Wednesday this week, Fred Phelps died. If you don't know who Fred was, it certainly wasn't for lack of effort on his part. He founded and led the Westboro Baptist Church for almost 60 years, becoming internationally famous as the folks who picketed funerals of LGBT Americans, and later, the funerals of U.S. service members killed in action. (Along with the occasional Lady GaGa concert and Oscar ceremonies.) Like most details surrounding the Westboro Baptist Church the facts of his death were murky and shrouded in scripture-laden press releases. In the end, though, one fact was undeniably verifiable. Fred Phelps, the man who built the church with the tagline "God Hates Fags," was morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably ding-dong-dead.
The reaction of LGBT organizations, pundits and celebrities has been predictably vocal and varied. There are the expected calls for a massive mock funeral for Phelps. (The church has announced that there will be no sanctioned one.) There are also counter pleas for compassion and forgiveness. Still others feel it best to dishonor his life by ignoring his death.
Personally, I'm sending a casserole to his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper -- a person I'm proud, and somewhat befuddled, to call an old friend. Casseroles are what my religion does when someone we know is grieving. Although I'm a very out gay man, and Shirley is one of the titular heads of her father's anti-gay church, we became pen pals for a couple of years after I wrote a semi-satirical essay for OUT Magazine. The piece solicited LGBT readers to contribute to a Phelps' family legal defense fund. (They were continually fending off lawsuits stemming from their funeral pickets.) I argued that the Phelps family pickets had a greater positive impact on LGBT issues than any LGBT organization. The ugliness of their actions put a more honest face on anti-gay sentiment in America than the "hate the sin, love the sinner" obfuscation of most conservative voices. Put simply, the Phelps made homophobia terminally uncool.
What started as a standard journalistic dialog between Shirley and me soon began to be interrupted by smiley face icons. Shirley used a lot of them in her emails. At first it was a little disconcerting. Being e-smiled at by a woman who publicly advocated the death penalty for "fags" was surreal. Until I started smiley-facing back.
One of first mutual smiley faces came when we realized that both our husbands were named Brent. Shirley told me more about her Brent, whom she called a "flower planting fool." She added: "I help him plant because it is nice to get into the dirt and do that stuff -- and it can't be hateful. :)"
We were soon exchanging emails every week or so. In between her hectic funeral picketing schedule, we shared stories about our respective tomato harvests, her father Fred's fondness for Jim Croce tunes, and how peaceful it is to walk on a beach. In the midst of preparing to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend her church's right to carry offensive signs at U.S. Service Member's funerals, she sent me a quick note about the birth of a new grandson.
This is in no way meant to imply that Shirley Phelps-Roper was or is remotely hypocritical in her anti-gay fervor. In fact, we bonded over our mutual dislike for hypocrisy on both sides of the LGBT divide. She agreed with my initial essay against preachers who tried to straddle the line between condemnation of homosexuality and tolerance. As she said in a joint interview we did together: "to say you are a little here and a little there on these [LGBT] issues would be like saying you are a little dead or a little pregnant!" "If it is okay to be gay," she wrote, then "they [conservative politicians] need to SHUT the heck up about 'no gay marriage.'" She continued: "Further -- where was their outrage about the funerals we picketed before the dead soldiers?" It seemed Shirley felt a little bad for us that their early AIDS funeral pickets got less media attention than their later military ones.
In addition to her smiley faces, Shirley had a wicked sense of humor and a down-home neighborliness. When I told her I was trying to convince my publisher to send me to her hometown of Topeka, she replied: "a book tour in Topeka... that's like a bib on a wart hog. But if they do [send you], I know a Panera Bread stop with a delicious sandwich/soup/salad." She repeatedly invited me to stay with their family should I ever find myself in their hometown.
For all the lack of empathy Shirley and her family displayed for the grieving families they picketed, her emails revealed a soft spot for motherhood and children. She consistently updated me on the activities her own "little people." When I invited her and her family to visit Brent and I at our farm she replied: "We have a daughter that would love to visit a farm -- she is negotiating for three chickens as I write!" When I sent her a video of one of newborn goats, she replied: "If the human babies were to begin to walk that quickly, it would break their mama's heart!"
Three of Shirley's eleven children have left the church. According to their scriptural teachings, Shirley can't have any contact with her wayward children. Nor, would Shirley probably say, does she want to. But personally, I think it breaks her "mama's heart. "
Maybe I read too much into Shirley's casual emails, but I often felt a whisper of sadness and reflections in her musings. When I once wrote about how well the fruit trees on our farm were doing she responded:
"I love my apple tree -- I planted it and in 18 or more years, ONE year it had hordes of apples -- before that and after that something always messes it up. Now the tree is trying to die -- and it has evidence that there will be hordes of blooms -- but last year -- we were heading for that and we had a late freeze and it killed everything. So we shall see -- they were SO good -- and so many and they made the tree fall over -- so when we put it back up, it did this thing where it is trying to die. That was three years ago."
Then, she wistfully pulled herself back on message:
"The Lord is coming -- so the tree is not so important, just kind of interesting."
Unlike many raised in fundamentalist households, Shirley still showed a great capacity for independent personal reflection. After one joint radio interview in which she was confronted by her own sinful past (she had a child out of wedlock in her youth), she emailed to thank me for arranging the session: "it is good to look into the face of some issues -- it was like getting out of prison when the guy at Sirius talked about my failings -- it hit me like a ton of bricks -- I don't have to be perfect -- it is a burden I can't carry. I just have to be faithful and I have to do right as I learn and do better as I understand what that looks like."
Don't we all.
I do want to be clear about one thing: by sharing my fondness for communicating with Shirley, I'm in no way defending her family's abhorrent public behavior. There is no defense. But there may be explanations for it. Fred Phelp's 13 children, including Shirley, were brought up isolated from the world in a fenced-in compound. Several of his children, who now have children themselves living in the compound, have described Fred's parenting style as "very strict." Some estranged family members claimed Fred was routinely physically and emotionally abusive. It's not a stretch to believe.
Maybe a part of me thought that by being friendly with Shirley I could lead her to a kinder, gentler life. I really did like her and wanted a kind of new peace for her. And maybe she thought that by practicing a less confrontational personal style with me she could lead me to salvation. It didn't work in either instance. We haven't emailed each other in several years -- not for any specific reason. But just as happens to many friends, we simply lost touch. Maybe because we ran out of things we shared in common. "I love harvesting," she wrote in one of our last emails, "in another life I would be a farmer -- but alas -- these are the bounds of our habitation."
When I read of Fred's death, I wanted to reach out again. But I couldn't think of what to say. We're both still bound by our habitations. In the face of death and loss, all words -- kind or threatening, peaceful or provocative -- lose their meaning. This is true whether you're the mother of a fallen service member, a "AIDS ridden fag," or Fred Phelp's daughter. Death defies words.
Which is why, in my church, we send a casserole.