Fred Phelps is dead and I can't take any pleasure in it. When word got out that the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church or 'God Hates Fags' church was dying, there were many on the Internet who responded with remarks of satisfaction, promises of picketing his funeral or hoping for a speedy and harsh judgement of this sinner in the hands of an angry, pro-gay God.
My reaction is a simple grief. I grieve for the life that Fred Phelps led. I grieve for the people who Fred Phelps hurt. I grieve for his wider family that has been torn apart by the viciousness of their religious commitment that Phelps first modeled. I grieve for his children and grandchildren who have lost someone they once loved.
And I grieve for the fact that he never had the chance to offer a public statement of repentance and apology for his hurtful actions before his death.
I first heard of The Westboro Baptist Church when they picketed Matthew Shepard's funeral with hateful signs promising his damnation. It was hard to believe that any church could be so unkind to a grieving community and family. But that was just the beginning. From then on the news was filled with reports of the Westboro Baptist church picketing funerals and churches that offered any support and comfort to the LGBT community.
At some point Fred Phelps and his small family church jumped over to protesting military funerals with the logic that the servicemen and women had died for a country that supported 'the gays' too much. Because of that change in tactic, pretty much everyone despises the church that Phelps spawned. Ironically, Phelps' church may have actually helped the cause of gay rights in America. As I wrote in an earlier piece called "Thank You, Westboro Baptist Church," the group took the anti-gay rhetoric spouted by many 'respectable' Christian churches to its logical extreme, and thereby exposed the wider religious bigotry aimed at LGBT people as ultimately untenable.
In a still unexplained twist of fate, Nate Phelps, one of Fred's sons, shared on Facebook that Fred Phelps himself had been ex-communicated from the church eight months ago:
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 don't know what might have caused the church to throw its founder out the door as it had many other church and family members who had asked questions about the beliefs and practices of the group.
What I hope happened was that as the reality of his death approached, Fred Phelps had a conversion experience. I would love to believe that the Holy Spirit worked a miracle in his life, and he had a vision of the harm he had done and began to question his lifelong, faithful commitment to cruelty, impervious to the feelings of others.
Deathbed conversions can happen. Perhaps as his body grew frail, he lost his unremitting confidence in his own righteousness. Perhaps God graced Phelps with a conversion to the radical love God has for all of His creations -- and for that, the remaining members of his church kicked him out.
We have no idea. But I would like to think that is what happened.
Still, I grieve for Fred Phelps. The man spent a great portion of his time on earth using his gifts in such a hurtful, and ultimately silly way.
But I won't picket his funeral. I won't dance on his grave. I will try not to emulate him in any way.
The best I can do to observe his passing is to be a voice of grace and love to those who are hurting in this world. I need to watch my own temptation towards judgement and dogmatism; I can reach out to those in my life with whom I am estranged, and I can continue to work for full inclusion of LGBT in all aspects of our society, including the church.
We can redeem Fred Phelps by simply not practicing what he preached.