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.