Reports surfaced this weekend that Fred Phelps, patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church family, was excommunicated from the church last year, and that he is in hospice care, likely to die soon. From his estranged son Nathan’s Facebook page:
I’ve learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr., pastor of the “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the “church” back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made. I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I’m bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes.
Hemant Mehta spoke to Nathan and gave a little more context to the situation:
I just got off the phone with Nate and he confirmed what he had written. The rumors had been flying for several weeks, he said, but after a conversation with some of his fellow “excommunicated” family members, he found out that the rumors were true. He elaborated on that final line, too, saying that the Phelps family is now blocking anyone who is no longer with the church from seeing him, including Fred’s sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews.
Why was he kicked out of his own church? Did he have a change of heart near the end of his life? There’s no definitive answer to that and Nate has heard different things (so any explanation is pure speculation right now).
In any case, it appears that Fred Phelps doesn’t have much longer to live. While some may rejoice at that, Nate’s tone over the phone was anything but happy. He’s losing his father. A father who dedicated his life to spreading hatred and made the lives of so many others so miserable, but a father nonetheless.
The Westboro Baptist Church has done much in recent years to cause pain for the families of LGBT people, of troops lost in war and others. Their message of hate, which is the same message as the one coming from the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, expressed more simply, doesn’t even resemble the religion they claim as their own. They, in their public activities at least, seem to have no concept of grace for any living thing. But the fact remains that they’re a family, and that, if Fred passes, they will be grieving him, just like any other family.
We should show them the grace that they refuse to show others. Not because we think it’ll change their ways — it won’t — but simply because we’re more loving, because we’re better than that. There should be no picketing of his funeral, no protests. Really, we shouldn’t even acknowledge it at all.
Those who read me regularly may notice that I rarely, if ever, write about the Westboro Baptist Church. I long ago judged them clowns who weren’t worth my time. However, the more complex truth is that Westboro has unwittingly helped us along quite a bit in the advancement of LGBT equality, because their work shows Americans what blind, unfiltered hate looks like, and it forces them to reckon with it. Brody Levesque talks about this at LGBTQ Nation:
Just as much as Matthew Shepard has become an iconic symbol of the LGBT community’s fight against hatred and intolerance, Fred Phelps is the iconic symbol of anti-gay hate speech.
We need not be thankful for Fred and his family’s hateful narrative, but mindful that they have created an awareness in the public’s mind of anti-gay bias, and a perception of themselves not unlike thoughts that come to mind when speaking of Adolf Hitler.
I think protests by Westboro awoke a sense of awareness among the “Mom, Pop, Apple Pie and Chevrolet” Americans as to what is right, and wrong, with this nation’s values. It has become a debate about humanity, dignity, and the fact that all of us, including the LGBT community, are people.
I feel empathy as a human being for Fred’s family — their anti-gay messaging aside — struggling with the death of a husband, a father, a grandfather.
But at the end of the day, I am reminded that Fred illustrates the worst, not the best, of the very essence of what it truly means to be human. Let him fade away to reckon with his God, as we continue to press forward as a community.
Indeed, because as I mentioned above, though Fred may pass away, his message still lives on, and appears on television regularly coming from people like Tony Perkins. There are much more important battles to fight, and there is so much life for us to live without focusing on a flickering flame of hatred. We wish peace to the members of the family who, like Nathan, escaped and were ex-communicated.