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

Students practice empathy and ethnography in visit to controversial church

In July 2017, five Miami undergrads accompanied Dr. Hillel Gray, from the Department of Comparative Religion, on a research trip to Topeka, Kansas. There the students helped conduct ethnographic interviews with members of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its highly provocative picketing of events such as funerals.

Since 2010, Dr. Gray has sought to develop rapport with WBC members, in an effort to better understand their movement. The students who accompanied Dr. Gray to Topeka in July had the opportunity to observe his interview methods, which include engaging empathetically, suspending moral judgment, and developing a "thick," nuanced understanding of the group and its members' experiences. During the visit, Dr. Gray and the students conducted about 15 hours of video-recorded interviews; they also observed the church's weekly hymn singing and its controversial street ministry.

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."

At some point during Fall semester, the five students who made this research trip will share their reflections and analytical insights with faculty and students. Watch for further details.

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