Members of Westboro Baptist Church start to arrive for Sunday service. Topeka, Kansas.
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Sunday Service at the Westboro Baptist Church. (From left to right) 40 year old computer programmer Mara Phelps, Elijah, Anna, Seth and her husband 36 year old Benjamin Phelps, a software engineer holding their young son Ezra.
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Pastor Fred Phelps leads Sunday services at the Westboro Baptist Church Topeka, Kansas. 2008.
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The late Pastor Fred Phelps hugs one of his daughters following a Sunday service at the Westboro Baptist Church. Topeka, Kansas.
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Members of the church join in to celebrate a birthday shortly after Sunday service. Since my visit to the church in 2008, two members shown in this image have left the congregation to start new lives. Once a member leaves, they are basically disowned - never to speak to their families again.
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At the home of Shirley Phelps. In the background are some of the thousands of handmade signs, which will be used in pickets across the country. As of October 2011, the Westboro Baptist Church has conducted over 46,659 pickets in over 834 cities around the USA.
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Pastor Fred Phelps, 2008 at his home in Topeka, Kansas.
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The home of Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the late Pastor Fred Phelps. Topeka, Kansas.
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An image of a young Pastor Fred Phelps, now 82, and his wife of 59 years, Margie Marie Simms, hangs in the Phelps Law Chartered office in Topeka, KS.
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Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Pastor Fred Phelps, visits with one of her nieces in her home office in Topeka, Kansas.
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A signboard listing various references to God - the names we use to address Him, His nature and attributes - at the home of Shirley Roper-Phelps.
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Chloe Phelps, daughter of Ben and Mara Phelps.
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Shirley Phelps-Roper leads the daily one-hour bible instruction in the basement of her home. Shirley Phelps is one of Pastor Fred Phelps 13 children.
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Highlighted Chapter 18 verse 22 from the Biblical book of Leviticus is the primary foundation to the church’s intolerance towards homosexuality. Westboro Baptist Church claims to be the only true church and denounces all other religions.
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The actual church is an extension off of Pastor Phelps’s home, which is located in a middle-class Topeka neighborhood. In one house, Phelps raised his family, and eventually the neighbors' houses were purchased, effectively creating a compound.
All the houses share a large fenced backyard, which includes a full-sized pool, basketball and volleyball court.
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Seven year-old Faith Drain, an aspiring artist and member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Faith’s father, Steve Drain, a 46-year-old marketing consultant, first came to the church in 2000. He was making the documentary film Hatemongers. Steve came to accept the church’s beliefs and moved his family from Florida to just across the street from the church in Topeka.
The eldest of Drain’s four children, Lauren, was voted out of the church and family home by a vote of 21, including her parents, after asking questions about the religious practices that were considered subversive.
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Pastor Fred Phelps in his home office, Topeka, Kansas.
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Jonah Phelps-Roper prepares a picket sign in the “spray room.” The room is part of the sign shop, which is a highly efficient production facility within the Westboro compound.
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54-year old law office manager Shirley Phelps-Roper, in her home office in Topeka, KS., adjusts a makeshift skirt she routinely wears during pickets.
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Rebekah, Megan and their mother Shirley Phelps-Roper making final convoy plans before heading out to picket a musical concert by Enrique Igesias an hour away in Kansas City, MO.
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Shirley Phelps-Roper stands in protest of society and it’s demoralization during a concert in Kansas City, MO by Enrique Igesias.
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Unknown members of the Westboro Baptist Church at their weekly picket of the Shawnee County courthouse in Topeka, KS.
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Former member Megan Phelps-Roper, at the time of this photo was a 25-year-old law office secretary and logistics coordinator for the Westboro Baptist Church, picketing on Gage Road in Topeka, KS.
Gage Park was known to some as a “cruising” or meet up location in the gay community back in the late 80’s, early 90’s. The first protest was held blocks from the Phelps home in June 1991 when, according to Pastor Phelps, a homosexual tried to lure his then five-year old grandson into some shrubbery.
The location of the incident was Gage Park, a known meeting place for homosexual activity. The family still protests at this location on a daily basis.
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Just outside the Arlington National Cemetery. Memorial Day, 2012.
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An unknown member of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO during a picket of a musical concert by Enrique Igesias in Kansas City, MO.
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Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold a picket against Jews in the largely Jewish community of Great Neck, NY. They acknowledge needing the press in order to complete their task of effectively preaching the word of the Lord. Some of the signs displayed that day stated that the Jews killed Jesus and Israel has stolen land from the Palestinians.
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Members of the Westboro Baptist Church protest the Pope's visit to Yankee Stadium in 2008. Pastor Fred Phelps is the founder of the 80 plus-member Church located in Topeka, Kansas. The WBC is opposed to America’s acceptance of homosexuality and routinely pickets the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold a picket against Jews in the largely Jewish community of Great Neck, NY.
Westboro acknowledges needing the press in order to complete their task of effectively preaching the word of the Lord. Some of the signs displayed that day stated that the Jews killed Jesus and Israel has stolen land from the Palestinians.
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Various signs used during pickets in storage at the home of Shirley Phelps-Roper.
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Once an active member of Westboro Baptist church, 27-year-old Libby Phelps was kicked out of the congregation and family home in 2009. Libby was considered rebellious as she began questioning hypocrisies within the church; such as members being asked to pray in a form similar to Salah (Islamic method of praying) and calling to God for the death of various plaintiffs in the 2011 Snyder vs. Phelps case before the Supreme Court. The final decision was based on an intervention regarding her right to wear a bikini.
The photograph Libby is holding is of her and her sister Sara (on right), who was also asked to leave a few years later for not repenting for her “sins’ in an unrelated incident.
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The late Pastor Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper following Sunday service.
In an age when the mantra of "tolerance" is invoked so often that it has evolved into a kind of secular 11th Commandment, the notion of overt, unapologetic intolerance -- of others' beliefs, behaviors, rituals -- can sometimes feel like the last taboo. But in that strange, charged environment where tolerance and intolerance intersect, a photographer can sometimes find moments of astonishing, unexpected revelation. It is an environment inhabited -- defiantly, gladly -- by The Westboro Baptist Church.
The profoundly controversial ministry is located in rural Topeka, Kansas, and was founded in 1956 by Pastor Fred Phelps, 81, a former civil rights attorney and a man John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George magazine once included in a list of the "Twenty Most Fascinating Men in Politics." Infamous for the incendiary picket signs members wield at seemingly every high-profile funeral in the United States (God Hates Fags. Thank God for 9/11. Thank God for Dead Soldiers.), the church might well be the most despised congregation in America.
Documenting Westboro in my photographs is, in a sense, a deeply personal endeavor. The controversy surrounding their actions was, in all honesty, random noise to me until the day I found myself inside the Westboro compound in Topeka, at the home of Pastor Phelps' daughter, Shirley. With a shock, I noticed a picket sign praising God's creation of IEDs and (in the Phelps' eyes) their blessed role in the death of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, killed in Iraq in 2006. As a proud former Marine, with a son who currently serves, I was stunned by the church's glib celebration of the death of one of my military brothers. At the very same time, I resolved to document the church members and their beliefs -- beliefs so utterly alien to and at odds with my own.
Aside from the questionable scriptural interpretation and faith-based sexual intolerance for which Westboro is so notorious, the project forced me to question my own values and personal credos. Do I, in fact or only in theory, stand for those principles I originally joined the Marines to defend: the ideals of freedom of speech and the right to protest -- even if that protest questions the worth and patriotism of my own son? Would I be able to document these people fairly, or would I subconsciously veer toward portraying them in a wholly negative light? Ultimately, my aim and purpose with this project was not only to put a face on a marginalized and (in large part) reviled religious group, but also to explore as honestly as possible their humanity -- no matter how hateful and abhorrent they might appear to those of us on the outside.