Sunday, December 11, 2011

"The Bus" Stopped in Topeka

“The Bus” Stopped in Topeka: Along with Nate Phelps

"The Bus" played Off-Broadway (59E59 Theaters) in New York City for pretty much the month of October. An amazing story, cast, and crew bring to life a small town, a big church, and a bus – which serves as a rendezvous point for two gay teenagers. Nate Phelps is the estranged son of Fred Phelps (Westboro Baptist Church) who is now committed to raising awareness and bringing about change for members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, and Transgender (LGBT) community.

I have never been more moved by any experience in my life than to be a tiny part of the phenomenal presence of "The Bus", in our town. Topeka has shifted a bit more away from bigotry, and a bit closer to equality. The hearts and minds of those who were fortunate enough to be a part of this experience will be forever changed.

That Nate Phelps was here in Topeka, with us, made the experience perfect. For me, there is a great connection with Nate. We are both working to create a different world, me in my own little way, and Nate with his larger than life love for humanity. "The Bus" was just the perfect vehicle that put us in the same place, on the same two days, in Topeka.

In the play, there is a piece shared by "the little girl" (Julia Lawler) where she is speaking as the pastor of the Golden Rule Bible Fellowship, "Mr. Harry Deforge, what do we have up here that’s so threatening to you? Is it our new sanctuary? Our smiling faces? Our fellowship? Or is it simply because we shine?"

Shine is not the word I would first attribute to Westboro Baptist Church. Nor is it the word that I chose to attribute to Golden Rule. There is no explicit message about how the church feels about people who are LGBT. Each audience member is left to discern this and many other things own their own.

This viewer had little trouble imagining that the pastor and members of Golden Rule would have seen the LGBT community as not acceptable in the eyes of God. Accordingly, this viewer also had to reflect upon her own prejudices and exactly why she made this assumption, as well as many others in the course of the play.

This is an amazing part of the magic of this play. Every member of the audience will experience it quite differently. And if brave enough, examine ourselves in the mirror the play so capably places in front of everyone who is blessed enough to see it.

The play is not about Westboro Baptist Church. However, Jim Lantz (playwright and producer) expressed a desire to present the play as closely as possible to WBC, and thus, "The Bus" stopped in Topeka.

For me, as the chair of the Topeka chapter of Kansas Equality Coalition, I have come to know that Westboro Baptist is not the problem with Topeka. WBC is but the most visible symptom of a cancer that carves daily into the heart of our community.

Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist have the courage to speak openly of their hatred for gays and lesbians. Hiding behind them, are the thousands of Topeka citizens who willfully discriminate against LGBT people, and claim righteousness in that "fact" that they are "not like" WBC.

These thousands of people are not the majority. Most Topeka citizens are in favor of LGBT equality. Unfortunately, most of them don’t vote.

To the teenager who has just been rejected by their parents for being gay, it matters little who is a bad as whom. It matters only that the people who are supposed to be there for them unconditionally, have failed to do so.

Does the hangman's noose swing differently based on who said what, or who did what? People die. Unable to continue down a path they see as impossible. At the hands of people who believe they are empowered by God to destroy another human being.

There is great value in having people who are willing to stand up for justice. Stand up to hate like Westboro Baptist Church spews into the air. I love that people are proud enough of our country to stand up to the hate and display American flags. I believe that they inspire others to stand up as well.

But true change comes from people who are willing to stand up before our elected leaders and share the horrors of discrimination. True change comes from allowing everyone to see our humanity.

It was truly an honor to meet Nate Phelps. Here is a man more courageous than I can imagine and stronger than anyone I know. He is willing to pick up the task that has been laid at his feet as an agent of change. I will always remember one thing Nate shared. The reason I will always remember is that I know it to be true. You must reach people in their hearts first, and then their minds. This is the exact description of the gift left by the play.

"The Bus" stopped in Topeka. Ian and Jordan, Harry and Sarah, and Sloat will always live here. The little girl has become a part of me, and the woman I strive to become. I will remember them all, the characters that they brought to life, and the people I have been privileged enough to get to know a bit.

Yes, "The Bus" stopped in Topeka. I will remember them the day we stand in front of the Topeka City Council, and achieve the end of legalized discrimination against our LGBT citizens. I will remember them indeed.