commemorate his legacy.
"Now, as far as what's going on across the street," Shirley said of the Dumbledore and Gandalf wedding, I thought, 'If you're going to have a wedding, you need festoons and the like.' So I went out and I got some stuff, let me show you."
She pulled out her phone and started flipping through her photos, stopping on a photo of the front of Westboro’s Tudor-style church building with upside down American flags flying in front.
"Now,” she told me, “this looks very Lord of the Rings-y, it could even be Hobbity!"
"We were at that Beau Biden funeral yesterday," she continued. "There were only three of us on this corner and there's all these people. See, we were there, when they started having same-sex marriage there that was two years ago, 2013, in Wilmington and we were in Dover, picketing.
"Well, Beau Biden was Attorney General and he's doing all this blah blah blah [sic], 'We're gonna do this, we're gonna have laws and we're gonna…' He set himself, as that scripture says, against the Lord, and against his Christ, and two months later he's got this brain cancer.
"And, there's no, 'This isn't a blah blah blah blah blah, the Lord God has put all these things on this earth and every single stitch of it is according to his will and his purpose,' so I said, 'You people need to connect that dot'—well, I said it in a lot fewer words than that."
Shirley did not dwell on the intrinsic inhumanity of picketing the funeral of Beau Biden. Not for a second. Or picketing any funeral with hateful signs. In her eyes is the hunger of just wanting attention. To what end though? To spread hate? To be famous? A combination of both?
She wanted me to see the cake the WBC had made for the Dumbledore and Gandalf wedding.
"I gotta show you the cake! It's a beautiful cake, it's ready to go, ready? Here you go—that's the cake,” Shirley said, pointing to a photo of a three-tiered white wedding cake on her phone emblazoned with "GOD HATES FAGS," one word on each level.
Her brother Jonathan, an attorney in Topeka, leaned in.
"We actually have a trained person who can make cakes up quickly.”
“We do make that cake,” Shirley confirmed, “that's how I took that picture!”
Jonathan laughed and, smiling, announced: "We won't have no litigation over cake making!”
How very efficiently WBC—their hate-cakes are made in-house.
“Oh and I gotta show you the Vine that I made." Shirley held up her phone and started playing a video, a montage of Gandalf and Dumbledore photos with music from Harry Potter overlaid.
"Isn’t that cool? Now those two men look alike, I'm telling ya."
As much as the WBC claims God hates the world, their engagement with pop culture is perhaps more direct and certainly more eager than most other branches of Christianity.
I leaned in, fan-girling perversely out for a moment. “Shirley, can we take a selfie?” Shirley is, after all, one of the greatest helps to the LGBT community; we couldn't ask for better PR than the WBC picketing provides.
“Sure!," Shirley said. "I mean, I don’t know what it’s worth to anyone, but why not. Oh, wait.”
She took out her phone and opened it to a photo of a “God Hates Fags” banner and held it up to her chest and I held my phone up in the air in front of us.
Finally, it was 1:45 and the wizard wedding at the Equality House across the street was about to take place.
Over 100 onlookers were there at the rainbow-colored house with two rows of chairs and a pulpit; flowers lined the grassy aisle on the front lawn.
Journey for Justice, a social justice organization, was there on the street holding up large American flags; they told me they engage with Westboro often, usually to counter their picketing of soldiers’ funerals.
The crowd was young, mostly men and women in their 20s and 30s with small children running around in rainbow dresses and hats.
Davis Hammet, a spokesman for Planting Peace which owns the Equality House, officiated the “wedding,” saying that the service—a fundraiser—was being performed in honor of homeless LGBT youth, of kids scared to come out of the closet, of kids from families like the Westboro Baptist Church.
When the “minister” asked if Dumbledore and Gandalf had rings to celebrate their love, Gandalf said “Frodo, the ring please!”
Hammet then asked: “Gandalf the White, will you have Albus Dumbledore to be your husband and will you love him faithfully as long as you both shall live? If so, please say ‘I will.’” Gandalf: “I will.”
“Albus Dumbledore, will you have Gandalf the White to be your husband and will you love him faithfully as long as you both shall live? If so, please say ‘I will.’” Dumbledore: “I will.”
After being pronounced “husband and husband” and kissing for over a minute to the cheers of the audience, Albus Dumbledore and Gandalf the White walked hand in hand down the aisle facing the Westboro church across the street whose doors, throughout the wedding, remained silent.
Five minutes after the ceremony, Gandalf read a statement prepared by he and Dumbledore: “When you are gay, lesbian, transgender, bi, queer or questioning, we say this: you are loved! You are beautiful. You are worthy. You are valued. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are perfect, you are not alone, and you have a community of support—that’s obvious."
Pointing at the large crowd gathered there, he added: “Love is love! All love is equal. Be proud of who you are and and live an authentic life.”
It took two wizards, apparently, to finally make the Westboro Baptist Church lose their voice.