I had only just arrived at Times Square with fellow Printz writer Jonathan Andrews for the Spring College Media Convention, yet I was already in disbelief at what I was seeing. But it wasn't the concrete jungle known as New York City that had me in awe; it was the convention flyer that I was reading.
Margie Phelps, a leader of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, was going to be at the convention—not to protest with signs that said things like, "FAGS DOOM NATIONS," (at least, not primarily)—but as a guest speaker.
I cannot deny that I found myself perplexed as to how a convention on journalism—a craft that derives its merit on the basis of its credibility—could invite someone with as little credibility as Margie Phelps to speak. But I equally cannot deny that I found my interest piqued.
The day before the special session entitled, "Westboro Speaks," tensions were already running high. Some called for a boycott of the event; others offered that gay students should protest by turning their backs to the speakers; some just wondered, "What's next—a special session with the Aryan Nation?"
But on Monday, an excessively long queue outside the ballroom where the Westboro session was to be held proved that I was not the only journalist whose interest outweighed any misgivings. In fact, by the time I arrived, only standing room was left.
Once inside, I listened as the room filled with the sound of a bouncy gospel song that I was quite sure the Phelps would never allow in their own church. After several minutes, I began to wonder when the woman of the hour would arrive.
I suppose the fact that I had expected to feel the brooding presence of pure evil but hadn't caught me off guard, because I soon realized that Margie Phelps had been standing mere feet from me the entire time. She was having what appeared to be a polite conversation with the forum's moderator, Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center.
She seemed almost normal as she stood there, smiling and laughing with another human being, her identity betrayed only by her signature mane of stringy, grizzled hair.
But the illusion that she possessed some semblance of humanity was shattered as soon as she began to speak to the audience about religion.
"This nation has turned against God," she declared.
When prompted, she began to explain her church's rationale for protesting the funerals of soldiers.
"They have turned [these funerals] into pep rallies," she said. "We watched for two years. We watched politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry, and the veterans use the occasion of those soldiers' deaths to publish a viewpoint. And we said, ‘we don't agree with your viewpoint.'"
The protests, she said, were not illegal.
"We know your law and we follow your law," she said, speaking as if her church was an extraterrestrial entity.
Phelps praised the Supreme Court's recent ruling, which affirmed that the church's protests were constitutionally protected. She said that the church was not bringing emotional distress; "We're bringing you hope."
Part of that "hope" offered included the message that the world will not be around much longer, thanks in part to gay marriage.
"There's been one other civilization in the history the human race where there was broad scale same-sex marriage; it's called the Antediluvian World," she said, referring to the biblical period before the flood of Noah. Phelps added that 16 billion people perished in that flood (a statistic for which she offered no source).
"I'm not trying to stop a homosexual from being a homosexual," she explained. "I'm just telling you that that sin … It's taking you to hell. Now, I'm telling you that as a friend … your best friend, your b.f.f. up in here, fo' rizzle."
She wanted to make lots of friends, apparently; she also attacked other gropus, including Jews, Catholics, and Southern Baptists.
Interestingly, Phelps took a moment to defend the Muslim group steeped in controversy over its plans to build a mosque near Ground Zero. Let them build their mosque, she said.
"Look, this nation is overflowing with false religion," she said. "I mean, you let the rapin' priests have their churches, don't ya?"
That wasn't her only swipe at Catholics. When a convention attendee asked Phelps why her church felt the need to use children in their protests, Phelps responded with another question: "Why do priests feel the need to rape little children?"
For many devout Christians in the room, the tension was mounting. "I'm a Christian," a young photographer next to me whispered, trembling as angry tears filled her eyes. "They're so wrong."
Finally, University of North Alabama student Jenn Lyles couldn't take it anymore.
"If it's your goal to educate people about God and what the Bibles teaches … I commend you in that way; I do the same thing," said Lyles. "But I was wondering if you had considered how your actions have turned people away from God—especially non-believers."
"No, it's not my intention," said Phelps. "I don't have any control over the heart of any human." Her church's mission, she said, was not to save the world, but to give it a fair warning.
"None of you will be able to say we didn't tell ya."
Phelps concluded by attacking one last group—us, the media.
"You guys are to blame," she said. "You are joining an ignoble profession."
"Do some independent thinking," she admonished us. "Set aside your personal views. You're supposed to be professionals. Ask questions, get information, and stop disserving your readers."
This most ignoble journalist wonders if she noticed the irony.