The Westboro Baptist Church is about to get a big surprise in the form of a new neighbor who plans to give the notoriously anti-gay group a taste of its own medicine.
Aaron Jackson, one of the founders of Planting Peace, a multi-pronged charity that has in the past concentrated on rainforest conservation, opening orphanages and deworming programs, bought a house that sits directly across from the church's compound six months ago. On Tuesday, March 19, he and a team of volunteers are painting it to match the gay pride flag.
The project -- which the nonprofit is calling the "Equality House" -- is the first in a new campaign Planting Peace plans to wage against the group. Westboro is known for its intimidating tactics of protesting (or threatening to protest) what they refer to as America's pro-gay, anti-God agenda, in close proximity to pride parades, soldier funerals and other events like the Sandy Hook memorial services.
"I read a story about Josef Miles, a 10-year-old kid who counter-protested the Westboro Baptist Church by holding the sign that says 'God Hates No One,'" Jackson told The Huffington Post.
"I didn't know anything about the church or where they were located, but that story kept popping up. And one night I wondered, Where is this church? I got on Google Earth, and I was 'walking down the road,' and I did a 360 view. And I saw a 'For Sale' sign sitting in the front yard of a house. Right away it hit me, Oh my gosh, I could buy a house in front of the WBC! And immediately I thought: And I'm going to paint that thing the color of the pride flag."
Jackson said he's always wanted to get involved in gay activism, but hadn't been sure of how to do it until this opportunity presented itself.
"The reason I haven't gotten into the gay rights activism is because, in a sense, it's almost silly -- it's 2013, are we really still in this position? It just seems ludicrous," he said. "But it is a real issue and kids are killing themselves. I've wanted to do something, and I knew when I saw that house for sale that it all came together. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm a little crazy and there's no red tape in my charity. When I want to do something, I do it."
Planting Peace bought the house for roughly $83,000, and Jackson has been living in Topeka for just over a month. As he waited for the perfect time to transform the house into a very visible celebration of gay pride -- and a direct challenge to what Westboro preaches -- he encountered members of the group, including the Phelps family, which has run the church since it was established in 1956.
"They own the majority of the homes in the community, and I walk through the area every day, and I see them running in between each other's houses," he said. "One day I was walking, and Shirley Phelps [one of Westboro's main spokespeople and the daughter of the church's leader, Fred Phelps] was on her four-wheeler. And I said, 'Hey guys, how are you?' And [she and her husband] responded, 'Oh, we're good. How are you?' We had a short conversation, and she was extremely nice, and she made a joke and we all laughed."
"It's the craziest thing -- and it really throws you off -- because she's the type of woman who calls you "hun" and "darling" -- she's very Southern," he said. "It's like, aren't you the lady that's supposed to be casting me into hell? It's truly mind-boggling, but I can't say anything personally bad about her because she was kind to me and she made me laugh. She'd probably be fun to hang out with."
But pleasantries aside, Jackson said he's confident that the church is already wary of his presence and may be expecting some sort of action from him.
"They're extremely smart, and I would be willing to guess that when I moved into this community that they looked up property records, especially considering that I drive a Prius and I have an original reelect Jimmy Carter sticker on the back of it -- I'm a screaming liberal," he said.