Kansas resident Aaron Jackson sent the Westboro Baptist Church a visual message in support of LGBTQ equality by creating the “Equality House,” a home across the street from the Church in Topeka, Kan., that he purchased and painted in the colors of the rainbow pride flag. Jackson, a founder of the nonprofit organization Planting Peace, plans to use the house to raise money for anti-bullying initiatives. He spoke to msnbc.com this week about why he began the project and how it has been received.
How did you get the idea to buy a house across from the Westboro Baptist Church?
The idea came into my head because I was reading a story about a little kid called Joseph Miles. At the time he was nine and he was counter-protesting the Westboro Baptist Church. He saw the Church protesting something and he wrote on a piece of paper "God Hates No One." Someone took a picture of him and that picture went viral. I’m guilty of reading stories about the Westboro Baptist Church, and so finally I was like, "Where is this church located?" So I Googled it, and Google Earth popped up, and asked me if I would like to see the compound. I clicked the “yes” button on that, and started looking in the street view.You know how you can kind of just walk around, up and down the streets and what not? So as I was walking up and down the street, I saw a for-sale sign. I thought, "That would be interesting, to buy the home in front of the poster child of gay hate." About two seconds later I decided I would paint that house the color of the pride flag.
How long ago was this?
This started about one year ago. I didn’t buy the home right away. I knew was gonna do it. I didn’t tell many people about this. I wanted to hit them with the element of surprise, for many reasons. For legal reasons as well...I didn’t want them to be able to do anything to stop me, like petition the city and whatnot.
So we ended up getting the home. I bought it six months ago, and I was going to launch this project in December. I did not do that because it just got too cold too quick, and I wasn’t necessarily ready on the back end of this. So I waited and then unfortunately it was too cold to paint.
But you did it anyways!
Well, yeah, because in the morning it was OK. That’s how we got that first coat up. We’re not actually done painting. It looks good, but it’s gonna look way better because we’re gonna add two more coats to it. In the pictures you can’t really tell, but if you were to get real close you can kind of see through the paint. It’s gonna shine brighter than it is. The next day we get a warm day…
Aesthetically it’s gorgeous!
Yeah, it looks good. I wanted it to look very nice. That was a huge goal for me from the very beginning, it was very important. I don’t wanna misrepresent the pride community or anything of that nature. I am beyond thrilled with how it looks; it came out beautiful.
Plus we were worried about the neighbors. Not the Westboro neighbors…You know, in this community most of the homes are owned by Westboro Baptist people. With the other neighbors, I was hoping they’d be OK with this. I’m not trying to come into their community, and have it break out into this huge civil rights battle on this corner. But all of the neighbors have been so happy about this--obviously the non-Westboro neighbors–they’ve been so happy about this, just extremely thrilled. You would not believe how many people have pulled up in front of our house. It’s crazy out there.
I knew this would become a big story on Facebook, that people would pass this around. What I did not think is that the international community would get so involved in this, and that the local community would get so involved. It’s been such a beautiful thing to see, all of the local people--the Topekans--coming out and cheering us on, saying that they love this, literally by the thousands. A lot of people will take pictures on the road; they’re scared to walk up to the property. So I say, "Hey! It’s a rainbow house! We’re not going to bite you!" We tell them that if you ever see a rainbow house in the future, it’s probably a safe place; you probably can walk up to the property.
Has Westboro talked to you or commented about the Equality House?
They have been saying some stuff through Twitter. I haven’t been following it too much, but I know they have been saying some pretty vile stuff. I guess they gave a quote to CNN calling us the Sodomite house. I think they tweeted that this is some sort of battle where the Devil is on one side of the street and God is on the other side.
But have they spoken to you personally? Or has it all been online commenting about the situation?
No, they haven’t knocked on our door or anything. But Shirley Phelps---the main Westboro lady--came over yesterday. She took a picture of the house, though she tried to make it look like she wasn’t, like she was trying to take a picture of her flagpole, she had her camera out. She was obviously taking a picture of it. We saw her and we yelled over. We said, “Hey, Shirley! How are you? How do you like our colors?” And she said she liked our color scheme. So we’re pretty happy about that. We’re really excited that she loved the color scheme. We actually just sent her a tweet asking if she wants to come over for dinner.
What kind of work does your organization Planting Peace do?
Our mission is simply just peace--that’s literally our mission statement. We do anything we can to fulfill that. We have orphanages all around the world. My first project that I started was an orphanage in Haiti. I’m 31 years old right now, and I started that about eight or nine years ago. Now we have four orphanages in Haiti, and we have a school in Haiti. One of those orphanages is a home for HIV-positive children, and we’re one of only three orphanages in Haiti that houses HIV-positive orphans. This year we’re partnering with another group to de-worm every child in Guatemala; we’re about to send another 500,000 doses of medicine to Haiti, and so forth. Our goal is to de-worm one million kids every month.
In the summers we do canvassing in the streets in New York City. You know the kids everyone tries to ignore? We set up tables with examples of different types of parasites like tapeworms, and we try to educate people and talk about how easy it is to treat. We do that to educate people and try to raise money.
We’re based out of Destin, Florida, but half of the year I live in New York doing that canvassing. We shut down our New York office during the winter because it’s too cold to canvass. It’s hard enough getting people to stop in the summer, but to stop in the cold is a whole different story.
OK, so what is next? What are you going to do with all of this attention, and this new house?
The whole time, from the very beginning, the house has represented two things. Beyond the symbolic message--to show that where there’s hate, there’s also love–and the general countering of their message, we want to take all of the publicity that we get and the money that comes from that publicity, and we want to put that into anti-bullying programs, programs that spread equality in our school systems. That’s our goal. If enough money comes in, we’d like to create our own anti-bullying programs. Kids already contact us to create Planting Peace clubs in their schools, so we want to take that concept and create little Planting Peace clubs. Also, we would like to help some of the other great anti-bullying programs around this country.