Fred Phelps Died today at age 84. He was the founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. How did this former civil rights attorney become such a vicious hater of gays and lesbians, Jews and America? Ironically, his own family excommunicated him from the very Church he founded. Hate always turns in on itself.
I had several encounters with the Phelps-family and their protests. The first time I came face to face with them was in the year 2000 in Greensboro, N.C. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (the CCAR), the organization of Reform Rabbis, was meeting and the main topic of our convention that year was a resolution on same-sex marriage. After a number of years working through Committees, Task Forces, and dialogue sessions across the country, I was helping to bring a resolution to the floor of the convention that would formalize the Reform Rabbinate’s support of marriage equality and the religious rites of a Jewish marriage between same -sex couples. Fred Phelps and company were there outside the convention center with their signs, ‘God hates Fags’ screaming horrible harassing Anti-Semitic words. They were few in number. And the local police cordoned them into a specific area. We were in the hall making incredible history. The rabbis voted with a thunderous voice in favor of the resolution. There were a few lonely noes. But inside that hall was a feeling at that moment that God was truly present in our midst. We felt a new world of inclusion in the Jewish people. We all began to link arms and sing-the Shehekiyanu prayer–Thanking God for sustaining us and bringing us to this truly joyous moment. Jewish gay men and lesbians would be supported in seeking Jewish marriages. We were singing Amen Amen Ahhhh-men over and over. It was an electric and truly spiritual and holy moment.
And yet as we left the convention hall we were shouted at and spit upon and called the most horrid of names.
I encountered the Westboro Baptist Church on several other occasions when they came to protest here in Los Angeles at several synagogues and schools. And of course read with disgust as they protested funerals from Matthew Shepherd’s to the heroes of our military who died in service of our country.
But now he is dead. He had been excommunicated from the church he founded, cut-off from many of his children and grandchildren. Stories are swirling about the power struggle to control his Church.
But in many ways Westboro Baptists’ open and raw display of hatred of gays and lesbians and their deep seated Antisemitism exposed to the world the how easily one can succumb to extremism. The Phelp’s family protesters became caricatures of themselves. They protested military funerals because they believed that God hated America for its embrace of gays and Jews. They protested at the funerals of the victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing because saying that Boston deserved it saying “Here’s a hint — GOD SENT THE BOMBS! How many more terrifying ways will you have the LORD injure and kill your fellow countrymen because you insist on nation-dooming filthy fag marriage?!” They protested at the funerals of the victims of the shooting in Tuscon when Rep. Gabby Giffords was injured and at those young victims of the massacre at Newtown, Connecticut claiming that the victims deserved it for their sins.
The family of Fred Phelps, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, took hatred into new and twisted heights. There was no compassion in their hearts for the pain and grief they caused that was heaped on top of the pain and grief and loss in each of these cases. They would send out media alerts that they were going to protest funerals of celebrities to try and bring attention to their extreme form of so-called Christian fundamentalism. His hatred was based in a vision of the Apocalypse.
But the media attention showed the world instead the humanity of those they protested. This included the humanity of gay men and lesbians.
I am sure that Fred Phelps as he meets his Maker will have to account for his sins. Perhaps today he has to account for his stone cold heart of hate that so infected his own children that they turned their hearts away from him. In Jewish tradition when we learn of someone’s death we recite the phrase Baruch Atah Adonai, Dayan HaEmet-Blessed are You Adonai, the Truthful Judge. The Judge of All will judge Fred Phelps and his actions and his life. His soul will have to answer how he lived out the Commandment to “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself”.
I cannot judge a person. But I know the difference between compassion and hatred. Hospitality and hostility. I learned them from them story of Sodom and Gemorrah in the book of Genesis. Too bad Fred Phelps didn’t understand that Sodom was condemned not for sodomy-or homosexuality–but for the sin of inhospitality and hostility to strangers. They had to answer too. Now its Fred Phelps’ turn.