June 19, 2013 -- My weekend with the Westboro Baptist Church will never leave me. And I wish it would.
I can't stop thinking about them. I'm still trying to understand why they behave the way they do, and I'm still thinking up counter arguments that I wish I had had at my fingertips during my many "discussions" with Steve Drain, who was our host for the weekend. Steve, and the church, believe the increasing acceptance of gay marriage is a harbinger of the End Times. I do not.
The decision to spend a weekend with Westboro was a difficult one. My ABC News bosses and I had cooked up an idea that I should spend weekends with slivers of American society that, as a recent immigrant, I found puzzling and perhaps even bizarre. Westboro was my first choice.
But the arguments against the assignment were voiced by many friends and colleagues. "Why give them the publicity?" was the regular question. And my answer was always along the lines of, "Well, I just want to understand what makes them tick. And see how they go about their daily lives."
Steve Drain didn't buy that argument either. During our first disagreement he said, "When you say, 'I want to understand.' What you're really saying is, 'I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!'"
Steve made me uncomfortable for a number of reasons. First of all, I just can't believe in his interpretation of The Bible no matter how much he hit me over the head with it (I'm speaking metaphorically, of course).
Steve also used to be a documentary film maker, who said he came to Topeka to make a nasty film about the church, was seduced by its message and stayed. There was, of course, the tickle of a fear in me that I might also find myself agreeing with the church's teachings. Unlikely. I have a gay sister, who I love and respect, and I have absolutely no issue with homosexuality.
Steve also made me uncomfortable because he is a smart, sometimes funny, and sometimes likeable guy. I suppose he just seems so normal. Well, apart from the beliefs, and the signs, and the pickets, and the online sermons, and the fact that he said he no longer speaks to his elder daughter, Lauren, since she was thrown out of the church for chatting to a boy on the Internet and some other related infractions.
When we arrived at Steve's house on the Topeka block where most of the congregation lives, his littlest kids -- Faith and Boaz -- were watching "The Waltons" and eating pizza. Could have been my house. He was very welcoming, open and friendly. Well, until I refused to believe that he doesn't miss Lauren at all.
The weekend was a strange mix of Bible and banality. One minute we were arguing over God's hatred of the U.S. court system, and the next discussing Eddie Van Halen's love life.
Of course we attended a few pickets with the church members. The first at the University of Kansas, where they were mocked by kids on campus, another outside a Bon Jovi concert in Kansas City, where they were shouted at by some very angry men, and finally a round of pickets outside the churches of other denominations on Sunday morning.
When the Westboro Baptist Church isn't making headlines picketing soldiers' funerals or fighting First Amendment law suits (which they pretty much always win) this is what they do every single day: They picket on sidewalks across the land. And I found the spectacle a little bit sad.
I was not swayed in my beliefs by my weekend with Westboro and I will not be joining the church. But as Steve told me, "It doesn't matter what you think. God still hates fags."