In 1995, Shirley Phelps-Roper's home in Topeka, Kansas, was suddenly jolted and shaken by a crude explosive device that came to rest between the family's van and the side of the residence after it had been tossed out of a moving car.
The van was severely damaged. Inside Phelps-Roper's home, framed pictures fell off the wall. Windows rattled. And Phelps-Roper's four-day old child slept.
Phelps-Roper — whose father, Fred Phelps leads Westboro Baptist Church, which has become synonymous for its hate of both the United States and sexual deviance — has a different understanding and appreciation for explosives today.
Today, the church's literature frequently ends with "Thank God for IED's." Improvised explosive devices have been the calling card of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan for the better part of a decade, killing thousands of American soldiers, including Justin Whitmire, a 20-year-old Simpsonville native who lost his life in Afghanistan last week.
Westboro Baptist Church, which has built its reputation on warning anyone willing to listen about the coming destruction of the United States for its wickedness and moral permissiveness, will stage a demonstration Saturday at Whitmire's funeral.
The use of IED's to kill American soldiers, Phelps-Roper believes, is both God's way of punishing an immoral nation, as well as providing vengeance for the Phelps family. An explosion at the doorstep of true believers, they believe, has later yielded an orgy of destruction in the Middle East through which America's sons must suffer.
"One of the largest bodies of doctrine in the Bible is what they do to you, he (God) will recompense right back on their heads," Phelps-Roper said. "Now everybody knows what an IED is. It is the No. 1 killer, including this young man we're talking about."
"They used an IED to bomb us. God said he's going to repay you to your face what what you did."
Westboro Baptist Church, which is populated mostly by Fred Phelps' children and grandchildren and their families, first began its anti-gay protests in 1991, when they demonstrated against homosexual activity believed to have been going on at nearby Gage Park.
Since then, Phelps-Roper, 54, says the church has picketed some 48,000 times across the country, many of which have involved demonstrating at the funerals of U.S. soldiers and desecrating American flags.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, America's military has faced the brunt of Westboro's vitriol.
"The indignation of the Lord is upon the nation and his fury is upon all of its armies," Phelps-Roper said. "That is the might of the country. That is what they trust. They're supposed to trust God."
At the crux of the issue is sin.
Westboro Baptist Church, which is not affiliated with any denomination and has a membership of less than 50, believes the United States has turned a blind eye to depravity. Homosexuality, which is the most frequent target of the Phelps family, is simply the latest in a string of great moral shortcomings that has caused God to take back his favor from the country, in their eyes.
Westboro — which is also virulently anti-Arminian, anti-Baptist, anti-Catholic, anti-American and anti-Semitic (the Holocaust, they believe, is just the latest installment of God's indignation at the Jews for killing Christ) — believes that behaviors like abortion, divorce and premarital and extramarital sex have all become commonplace, and have paved the way for more debauchery.
"You've got f*g marriage in this country. That was the last straw. That was the final flipping off in God's face," Phelps-Roper said. "You don't look up and turn the country over to the f*gs before you've already kicked everything else to the curb."
American soldiers are doomed, the Phelps family says, because they represent and fight for a nation that has lost its way, and has even become prideful in its sin.
"(People say) 'My life is my own and I get to do what I want and it's my body, and all the sophistry that fills the airways to justify sin and to demonize, marginalize and vilify this service of God," Phelps-Roper said.
Westboro has been sued — ultimately unsuccessfully — for their demonstrations. In March 2011, Supreme Court of the United States ruled that theirs was constitutionally protected speech.
"God gave us the duty and the right, and he gave us the mechanism — it's called the First Amendment," Phelps-Roper said.
An Unlikely Beginning
Fred Phelps, 82, was born and raised in depression-era Mississippi. For all the disdain the Phelps family holds for the U.S. military, the father of one of the most-hated families in America was nearly a soldier himself.
"I had an appointment to West Point Military Academy from the fifth congressional district in Mississippi, and I had to wait to go because they won't let you enter West Point under 17, and I graduated from high school at 16," Phelps said.
"So I had to hang around, and that led me to a little Methodist church, which led me to a change of lifestyle, and I went on to Bob Jones University because it's a Bible school."
Phelps began his time at Bob Jones in the Wade Hampton area of Greenville in 1947, the same year the school relocated to the Upstate from Cleveland, Tenn.
But by 1948, he had dropped out of BJU. He speaks little of the reasons why he left the Christian school, but Phelps-Roper said it was BJU's overt racism that led him to drop out, citing an episode in 1948 when he and another student witnessed a black student get denied enrollment first-hand.
"There was no special reason," Phelps said. "I was a youngster. I wasn't mad at them."
Fighting racism, as it were, became a cause worth fighting for to Phelps. After dropping out of Bob Jones, he enrolled at Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta, Canada. After roughly a year there, he moved on John Muir College in Pasadena, Calif., in 1949, where he received an associates degree. By 1964, he had earned a law degree from Washburn University in Topeka, and his early legal career consisted nearly entirely of his efforts to eradicate Jim Crow laws from Kansas.
At the local forefront of the civil rights movement was Fred Phelps, who would would take on discrimination cases and would later receive accommodations from local chapters of the NAACP for his work as a civil rights attorney.
"When I was little, my dad would occasionally do an editorial on the local TV station. In the midst of that, the phone would start ringing," Phelps-Roper recalls.
"I'd grab the phone as a little girl and some snarling angry voices would call us n*gger lovers. We had our car windows shot out. It's not unlike what they do today."
If the Phelps claim to love the Lord more than all else, their second great love must be the law.
Ardent proponents of constitutionally protected free speech and right to assembly, 11 of Phelps' children went on to become lawyers, including Phelps-Roper, who now works for the Phelps Chartered law firm, which takes on both civil and criminal cases. Phelps himself was disbarred in 1979 for his conduct during a civil suit that the Kansas State Supreme Court found to constitute a violation of his oath.
In the midst of his legal career, Phelps was busy establishing a church. Westboro Baptist held its first services on Nov. 27, 1955. The early seeds of hatred had been sown.
And though the church unabashedly espouses a hyper-Calvinist view of the world, they don't believe their brand of prosthelytizing conflicts at all with their views of unconditional election and the idea that reprobates — those not chosen by God to be saved — are doomed.
The question is simple: If Americans are damned, why try to change their minds in the first place?
"How does the word of God coming from his mouth get into the ears of humans? God uses humans to talk to humans," Phelps-Roper said. "We can't even fathom all the purposes for which he sent it. But what I knew from my personal experience is one little single event will have a ripple effect in so many places.
We've been doing this job and we've been faithful in spite of our own folly."
"It's our duty," she added.
In 2011, Westboro did its "duty" in places like Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., where tornados killed hundreds.
A Rising Tide
In 2011, Nick Alden, an Anderson County man serving in the U.S. Air Force, was shot to death while waiting on a bus in Germany. When his body arrived home, Westboro announced its plans to picket at his funeral.
But Bob McLain, program director and host at News Talk WORD 106.3 FM, had other ideas.
In exchange for airtime with Phelps-Roper, the Westboro group agreed not to protest. This time around, no such agreement was reached.
"We as a group, as a company, made the decision not to offer airtime this time around," McLain said. "Primarily because it seems there are enough private efforts underway to impede Westboro's planned disruption of the funeral. We deemed it unnecessary."
One such effort is being led by the radio station 93.3 The Planet, which is encouraging its listeners to meet at the Wal-Mart in Simpsonville at 11:15 a.m. and arrive en masse to protect Whitmire's family and friends from Westboro's vitriol.
The funeral will be 1 p.m. Saturday at Simpsonville First Baptist Church, officiated by Pastor Terry Rogers and Pastor Stephen Morton. Burial, with full military honors, will be in Cannon Memorial Park. A funeral escort will be provided by the Patriot Guard.
"We've seen a lot of traffic on Facebook. There have been postings at various sites. Private individuals are getting together to essentially form a human shield to protect the family against that kind of abuse Westboro likes to subject people to," McLain said.
"We felt like with that effort proceeding and gaining momentum, that it was going to be pretty effective, and would accomplish the same goals (as offering airtime). This time, it appears people are well-organized."
And while Phelps-Roper and her family are convinced that Whitmire, like all soldiers, is damned because of his allegiance to his country, most other groups like the Patriot Guard, considers him a hero.
"He's in hell for his own sin. You can only die and pay for your own sin. You have every piece of evidence you need to see that the blood of Christ doesn't cover this lad," Phelps-Roper said.
"When you see a lad cut off before his life gets started, that's your first piece of evidence. Secondly he's fighting for a nation that has made God your enemy. Those two pies of data are all you need. He died for the proud sin he was taught and then he adopted."
But don't count on such intonations being heard Saturday.
Bill Hopkins, member of the Patriot Guard, which provides escorts during funeral for servicemen, said his group will make sure of that. More than 100 riders are expected at Whitmire's funeral.
"We'll be there to honor and respect PFC Whitmire," Hopkins said. "We don't really care about Westboro Baptist. They always say they're coming. We don't care if they do or not. The family will never see them or hear them.
"If they show up, they show up. We can't stop them. It's America. But we can block their view."