Aaron Jackson got his colorful idea while stalking the Westboro Baptist Church on Google.
The 31-year-old activist wanted to see what the notorious church looked like. For years, Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro protesters have been picketing soldiers' funerals with anti-gay messages. Jackson, who runs a global orphanage and antipoverty nonprofit, was seized by curiosity.
He panned the camera around on Google Earth to get a ground-level view of the neighborhood and saw a house for sale across the street. "Oh, no way," Jackson recalled in a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times. "That’s too good to be true.”
Jackson didn't end up buying that Topeka house. But after some haggling with a local owner, he bought the one next to it. And on Tuesday, he hired a Navy veteran to paint the house like a rainbow -- the symbol of gay pride and equality, and a thumb in the eye of the Westboro Baptist Church across the street.
With the rainbow paint and quite a bit of pluck, the "Equality House," which will help kickstart a new anti-bullying initiative, was born.
The home at 1200 Southwest Orleans St. appraised at $88,320, is an ordinary house in an extraordinary neighborhood. ("The ZIP code, believe it or not, is 6-6-6-0-4” Jackson said, delighting in the irony that the first three digits are a symbol of the devil.)
As the Equality House began its transformation from a home to a protest symbol, Topekans stopped to smile at the playful but resonant jab at the church whose protests have tested the limits of patience and free speech.
Mike McKessor of Kansas City, Mo., whom Jackson hired to paint the house, wondered if other painters were scared to take on a job that is more of a statement against a church known for its political statements.
"I’m a veteran too, and those guys mess with veterans, not just the gay people. They mess with everybody," said McKessor, who says he spent four years in the Navy in the 1980s.
But when the painting began on Tuesday, the neighborhood immediately brightened up, so to speak. Three women driving by stopped their car, got out and started to dance, McKessor said.
“Every neighbor that I encountered was so happy, and everybody was smiling when they go by," McKessor said, with a chuckle. "It was on a busy street, and everybody slowed down and took pictures. I’m not exaggerating. Dang near every car stopped and said, 'Good job! Good job!' ... I’ve never had people so happy for painting a house."
He also liked what Jackson planned to do with the place. "Anytime anybody’s going to help people, I’m willing to help, so I said, 'Sure, let’s do it,' " McKessor said.
Jackson, who hails from Destin, Fla., is a co-founder of Planting Peace, which undertakes a variety of initiatives around the world, including environmental projects. Planting Peace is registered as a nonprofit under the title Awake Inc.
Jackson said he's been living in the house for about three months and was waiting for the weather to get warmer before starting the paint job.
“I always wanted to get into equality [work] and just haven’t," Jackson said in a phone interview, citing statistics about high suicides among gay teens. "I knew when I saw that [the house was for sale], that would be perfect, that would be a great launching pad” for a new project. He set up a donation page on his website, www.plantingpeace.org.
Targeting the Westboro Baptist Church, at least symbolically, seemed like a good place to start, Jackson said.
"It’s not like they’re pumping millions of dollars into marriage campaigns, but they are the poster child of hate, you know, especially for the gay community," he said.
The Westboro Baptist Church responded to the new house with fervor.
"We thank God for the Sodomite Rainbow House!" the church said in a written statement. "Think about it! This is not a novel idea – there are hundreds of similarly painted houses around the world – the ONLY reason why this one is a story is because of WHERE it is!"
The church's theology holds that supporting homosexuality means damnation in Hell. Its most well-known slogan, "God Hates Fags," is also the name of the church's website.
"It’s not OK to be gay, it never was OK to be gay, and it never will be OK to be gay," the Westboro statement continued. "The Sodomite Rainbow house is another instance where someone has declared their sin as Sodom – and it shines a huge spotlight on our message - you can paint rainbows on every house in America, and homosexuality will still be an abominable sin in the eyes of God."
Because the home is in a residential neighborhood, Jackson said it can't serve as an office. But it gives equality-project volunteers a place to stay if needed.
A Topeka city spokeswoman told the Topeka Capital-Journal that painting the house didn't violate city code.