The impact of in-person encounters: Topeka 2023

While Topeka, Kansas may not be high on everyone’s list of travel destinations, I was thrilled when Dr. Gray invited me to conduct field work interviewing members of the Westboro Baptist Church. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to challenge my perspectives and improve my research skills in a unique setting. I have been a research intern with the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” for almost 2 years. Through my work, I have practiced critical distance by taking the position of a non judgemental outsider and learned how to avoid using prescriptive language by refraining from making moral or theological statements. I was surprised by how much I felt that having possessed these skills benefited me when interacting with church members in person. 

One of the most fascinating parts of the field work was noticing how my preconceived notions of the church members were contradicted by how I felt when interacting with them in person. The church has historically had a significant amount of representation in the media in response to their public protesting and anti-LGBT, anti-military, and anti-Catholic beliefs. I had seen videos of Westboro Baptists shouting homophobic slurs and other controversial language, which caused me to expect hostile and rude behavior from the church members. To my surprise, many of them were excited to engage in conversations and let us see a glimpse of their lives. We were often greeted with hospitality; one church member, Margie Phelps, even offered us homemade zucchini muffins when we interviewed her in her home. This simple gesture made me feel welcomed in an environment in which I would typically feel rather uncomfortable, as I was in a stranger’s home with a woman whom I had no idea how to interact with. Over the course of 4 days in Topeka, I learned practical skills, such as how to foster productive conversations and ask probing questions that will lead our team to develop connections with the church members. I also developed less tangible skills, as I tuned into my emotions and found ways to relate to those with whom I disagree. I have surrounded myself with like-minded individuals for my whole life, and I realize now how important it is for me to go out of my way to expose myself to other perspectives, cultures, and lifestyles. 

As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy “small talk”, I knew that this research would be out of my comfort zone, as I was challenged to engage with people with whom I thought I had nothing in common. However, ultimately this challenge allowed me to learn more about myself and others. I gained confidence in my own abilities as an interviewer, researcher, and team member. I expected to struggle to come up with questions to ask, and I dreaded the inevitable awkward pause in a conversation. To my surprise, I found that the opposite was true, and I usually had a hard time stepping back to give someone else a turn. We collected over 10 hours of interview footage, plus many more minutes spent engaging in side conversations between our scheduled meetings, and I was easily able to maintain engagement the entire time and often felt like I played an active role in the discussions.

I felt the greatest sense of empathy on this trip during moments when I sensed familiarity. One night, we went to Shirley Phelps’ (WBC member) house for dinner with her family. I was transported back to my childhood, and I immediately thought about how my family would attend dinner parties at neighbors’ houses. I was reminded of being forced to hang out with kids I didn’t know well, and how we always found ways to play together and have fun. At Shirley’s, we chatted with 3 of her sons (and a fiance) about all kinds of things, such as the current popular movies, school courses, and even anime. It was a situation so unique in nature that I know I would likely never experience this again, and I found myself feeling sad as we left the get together because I had felt a personal connection with these people who I had just met. That evening, I felt empathy as the evident familiarity reminded me of the many life experiences that I did share with the WBC members, who I had initially perceived as so different from me. 

We had the unique opportunity to travel with church members to Kansas City for a picket, which presented the opportunity to converse in the car for a few hours. I rode in the car with Tim Phelps and several other students, and I was surprised by the familiarity I felt at that moment. Going into the car ride, I was nervous as I expected not to have any idea what to talk about. I soon realized that I had done this a million times before – it reminded me exactly of riding in the back seat of my friends’ parents’ cars as we carpooled to after school activities. The small talk about weather, local sports, and electric cars felt like a conversation that I could have had with anyone’s Dad, and I felt a personal connection with Tim as I was reminded of many relationships I have in my own life. Looking back, the reason that I was nervous was due to the preconceived notion that I could never have a comfortable conversation with Tim Phelps in a casual setting because we have extremely different values and ways of life. The experience led me to modify the judgments that I had made, and I was able to see a side of Tim that was different from what the public typically sees. 

One of my main takeaways from this trip is that you cannot pretend people who are different from you don’t exist and that having different values does not make someone less of a person. It is incredibly important for me to immerse myself in difficult, uncomfortable, and unique situations so that I can not only enhance my empathy for others but also to learn more about myself and grow as an individual. There were certainly times during my time at Westboro that I felt extremely out of place, such as when everyone mingled after the church students and several other students and I had to nudge our way into conversations. At times, the trip felt emotionally draining and I found myself nervous of saying the wrong thing, but I adjusted to this feeling and became more comfortable as the weekend progressed. I enjoyed working with all of the other ERE student researchers on the team, and we learned a lot from each other in various ways throughout the trip. The team was composed of a variety of different people, including from science majors like myself, humanities majors, and a Miami graduate. Our unique identities and interests led us to have a variety of perspectives when we discussed and analyzed each day’s activities, and we built up a sense of trust with each other as we collectively processed our emotions. 

Relating to WBC sisters Kathy and Shirley

With groups as controversial as Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), it can be easy to focus solely on divisive beliefs. WBC members are known to the general public for sharing controversial messages about God and the LGBTQ+ community. Despite this, WBC members’ vulnerability and openness in over a decade of interviews with Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” (ERE)  has allowed our team to access a uniquely human perspective on their lived experiences. In Kathy and Shirley Phelps’ interview in the summer of 2022, both sisters openly reflect on personal memories of their late mother (Marge Phelps, wife to WBC founder, Pastor Fred Phelps Sr.), sharing their emotional experience caring for her during her last few months. I was surprised to see them become deeply emotional throughout the conversation, describing  shockingly relatable experiences. 

Though many people take on a caretaker role for an elderly parent at some point in their lives, it is seldom discussed in casual conversation due to the sensitive nature of the subject. I would have expected Kathy and Shirley to deflect such emotionally probing topics and avoid talking about personal matters. However, they willingly opened up about their own experiences caring for their mother as she grew older. These women demonstrated vulnerability, not just with each other, but also with the interviewers. The majority of their personal memories were noticeably intertwined with religion. For example, when talking about her mother’s fading memory, Shirley highlights the fact that even when she forgot other things such as the names of her grandchildren, she always remembered every detail about scripture. Similarly, Kathy mentions that she read to her mother during the last few days, specifically passages from the Bible “that would comfort her”. Later, Shirley talks about a scripture app she used to share with her mom, sharing that she can no longer use this specific app because it makes her feel too sad. 

These repetitive mentions of scripture demonstrate the value placed upon religion by Shirley and her mother, especially given that her mother’s longest memories were in regards to religious beliefs. Other memories shared also strongly highlight the importance of family in their lives. Despite the underlying sadness in the conversation tone during this interview, Shirley maintained a mood of positivity, especially when discussing how helpful it was to have all of the family members working together. She described the various ways her sisters helped, such as with her mother’s meal planning and nutrition. It is clear that her sisters continue to provide her a strong support system and community. 

I found it especially moving when ERE team member, Jason, shared his own personal story relating to caring for his father, reflecting on a similar memory he remembered when speaking with Kathy and Shirley. Hearing Jason’s memory, Jason, Shirley, and Kathy collectively reflect upon the responsibilities of caring for a parent who is becoming forgetful, seeming to bond over their experiences of this stressful yet common life event. When I was reviewing the footage of this interview, I was moved by the personal connection that this emotional discussion led to, thanks to Kathy and Shirley’s vulnerability and willingness to open up. I found myself personally relating to the emotions they felt as I reflected on my own aging family members, and was surprised to find myself relating so deeply to their experiences. Scott, another ERE team member, recalled how Shirley’s vulnerability made him feel comfortable about opening up about his own feelings during the conversation. When asked about this specific moment months later, he shared, “Because she had already talked about her own experiences, it made it a lot easier for me to tell her a bit about some of the hardships I had gone through with my own mother. When Shirley and Kathy decided to take on the role of opening up emotionally in the discussion, it made it easier for everyone else to do the same!”

Kathy and Shirley were physically moved during the interview, as their voices broke up and tears were shed while they attempted to put their feelings into words. They clearly reflected deeply in order to answer our questions with great consideration, as evidenced by long pauses before responding to questions and pensive facial expressions. 

Yet Differences in Kathy and Shirley’s personalities were exhibited through different behaviors throughout the interview. Notably, they demonstrated by varying ways of managing the discomfort in emotional reflection. Kathy continuously played with her hands, exhibiting anxious behaviors as the conversation progressed to a deeper emotional level. She teared up when recalling how she was separated from her mother for a period of time, struggling to find words to express her emotions until she simply stated, “I mainly cry because I miss her”. While this emotional discussion seemed to make Kathy a little bit uncomfortable, she did not deflect questions and instead openly expresses her emotions. Kathy remained quieter throughout the interview, yet Shirley rarely held back when she had thoughts to share. Shirley also became emotional, seen when she too teared up, but she lightened the mood through humor. Speaking to both parents’ passing, she joked, “Now I’m an orphan. I’m an old orphan, but I’m an orphan”. The use of humor may demonstrate her comfort in the interview environment, but could indicate a strategy to distract from the sadness that she feels, as she appeared quickly ready to switch conversation topics as soon as she is able to. Another ERE team member, Annalise, described her own reflection to the emotions expressed in this interview – “I completely understand that caretaking is a gratifying and healing, yet frustrating and painful experience. It is a hard adjustment when the person who used to take care of you is now the one being taken care of, and there’s a mixture of emotions involved. In that way I think it was easy for me to relate to Shirley and Kathy’s feelings, because they are complex and often indescribable, and so is a lot of life.” 

Groups may be dehumanized when their emotions are not acknowledged, such as is often seen in the case of the WBC. While it can be much easier to separate yourself from people that you refuse to relate to in any way, this leads to a divisive culture that will ultimately only become further polarized. Practicing critical distance in situations such as interviewing the WBC members allows our team to have productive and insightful conversations. By approaching subjects from a non-judgemental and academic standpoint, we are able to facilitate a conversation in which our team can focus on lived experiences rather than controversial theologies. Interacting with people on an emotional level can be an excellent exercise in empathy and will help bridge the gap between people with different views. It is inevitable that groups of people will disagree on values and beliefs, but connecting with others in a way that reveals their emotional vulnerability may reduce hostility and result in an overall more empathic environment.

By Emily Ennis, intern, Miami University

What Westboro Baptists Have Taught Me About Empathy

“Hold on – you’re studying who to learn what?

For the past three months, I’ve been on the receiving end of quite a few baffled looks and dumbfounded questions. They’re all in response to one statement: “I’m studying members of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in order to learn about empathy”. 

The Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” Project (ERE) is an ethnographic-style research endeavor led by Dr. Hillel Gray, a professor of Jewish Studies at Miami University. For over ten years, ERE has been conducting interviews with members of profoundly controversial religious groups (like WBC) in an effort to understand their lived experiences as fellow human beings. Interviewers practice non-judgmental, critical-empathic listening in order to build relationships with individuals who are often hated and dehumanized by members of the larger society. WBC is known for spreading anti-LGBT, anti-Judaism, and anti-Evangelical messaging, and such behaviors have typically been disagreed upon by the general public. 

If you’re like most people I’ve explained this project to, you might be asking yourself, Why would anyone want to empathize with the Westboro Baptist Church? They say such awful things! If so, allow me to clarify: Practicing empathic listening toward these groups does not mean affirming or condoning their religious beliefs or practices, but rather acknowledging the full humanity of people who have been vilified and ostracized by those outside their communities. 

As a student researcher for the ERE project, my role was to develop an inquiry question regarding the way WBC members understand and express empathy. I then selected relevant interview segments and used qualitative data analysis software to explore my question: What type(s) of empathy do female WBC members practice in their workplaces? I compared nurse Jael (Phelps) Holroyd, massage therapist Rachel Hockenbarger, and correction officer Abigail Phelps in order to understand how the nature of each woman’s job may influence the type(s) of empathy she exhibits toward her patients, clients, and coworkers, respectively. Below, I share a few of my findings on empathy in the hopes that you may better understand the value of practicing empathy in their own conversations with perceived “enemies.”

    Empathy looks different from person to person. 

    Think about the last time you tried to understand another person’s feelings: Did you watch their body language for clues? Did you analyze what they said to understand their state of mind? Did you picture yourself in their shoes? Although they all represent a form of empathy, each of these strategies requires different degrees of mental, emotional, and even physical engagement as a means of discerning another person’s emotional state.

    My study of Jael, Rachel, and Abigail has taught me that different situations require different forms of empathy. As a massage therapist, for example, Rachel regularly practices embodied empathy, where physical contact enables her to understand her clients’ stress and pain without verbal conversation. Perhaps what is most intriguing is Hockenbarger’s reflections on her own use of empathy. She explains that she enjoys her job because of the emotional catharsis that takes place during a massage: “It’s emotional. I do sympathize with them and empathize with them…and it’s very physical. And so I think that’s probably why I like it. It’s therapeutic for me, or relaxing for me.” Hockenbarger’s description of giving massages as “therapeutic” indicates a profound level of empathic identification with her clients, in that relieving her clients’ pain and stress offers Hockenbarger a physical sense of release. 

    In a 2016 interview, Jael (Phelps) Holroyd responds to a question regarding how she is able to understand people outside the church and see things from their perspective. Holroyd uses sensory words to describe the experience of relating to her patients, saying, “You hear things about people, you see that they’re in pain…and you see it from their eyes” (emphasis mine). These observations suggest that Holroyd is attuned to her patients’ physical expressions of their emotions, particularly when they are suffering. Her description aligns with Aaltola’s definition of embodied empathy, which occurs when “one immediately perceives the mental states of others on account of the expressiveness of the body.” Holroyd’s use of embodied empathy makes sense, given her role as a nurse: she is expected to be able to understand and meet her patient’s needs, even when patients cannot fully vocalize those needs. 

    Abigail Phelps works as a corrections officer – a role that involves working with law, justice, and order. As a result, she tends to exhibit more distant, intellectually-based forms of empathy, including cognitive and projective. For example, when asked to describe her relationship with a coworker, Phelps used cognitive terms rather than emotional ones: “She is a puzzlement, there’s no question, unless you know all the pieces. And I finally have all the pieces, so now I understand exactly why she is the way she is the way she is.” Phelps’s description of her supervisor as a “puzzlement” indicates that Phelps is making an intellectual effort to understand her, which she feels she is able to accomplish only once she has all the “pieces” of the puzzle. By “pieces,” she is referring to knowledge of the events and experiences that have shaped her supervisor’s current personality and actions – namely, Phelps believes, her relationship with an abusive father. She further explains that gaining knowledge from her coworker’s experiences helped her to better understand her behavior.

    My research revealed that each form of empathy can help you connect with the people around you in a unique way. The next time you’re struggling to understand another person’s opinion or perspective, consider your own strengths, as well as the circumstances of the situation, in order to determine the best approach for emotionally connecting with the person in front of you. 

    We more readily empathize with individuals instead of groups because we relate to their emotional experiences 

    The WBC’s protests of such culturally “sacred” events as soldiers’ funerals have left many with the impression that members are insensitive to or unconcerned with the feelings of others. Despite this public perception, in a private interview setting, I saw a gentler side of individual church members that most people never get to witness on the picket lines.

    I saw Jael cry for the suffering of her patients; Rachel cry for a client who’d just lost a child; Abigail cry for a coworker’s abusive upbringing. I saw that, though these women publicly condemn large groups of people as sinners (including soldiers, homosexuals, and Jews), they have a deep capacity for empathy towards these people in personal, individual relationships – a capacity that extends even to those who oppose and persecute their church. For example, Hockenbarger specifically recalls having given massages to homosexuals she had seen on the picket lines, concluding, “And I empathize with them. They need a massage too: they’re under a lot of stress.” Just as it was easier for WBC members to display compassion and vulnerability in one-on-one interactions, I found that it was also easier for me to feel empathy toward these individual members, rather than trying to empathize with the church as a whole.

    In our increasingly divisive climate, it is all too easy to perceive a large group of people as a nameless, faceless, unfeeling mob. However, listening to individuals’ personal stories humanizes them. Finding common ground with one’s political “enemies,” begins with recognizing that the person in front of you is not merely an extension of a larger political entity, but a real human being with thoughts and feelings as complex as your own. 

    Empathy builds bridges.

    Abortion. Immigration. Same-sex marriage. I must confess that, when I think about the depths of hostility and prejudice that exist around our nation’s most controversial debates, I often feel a profound sense of hopelessness. How can we reach a compromise if we can’t hear one another over the shouting? How can we ever move forward if the only perspective we’ve ever considered is our own? One thing I know for certain: pride, self-assurance, and vilifying our enemies just aren’t cutting it. It’s time we try a new approach. 

    Empathy enables us to comprehend the lived experiences of others in profound ways. It allows us to see from another person’s perspective, while still maintaining our own moral values. The ERE Project defines empathy as “emotion-centered understanding” and proposes relationship-building as a way to reduce the prejudice and division that currently plague our political and cultural climate. 

    In the end, the point is not to change our research subjects, but rather to teach ourselves and society to be more empathetic and thoughtful when it comes to hearing multiple perspectives. Though I may not agree with many of the beliefs and actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, through working on this project, I have gained a deeper understanding of people I once found utterly incomprehensible. This realization gives me hope that empathy could help bridge the gaps in society that have for so long been tearing us apart. 

    Written by: Jessie Hicks

    Edited by: Emily Ennis, Cheryl Leow

    From Class to Research: Lessons Learned in REL 101

    “Understanding concepts such as internal diversity and critical distance have allowed me to explore relationships of people within religious communities in depth and gain valuable perspectives regarding various oppositional religious groups”

    – Emily Ennis

    When I registered to take REL 101 to fulfill my honors requirement, fall semester of my freshman year, I certainly did not foresee religious studies becoming a significant part of my academic experience at Miami. I’ve always been very passionate about science classes, and I am majoring in biology and pre-med with the goal of becoming a physician in the future. However, as we delved into topics such as evaluating personal biases and prescriptive writing skills, I became fascinated with the nuance of religious studies. I was very intrigued by the impact religion has on society, as people form communities around shared beliefs and values. I wanted to keep exploring these topics, and I eagerly joined Dr. Gray’s team a few months later to work on both the Preaching Goes Viral (PGV) and Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” (ERE) projects. In REL 101, I developed foundational skills such as implementing critical distance and considering internal diversity. Understanding these concepts has allowed me to explore relationships of people within religious communities in depth and as a result, gain valuable perspectives regarding various oppositional religious groups. I anticipate that developing these skills will be incredibly beneficial in my future career, as the ability to see others’ perspectives and employ critical distance are principal elements of patient care. 

    In REL 101, we spent a great deal of time exploring the concept of critical distance. This concept describes one’s ability to step back and attempt to understand a situation without allowing personal biases to get in the way. When practicing critical distance, I have found it extremely important to recognize my own situatedness, as social, environmental, and cultural factors all play a role in my personal perspectives and beliefs. By acknowledging my internal biases, I can become more aware of topics that I may have strong opinions on, as well as the root of those opinions. This consciousness allows me to avoid letting my personal beliefs interfere with good research and present our findings without biases. Employing critical distance can be especially difficult when a topic is highly controversial or may induce strong emotional reactions. However, I am continually learning to distance myself from those opinions while conducting research in order to present our research in an unbiased manner. 

    Another concept that we discussed in class is internal diversity, which refers to recognizing the fact that while group members may share certain beliefs, there is likely a significant amount of variation within the group. Often, we overgeneralize groups of people without even realizing it. When we fail to recognize internal diversity, we may jump to conclusions about an individual’s beliefs, background, or identity. We studied a sermon by Asian-America rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, who reflected on her experiences with racism in her own community. In the sermon, Buchdahl described several instances of discrimination she has faced due to her Asian descent, such as others being surprised to find out that she is Jewish. It shocked me how Buchdahl recalled that many people she interacts with are quick to discredit her status as a rabbi simply because she is Asian-American. It was interesting to see people lacking such respect for others who may look different even though they were a part of the same religious community. Stereotypes can so often lead to false perceptions and insensitive comments, and this can be dangerous in the diverse society we live in. By recognizing internal diversity within groups, I hope to minimize stereotypes in my work and instead acknowledge the unique individual identities of people.

    In the ERE project, we interview individual members of religious groups, such as Westboro Baptist Church. It is very interesting to hear members’ unique perspectives, and while they share many of the same religious beliefs they each have individual experiences and differences that shape their identities. Many of my initial thoughts of controversial groups such as WBC have shifted due to this research, as focusing on individuals’ perspectives allows me to see the humanity in each person rather than viewing the group as a whole. 

    My involvement with both the PGV and ERE projects have allowed me to explore the nuanced relationships within religious groups and expand my knowledge of various religious groups. Specifically through the ERE project, I have learned the value in understanding humanity and having empathy for all people, regardless of their beliefs. Learning to relate to others who may seem extremely different from myself has led me to become a more empathic person in my daily life, and I am grateful for the lessons that I have learned throughout my involvement with this project. 

    Emily Ennis (she/her) is a freshman Biology/Pre-med major at Miami University. After taking Intro to Religion last fall, she became very interested in the Preaching Goes Viral and Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” projects. She is looking forward to continuing her work from class, and is excited to explore topics so different from her science major. She greatly values learning about other cultures and religions, and is hoping to gain new perspectives through her work. In her free time, Emily enjoys rowing for the Miami club team, cooking, and painting.

    What have I learned about empathy from Empathy and the Religious “Enemy?” 

    What is empathy? I asked some of my close friends and family, and their responses included “a person’s  ability to feel for and  understand how someone is feeling with what they are going through” and “understanding and feeling the feelings that someone else is experiencing.” Empathy is a natural ability possessed by certain individuals; a person is either empathetic towards others, or not. 

    Before joining the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” team, I would have said something similar. Empathy was an innate ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes, feeling how I thought they would feel, especially in tough times. I’ve always believed that we can choose how we behave around others, how we react to contention, but it’s a lot harder to choose  how we feel about the most skin-prickling situations. 

    Since joining the team, I’ve learned that empathy can also be a skill in need of practice. Empathy requires the ability to put emotional distance between myself and another person, while continuing to perceive and pursue a shared human experience. While I myself haven’t yet made a trip to visit the oppositional groups (Westboro Baptist Church and Neturei Karta), I read and discuss their beliefs and material on an almost daily basis with these projects. I appreciate the methodology behind our interactions with oppositional groups and what is often perceived as extreme and hateful language. Their beliefs and controversial language aren’t the focus of the project, even though they are often unavoidable. When interacting with each person, we look to go beyond their beliefs, focusing on their experiences, their feelings, their community. The most controversial religious groups, such as Westboro Baptist Church, still consist of parents, children, grandparents, employees, gardeners, musicians, and more, who claim to be working hard on behalf of their communities, families, and selves. They may employ controversial language to talk about their firm beliefs, but that does not mean that I cannot choose to employ empathy when encountering their practices and persons. 

    The skill of empathy isn’t easily taught in writing or in speech, but in practice with a team that is committed to the same goal. That’s what I find paramount about what Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” is doing. This project isn’t just collecting data or meeting controversial religious groups, Dr. Hillel Gray is building a system that teaches how to interact with everyone with respect and dignity. We learn to listen without disagreeing, and accept disagreement without antagonizing. In this way, I am learning how descriptors and interactions with oppositional groups often sustain a feedback loop of opposition and even attempted dehumanization, and how to counter this cycle. This is not only applicable in working with oppositional groups, but with every single person I meet. 

    Empathy as a skill is extremely valuable in a multitude of situations. With the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project, we are looking to train ourselves to recognize our mutual human experiences with individuals who espouse controversial religious beliefs. I’ve found empathy useful to reframe my own thinking both of oppositional groups and in my daily life. I look to employ empathic thinking  when hearing negative assumptions about others. In practicing empathy for Westboro Baptist Church and Neturei Karta members, I am seeking to improve the way I speak around others about anything, from families, religion, politics, and more. 

    Individual people aren’t caricatures. Each of us can’t be summarized into three or four belief statements. The more effort we put into practicing empathy, the more I believe we will be able to connect with each other and educate ourselves on the vast differences across the human experience. I may never agree with many of an oppositional group’s beliefs and statements, but, with practice, I can see the humanity in each individual, despite how they may speak. In this, I am hopeful that Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” can continue to teach myself and others to connect with each other to bridge ideological differences. 

    Cheryl joined the team in the Spring of 2022 to continue pursuing religion in an academic sense, having graduated with degrees in religious studies from the University of Virginia in 2017 and 2018.

    Alumni Essay: Why am I a part of Empathy and the Religious “Enemy”?

    The last trip that I took before the pandemic hit was to the Westboro Baptist Church. I remember driving to the airport on a frigid Wisconsin morning before the sun had risen, thinking to myself, “I guess today’s a great day to meet some Westboro Baptists.” On my nearly empty connecting flight to Kansas City, I ended up seated a few rows away from a fellow trip member, and we exchanged anxious chit chat as we completed our journey. After a productive, exhausting, frustrating, exhilarating, week in Topeka, I returned to the East Coast for my second semester of graduate school in January 2020, not knowing my time at the Westboro Baptist Church that winter would stick with me for more reasons than one.

    I’ve been involved in the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project for the past six years, and people always ask me why. Why did you join in the first place? Why go back time and again? I don’t have a well-contained answer to these questions, but I think that my actions speak to a possible conclusion. Although I wasn’t able to attend the most recent Westboro trip in June of 2022, my absence wasn’t for lack of interest; I have a strong feeling that my future may hold a fourth trip to the Westboro Baptist Church.  

    To dig into an explanation a little deeper, I think that what fascinates me the most about experiences like the one that the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” provides is the opportunity to move past the surface level of a dominant societal narrative and investigate how its subjects defy—and reinforce—that narrative. In addition, I like to joke that because I’ve talked with the Westboro Baptist Church, I can talk to anyone. My ability to sit in conflict and investigate its origins without fleeing from the tension that those situations inevitably produce has increased at least tenfold. Ultimately, my work with the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project has taught me that everyone contains moral contradictions, and what we do with the ethical discomfort that those contradictions provide is what determines the effectiveness of our advocacy.

    However, the most valuable aspect of my past six years with this project has, hands down, been the relationships that I’ve cultivated with the dozens of fellow researchers and collaborators with whom I’ve worked. Traveling with my peers and witnessing how they engage with interviewees and with other members of the team has made me a more thoughtful questioner, a more engaged listener, and (hopefully) a more generous team member, and I am a better person for having spent time doing fieldwork with these colleagues-turned-friends.

    Throughout the years, I’ve seen the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project change, and I’ve seen the Westboro Baptist Church change, too. I’ve witnessed the ebb and flow of membership rates as people have left and joined both the project and the church, and I’ve watched both institutions grapple with the enormous changes brought on by the pandemic. Even prior to the pandemic, Westboro had begun adopting a gentler set of messaging (yet still intensely homophobic, transphobic, and antisemitic, to be clear), particularly within their picketing signs. By mid-2022, both non-Westboro Topekans and Westboro members themselves noted Westboro’s decreased picketing presence. In other words, the pandemic has offered Westboro an opportunity to travel less both locally and nationally to spread their picketing message, and they have seized that opportunity to be less public-facing in this particular moment.

    So, too has the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” taken a changed approach that was brought on in part by the pandemic. After embarking on a year-and-a-half-long hiatus at the beginning of the pandemic, the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project has effectively rebooted and is slowly rebuilding its team and refocusing its mission. As the need for good public scholarship has, at once, been sharply highlighted and sharply denigrated by higher education budget cuts, right-wing attacks on schools at all levels, and decreased bandwidth from both faculty and students brought on by pandemic burnout, the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project is attempting to rise to meet that challenge. The trip to Westboro this past June was only the first step of many in achieving those ends.

    Going forward, I can only anticipate what the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” will accomplish as its members deepen research connections to the Westboro Baptist Church and Neturei Karta and develop new ones with other oppositional religious groups. As the United States continues to navigate the incredibly fraught social and political climate that we currently find ourselves in, I have no doubt that the work of the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project will continue to resonate strongly with an ever-growing audience. 

    Margaret joined the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project in 2017 and has traveled to the Westboro Baptist Church three times, in 2017, 2018, and 2020. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School (2021) and Miami University (2019). 

    Alumni Essay: Breaking Empathic Boundaries

    By Sofia Vlahakos (Miami University ’20)

    When an institution finds itself on the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing schedule, its community often does not know how to respond or prepare for the church’s impending demonstration. When adherents of the church arrived at USC in February 2020, over 50 students and faculty gathered to peacefully counter-protest the group. While this is certainly a better approach than, say, throwing hot coffee at them— what if we tried something different? 

    What if we actually engaged the Westboro Baptist Church in conversation? 
    I spent winter break of 2020 in Topeka, Kansas, doing just that. I was conducting fieldwork as a student research assistant participating in the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project, conceptualized and led by Hillel Gray, an assistant professor of teaching in the Comparative Religion department at Miami University, where I was a senior at the time. Every day for almost a week we interviewed members of the Westboro Baptist Church. As part of the project’s now decade-long, and ongoing, research, our goal was to learn everything we could about their lives outside of their religious beliefs. Core to our research approach was listening to what they told us without judgment. 

    Before I became part of this research team and before meeting Dr. Gray, my perception of Westboro, like most, was largely shaped by the media. I can remember being a high schooler watching WBC adherents on the news and being baffled by what I perceived as their insensitivity. I wondered how anyone could bring themselves to do the things Westboro was doing. 

    In 2018, as a newcomer to the project, I didn’t really know what to expect on my first trip to Topeka. Despite my mental and emotional preparation, I felt very anxious when the time finally came to sit down face-to-face with Jonathan Phelps, one of the church’s eight pastors. 

    However, the minute our interview began, Jonathan’s genuine openness and humor made my uneasiness quickly subside. 

    Sitting in front of me was a man who society told me—even encouraged me—to hate, and here he was choking up trying to tell us about how he felt knowing his young client may never live out the future she had envisioned. Jonathan was responding emotionally to his work as a juvenile criminal defense attorney. It was clear he truly cares about his work and the impact it has on the people affected. 

    I felt for Jonathan, and I felt for his client, as he grew tearful recalling a particularly devastating case. This clear emotional investment in his advocacy efforts struck me because it flies in the face of the widely accepted perception of the Westboro Baptist Church—that its adherents are completely devoid of empathy. 

    This perceived contradiction in Jonathan interests me as both a researcher and a fellow human, especially given my own career aspirations in the area of family law. This contradiction has also created some conflict within me as I continuously struggle to integrate my personal understanding of Jonathan and of his emotions with the very real emotional harm the Westboro Baptist Church causes others. 

    My involvement in Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” has afforded me this unique, and often challenging, opportunity to investigate empathy in the context of controversial religious groups. With three trips to Topeka now under my belt and hours spent analyzing the interview data collected, I feel confident in the ability of this research approach to understand the humanity and the lived experiences of these “enemies” of society. 

    The project defines empathy as emotion-centered understanding, not sympathy or approval of another’s beliefs or actions. Through this process, and in accordance with one of the goals of our project, I have developed an understanding of the importance of nonjudgmental, empathic listening. 

    Interestingly enough, these very concepts of understanding and empathic listening were clearly reflected in Jonathan’s own approach to the practice of law. Jonathan has maintained his discipline to these concepts in what is arguably one of the more emotionally taxing environments and areas of law to work in day to day. 

    Even a cursory analysis of the project’s research interviews with Jonathan over the past few years reveals his emotional attachment to his clients and their cases. Like a concerned father, he was focused on meeting their immediate needs while keeping an eye on their ability to move forward and have future success. Jonathan is keenly aware of the position of trust he occupies with these minors and the importance of listening to them without imparting judgment. Through empathy, he is able to understand—and takes very seriously—the role he plays in their lives. 

    For many of his clients, this may be the first time that someone is actually listening to what they have to say and what they may want for their future.

    The way he describes his client interactions reveals that Jonathan possesses the emotional capacity necessary to be an effective advocate; he has the ability to see his clients as people, defined by far more than their case number and alleged offense. This is a critical quality that all juvenile defense attorneys should have and might not—either because they do not possess the ability to empathize sufficiently or this ability has dissipated over the course of time. 

    Based on the manner in which Westboro chooses to picket and who/what they speak out against, it might be supposed that they don’t care about people they disagree with and never gave regard for their feelings. From my experience speaking with Jonathan and many of his siblings, who also handle troubling domestic cases, this could not be further from the truth. Regardless of a client’s background or offense or religious affiliation, Jonathan is able to separate himself from his personal beliefs and be an effective advocate. We found this professionalism and consideration for others in the workplace to be true of the other church members we spoke to as well.  

    Empathy is a surprising thing to find in a place where most people don’t believe it exists. 

    Gaining this understanding of Jonathan not only changed my perception of him as a person, but deepened the personal significance I place on our research project as a whole. Had I not been able to listen to Jonathan with empathy, unable to set aside my own biases and feelings, then it is quite possible I may have only ever been able to achieve a surface-level understanding of him. 

    Likewise, Jonathan’s receptiveness through the course of our interviews, even when the topic of discussion made him step out of his comfort zone, has given me much to work with in my effort to deepen my understanding of rapport-building, which is instrumental to this research — and any broader attempt to understand others with whom one might not immediately see eye to eye or find consensus.

    Though engaging with empathy is not always easy, it remains essential to our interactions both personally and professionally. The value of understanding where someone is coming from through relationship-building cannot be stressed enough, especially in light of the divisiveness which characterizes the climate of our nation today. It is my hope that by listening to each other and learning how our experiences shape us, we can begin to diminish these divides and solidify the foundation upon which productive, meaningful interactions can occur.

    Sofia Vlahakos (Miami University ’20) is in her final year of law school at the University of Houston Law Center in her hometown of Houston, Texas and plans to become a family lawyer when she graduates.  Sofia is a Miami alum who was involved with the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” Project for three years as a Miami student which included multiple trips to the Westboro Baptist Church. Her experience as a research assistant on the project has played a major role in her decision to pursue a legal career and provide legal services to people of all religious backgrounds and beliefs.

    Student Essay: A Tool for Humanization

    In these essays, students reflect upon the study of radical religious groups, including qualitative data analysis of video interviews, through an upper level course at Miami University.

    Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” — A Tool for Humanization

    Coming into the first day of class, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of “Empathy and the Religious ‘Enemy’” except a large amount of work and the stress that was bound to follow.  In walked Dr. Hillel Gray, and I don’t think I had ever had a professor be so enthusiastic about a class. Though, I soon asked myself, “what have you gotten yourself into?” 

     I had no real experience in coding videos or analyzing those videos in any sort of significant way, and this was a hefty part of the requirements for our final paper and most of the class was based around this.  I was already in too deep to back out now, so I began going through the hours of interviews from Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian group that is often thought of as hateful and intolerant by mainstream society and is a part of Dr. Gray’s ongoing research project based around the idea of empathizing with those who may have radically different opinions and perspectives.  

    As I was studying one of the elders of the church, Jonathan Phelps, I began to realize that there was more to these people than what is seen in the media.  This is precisely the goal of the project, not to create change of any kind in the subjects of the research, but rather to change the researcher’s, and by extension larger society’s, understanding and ability to relate to an “oppositional Other.”  

    Jonathan Phelps is the son of Fred Phelps Sr., the original head and founder of Westboro Baptist Church. Through my own research, I had the opportunity to analyze the ways in which he conceptualizes empathy, and if this is the way that he puts it into practice. This analysis uncovered the connection between his religious ideology and how he is conceptualizing empathy, as well as the ways empathy may look different when “put into action,” so to speak.  

    In conceptualizing empathy, Jonathan expressed a view that members of the church should not feel empathy fully toward outsiders of the church because of the possibility that it might cause them to accept the sins of that person, which is based largely on the doctrinal teachings of the church. Yet, when he was speaking about outsiders, and especially clients that he works with as a juvenile defender, he was able to express deep feelings of empathy and compassion, sometimes being brought to tears as he was discussing specific client’s cases.  This potentially was the cause of some tension I observed, when in some instances he would try to change the topic of conversation when he was beginning to get emotional.  

    Viewing Jonathan through this analytical lens of conceptual and practical empathy has helped me to expand my understanding of what empathy means, as well as practicing critical distance when analyzing interview footage.  Of course, there were moments where he would express theological or moral viewpoints, but I was able to work on suspending judgement and approaching the research in an unbiased way.

    Despite these findings and reflections, some may still wonder why we are doing this research.  Why would we give voice to a group that is widely thought to have hateful rhetoric? Why might we subject our researchers to this potentially harmful viewpoint (considering they often express anti-LGBTQ and anti-military opinions)?  It is a vast misconception of this project that we are sympathizing with any of these groups, or giving voice to their theological opinion. Empathy requires no moral requirement for action, and it doesn’t involve feeling pity, compassion, or sorrow for the situation that a person is in.  On the contrary, our empathic approach is about creating a cognitive and affective understanding of how they are feeling, with the goal of simply understanding their humanity and lived experiences. This could contribute to a process of humanization, which is one of the most relevant implications of this sort of methodology in our modern society.  There is often a tendency to dehumanize and villainize anyone who may be thought of as an “enemy” in any context. This can cause us to take them down to a lower status, thus making it easier to take a position of apathy or even opposition to their general welfare. Non-judgmental empathic listening has the potential to humanize those who are vilified and seen as the “enemy”, as well as giving the opportunity to forge relationships with these people allowing for enhancement of the research.  

    The broader results of the project also have the potential to dispel prejudices and stereotypes through the nature of its relationship-building methodology.  By getting to know individual participants of groups which are often deemed hateful, it’s easier to see that they aren’t all of the stereotypes that are put on the whole group.  Creating familiarity and cognitive understanding of the empathy and emotions of people provides a greater ability to see them not as those stereotypes, but as who they are, and as more fully as human.  Practically, this sort of research and methodology can be helpful in having civil conversations with those who may have a different opinion. It is no shock that we live in an increasingly divisive and politically and socially polarized society, so a critical empathic approach has the potential to change the ways in which different political parties have civil discourse around issues that they differ on.  Despite being somewhat controversial research, it could be really helpful to see how those whom we see as “other” are treated as lesser, and make efforts to show that they are just people, too.  

    Student Essay: Reflecting on Difference

    In these essays, students reflect upon the study of radical religious groups, including qualitative data analysis of video interviews, through an upper level course at Miami University.

    As children grow older, they often begin to differ from how parents expect them to be. Whether they choose to differ politically, religiously, or make an uncanny career path for themselves, it can be hard to believe that a person we have cared for and known for so long can choose against what they have been taught, but it is a common occurrence. Ideologies and beliefs change as people gain more experience in the world and are exposed to different people and cultures. Almost everybody can think of someone who has changed drastically from the way they were brought up. In fact, a 2015 study of American religious identification, the Pew Research Center found that 42% of Americans identify in a religious group that is different from what they practiced in childhood. In situations represented by this data, it can be hard to understand why a loved one would leave what was once agreed upon by the family. This affects many American families, including those of the Westboro Baptist Church. 

    Known for their anti-homosexual picketing and protesting of veteran funerals, the Westboro Baptist Church is a small congregation consisting of just a few families. The tight-knit group that is the Westboro Baptist Church places faith as priority over family.  Here, changing one’s religious beliefs does not simply lead to awkward thanksgiving meals like others, rather it means a complete separation from the familial community they have been with their whole life. Them having beliefs and rituals considered oppositional to the larger American population, it is easy for outsiders to imagine a desire to distance oneself from this group, and there have been some notable cases of this happening among their community. For example, you might have heard names like Sharon Phelps and Lauren Drain in the past, as they have gained some press writing personal memoirs after leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. 

    I drew my attention of Westboro through the project named “Empathy and the Religious Enemy,” headed by Miami University assistant professor Dr. Hillel Gray aims to study the emotions and empathy of members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas in a critically empathic, non-judgmental way. By this, the project aims not to change a person’s religious beliefs or condemn their behavior, but to understand their personhood in a way that allows ourselves to be more empathic. This study conducts interviews of various members of the Church with emphasis on the empathic capabilities they employ. Through a university class with Dr. Gray, I have been able to access the interviews and produce a qualitative analysis of the emotions of grief and loss felt by church members in response to family members leaving the church.

    Looking over the interviews produced through the project, I came across a section of a 2010 interview with Tim, Lee Ann, and Victoria Phelps. Victoria, who was seventeen years old at the time, gives her thoughts on the departure of her brother from the church, which occurred just weeks before the interview took place. Victoria expresses her inability to understand why her brother would leave the Westboro community considering their shared upbringing. She states that “you have everything here, what more do you want,” and continues to wonder at how her brother could leave after taking the teachings of the church to be true. This was interesting to me because it is her upbringing in the church and her allegiance to the religious doctrine that prevents her from comprehending possible motivations for leaving. There is an urgency to her words as she details the consequences she perceives of her brother’s actions, that he will be sent to hell for eternity. This is something, I think, which is present in all of us to an extent. Religions, political opinions, and other ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that it becomes hard, and sometimes impossible to comprehend otherwise. Like Victoria, many of us respond with confusion and in some cases, anger when faced with a loved one’s dramatic change. 

    In a way, I think one of the goals of Dr. Gray’s project is to reflect on these things. Encountering these materials has caused me to question how I privilege my own thinking and impulses. It is much easier for me to see the blockages that an ideology can place on one’s mind when seeing it in an oppositional group like Westboro, but further self-reflection reveals that I am the same way. As someone who has seen a loved one struggle with religious identity, I find myself in the same position as Victoria was. Though I do not conclude that one or another person is necessarily destined for hell, it is important to understand that people grow and find new ways of being in the world, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. With our initial emotions being somewhat beyond our control, we can supplement that with critical reflection and questioning ourselves, such as “why do I feel the way I do” or “am I angry at this person and how can I be more accepting.” Victoria shows her own way of doing this as she attributes all things to a divine plan. I do not mean to say that Victoria or anyone else is wrong for her reactions and feelings, but that her expression is something we all take part in, and awareness of those emotions is something valuable. 

    Student Essay: Religious beliefs enable judgmental attitudes

    In these essays, students reflect upon the study of radical religious groups, including qualitative data analysis of video interviews, through an upper level course at Miami University.

    In today’s world we are often exposed to extreme intolerance towards others views shown through immediate backlash, often seen on the internet and throughout the media against all differentiating opinions and outlooks. This vitriolic backlash could be speculated to be a product of mob mentality as well as the anonymity afforded from the internet. The project this class is engaged in is about achieving an empathic understanding of groups that have commonly been labeled and portrayed by society and the media as extremists. The groups in question are the Westboro Baptist Church and Neturei Karta. This project is not about changing the minds of the groups in question, or even analyzing the theological nature or structure of their beliefs, but is instead about changing our own perspective in order to better understand and empathize with these groups. In my opinion, this project is of great importance in providing a more civil alternate outcome to the intolerance that has become so common in our society. 

    For this project we used a program called MaxQDA to analyze hours of interviews with various members of these religious groups. We then drew on various academic sources to analyze these interviews and form academic conclusions.  My personal QDA analysis had to do with analyzing the cognitive processes behind the judgmental attitudes within the WBC and its relationship with their religious beliefs. My project sought to differentiate between religious justification and religious enablement using the context and structure of dialogue in the WBC participants. My research results in evidence supporting the hypothesis that their religious beliefs enable their judgmental attitudes, as opposed to a religious justification. This implies that the judgmental attitudes commonly portrayed by the church and the point of focus in many media portrayals is not a result of an internal prejudice masked by biblical reactions but a reaction to beliefs and norms established by external biblical sources. Although this work is far from conclusive, I believe it provides a good first step in exploring the potential for this type of analytical research and the depth of understanding that can be derived from this process. 

    A useful method in understanding this project is by examining its effects on my own personal disposition. In the beginning of this project in the early fall semester of 2019-2020 school year, my view of the Westboro Baptist Church was probably comparable to the average perspective, I viewed them as sort of inhuman monsters whose fervent religious beliefs out shadowed any relatability. However, after in depth research into the interviews between the members of the church and Dr. Gray, as well as complementary readings on empathy, my perspective on the church has altogether changed, and although I still recognize the differences in our beliefs and perspectives, and I continue to disagree with their message and methods, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the ultimate relatable humanity that exists within the members of the church. Furthermore, I’ve learned to recognize that the way the media has treated these individuals has reflected our societies own prejudices and lack of civility. Ultimately, I’ve learned that there are two outcomes that can be sought out after coming into contact with a perspective that is radically different from your own. You can shut them out, with vitriolic language and spiteful attitudes, or you can seek understanding, and grow as a person.    

    A further dimension of this project I’d like to explore would be the effect the research process in respect to my personal project has had on my own understanding of this group. In order to obtain the relevant data needed for my project, I had to analyze several hours of dialogue between various church members. As a result, I was able to see sides of these members that are not readily available to the public. Watching these members tell jokes, personal stories, discuss past traumas, watching them laugh, cry, and express frustration gave me a perspective beyond the media interpretation. I was able to see these people for what they really are; human. 

    Altogether, this project stands out in relation to the other projects, as the purpose of this project is not simply to practice research and analytical skills, but to cultivate an empathic perspective when it comes to the varying positions and opinions of others. Based on my own personal introspection, I have shown within myself the completion of the ultimate goal of this project. The real value in this research is that its priority is in making the world a better place, not by changing others, but by changing ourselves.