This happens all the time," Aaron Jackson says as he looks through his living-room window. A gold Ford Explorer has pulled to the curb. It's idling so that its driver and a passenger can peer at the Westboro Baptist Church, across the street. They take in the upside-down American flag, the various signs declaring the church's hatred of gay people. After a minute, the Explorer moves on.
On this late February day in Topeka, inside the two-bedroom house at 1200 Southwest Orleans Street, across the street from the Westboro compound, Jackson and Davis Hammet are plotting. They're talking about their plan to piss off Westboro, the hate group next door.
Jackson and Hammet, both thin, energetic Destin, Florida, natives, have set out to make the Orleans Street house the latest outpost of Planting Peace, the nonprofit that Jackson founded. The organization had so far focused on such causes as caring for orphans and deworming children in impoverished countries. But Jackson, 31, wants to make GLBT equality its next area of emphasis. This house, dubbed Equality House, will serve as a volunteer center for that effort.
Its humanitarian use aside, their one-story home feels like a typical bachelor pad. Jackson and Hammet sleep on mattresses on the floor. When they moved in, they didn't know that running the furnace required turning on the gas. When the outside temperature edged into single digits their first night, they pulled the oven into the family room. Hammet has fashioned a table out of packing Styrofoam and tape. Posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois hang on a living-room wall opposite a large Human Rights Campaign flag.
To make Planting Peace's presence known in their adopted community - and to thumb their noses at Westboro - the men want to paint the outside of this house a vivid rainbow motif. In a few weeks, the house's drab gray exterior will disappear under colors called Pineapple Soda, Mermaid Treasure and Tangerine Dream. Today, though, Jackson and Hammet are discovering that getting a house painter to commit to the job might be difficult.
Jackson's path to setting up in this house on a corner lot started with a WBC protest on graduation day at Washburn University in May 2012. A 9-year-old boy named Josef Miles improvised a counter-protest to WBC's usual "God hates fags" signs by holding a small, handwritten sign reading, "God hates no one." A photo of Miles went viral; Jackson saw it and started researching the church. While looking at the Westboro compound on Google Earth, he saw a real-estate sign in a nearby lawn.
"I was like, that would be the perfect place to start our project from - right across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church. About five minutes later, I said: 'I'll paint the home the color of the pride flag.' "
In July, the two men hired a realtor, and Planting Peace closed on Equality House last winter, paying $81,000. It was a rare opportunity behind enemy lines. Jonathan Phelps, a member of the church, tells The Pitch that his family owns about 20 homes in the immediate vicinity of the church. In fact, Phelps says, the church wanted this one, too.
"My daughter was looking for a house, having just been married," Phelps says. "We went to that house, and it was actually a money pit. It was a disgusting, filthy little place. If a house goes up for sale, we're going to buy that sucker, unless it's a little a stink hole like that one was."
The first five painters Jackson tried to hire all bailed when they heard the address of the house. They were concerned that the church would retaliate against their businesses.
"It's not really an unfounded fear," Hammet says. He tells the story of a 28-year-old gay man he met. "His workplace would still get faxes - like, hundreds of faxes every day - like, 'You're employing this faggot. You're all going to go to hell if you don't fire this faggot.' "
They finally found their man in Kansas City: Mike McKessor. And last week, the painter gave the house its spectrum makeover.
"I'm not scared of them," McKessor said during the job. He's a Navy veteran, and he said he opposes the church for its protests at military funerals. He looked at the house as his crew worked on it. "This is good for the community."
As the rainbow stripes appeared on the siding, neighbors and passers-by began to take notice. At a little before 10 a.m., Ida Terry, 79, came out of her house across Southwest 12th Street to pick up her newspaper. She smiled.
She told The Pitch that her ex-husband was in the Army. Like McKessor, she detests the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting military funerals. "I can't stand them," she said.
"I think this is great," she continued, talking about the property brightening nearby. "I noticed it this morning, and I couldn't quit looking at it. I love it." Not without reservation, though: "The green that goes across there should be below the yellow," she added.
Throughout the morning, drivers pulled over and offered support. Two women drove up and ran out of the car to pose for photos. About a dozen cars honked on their way by. One driver called out the window of his black Toyota truck: "Love the new paint job!" Later, two gray-haired men with a sleepy brown dog in the backseat stopped their sedan. "Hey, that's great!" one passenger shouted.
Around noon, snow started to fall, slowing the work. "It was supposed to be warm and sunny today," Jackson reminded his supporters. McKessor assured Jackson that the flurries would pass.
"I'm from Florida, so tell me what 'flurries' means," Jackson said.
Inside, the house had become a chaotic, makeshift PR operation, with Jackson and his Planting Peace team doing interviews with Gawker, Topeka's WIBW Channel 13 and the Huffington Post. Jackson and his friends cheered loud enough to hear them from the front yard when a story about the house was added to the homepage of his hometown newspaper, The Destin Log.
Jackson retreated to a bedroom for a series of lengthy phone interviews, even as local reporters continued to pull up outside and knock on the door. He emerged after one phone call and said, "Wow, that was awesome! That was, uh, what's the lady, she does the reporting for CNN? Candy Crowley." He started the next phone conversation, "Hi, somebody at this number called me, like, five times."
A few minutes later, Jackson wandered back into the impromptu operations center in the living room and said NPR had been in touch. Hammet replied: "The New York Times wants images they can use." The two talked a minute, and Hammet wondered aloud, "This is the new normal, right?"
Westboro members mostly stayed away. But two days after the painting, they're ready to chat. Jonathan Phelps says the church doesn't mind the attention-grabbing look because the members like to know who supports gay rights and who doesn't.
"There's not a lot of gray area there," he says. "There's no gray in the fag flag or, as I like to call it, the sodomite rainbow house."
Phelps adds that any attention Equality House has received only furthers the church's agenda. "The Gospel, because of this pretext, has been preached to the entire world," he says. "Articles all over the world writing about this pretty house. But, by the way, while they write it, they have to tell about the Gospel."
The church, he says, has no plans to protest the house or its owners. "They're good neighbors, as far as I'm concerned. But we're better neighbors because we tell them the truth."
And when supporters or curious drivers stop by to check out Equality House?
"While they're there visiting the pretty house, they'll get some Gospel preaching."
But people don't seem to be stopping on Phelps' side of the street right now. The traffic has been for Planting Peace, and it's been big.
"No exaggeration, probably a thousand people a day have stopped by," Jackson says two days after the painting.
"It's just a constant flow of people stopping by and dropping off letters of encouragement, dropping off gift cards, telling us stories. The local Topekans have been so supportive. We had no idea that it would be to this magnitude."
Web traffic has also skyrocketed, bringing with it donations. "So far, we've probably brought in $50,000 through the Internet," Jackson says. And he expects more funds by mail. For a volunteer-run organization (Jackson doesn't draw a salary himself), the influx is a major change. "We're ecstatic," he says.
Beyond support and donations, though, there are the people whom Planting Peace is meant to help. A note that Jackson found in the mailbox last Friday reads: "My parents became violent when I came out to them many years ago. I woke up thinking about that. I cried all the way here. I walked on your property and I stopped crying. I feel peace. Thank you."
After all of the interviews he has given the past few days, Jackson struggles for a moment to find words.