My Confrontation With Westboro Baptist Church

For years I’ve heard of the terrible and notorious antics of the folks just up the highway at Westboro Baptist church.  I have on many occasions been left with my head in my hands in disbelief whenever the stories of Westboro Baptist’s protests are told. Disbelief was usually followed by anger as I’d hear about them protesting a soldier’s funeral, or a gay kid who was beaten to death by his hateful peers. Anger would then lead to sorrow as I began thinking about the poor families being screamed at in their time of great grief. Sorrow also when I thought about the level of deception the people from Westborro must be under to justify screaming hatred. Following the progression of emotions, I began to grow bitter toward Westboro Baptist. Eventually that bitterness turned to hate. Hate turned into slandering them whenever I saw them on the news or heard about the legitimately horrible things they would do.

Most would find my hatred of Westboro Baptist completely justified as they are justifiably doing things to munger hate. However their was one person who wanted me to change my heart and attitude toward the infamous church. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and give to those who harm us. I often teach these things, but just like anyone, have to follow through with what I teach. When I would go to pray after having talked trash about how much I hated Westbrro Baptist, I could feel that subtle prick from Heaven asking me to change my heart. No matter the sin they were in, nothing justifies joining them in sin, nor gives me the power judge them with slander. We don’t have to condone or stay silent in our calling them out in their error, but we have to do it from a place of love least we only continue the cycle of hate. In December at our annual Onething conference I was blessed with a chance to face my hatred head on.

Last year, for whatever reason, Westborro Baptist had decided to target our conference and stand outside in protest of it. The theme of the conference was “Jesus: Our Magnificent Obsession”. Every message, song and exhortation was centered around the theme of Christology, the person and work of Christ. Not even our Calvinist/ Cessastionists friends could have taken issue with this conference. Yet for what ever reason outside was Westborro Baptist with their notorious multi-colored signs, t-shirts and mega phones. I debated going down to talk to them for about 10 minutes, until I decided to just pull the bandaid off and confront them head on. Seeing them in the distance as I approached, I began to pray. “Jesus keep me tender, Jesus keep me tender, help me confront them in love, help me confront them in love.” I kept saying those two phrases over and over under my breath until I reached them.

Their message was confusing. Some signs said “God Hates Fags”, “Your Pastor is a Whore to $$”, others said “God Hates America”, “Stop Lying, God Hates You”, I couldn’t get a handle of what exactly they were protesting. Walking straight up to the leader he began screaming in my face “God hates you! God hates you!” over and over incidentally spitting on my face a few times. I suddenly felt a little foolhardy. Like I had decided to jump into the Hyena cage in hopes of taming them while they prepared to devour me. However I felt the need to persevere. I starred at the leader square in the eyes, calmly and patiently asking him if I could have 5 minutes of his time. The notorious founder Fred Phelps was not present, however his daughter and grandson were. His grandson was the one presently screaming in my face as I solicited a moment of conversation. After about 10 minutes he ran out of breath. Which to be honest was quite impressive in context. Screaming slander on the top of your lungs for 10 minutes without pause takes some serious pipes. He finally dialed down a notch or two and asked “what do you want?”

Trying to diffuse his energy rather than add to it, I asked calmly and quietly “What is it that you are protesting? You seem to be aiming in every direction.” Expectedly he launched into a tirade. “What are we protesting?! How about the fact that your church is taking millions of people’s money at this conference and whoring out the Bible. How about the fact that right now the leaders of this church are making money hand over fist from people without telling them about the coming judgement. How about the fact that you publicly support fags in ministry. How about that!” Genuinely, though not wisely, I snickered. My snickering only fueled another ten minutes of titration. I waited until he was done then I asked him the obvious question: “So you really have no idea what you are protesting or who we are do you? Because we are public about homosexuality being a sin, we are public about our belief in judgement, our conference is free, and we barely break even on it. So obviously you’ve been misinformed.” He stepped back and paused. He pondered another angle to come at us, then launched, “Well the leaders at this church are still living large while everyone else starves!” I snickered again and looked at him square in the eyes, “Sir I am one of the leaders here, and these are my only pair of jeans. If we are making a ton of money here it’s news to me.” I then proceded to laugh, honestly hoping to dial him down a even more. I coxed him along a bit, “Bro, you gota laugh a little bit. You gathered up about 30 people, printed signs and drove an hour to get here from Topeka only to find out you kinda wasted your time.” He snapped back, “But that’s not enough! You have to hate and publicly denounce gays or you’re going to burn with them.” I asked him, “What about those that lie on their resume’s, drink too much alcohol, or cheat on their taxes sometimes. Those are sins also, do those people need to be hated too?” “Yes!!” He yelled. “America is going to hell! God hates them!” Curiously, and with genuine compassion I asked him, “By that notion how do you plan to make it without going to hell?” This question struck his heart. For the first time in the conversation his face looked human. The tention and angst he was wearing disappeared. He hung his head and dropped his signs and mega phone to the ground. “I don’t know.” We stepped away from his still screaming crew and he began to open up a bit.

It was extraordinary. He told me that they simply go where they are told, that he actually never knows much about who they are protesting. He told me that they believe God is going to judge America with fire for it’s sins. He said they protest because they are terrified of being judged because of other people’s sin. He said he often lays awake in bed at night tormented by the idea that he is going to burn at the hand of God’s judgement. He felt that protesting is his way of screaming to heaven that he is not one of the sinners. He said it was a way of saying, “God don’t judge me! I’m not one of them!” Still not liking or remotely condoning anything they do, however for the first time I saw these hateful people for who they really were: broken. I offered to pray for him, and wanted to talk to him more, but he was teary-eyed and a little embarrassed about it. He gathered up his crew, they packed up their signs and left.

I wanted to feel victorious as I had taken on the most notorious protesters in the world and won. I wanted to walk triumphantly back into the conference and pump my fists bragging that I had gotten them to leave. Instead I was burdened for them. Having confronted my hatred I saw them for the lost and broken people they were. It doesn’t change my attitude toward their actions, but now when I see them on the news in a tirade of hatred I pity them. I pity them because they are trying to serve and represent a God they know nothing of. They are unknowingly agreeing with the voice of the darkness over the people they are protesting. And Sadly, they may even be headed for the very fate they are striving so hard to avoid.

They are still the object of God’s affections, the dream of his heart, and still have a chance at redemption. I pray for them regularly and I hope to run into them again.

Holy Spirit, enlighten the eyes of their understanding, that they may have their eyes opened to the truth and love of Christ.

“So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you towardrepentance?” Rom. 2:3-4

24 thoughts on “My Confrontation With Westboro Baptist Church

  1. Moved to tears….. Thank you for your honesty and open heart. Lord, give us boldness but move us with compassion.

  2. Hey Zack, haven’t checked you out in a while, didn’t think you were still blogging. it’s amazing how God gives us a glimpse into what He sees. This sure gave me a different look at these guys, my heart is moved to see them find liberty, and really meeting the lover of their souls. Lord, please break in with Love and mercy in the Face of Jesus.\

  3. Thankful for your heart for the Lord and letting Christ work through you. Thanks for sharing!

  4. @Jesuschristohimself thanks for trolling by!
    @Art Vandalay I love homosexuals, I hang out with homosexuals, I give my homosexual friends great big hugs when I see them. I don’t have negative emotions toward people who struggle with homosexuality, and often and presently help them through that struggle. But the Bible is clear Homosexuality is a sin. That doesn’t mean I make sure every homosexual knows they are in sin when I see them, it simply means I’m faithful to teach and live out the Bible everyday in my life, and within the pages of that book it says homosexuality is outside of our devine design and a sin. It also says love your neighbor, and treat people how you want to be treated.

    I strive to honor both with love and care.

  5. Wow, not sure how, as my blog was getting very humble views recently, this post just got 1,456 unique views in the las 6 hours. It got posted somewhere but I have no idea where.

  6. zackhensley i think this flowchart link is pretty good. the bible means well but I dont think it should be taken literally, as it has been translated and very likely changed numerous times times.
    with that said, its all about believing in christ. and by christ i mean love. thats what he stood for and sacrificing oneself for others is the strongest act of love. love is acceptance and unless someone is imposing himself on others or hurting someone, there is no reason to judge.

    http://www.google.com/imgres?q=homosexuality+flow+chart&um=1&hl=en&sa=N&biw=1266&bih=620&tbm=isch&tbnid=vF_gORaoA5dIWM:&imgrefurl=http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/08/homosexuality-and-sin-flow-chart.html&docid=y_p1YQTbdRvOWM&imgurl=http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/files/2012/08/wpid-Photo-Aug-9-2012-1207-PM.jpg&w=720&h=623&ei=w8dbUL65N8f10gHurIHwBA&zoom=1&iact=rc&dur=840&sig=101710789708585028566&page=1&tbnh=125&tbnw=145&start=0&ndsp=20&ved=1t:429,r:0,s:0,i:73&tx=75&ty=92

  7. Art I study and teach the Bible for a living and have for 12 years. However I am positive that there is still much for me to learn. I hope there is! The Bible is one my greatest joys and I’ve given my life to it. This however can not be subjectively deconstructed in hopes that it can accommodate cultural relevance.

    I think my previous comment was clear.

    Bless you, and thank you for stopping by.

  8. This is my opinion on the people:
    What need to be done is tape their ranting and raving for about two hours on a good quality recorder? Then take every one of them and lock them up in a room. Then for about 72 hour straight play the recording over and over 24/7 for 72 hours. This is what we call psychological warfare. When the 72 hours is over either they would be so sick of their own sayings that would drop them or they would be crazy then you could have them sent to a nut ward or just turn them loose.

  9. Wow, thanks for sharing Zack! I have often felt confused by Westboro or similar style protestors so this is very helpful insight. Definitely changes my perspective to not respond with automatic hatred… very interesting story, glad it’s getting some attention!
    Hope you and your family are well :0)
    -Cari

  10. Thank you for your comments.

    This was a personal experience I posted on my personal blog. I realize nothing is personal on the internet. But this blog (these days) gets about 20-30 hits a day by people who all generally know me personally. It wasn’t written with the expectation of making a broader point. i.e. I have no reason to exaggerate.

    There were people, friends there to witnesses. However no credentialed journalistic types.

    I appreciate that someone in the reddit atheism forums added this post to their aggregator, but no matter how well I corroborate my story am I going to be believed. After all the whole point of their forum is to prove Christians liars. therefore I wont attempt to engage with them, nor feel the need to prove anything to them. If it continues to spread, I’ll simply take it down.

    You are welcome to message me if you want more information about that day from myself. zhensley@gmail.com

  11. Reblogged this on Joewulf and commented:
    God, I can identify with a church whose major message is, “We’re not them!” I’m challenging you to read this and see if you don’t identify in some part–even a small part–with the struggling leader of this band of people from Westboro Baptist Church.

  12. I admire the way you respond to Westboro and to some of the posters here. More Christians need to learn this kind of lesson. Even the detractors’ arguments in the reddit link are interesting because it provides a contrast with people who just don’t “get it.” It’s an example of how the world without God just doesn’t understand the changes He makes in a person. No, they don’t make sense from a worldly perspective, but how much more glorious is it to plant a seed in the mind of a man such as this that has the potential to change his entire life for the better rather than the momentary satisfaction of bloodying up his nose and walking away with a puffed-up chest? May the truth of God be revealed in this man’s heart. Thanks for sharing and God bless!

  13. This was a great post. Thanks for opening up our hearts to these people, and reminding us of the core of God’s message — to love everyone.

  14. I have a belief in God (not religion unfortunately/fortunately – depends on how you look at it I guess), and while I don’t agree with all of your views, I must say that your method of communication and ability to remain so calm under pressure and bypass your ego/natural instinct is impressive to say the least.

    My belief is that everyone is just a reflection of ourselves had we have had their experiences. I find keeping that in the front of my mind certainly helps me in similar scenarios when people are acting in a way that is counter productive to a positive and healthy existence.

    Bravo sir – and very nicely done.
    Peace brother.

  15. Zack, thank you for posting this. I have wondered myself how I might handle something of the same sort. By the way, the blog post is making it around Facebook somewhat so that is where the extra hits are coming from. Take care.

  16. I got this blog from a friend on Facebook and I just had to tell you that your posting this was a huge confirmation to what I challenged my friends on our Bible Study Facebook group to do. God has been piercing my heart about how I react to those that don’t agree with scripture and I laid out a challenge to pray for our enemies. I wanted everyone (including me) to post about how it is affecting them. Your blog post blew me away! Thank you so much for your boldness and I am standing in prayer with you my brother for the lost and broken, not only those of Westboro Baptist, but those that are in our churches, neighborhoods, clubs, schools, etc. We must learn to be a true light in a dark world. Keep up the great ministry and may God continue to bless you as you walk closer to Him.

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