(UPDATE: We've swapped the original in-progress photo for one with a more complete paint job.)
By the end of today, the inhabitants of the Westboro Baptist Church compound in Topeka, Kansas, should have a new view out their windows, just past their FAG MARRIAGE DOOMS NATIONS sign: a new gay-rights center across the street, painted in brilliant rainbow colors, with a pride flag flying from a 30-foot flagpole.
Right now, a crew of volunteers is at work on the siding of a house opposite the headquarters of the publicity-hunting hate-preacher Fred Phelps.
The center is the work of a roving do-gooder named Aaron Jackson, a 31-year-old community-college dropout whose other projects have included opening orphanages in India and Haiti and buying a thousand acres of endangered rain forest in Peru. This year, his charity, Planting Peace, also intends to de-worm every child in Guatemala.
Jackson was drawn to Topeka after reading about Josef Miles, the local boy who last year, at the age of nine, photobombed one of the Westboro protests with a handmade sign that read "God Hates No One." Jackson had been looking for a way to support equality, anti-bullying programs, and some sort of pro-LGBT initiative, he said.
"I've been accused in the past of being all over the place, and they're probably right on some level," Jackson told me last night by phone. "Right now we are standing up to bigotry and promoting equality."
So while considering the Westboro Baptist Church, he began dinking around on Google Maps late one night. He pulled up the church, at 3701 SW 12th St. in Topeka, and took a virtual walk around the block. In the front yard of a house across the street, he noticed a For Sale sign.
"It hit me right away," Jackson told me last night by phone. "Huh. That would be interesting to own a house across from the Westboro Baptist Church and turn it into something.' And then, within five seconds: 'And I'll paint it the color of the pride flag.' Perfect."
The house he'd thought for sale no longer was, but he found another, two doors down, that was still across the street from the Westboro compound. It was listed for something in the $80,000s.
"I find that if you have a hate group in front of your home, that should bring the price of your home down just a little bit," Jackson said. "Unfortunately the gentleman that was selling the house, he didn't seem to agree with me." The guy wouldn't budge. Jackson was tempted to walk away. "What he did not know," Jackson said, "where he had me, was I needed this home. I had to have this house. There was no way around it."
Eventually the guy dropped to 81 and threw in a new roof. Jackson bought it sight unseen, without knowing so much as the number of bedrooms. Turns out there are two bedrooms, one bathroom, a carpeting dining area, two garages (the house sits at a corner), a fireplace, hardwood floors, a small porch, and a decent-sized yard that overlooks the headquarters of an active hate group. "The view is what I bought the home for," Jackson said.
He closed on it about six months ago. In January he and his friend Davis Hammet, a 22-year-old Florida State grad, drove up from Florida overnight to move in. "We thought we were about to become popsicles," Hammet said. They've been hunkering down, waiting for the weather to break, so they could get the house painted.
The plan is to ride the coattails of Westboro's own media strategy. "We're going to take the negative attention and try to spin it into something positive," Hammet said. "Instead of millions of children around the world getting this hate message, they're going to see this message of compassion and love."
When I visited the house, during a cross-continental road trip in February, they had scarcely a stick of furniture other than the tables and chairs at the front picture window, their office and de facto crow's nest. They were keeping a low profile, but were making some friends. This wasn't long after Valentine's Day, and a confidante at a fruit-basket outfit had given them a small fortune in leftover strawberries. It paired well with a housewarming six-pack I'd bought at a gas station in rural-highway Kansas.
We looked out the front window sipping beers and munching berries and wondering what the WBCers, who live throughout the neighborhood around the church, made of two dudes with a Jimmy Carter sticker on the bumper of their Prius moving to the neighborhood and staying up late every night.
The painters prepped over the weekend and did the white shutters on Monday. If all goes well, it should be a multi-hued spectrum by the early afternoon. Monday night, Hammet was exhausted but thrilled for Tuesday. "It's the most important day of my life so far," he said.
To the best of anyone's knowledge, this will all come as a surprise to the WBCers. A few weeks ago, Jackson was walking around the iced-over block when he met Fred Phelps' daughter Shirley, out plowing snow on an ATV. She was wearing a helmet, so he didn't know who she was was until they and her husband got to chatting. She apparently cracked a pretty decent joke. "We all shared a giggle together," Jackson said. "It was a sweet moment. And I just carried on."