Students practice empathy and ethnography in visit to controversial church

Dr. Hillel Gray interviews WBC member Shirley Phelps-Roper as Miami students observe
Dr. Hillel Gray interviews WBC member Shirley Phelps-Roper as Miami students observe

The tiny Westboro Baptist Church is famous for picketing with signs that condemn gay and lesbian people or thank God for the deaths of American soldiers. In July 2017, five Miami undergrads and a Comparative Religion professor spent a few days interviewing members of the WBC in their home in Topeka, Kansas, in an effort to better understand religious extremism.

The research trip grew out of a several-years-long initiative by Dr. Hillel Gray, a specialist in religious fundamentalism, to build a relationship with the WBC as a researcher. Students Alex Bronston, Reagan Brown, Margaret Hamm, Jackie McCafferty, and Sarah Moore accompanied Dr. Gray on his latest visit to the church, July 18-21. There they helped him conduct 15 hours of video-recorded interviews with WBC members; they also observed the church's weekly hymn singing and its controversial street ministry.

This ethnographic encounter with WBC members challenged the students to cultivate empathy for people whose beliefs and actions the students found alienating, to suspend moral judgment, and to develop a "thick," nuanced understanding of the group’s worldview and experiences. 

The video recordings and other data gathered during the research trip will serve as resources in a course Dr. Gray teaches at Miami, "Religious Fundamentalism." The WBC exemplifies dynamics that Dr. Gray explores with students in the course, including how such groups use scripture, how their perceptions of the world are filtered through the lens of their religious tradition, how they filter and integrate values and practices from outside their own religious subculture, how they confront or separate from outsiders, and how they respond to pressure or persecution.

The July trip successfully generated research data about WBC members' interpersonal empathy and their relations with people outside the church. Dr. Gray reports that "Miami students were extremely patient, thoughtful, and effective participants, who helped enrich both the interview results and the project's interpretation of the data as it emerged each day of the trip."


On September 26, back at Miami, the five students reported on their experiences to a lecture hall full of curious Miami students, many of whom were seated in the aisles.

"It was one of the most emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining experiences of my life," Alex Bronston told the audience. "It is wild to sit there and have one your identities attacked, but I understood where they were coming from, oddly enough."

During summer 2018, Dr. Gray will again take students to meet with the WBC. Students will also accompany him to New York City, where he will conduct interviews with members of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish groups.


Dr. Gray records an interview between Miami students and a WBC member

Dr. Gray and Miami students pose for a photo in the home of WBC members