On the Death of Fred Phelps

The opening words of the sermon preached at Westboro Baptist Church on March 23rd, 2014, the first Sunday after the death of founder Fred Phelps:

“Good afternoon, everyone! I have to say, after reading the 18 billion articles Fred sent over the last few days, I’m really quite surprised to see you all here! To hear the media tell it, by this point the building should have been demolished to its foundation, the websites all offline, the tweets silenced, the vines disappeared, the faxes stopped ringing, the signs shredded, our social security numbers zero’d out, and, depending on which version of the story you read, every last man jack of us either moving to varied and separate parts of the world while all sucking our thumbs in the fetal position, all of us buried in a mass grave by our own hands, we should all be sitting on the front lawn drinking spiked Kool-Aid eating laced apple sauce waiting for a UFO to come get us, or probably worst of all, we should all have joined a Catholic church and applied to be priests, to find “true religion”. Yikes. The good old media. Gotta love ‘em. Or not. Thank God though that every article said God Hates Fags! They can say whatever they want as long as they say that!”

I’ve heard people call Fred Phelps a racist. He was a civil rights attorney.

I’ve heard people say they’ll protest his funeral. The WBC doesn’t believe in funerals. That’s why they picket them.

I’ve heard people suggest the sermon I heard on love when I visited the WBC must have been some sort of show put on because I was an outsider. Westboro has no interest in looking good to outsiders.

I’ve heard people say he was only “ex-communicated” so the church wouldn’t have to pay his medical bills. That’s not even how debt works.

He changed his mind.

He beat his children.

His daughter’s been ousted.

The rumors abound.

I’ve learned not to trust much of what I hear about the WBC because they are the unwitting masters of false advertising. They are single-minded in their goal to have as many people hear their “God hates fags” message as possible, and they are unconcerned with whatever messages might get tacked onto it in the process. The sermon I heard last summer certainly fits with the suggestion that Phelps had begun preaching a message of love, at least among church members. However the other sermons posted on the WBC website don’t tell the same story. It may be years before we know the truth, if the truth can ever be known. The death of founder Fred Phelps is equal parts fact and nonsense. Perhaps the saddest, truest thing that can be said about it is this:

At the time of his death, the world had no idea what Fred Phelps believed.

__________________________

My Visit to the Westboro Baptist Church

I arrive at the door of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas and am met by two big, angry-looking guys in “God Hates Fags” T-Shirts. I ask to attend the service and they start grilling me about my intentions. Where am I from. Why am I here. What do I want. How do I feel about fags. Am I a fag myself or just a fag-lover. On and on. I keep my answers short, trying to seem as harmless as possible. Eventually they let me in, after checking my purse and making me leave the camera and phone in the car. I am sat next to a conservatively dressed woman who glares at me with anger and distain, as does everyone in the room. I sit through a grueling hour of loud, angry sermonizing from Fred Phelps using language too monstrous to quote. Near the end a madman runs into the room, fed up with the WBC’s hateful speech. He mows down the entire assembly with a machine gun including myself, because of course this would be the day someone finally got to them.

That’s what I thought would happen.

In truth, I arrived at the church a full 50 minutes early, being concerned that the 70 minute drive from Kansas City that morning would be somehow delayed. The Westboro Baptist Church is located in the middle of a residential area – I encourage you to look at the Google Street View for a better idea. Most members live on the same block as the church, forming a sort of compound. I park down the street and around the corner. I see a hip-looking young woman with big earrings and a digital camera get out of a car with two equally hip-looking young men. They are not going to church. They are here to take pictures, and maybe visit the Rainbow House next door. They are tourists, like me. The street is filled with cars and I suddenly wonder how popular it is to show up to a Westboro service. Am I just one of the weekly dozen? Do they expect spectators?

Westboro Baptist ChurchIt’s still early, so I sit in my car reading up on Calvinism. A man and a woman arrive, both in their late 40s or early 50s. Her dress is noticeably conservative and old fashioned. These are members. I watch as they go through the back gate of a nearby house. I suppose everyone in the church knows each other pretty well, and it’s no big deal to walk through a friend’s backyard. I still have a half hour before the service starts, but I figure if other parishioners are arriving already then I’m not too early. I leave my camera in the car just in case it might arise suspicion, and walk towards the front of the church. A sick feeling of dread fills my stomach, the kind I normally reserve for jumping off high objects into water with friends more daring than myself. As I approach, I see people in the yard of the Rainbow House. There is a television camera as well. They stare at me. I hadn’t considered what it would feel like to be watched. I look over at my LGBT allies and I want to do something. Wink or yell or wave, just something to let them know I’m not like the people I’ve come to observe. But I see the security cameras lining the WBC buildings. They might be watching.

I can see the main doors, but they are behind an uninviting black gate, covered in just enough dust and spiderwebs to let you know it won’t be opened anytime soon. There’s a small door to my left. I knock. There is no answer, so I ring the doorbell. I consider what I’ll do if no one answers. I already drove 70 minutes, could I really just walk away? I probably wouldn’t have even come to this part of the country if it weren’t for this visit. I start to wonder how far I’m willing to go. A man opens the door. He is the embodiment of an American churchgoer: young, male, white, clean shaven, attractive, and wearing a dress shirt and pants. He belongs on an advertisement.

“Can I help you?” he asks.

“I was wondering if I could attend the church service.” I say.

“Sure. Just so long as you don’t … talk or anything.” His tone is polite, and the message is clear. I can come in, but I’m not to start a scene. This is not a time for debate or protest. I completely agree.

He leads me into the worship space. It’s a medium-sized room with the carpeting and wood paneling of a building built in the 1970s. Pews are set up on either side of the support pillars going down the middle, and the young man directs me towards one of them. The pew is small, meant only for two people. There are papers next to me, which he indicates I should look through. I sit down, and a smiling, older man walks by and shows me which book we will be singing out of, a piece of information I probably could have gleaned for myself since it was the only book that wasn’t a Bible. I look around the room. There is a poster in the front outlining the five points of Calvinism to the acronym TULIP. Fred Phelps himself is there, sitting in front of one of their protest signs that reads “Fags are Beasts.” The sign isn’t hung up in anyway, simply propped up behind him. There is no other decoration in the room.

I haven’t been asked to cover my head, but I do so anyway. Every woman in the room has her head covered, even the little girls. I knew this was their tradition and I brought a scarf in preparation. The service starts almost immediately. I’ve already turned off my phone so I’m not certain of the time, but it must be at least 15 minutes until the supposed noon start time. Fred Phelps announces the first hymn. The room is small and he has a microphone, but I can still barely hear him. His age resonates through every word. I pick up the hymnal and sing along to “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,” a popular hymn that I know well. We sit down, and Mr. Phelps speaks again.

“We will open this service with a prayer by Charles,” he says, “to be followed by a two-part Sermon on love for the Lord and His people by Brent. We will conclude this service by singing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” He is reading straight off the bulletin paper in the pew.

Charles is a family man sitting two rows ahead of me. Everyone bows their head as he begins the prayer. He speaks extemporaneously. It is a good, well-worded prayer, and he goes on for longer than even the most long-winded of preachers are typically able to last. The prayer asks for strength and guidance. He briefly makes references to the outside world, adding that they “hate us without cause,” and that “like happened to Jesus Christ, they hate us for the words and only the words.” While these phrases catch my ear, everything else he says could be spoken from any pulpit in the country.

When the prayer is over, a man stands in front of the piano and begins to read. While this sermon has been “written” by Fred Phelps, I can’t imagine him having the stamina to read the whole thing out loud. I pick up my papers and follow along as the man reads. It begins with a popular biblical quote about loving one another. Then a line from Proverbs, and a well-known passage from Matthew on the unending nature of forgiveness. Without explanation or segue he begins to quote 19th Century theologian Albert Barnes, followed by some words from John Calvin. It goes on like this, alternating between Bible quotes and 300-year-old theological writings. There is no commentary, there is no context. I start to lose track. I can’t make sense of it. It’s dense and wordy and I can’t relate one passage to the next.

“… and be ye kind one to another, Good, affable, courteous…”

“… but whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continuity therein, he being not a forgetful hearer …”

“… as that of presbytery to serve a hierarchy; nor a degree in glory and happiness hereafter …”

SermonI grew up in the kind of church that last November had an honest debate about whether or not to use the word “fortnight” in the church canons, and ultimately voted to include it. Three times I have voluntarily attended a nearly two-week long convention of church governance and legislature. So I like to think of myself as being pretty capable of handling dense language and theological rhetoric. But even I can’t take four pages of single-spaced, out of context quotes pulled from the writings of so many verbose men. Later I took the pages home with me to re-read, and it made even less sense the second time.

After several valiant efforts to focus during the sermon, I finally let my mind and eyes wander. I saw a toddler asleep on her father’s shoulder. A man followed along with the service on his iPad. A baby began to fuss and the mother carried it out to another part of the house. The ushers stood at the side of the room. A young boy wove his fingers into each other over and over again, the way little kids do when given no other means of engagement. I’ve seen all this before. It could be any church in the country. The only difference is the scarves on the heads of the women, and the fact that at least a third of the parishioners are children.

The sermon comes to a close, ending on the words “I love you all. Amen.” We stand to sing the final song. I don’t know it, but it’s a lovely tune. The parishioners have beautiful voices, and they harmonize on everything. The service ends, the women remove their scarves, and I sit down to gather my things. There is no mention of sexuality, gender, mission, end-times, politics, soldiers, death, wrath, or America. It is the single most boring worship experience I’ve ever had.

A nice looking woman in her 40s approaches me and introduces herself. She asks if I’m visiting from out of town, and I proceed to have the same conversation I have with virtually everyone regarding my trip. I ask a few questions, and confirm that Fred Phelps did in fact write the sermon and it is typical for the weekly service. She points out that it is a sermon unlike anything I will hear anywhere else, and I can’t help but agree. She asks if I’d like to meet more people, and begins calling them over by name. I may be reading too much into this, but I feel the need to point out that she only calls over women. I don’t meet any men. We exchange polite introductions. One of the women has seven kids. “We believe that children are a gift.” Clearly.

She calls over another woman, and at first I am distracted by her noticeable pregnancy bump. We talk briefly, and I realize I recognize her.

In preparation for this visit, I watched a couple documentaries on the WBC. One was by British documentarian Louis Theroux, called “The Most Hated Family in America.” I highly recommend it, and would go so far as to say it would be best to watch it before continuing on with my story: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-most-hated-family-in-america/

In the documentary, Louis spends some time talking to Jael Phelps, one of Fred Phelps’ granddaughters. She’s 21 in the film and the type of person that smiles through everything. No matter what she’s saying, no matter how painful, she’s always smiling and laughing. It’s sad to watch, because it’s a defense mechanism. At one point, Louis asks Jael about getting married and having children. “Are you kidding me? Who is gonna marry us?” she laughs. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

I was talking about it with a group of friends a few weeks ago, and someone told me they heard she got out, that she left the church. It made me happy to think she’d escaped, and would be free to find love and stop laughing at her own pain.

But then I’m standing in the middle of the WBC worship space, and here she is. Jael Phelps. Three months pregnant with her first child and married to a British ex-pat. Looking back, I wish I would have said something. I wish I would have asked her about the documentary, or about how she feels having started a family. But I was still on edge, still concerned about not doing anything to rock the boat. I saw Fred and his daughter Shirley talking in the corner, but I knew asking to meet them would raise suspicion about my intentions. Instead I nodded as the first woman explained how their vacations are incorporated into their protests, how no one is outside their ministry, and how they believe that we are living in the last generation. I left, very deliberately escorted out of the building.

I grabbed my camera out of the car, and snapped a few photos of the building. I turned around to take some pictures of the Rainbow House, and a young man walked outside. I went over to him, sensing his suspicion. I explained the situation, and he relaxed a little.

“So did you arrange it ahead of time or something?” he asked.

“No,” I told him, “I just knocked on the door.”

Rainbow HouseHe couldn’t believe it. He said that with the exception of one other church member, he hasn’t seen anyone use the front door in months. He didn’t think they let anyone in without prior arrangement. He told me that he’s actually friends with Shirley Phelps, who is rather friendly when not talking about her ministry. He asked me who was leading the service, and I confirmed that it was Fred Phelps.

“No one has seen him in 18 months,” he said. Apparently some people thought he was dead.

There were a lot of reasons I wanted to visit the WBC. I wanted to see America, the good and the bad. I wanted to find a human side to an organization that seemed to lack humanity. I wanted to do something that scared me. I wanted to understand something I couldn’t understand.

But I don’t understand. I heard about them on the news and I thought their were bigots. They came to protest in Seattle and I thought they were opportunists. I watched “The Most Hated Family in America” and I thought they were abuse victims. I watched their own documentary, “Hatemongers,” and I thought they were a mirror to the horrors that we are all capable of committing.

And then I went to their church, and I thought nothing at all. Because in their own space, when they are not being watched, when they are not trying to preach, when they are just with each other, they are unspeakably ordinary. Imagine growing up there, with a big backyard in Kansas. Your family is nice, your neighbors are nice. But the outside world hates you. You peach the religion you’re taught, and people yell at you. You’re told the world is full of violent, hateful, sinful, people, and they swear at you. You put words on your signs – words that mean next to nothing as far as you’re concerned – and people throw things at you. Fred Phelps teaches you his gospel, but the rest of the world convinces you he is right.

We don’t want to admit it, but there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop the Westboro Baptist Church. We can try to limit their annoyance by labeling them a hate group or making it harder for them to protest, but that won’t stop them and it won’t stop the words that bother us so much. The attention gives them fuel. But there is good news. Ultimately, the WBC has based their faith on the belief that we are near the end of days. And the problem with apocalypse groups is that eventually they have to admit that the apocalypse never came. It has happened to every single doomsday group thus far, and it will happen to the WBC. Before long, Fred Phelps will die, and further prove that the assertions that death is punishment for unrighteousness and that Fred Phelps is a prophet of God cannot both be true. Like all old ideas, the young people will begin to question, and the old ways will start to lose their hold. Certainty is incredibly appealing, and it will be hard to let go of, but I believe they can and will do it.

There is nothing we can do, and that is the hardest course of action we can possibly take. To stand back while they spew such hateful words. To allow them to continue to indoctrinate their children. To ignore the protests at the funerals of solders. It is so difficult it hurts. But it is the only way.

It’s not a new idea. In fact, it’s a very, very, old one. It’s an idea once suggested by the very man the WBC purports to follow. Do not fight hate with hate. Do not give violence to violence. The Westboro Baptist Church will sue you for your shirt. Give them your coat, also.

And with time, and only time, they too will fade away.