SAND SPRINGS, Okla. — The fliers arrived three weeks ago. Some came over the fax machines of local churches, and others appeared mysteriously around town. Printed in bold was the heading “Westboro Baptist Church.” No seeming cause for alarm. Sand Springs, population 18,500, is a Christian stronghold in the gently rolling hills of eastern Oklahoma.
But the message that followed was a rant against a 17-year-old Sand Springs resident named Michael Shackelford and his mother, Janice, the subjects of a recent Washington Post series examining Michael’s struggles as a young gay man in the Bible Belt. The fliers posted a photo of Michael, called him a “doomed teenage fag” and announced that followers of Westboro Baptist in Topeka were on their way from Kansas to stage antigay protests in Sand Springs.
Public theater is the specialty of Westboro Baptist and its minister, Fred Phelps, whose place on the extreme fringe of the antigay movement is symbolized by his Web site, www.godhatesfags.com. But this time, Phelps picked a formidable target.
Oklahoma could never be mistaken for a liberal blue state. President Bush grabbed the seven electoral votes here like a sack of candy, winning 60 percent of the popular vote. A state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage passed by a 3-to-1 margin.
Sand Springs is the essence of pious Oklahoma. Downtown, a veterinary clinic with loudspeakers on its roof plays a taped carillon of hymns and patriotic songs. Michael and Janice Shackelford attend a large evangelical church where lots of worshipers bring their own Bibles.
In the eyes of Phelps, any church that allows an openly gay person to attend Sunday worship is weak. “Was there no Gospel preacher in Sand Springs or Broken Arrow to tell Michael . . . that sodomy is a monstrous sin against God that will destroy the life and damn the soul?” the fliers asked.
When Phelps announced that his group was coming to picket at several churches and the high school, fresh battle lines were drawn. To many here, homosexuality was a sin, but Michael Shackelford was their sinner. Just as the November election was reducing moral issues to red or blue, Sand Springs confronted subtler shades of truth. Janice Shackelford was terrified by the persecution of her son, then surprised by what happened next.
“This Westboro outfit thought they could come to this town and break it apart,” Janice said. “But it has brought the town together. It has opened some doors to talk.”
After Michael’s story was published, competing forces wrestled for his soul. The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay advocacy group, invited Michael to attend its national dinner in Washington last month.
“Oh, great,” Janice remembers thinking. A year and a half after discovering her son was gay, Janice still held hope that he would renounce his homosexuality. She worried for his safety, especially after renting a video at Blockbuster about Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who died after being beaten and lashed to a fence in Wyoming. Mostly Janice worried about Michael’s salvation. Attending the dinner in Washington might reinforce his belief that he is gay. “I felt like allowing him to go was condoning the lifestyle,” she said, “and it would propel him to that even more.”
Yet something inside told her to let him go. One factor tipped it: Michael would get to meet Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew, who would be attending the event. Part of Janice wished that she could go, too, to see what her son wanted so desperately to see. But she worked two jobs and could find no one to take her shift at the barbecue restaurant where she is a waitress. It was decided that Michael would be accompanied by his 23-year-old sister, Shelly.
In Washington, a tux was waiting for Michael in his hotel room.
He brought his disposable camera to the dinner and asked a male model if it was okay to take his picture.
The next day there was a luncheon and sightseeing of the monuments. A lesbian couple with a 3-year-old daughter took Michael and Shelly to dinner in Dupont Circle. Walking around the gay neighborhood, Michael was in awe. “It was like being around family,” he said. “Seeing all those successful people, that could be me.”
Shelly, who shared Janice’s views against homosexuality, was also in shock. “Men were holding hands with men, women were holding hands with women, and no one was yelling at them,” Shelly said.
What Michael wanted most was to buy his mother a book on being a Christian parent of a gay child. He found them at Lambda Rising, a gay and lesbian bookstore.
When they got back home, Janice listened to their stories. “There’s a life out there,” Michael said, before racing off to the drugstore to have his film developed. Janice wept when Shelly relayed a story that Judy Shepard told about going to identify her son’s body. He was covered in blood except for the clean streaks on his face where tears had washed down.
Janice took the books Michael brought home — “Always My Child” and “The Gay Face of God,” among others — but was not ready to read them. She piled them on a table in the living room, which is where they were still sitting when she received a call from her pastor.
“Janice,” he said, “We got a fax.”
Janice tried remembering where she had heard of Westboro Baptist — and then it clicked. While visiting her oldest daughter in Las Vegas, she remembered seeing the group picketing a high school that was staging “The Laramie Project,” a play about Matthew Shepard’s murder in the town of Laramie.
Janice listened with growing anxiety as her pastor, Bill Eubanks of Cornerstone Church, explained that Westboro Baptist was coming to protest Cornerstone for allowing Michael to worship there. When Eubanks called Westboro, a woman who identified herself as Fred Phelps’s daughter told him that he had not been strong enough in “prescribing the truth about homosexuals.”
Eubanks, 53, has a deep-well Oklahoma accent and a 6-foot-2 frame that makes him a commanding preacher. He pastors a flock of 500, where bluejeans are welcome and men are not embarrassed to brush away tears when praying. The church held a voter registration drive in the run-up to the presidential election. A huge banner, hung from the rafters, said, “Family Under Construction.” There was no doubt that “family” referred to a man and woman. Homosexuality is viewed as a sin.
Eubanks had known Michael was struggling with his sexuality. But to the pastor, seeing Michael in church meant there was still a chance that he would turn away from homosexuality.
Eubanks was disturbed by the fliers’ hateful message, but he saw an opportunity.
“I get to speak about the grace of God,” he said. “No matter what the sin, God loves you. He is saying, ‘Come on, come back to the family.’ I was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I can see the possibility of change.”
A transformation, from gay to straight.
“These are the hopes, that Michael will change,” Eubanks said.
The week before the protest, the pastor announced from the pulpit that they were in the midst of a spiritual battle. He read parts of the flier aloud. “We are family,” Eubanks said. “We are going to stand united as a family.”
The response surprised Michael, who thought he would be cast out. People were being nice to him. Only a few weeks earlier he’d been called a “queer” at Arby’s. Now there was a new menace in Sand Springs, and it was Fred Phelps.
As more fliers circulated around Sand Springs, Janice knew it was time to talk to her 88-year-old mother, a fervent Baptist with a weak heart. All this time Janice had never told her mother that Michael was gay. “This would put her in the grave,” she had warned Michael.
After Wednesday night church, Janice drove to her mother’s house. The words simply would not come out. Finally, Janice got up and turned the volume down on the TV and sat beside her mother. “I’ve been keeping a secret from you,” Janice said. She stopped again.
Just tell me, her mother said.
“Michael seems to think he’s gay.”
“Janice,” she recalls her mother saying, “I’m a tough old lady. You should have told me sooner.”
And that was that.
The Sunday of the protest arrived. Birds hung in the brittle branches of blackjack oaks lining the driveway of Cornerstone Church. The Phelps entourage had left Topeka at 3 that morning and unloaded in front of Cornerstone in time for the 9 o’clock service. There were nine in all. Fred Phelps had sent his 51-year-old son, Fred Phelps Jr., and his daughter, Shirley Phelps Roper, 47. Under the watchful eye of several Sand Springs police officers, they spread out along the public patch of grass in front of the church.
They raised their signs. Fags Are Worthy of Death. Fags Doom Nation. Fag Church. Your Pastor Is Lying. Others involved obscene drawings and references to excrement. One of the protesters dragged an American flag on the ground.
A truck roared by from the main road and the driver shouted, LET HE WHO CAST THE FIRST STONE!
Phelps gestured toward the church marquee that scrolled the message I hate the sin but love the sinner — God! “It’s a play on words, the sin and the sinner,” he said. “You can’t separate the two. There are some people in this world who are made to be destroyed.”
Shirley Phelps Roper chimed in. “With the right hand they are saying that homosexuality is a sin and they will fix you,” she said. “And with the left hand they say that God loves you. They don’t own salvation. They don’t have the prerogative to fix the heart of man.”
Worshipers drove through the bottleneck, refusing to engage. Michael Shackelford rumbled past in his truck without notice. Janice arrived minutes later in her Oldsmobile, nervously gripping the steering wheel, eyes straight ahead.
Inside the church, the congregation was standing and the six-piece guitar band was rocking.
The Lord reigns
Great is the Almighty
The music and energy built until Pastor Eubanks bounded onstage. “Welcome to the reign of life,” he said. “Amen?”
“Amen!” the crowd shouted, whistling and clapping.
“There is darkness and there is light and we are in the middle of the light,” Eubanks said, to more thunderous applause. “Say it: God loves us all. All of us!”
After the service, several people came up to hug Janice. One woman held her in an embrace that lasted two minutes, whispering to Janice the whole time.
A burly man with a crew cut gave Michael a thumbs-up. “Man, you be who you are,” Shannon Watie said, holding his Bible. “We got your back.”
Watie later said that he respected Michael for having the courage to come out. “I have the sin of pride, the sin of lying sometimes,” said the 37-year-old father of two. “The reason why Jesus was on the cross was because we all do.”
Watie voted for Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage. Civil unions? He might have considered those. Homosexuality? “That’s between the person and God,” Watie said.
Out in the foyer, Eubanks saw Michael and seized the chance. He invited Michael to lunch. There was work to do.
After church, Michael drove the interstate with the windows of his truck rolled down and the stereo blasting Merle Haggard’s “Kentucky Gambler,” Michael singing every word.
I wanted more from life, than four kids and a wife
And a job in a dark Kentucky mine.
In nearby Tulsa that Sunday night, a vigil was held in response to the Phelps demonstrations. It was organized by Tulsa Oklahomans For Human Rights and held at a gay and lesbian community center. Organizers set out 24 chairs. More than 220 people showed up; the overflow strained to hear from the sidewalk.
Janice had been nervous to attend the vigil with Michael but there she was, standing in back. Several Tulsa ministers spoke out against Phelps. Most were from churches that Janice was unfamiliar with; Unitarian, Congregational and Diversity Christian.
The Rev. Russell L. Bennett, president of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, took the podium. “You are a gathering of the saints,” he said, smiling at the crowd. “Now, in some parts of town, that might be disputed.”
Bennett recited a Bible verse in which Jesus scolds the leaders of his time for worrying more about narrow morality than the bigger picture. “Woe to you, hypocrites,” the reverend said. “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy.”
Janice was quiet, listening to phrases such as “radical inclusivity” and quotes by Robert F. Kennedy about the long arm that bends toward justice. Only once did she feel at home, when a man came up afterward and reached for her hand. “You know, we have been praying for you all week,” he said.
His name was Toby Jenkins and he was a Free Will Baptist pastor for 17 years before accepting that he was gay. Now he preaches at a gay evangelical church in Tulsa. He told Janice that the Bible is not the black-and-white doctrine that many say it is. He asked Janice if they could pray together, and he took her face in his hands and they stood motionless in the crowd, forehead to forehead, eyes closed.
“I am going to have to think about all this,” she said later.
The next morning, the Phelps protesters were back in Sand Springs, this time picketing in front of Charles Page High, the school that grudgingly started a Gay Straight Alliance last year after an openly gay senior forced the issue.
Shirley Phelps Roper stood on the sidewalk, holding her God Hates Fags sign and singing “America the Beautiful.” Police were standing by, but all was peaceful. Several cars drove by with their own messages painted on the windows: Go Back to Kansas and God Loves Everybody.
As school let out that afternoon, dozens of people from Tulsa Oklahomans For Human Rights arrived with brooms. In silence, they swept the sidewalk where the Phelps protesters had been. Michael was there, sweeping.
A group of students walked by. One of them, a girl with long, silky hair and a backpack, was obviously fed up with all the protests and counter-protests. “Leave our homos alone,” she said, to no one in particular.