Fred Phelps, founder and leader of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, died yesterday. He was 84 years old. I don’t know what he died from, but from the pictures I saw of him recently, well, old Fred was looking pretty ragged. I think maybe he died from hate. He seemed to be filled with it, determined to make the world understand that every death we were witnessing, whether from these endless wars we’ve been engaged in, or from anything else, really, was a direct result of having pissed off the Almighty over our acceptance, more and more, of people who are gay. Fred and his church members would jump in their cars with their GOD HATES FAGS signs and drive for hours to picket the funerals of fallen soldiers, or police officers, or tiny children, or even people like Elizabeth Edwards who had the misfortune to discover that her husband was cheating on her right around the same time she discovered the breast cancer that would soon kill her. It didn’t seem to matter to Fred Phelps and his crew that their own actions, although protected by the First Amendment, were just in such bad taste, so inappropriate, and just so flat-out WRONG and that the people burying their loved ones deserved better than to have to put up with the hateful antics of the Westboro Baptist Church
I kept thinking, WHY WOULD SOMEONE DO THAT? And, from what I’ve read about Fred Phelps, indeed, he seems to be a man of some contradictions. In his younger years, apparently, he was one of the lead attorneys working to get Jim Crow laws overturned, so we know his heart could be open to the plight of others who were experiencing discrimination. But then something happened, and we don’t know what. Now, I don’t suppose we ever will. When Fred found Jesus in a big, bad way, his cause became gay people and how they were all building a big hand cart and taking this whole nation straight to hell in it. Nobody was immune from the wrath of Fred Phelps after that, and the hatred spewed out of his pores like sweat.
It is doubtful that Fred Phelps ever spent much time on introspection, really examining what the motivating factors were in his life. I think it was very simple, though. I think, deep down, Fred Phelps was terrified that he was gay. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have bothered him so much and he would not have felt so driven to stamp it out of the country he claimed to love. We tend to want to destroy in others that which we most fear in ourselves. Pretty simple. In Fred, that terror manifested as hatred. It never saved America, but it killed Fred, that’s what I think.
Oddly enough, by doing some of the really creepy things they did, by showing up at funerals to picket and such, Westboro Baptist Church actually helped form alliances between disparate groups such as the LGBT community and the Patriot Guard motorcycle folks. Whodathunkit? And, even though there is rarely any news coming out of Mississippi that makes me want to cheer, this story did. A young soldier’s body was brought back to his home state of Mississippi for burial. Word got out in this small town that the Westboro Baptist Church people were coming to picket. People organized. The desk clerk at the motel where the Phelps people were staying made a call and, before long, there was a car parked perpendicular to the back end of every car in their motel parking lot bearing Kansas license plates. When called, the two tow truck companies in the small town both swore all of their trucks were out on calls and would be for a long, long time. The cemetery was too far away to walk to and Westboro Baptist Church missed its opportunity for hatred and harassment. Darn! All dressed up and nowhere to go; all that gas money spent for nothing. WAY TO GO, MISSISSIPPI! Who was God smiting NOW, Fred?
If the God Fred Phelps claimed to know is real, I bet Fred was scared out of his gourd to die. I would be. Fred’s God is vengeful and mean; actually quite a bit like Fred, really, if all that could be expected of Him is condemnation and punishment. That’s not the God I know; that’s not my Creator. The God I know is one of love and kindness and compassion. I am not afraid to be who I am in front of the One who created me, and I’m not afraid to die and be reunited with my Source, either. My God knows I will probably screw up and miss the mark from time to time – and it’s true – but I don’t question that the love and forgiveness will always be there for me and my bumbling ways. So, given that, I also know my job is to try to behave as closely to the One who created me as possible, to shadow those who have come before me trying to teach us all enlightenment. Will I always succeed? No. Is it a noble goal? Absolutely.
So, no, I won’t be one of those picketing at the funeral of Fred Phelps. Even Fred’s family deserves the respect they did not give to others. My biggest spiritual challenge has always been to not become like the people who want to kill me. I work on it constantly; I’m not that pure. But, I can’t help thinking that God and Michael the Archangel and St. Peter put their heads together and came up with a plan, just to make it rich, then hid behind a pillar to watch this unfold, all three of them giggling behind their hands. Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein were there to meet old Fred at the Pearly Gates and welcome him home with open arms. “Fred!” they shouted, as he stepped inside Heaven’s Gate, “Heaven is all about learning and well, old boy, it’s time for you to go back to school!”