Friday, March 21, 2014

When Your 'Enemy' Dies...

From the  BBC:

The Reverend Fred Phelps Sr, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, died on Wednesday evening at 84.  

The church, made up mostly of his family, rose to international notoriety with its practice of picketing funerals of fallen US troops.   It claimed their deaths were punishment for America's tolerance of gay people. Their signs read "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "Thank God for 9/11" and the like, and bore messages offensive to gay and lesbian people.

Born in Mississippi in 1929, Mr Phelps was raised a Methodist and was selected to attend the US Military Academy.  He was ordained a Baptist minister, though Westboro was not attached to any mainstream denomination.

Mr Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1964, but was stripped of his licence to practise in Kansas in 1979. The Kansas Supreme Court said Mr Phelps made false statements in documents and "showed little regard" for professional ethics.


I only met Fred Phelps once. It was in 1998. Phelps and members of his "congregation" (family members) had come to Chicago to protest at the  Broadway United Methodist Church. 

The church on Chicago's North side, is located in the Lakeview neighborhood, which is known as the center of Chicago's LGBT community. Phelps targeted  the church  in response to news that the Pastor, Greg Dell performed a  service of Holy Union for two men in his congregation that September.

In response, members of many of the surrounding churches in the neighborhood, including  Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where I was member;  turned out and formed a human  "ring of love" that moved in a circle around the entire building, effectively  cutting  the Phelps clan off from access to the church or anyone attending  that Sunday's services.   

Purely by chance  I found myself  standing in a position in the ring,  directly opposite Phelps for about  ten minutes.   While he screamed right into my face of how much God hated me,  how much I was to blame for all the evils  befalling  America, how I was "most assuredly" going to die from AIDS and  would burn forever in hell.

Then the ring started to move again,  I smiled  and said ; "Nice to meet you Mr. Phelps, thank you for your time." (I made a point of not calling him "reverend" hoping that would offend him,)  and moved away hearing Phelps still ranting off into the distance.

For  a good part of the rest of that day  I felt pretty good, and rather proud of myself.  In my brief interactions with the infamous Fred Phelps, I kept my cool , didn't take the bait and try to argue with him, or  get angry and  rant back  how  he was the one who was behaving in ways that God would find offensive. I was polite,  cheerful and  confident.

 I had only  weeks before, come out to my own family.  As I walked the few short blocks back up Broadway to my apartment, I felt  flush  with my new-found courage and pride as an out Gay Man.   I would even  go as far as to say I was feeling  slightly superior, maybe even a  little smug.

Yet as the day went on,  I  found myself  getting  angrier and angrier.  I started wishing I had yelled back  at Phelps.  I  regretted not calling him out as a sad bitter, twisted evil pathetic waste of a human life. I so wished that I  had told him that  the God I know bears no resemblance to the one he claimed to speak for.  That God was going to send HIM to hell for his horrific protest at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, only weeks before.  

I stood looking out at the skyline of Chicago through my living room window seething  at the lost opportunity.  While glorious images of  myself raging at Phelps in righteous indignation while he cowered behind a trash can,  flooded my mind. 

Then I realized, in that moment,  by letting myself  get so angry, I was letting Phelps win.  

I sat down, opened a can cherry coke,  and took a deep breath.   As I calmed down,   I  knew that Fred Phelps  was not someone to be hated, this was a man to be pitied.   As  I thought about that,  all that anger faded away as quickly as it had come.   After that day I really didn't give  Phelps or his Westboro Baptist clan much thought.   Aside from a passing item in the news about  Phelps' despicable protests at  the funerals of  dead American service personnel, Fred Phelps, like the anger I felt that day, faded from my memory.   Until this week. 

A number of people have emailed me, asking if I was happy to hear  of Phelp's death.  Or did  I feel that  the LGBT community should picket his funeral and subject the Phelps family to  same sort of torment and disrespect that he inflicted on so many other families  over the years.  As tempting as it is to  say yes to that,  cathartic  even.   The answer is, and must be... No.    

The fact is,  we all owe  Fred Phelps a  tremendous debt.   His  irrational hatred of others provided the greatest argument in favor of LGBT equality  that anyone could have ever wished for.   His vile rants and heartless acts of disrespect for people different than him,  did more to advance the cause of diversity and equality than any court ruling or  protest march  ever could.  

The  brilliant, and chilling HBO original movie  "Conspiracy", depicts the actual events  at the Wansee Conference  outside Berlin. Where officials of Hitler's Third Reich planned what history would come to know as the Holocaust. In one of the final scenes, Nazi SS General Reinhard Heydrich, shares a story that one of the other participants at the meeting told him about the dangers of allowing hatred of one group of people to consume your life.

I wonder what the surviving members of the Westboro Baptist Church will do after the rest of the world finally does leave them  behind. Or now that the driving force that pushed them on their journey of bigotry and hate is gone.  The greatest irony of Fred Phelps' life, is as he saw equality for LGBT people as the greatest evil imaginable, he may have done more than any other single person to help move the fight for that equality forward.

Fred Phelps'  true legacy is that he was, a one-man Gay Pride Parade.
So was nice to meet you Mr. Phelps,  thank you for your time.

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