There are few deaths in America that created more discussion of hatred than that of Fred Phelps. He was the pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church that is known for their public protest which includes inflammatory statements like: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates Fags,” “America is Doomed,” and “9-11 a gift from God” to name a few.
These statements are the type that should be disturbing to anyone that reads them. The only except appears to be the members of the Phelps family and members of their church in Kansas.
Fred Phelps died on March 19 at the age of 84.
His death was a massive conversation piece on social media. Pages were created on Facebook encouraging people to go and protest his death. Websites applauded the free speech that pushed people toward picketing his funeral and burial site.
For those who had experienced the hatred of Westboro, the reasoning could almost be justified for demonstrating to the Phelps family what a picket and protest felt like. I can understanding the ‘want to,’ but I know that action is not the proper response for me.
My first encounter with the Westboro Baptist Church protesting and picketing came when Joshua Brock was recovery from his injuries in the Iraq War. He had been nearly killed by the explosion of an I.E.D. Joshua was proudly serving his second tour of duty as a member of the Kentucky National Guard 149th Division when he was wounded in combat.
When he was stabilized he was flown from Germany to Walter Reed Army Hospital. It was there, every Friday, Westboro Baptist protested and picketed with their signs. Talking about taking this personally and wanting to retaliate, yes I did, on both account. Calling them stupid, or ignorant didn’t seem appropriate either. Witnessing this against your family does have a great impact personally. Only by the grace of God and because of a thankful heart to God for Joshua still being among us, was I able to move forward.
Rejoice for my blessings in life and focusing on being appreciative for life and opportunity was the key for me.
USA Today wrote about the announcement of the Westboro Church leader being on his death bed. Included in the news article was a quote by Azariah Southworth. Southworth is a publicly recognized leader and spokesperson within the LGBT community of causes and issues. I found his statement to be amazing perfect, appropriate and astonishing.
Southworth said the response to the passing of Fred Phelps “by the LGBT community should be love.”
His first encounter with the Westboro protesters was in 2010. He was on a speaking tour across America and Westboro picketed and protested. It was there that he not only experienced the impact of their protesting but he also had the chance to speak privately with a daughter of Phelps’ with whom he also had the opportunity to pray for.
I interviewed Southworth, who now lives in Las Vegas. I contacted him and asked him to share to share his thoughts and comments as I was writing a column on the passing of Phelps. He said that his comment that the LGBT community should go “all the way with the message and show love to the most unlovable person,” was accurate and appropriate for a group that Phelps loved to hate.
Southworth asked if I knew that in the 1960s Phelps had been a civil rights lawyer and represented the ACLU in civil rights cases and had been successful in promoting justice and equality. This fact I did not know. It was also confusing to think how Phelps had developed into such a hater of individuals and specific people groups.
I can certainly understand a hatred of sin, the destruction it causes, the impact of sin on our lives, families and communities, I get that. What I do not get is his hating individuals, people groups, and attempting to degrade by name calling, insulting folks by banners and posters and believing that anything positive comes from such. Southworth also shared that “love is the tool Jesus used, love is the gift of God, and it is difficult to be forgiven if we are unwilling to forgive.”
The death of Fred Phelps is a real lesson in love and a real test of our ability to receive it and to give it to others as freely as we received it from Jesus Christ. I Cor 13: does says love is the greatest gift. It can also be the most difficult to give too.