At Westboro Baptist Church, Steve Drain found religion but lost a daughter
Across the country, celebrations spilled into the streets — at the gates of the White House, at Ground Zero, on college campuses. President Barack Obama had just announced that U.S. Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden.
Steve Drain watched the revelry on the 60-inch flat-screen TV hanging on his living-room wall. Drain, a devout member of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, says CNN showed him nothing but hypocrites. The Americans celebrating bin Laden’s death were the same people who condemn Westboro members for picketing at the funerals of U.S. soldiers.
“These people call us hypocrites and vile and everything, and they’re out there last night whooping and hollering and drinking and having a big-time party about the prospect of Osama bin Laden being in hell,” Drain says. “Well, he is in hell. He’s dead and in hell, and we thank God for that judgment. But we thank God for all of his judgments.”
And so Drain also thanks God for dead soldiers. And the victims of 9/11. And the 200-plus people killed by tornadoes in Alabama. And pretty much anyone who doesn’t worship with Westboro.
“They’re all in hell,” Drain says.
Drain and the other members of the Westboro Baptist Church believe that they are the only people living in accordance with God’s standard. They’ve gained international infamy for waving “God hates” signs at the funerals of U.S. soldiers. They claim that God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality, abortion and divorce. Drain has already designed an “Osama in hell” sign, featuring the terrorist leader’s face and flames, which he’ll hold high a few days from now at a soldier’s funeral in Manning, Iowa — a state where Drain says the people are “batshit crazy.”
The sign is visible on a computer screen in Drain’s home office, where he edits video and lays out picket graphics as part of his service to the church. Drain’s 19-year-old daughter, Taylor, a soft-spoken, olive-skinned girl with long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, is here with him, doing homework.
Drain reclines on the black-leather sofa in his living room, where a handful of religious books (Elijah, Hebrews, The Flood) share space with Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a Wii and some PlayStation 3 games. He doesn’t really look like one of “God’s elect.” His red beard is scruffy, but his strawberry-blond hair is styled and short. He favors blue jeans and often wears a black fleece vest over a T-shirt. His Oakley sunglasses rest on the cushion next to him, along with two cell phones, which ring repeatedly with calls from other church members and reporters. He takes a break to rail on Charlie Daniels. He sarcastically calls the singer, known for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” a “great theologian” while talking to a reporter from Branson.
A decade ago, Drain was a 35-year-old aspiring filmmaker from Florida who wanted to shoot a documentary showing that Fred Phelps and his church were, he says, “full of crap.” He became a believer. Now he and his wife and one of their daughters are the only members of the church not related to Phelps by blood or marriage.
The fags were marching on Washington,” Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred Phelps’ daughter, says of the first time she met Drain. The word fag comes out of her mouth easily and often in conversation.
Westboro was in the nation’s capital in April 2000 to picket the Equality Rocks concert, where Garth Brooks, George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys headlined.
Drain’s documentary, which he would later call Hatemongers, led him to Washington, D.C., to film the protest. He first had the idea as a grad student in philosophy at the University of Kansas in the 1990s, after stumbling across a Westboro picket at Lawrence’s City Hall. He wanted to know more. Several years later, Drain contacted Phelps-Roper, who told him: “We’re always willing to talk to anyone.”
Drain shot the anti-gay protests, but he wanted to interview the church’s members in Topeka. He started with Fred Phelps (whom he now affectionately calls “Gramps”) in the pastor’s wood-paneled office for what he recalls as a “daunting” three and a half hours.
“Right out of the gate, he says, ‘Your career is over,'” Drain says. “This guy who doesn’t even know me, doesn’t even know what my deal is, says your career is over unless you make a film that makes fun of us.”
Drain expected Phelps to be a “Barnumesque snake-oil salesman.” Instead, he came to view him as “the most misunderstood man alive.”
“There was this humble, little old man who had spent his life laboring in that Word, in that vineyard, telling people just what the Bible says,” Drain says. “He’s not an aggressive self-promoter that people put him out as. He’s a man who every day spends several hours a day poring through the Scripture. He’s doing this out of a heartfelt fear that if he doesn’t do it, then the Lord is going to deal with him.”
After the first meeting, Drain called his wife, Luci.
“This guy is right,” he told her.
Luci’s first reaction: “Hell, no.”
Phelps-Roper knew by her final Hatemongers interview that Drain was “hearing the words,” and they were “striking at his heart.” He wasn’t asking the same questions that other interviewers did. By the end of shooting, he says, he was “needy,” calling from Florida with more questions. In one conversation, Drain told Phelps-Roper, “I don’t think there’s any church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Florida.”
“Uh, yeah. I think you’re right,” she told him.
Logging footage of his film, watching the interviews over and over again, and researching the words heightened Drain’s belief that he had found where he belonged. These were people who didn’t cut out the parts of the Bible that they didn’t like.
“I realized the Lord was doing something with my heart,” Drain says. “What he was making me realize was what a fool that I was and that I am, and what a sinner I was, and I needed to do something different in my life.”
Luci had always joked with her husband that he had either too much religion or not enough. He was never comfortable. She was Catholic, and he was Presbyterian. He was searching for a truth that he could never find. They met in seventh grade, in Tampa. Steve copied her algebra. By eighth grade, he was telling her that he wanted to marry her.
Drain says he spent one grad-school Thanksgiving weekend working on a philosophy experiment of his own: Knocking on doors around Lawrence and asking people, “What do you believe? And why do you believe it?”
“I got the door slammed in my face thousands of times,” Drain says. “I talked to witches, Catholics, Buddhists and atheists, and everything under the sun. The overwhelming conclusion I reached in that little sample group was, people don’t have any idea what they believe and why they believe it.”
Drain says he spoke to preachers and priests and asked them hard questions about the Bible.
“What I found out was, these preachers don’t know the Bible,” he says. “I knew more back then as an arrogant philosophy grad student than most of these preachers did.”
After meeting Fred Phelps, he thought that he had finally found the truth. For Luci, that meant moving to Topeka. She marched to the doorway of the bedroom in their Bradenton, Florida, home where her husband was on the bed studying Scripture. Luci blocked the doorway with her arms.
“If you think we’re moving to Topeka, you’re out of your fucking mind,” she told him.
Drain laughed. He hadn’t mentioned moving, but he thought, Yeah, we are.
Steve and Luci Drain say it was their eldest daughter, Lauren, who made them realize that they needed to move. At 14, she began to show interest in what the couple call “heathen boys.” This didn’t fit with their newfound religion. As turmoil increased in their home, Luci warmed to the idea of moving. Steve and Luci were starting to think that they had been raising Lauren and Taylor wrong.
“We didn’t teach them what the Lord our God requires of them,” Steve says. “It weighed very heavy on my heart, and I knew that I had to right that ship as much as I could by basically cutting loose all of the things that I’d taught them before and teaching them right, good stuff and knowing how that lands on their heart is God’s business. I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything. I’m trying to tell them what the Bible says.”
Drain instituted a “godly standard” in his house. His family stopped celebrating holidays — no Christmas, no Halloween, no Thanksgiving. No more rock bands. (He had played in a band called Boneyard while at KU and he once helped Lauren start one.) No more long hair for Steve. No more haircuts for Luci and the girls. (Women aren’t supposed to take blades to their hair, goes one reading of the Bible.) Steve banned Luci’s mother, a Catholic whom he calls a “big-time false religionist,” from talking about religion with their children. No more chocolate bunnies or “What would Jesus do?” bracelets from Grandma.
“I was the cool dad before that,” Drain says. “These are not just rational decisions that people make. These are supernatural decisions. We believe this.”
Drain finished Hatemongers in June 2001. He calls it “the best documentary film ever made.”
“The subject matter is so easy to manipulate and malign, and the world begs for you to manipulate and malign the subject matter, and I didn’t,” Drain explains. “I just let these people talk for themselves.”
Phelps was right about one thing: Drain’s documentary-film career ended with Hatemongers. Drain says he was tight with the organizers of the Telluride Film Festival. When he was at KU, he was chosen to take part in its student symposium, and he says he volunteered five or six weeks at a time to help set up the festival. He was “a favorite son of the festival,” he says, and people there affectionately called him “Draino.”
When the festival’s organizers heard that he’d completed a film, they encouraged him to submit it, Drain says. He sent Hatemongers to festival director Jim Bedford.
“Radio silence,” Drain says. “Never heard from the guy again. Wouldn’t take my call.”
Bedford says he never received Hatemongers, and he has never chosen the event’s films. But he and other organizers remember Drain. “He was never more than a laborer, and he was never anyone’s favorite son,” says Brandt Garber, Telluride’s production manager. The volunteer production assistant “alienated the other workers,” Garber adds.
Bedford and Garber say Drain worked for them only twice — an unusually short tenure for a festival known for its close-knit community. “He did not live up to our standards and he was not invited back,” Bedford says. (Such an invitation would have been for festival work rather than film submission. The acceptance of Hatemongers would have been up to Telluride’s selection committee, which would have acknowledged Drain’s submission.)
“So what Gramps said to me was right,” Drain says.
“I didn’t know about that,” Phelps-Roper tells Drain after hearing the story for the first time. “Sorry.”
“No, that’s OK,” Drain says. “It was good. I needed to know that. Gramps said that to me before it even happened.”
Steve Drain e-mailed Shirley Phelps-Roper a month after finishing his documentary: He was moving his family to Topeka.
“We’re having a garage sale,” he told her. “We’re getting all of our things packed up.”
Before they left, they had a going-away beach party with their families. Steve passed out copies of Hatemongers. It was the last time that they heard from some of their relatives. Others tried to convince them that they were making a mistake.
Luci’s mother tried to talk her out of leaving. Luci wouldn’t listen. It’s been five years since she has spoken with her parents.
Steve’s brother sent him a long e-mail, saying Steve was joining a cult. Steve hasn’t spoken with his family in eight years.
“I didn’t know what the heck I was going to do next,” Steve admits. “I didn’t have a plan. Neither Luci nor I had jobs. I just knew that I needed to get here.”
The Ryder truck rolled into Topeka on July 2, 2001, and parked at the Drains’ new one-bedroom home on the same block as the church.
“It speaks volumes when you pack up a family and move here,” Phelps-Roper says. “He wasn’t here long, and he asked to be a member. And we had absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t be.”
In August 2001, Phelps baptized Steve in the pool behind the church. Luci’s and Lauren’s baptisms followed that fall. And 10-year-old Taylor made a profession of faith and was baptized in March 2002.
Drain helped Phelps create the “God hates” signs that are now synonymous with the church. He also assisted in remodeling the Phelps Chartered law office and building homes for various family members. But Steve’s niche is making “crazy videos,” he says, promoting Westboro’s message. He became a kind of propaganda minister for the church, spreading its message 24/7. His “WBC Video News” shorts allow Phelps to hurl fire and brimstone at the latest newsmakers, and his short “Sign Movies” explain the meanings of various Westboro picket slogans. He also produced a half-hour documentary on Obama’s ascension to the White House, along with videos called Beast Watch and Jews News. He estimates that he has made 190 videos for the church. His latest production is a series of shorts called “God H8s,” Westboro’s answer to the No H8 campaign.
His parodies of Lady Gaga, Eminem and Paul Simon are his most successful pieces. They’ve been viewed thousands of times on YouTube.
“The only reason I tried to make things look a little bit cool is so the people will stay there a little bit longer, so they’ll get preached to,” Steve says. “We’re just trying to meet people where they are … and rattle their cages a little bit.”
No photos of Lauren Drain hang on the walls of Steve and Luci’s Topeka home. There are photos of the Drains’ other children — Taylor, 9-year-old Boaz Abel and 7-year-old Faith Marie (named after Fred Phelps’ wife) — and members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Lauren’s photos were taken down after she was kicked out of the church in December 2007 when she was 21.
“You don’t put a bunch of pictures up of someone you’re not in-tuned with and have strong feelings for,” Steve says. “My strong feelings for anyone in this world have to do with them wanting to serve God. Even in a worldly sense, you don’t put a lot of pictures up of your drunk uncle who’s always been an asshole.”
Steve and Luci say they turned Lauren “over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” She was disobeying God, and they couldn’t have that in their house.
“It’s a dangerous thing when you don’t obey the Lord, and that is a fearful thing,” says Luci, a dental hygienist in brown medical scrubs and with a long graying ponytail. “We don’t mess around with that. We had to be clear to her that this was not acceptable. So we weren’t going to mess around with that anymore.”
The reason: Lauren was carrying on a relationship with a man she had met online. “They were pretty far down the road,” Steve says. “Let’s say that whether I did all of the things with a woman, I would say all of the things I would have done and could do. It got ugly, dude. I’m embarrassed.
“I can’t be dragged down by somebody who has no interest in serving the Lord,” he adds. “So you go live your life, and I’ll live mine. It’s so shocking to people that I wouldn’t unconditionally accept my daughter for whatever she does.”
“It’s not that she offended us,” Luci explains. “It’s that she disobeyed the Lord, offended the Lord.”
When church members met about Lauren, Steve was the first to say that Lauren had to go. After several months of trying to get her to change, he confronted Lauren, a registered nurse, when she came home from work one day. “It was an unburdening,” Steve says. “It was just a stifling burden for her and for us. She didn’t want to live this kind of life, and we did. I wasn’t trying to be cruel about it.”
At first, Lauren didn’t realize that she was being kicked out of the house. Luci cried because she knew that hell awaited Lauren. Steve gave his daughter money and a Toyota Camry. Several days later, Steve says, Lauren sent him an e-mail saying “good words.” But he says he wasn’t fooled. Anyone who has been around the church for a long time could mimic the words.
“We’re fruit inspectors,” he says. “You can’t mimic an orderly walk. You either walk orderly or you don’t.”
Interviewed by Louis Theroux for a 2011 BBC documentary on Phelps called America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis, Lauren said her father was caught up in “this crazy church.” She said she’d like to see her family again but she knows it may never happen. “Some people lose their parents to cancer or car accidents or other things,” Lauren said. “I’ve lost my parents to a cult.” (The Pitch was unable to reach Lauren at her Connecticut home.)
Asked if he’d like to hear from her, Steve says, “God, no.” He and Luci thank God that she left. Had she not been exiled, the BBC and the Australian version of 60 Minutes wouldn’t have gone to Topeka to do stories. “Ultimately, she doesn’t love the Lord,” he says. “She doesn’t fear God. She doesn’t fear hell. And so, what can you do about that?”
“If she was one of the Lord’s people, then she’d be here,” Taylor says of her older sister. She calls the church “the happiest place in the world.”
Phelps-Roper estimates that around 25 people have left Westboro since 2004. Phelps-Roper lost her son, Josh, as part of what she calls “a great falling away.” Steve Drain says 12 of the 13 who have left in the past four years have been under the age of 25. But this isn’t a sign of crisis, he says, because there’s always a perfect number of people in “the Lord’s church.” Those who leave were just a test, sent to humble God’s servants.
In March, two of the defectors, Josh and his cousin, Libby Phelps, appeared onstage for a question-and-answer session after the Kansas City premiere of Kevin Smith’s Westboro-inspired horror movie, Red State. Josh talked of eventual successors to his grandfather. The two names he mentioned: Fred Phelps’ son, Tim Phelps, and Steve Drain.
Months later, Josh’s words are still ringing in Steve’s ears as he strolls across the adjoining backyards of several Phelps family homes to the print shop inside Fred Phelps’ home. It’s also the church. Steve says he won’t lead Westboro.
“The whole idea of having some long-range aspiration doesn’t fit the notion of being a Christian,” he says as he walks past the pool where he was baptized. “I have no desire for that. I don’t feel equipped for that. And, as I said, I’m looking for the Lord to come any day now. I don’t even think that’s a condition of my mind.”
Back at home, Boaz and Faith have returned from school. Steve calls them “walking picket signs.” Faith, a little girl with long blond hair, a pink shirt and sparkly shoes, bounces around the house and gives her dad a big hug. Boaz, wearing a Super Mario T-shirt, blue jeans and Chuck Taylor All Stars, stands in the kitchen watching cartoons on a small TV on the counter.
Neither is a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, even though both attend church services. Neither has made a public profession of faith yet.
“The Lord hasn’t done anything to their heart to make them feel inclined to say, ‘I want to serve the Lord,'” Steve says. “They’re my children, and I raise them to a Bible standard, and I make them behave themselves, but they’re not members of the church.”
Boaz and Faith may never make a public profession of faith. And that doesn’t seem to worry the Drains.
“We’re not results-oriented,” Steve says. “We just do what the Lord says for us to do. And if he shows his mercy on us, he shows his mercy on us. We don’t even know if we’re going to heaven.”