My own personal experience with the late Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church came about when I interviewed his daughter Shirley and incurred the wrath of his church.
When Phelps decided to protest the funeral of a Marine whose story I had been covering for the local newspaper, I was drawn into the cyclone of controversy and strong emotions.
Now that Fred has died, Shirley has been dethroned, and the church’s future is uncertain at best, it has caused me to revisit the phenomenon that has created an indelible mark in our nation’s history. Determined to show the nation and the world that his inclusive brand of Christianity is the only way we can be saved, Fred Phelps instead made the world examine its own views on God, bigotry, tolerance and acceptance…one person at a time. That is something very difficult for one person to initiate. And things will never be the same.
He almost single-handedly brought together soldiers and their families, the LBGT community, and bikers…three of the unlikeliest partners-in-crime ever. It reminded the world that we are all much more alike than most realize, and standing united against hate is the quickest way to form bonds.
“This is America, and we are all in this together,” one member of the Patriot Guard Riders (the organization dedicated to attending funerals of fallen members of the armed forces as a show of respect and honor) told me. “The uncle attending his nephew’s memorial service and the gay man standing beside me, honoring the fallen soldier, are my brothers and my allies.”
Without the Westboro Baptist Church, that might never have happened.
Also, it caused many, many religious organizations to stand up and be seen, stating loud and clear, “Hey, we do NOT agree with the WBC’s views of Christianity at ALL…come check us out and see how different we are.” And many people did.
Again, that would never have happened without the Westboro Baptist Church.
On a personal level, Fred Phelps taught me tolerance. After some very negative experiences with organized religion (you have NO IDEA how negative), I was left with an almost blind hatred and intolerance for anything and anyone related to Christianity, Catholicism, etc. Fred Phelps showed me what TRUE hatred and bigotry looks like, and he reminded me that I am no better if I judge someone for simply “being” a Christian. As I opened my eyes, I was introduced to many wonderful people who have a different set of beliefs as mine…and are still wonderful people. It also reminded me that people from my past are the same people I grew to love deeply before I had ever heard of the WBC.
As an added bonus, I befriended the family of the Marine who was the subject of my article series, and having them take me under their wing and accept me as one of their own has made me a better person.
Thank you, Fred Phelps…you have made the world a much better place by just being you.