"For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight," Penn said, "I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame . . ."
Few people watching him on television (or, possibly, even those sitting in the Oscar's Kodak Theater) may have known what Penn's reference to those signs of hatred meant. Perhaps they hadn't seen Fall from Grace, a 2007 documentary profiling the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church. These are the people who carry "God Hates Fags" signs and who celebrated the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard, along with the World Trade Center attacks. ("Thank God for 9/11" is another of their classic signs.) Phelps' church keeps in shape (and in the public eye) by picketing the funerals of American war dead, as well as memorials for the Buffalo airline-crash victims. To Phelps and his followers, America is Satan's subdivision, a coast to coast Sodom and Gomorrah of 300 million souls who are all but lost to homosexuality.
The Westboros began their Oscar activities last Sunday by limbering
up at a few churches in the morning. Members of Echo Park's Angelus
Temple arriving for 10 a.m. services were met by a about half a dozen
or more Phelps followers, who held provocative signs across the street
on Glendale Boulevard. There were old standbys such as "USA=Fags=Hell,"
more topical placards, like the one featuring a photo of
Barack Obama -- albeit with ram's horns sprouting from the president's
temples -- proclaiming, "Obama AntiChrist." One true believer, with
that day's main event in mind, held one reading "Heath in Hell."
group was in high spirits and resembled a couple of families spending
time at a softball game. The Angelus Temple congregants, who are
members of the "urban ministry" known as the Dream Center, stared at
them in bewilderment as the Center's crossing guards urged people to
avoid the protesters. A few police officers had shown up but now,
sensing no imminent danger, left the scene.
"Why are you picketing?" a man was asked as his group prepared to leave.
do this every Sunday," he replied matter-of-factly, tucking away some
of the placards in a vinyl portfolio. He may as well have said that he
washes his car or cuts the grass on this day every week.
Catholic," said a young boy holding an "Obama AntiChrist" sign. His
father corrected him about Angelus Temple, once the home of evangelist
Aimee Semple McPherson. The confusion was understandable, though, given
that another squad of Westboro members was at that moment picketing Our
Lady of the Angels Cathedral about a mile away.
Inside the Temple, the Dream Center church began its service with a performance of 20 minutes of rock, techno and rap music.
"There's no protest in the House of the Lord, know what I'm sayin'?" a young MC yelled to the crowd, which roared back.
Pastor Matthew Barnett made light references to the protest, although
he could be forgiven for taking personally a sign that said "Your
Pastor Is a Whore." Barnett, a youthful man in his early 30s, chose to
look on the brighter side of things, introducing his ministry's new
publicists from PR giant Rogers & Cowan, while urging worshippers
to download the songs of a visiting Christian rapper, in order to pump
up his iTunes chart standing -- "even if you've never heard a rap song
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By then the Westboro church folks were long gone, preparing for their
big night and the moment they briefly caught Sean Penn's eye.
(Photos by Steven Mikulan)