When Aaron Jackson Googled the Westboro Baptist Church and saw a ‘for sale’ sign on the house across the street, he jumped at the chance to shake things up.
Jackson’s idea was in response to controversy the Topeka, Kansas church has generated since its founding in 1950. The WBC is known to picket funerals of U.S. soldiers, often holding signs that read “God hates fags.” The Anti-Defamation League calls the church “a homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group.”
In 2013, Jackson made his idea reality.
He was living in Florida at the time, running a nonprofit called Planting Peace, which does humanitarian and environmental work around the world.
He left Florida for Kansas to move into what’s now known as Equality House, where 22 area houses were occupied by church members.
“At the time it looked like a huge kingdom over there. We were pretty nervous, like, ‘That’s it, I can’t believe we’re here!'”
Jackson spent months researching LGBT rights, turning his whim into a mission.
“I’ve always considered myself an ally,” he said. “I didn’t know too much about the community as a whole. I always looked at it like, let’s just let the gays get married and let’s move onto real issues like climate change or something of that nature.”
As Jackson learned more, he discovered the prevalence of suicide among LGBT youth and decided to prioritize advocacy as part of his nonprofit’s action.
Being a good neighbour
Thousands of people showed up to the house on the day it opened. Jackson sees it as an art project.
“I let people see it how they want to see it. Some people just see it as funny, like a middle finger to the WBC. Some people see it as something more.”
At first, Jackson was worried about how his direct neighbours would see the house.
“When we painted the house, I didn’t know how the community was going to react. I was very nervous about that … we created an escape route in the back of our house. Kansas does not have the best image when it comes to social issues,” he said.
“People often think it looks like the North Korea – South Korea border. That we have missiles pointed at each other, ready to blow each other up. And that couldn’t be any further from the truth”.
The two organizations may go after each other on social media, but from a neighbourly standpoint, Jackson says they’re actually pretty good friends.
They may not be eating dinner together, but Jackson says they do look out for each other. About a year ago, someone put seven bullets through Jackson’s window. His church neighbours were the first to reach out, offering their security footage to help.
Changing hearts and minds
“Whether you like it or not, they’re geniuses of publicity,” said Jackson of the church. “They tweet vile things at us. Like, we’re going to hell.”
But Jackson says the two organizations have never confronted each other about the issues they stand for in the streets. He doesn’t think church members would be open to that, but also says he doesn’t want children of the church seeing that aggression.
“Of course that breaks my heart, to see kids growing up into that. No one want to see a 10-year-old child … holding up a sign casting ‘fags’ into hell or whatnot.”
But Equality House has had an indirect impact on at least a few neighbours.
Jackson says he’s become friends with former church member Zach Phelps-Roper, who used to hate him, but had a change of heart after leaving the church.
According to Jackson, Phelps-Roper also told him that his grandfather — church founder Fred Phelps — was kicked out after showing respect for Equality House.
“[He said] ‘They’re the ones who got it right … we’re the ones who got it wrong,'” said Jackson.
“I was like, this is a life lesson. Even the hardest of hearts can soften. We definitely represent two different ideals … And we actually get along pretty well once we got to know each other, to see each other as people.”