As news spread over the weekend that Fred Phelps Sr., the notorious founder of Westboro Baptist Church, was dying in a Kansas hospice, corners of the Internet erupted in cheers.
On Facebook, a "Fred Phelps Death Watch" group formed and gained hundreds of members, while other groups attracted followers by planning pickets of his funeral -- in imitation of those of the funerals of gays and lesbians and military servicemen and women that have brought the church its notoriety. On Twitter, variations of "yay," "thank God" and "cannot wait," were among the phrases commonly associated with the 84-year-old minister as people excitedly discussed the church leader's condition, which is being described as "on the edge of death."
Should the impending death of a man who has become an icon of hate be celebrated? Some Americans, including those whom Westboro has targeted, are using the moment to reflect on what it means to take joy in the demise of another human.
"When we protest against the Phelps family, we are always protesting for love. Here is a family that is so in desperate need of grace and love because they obviously haven't experienced it," said Azariah Southworth, a gay Las Vegas blogger who ran into Westboro protesters in Long Beach, Calif., during a 2010 speaking tour with Ray Boltz, a gay Christian singer. "So many of us want to deny love to them the same way they denied love to us," said Southworth, whose partner is in the military. Southworth penned a post on his blog Sunday titled, "Fred Phelps, you are loved."
"But to love someone doesn't recognize that we ignore that they committed great evils in their lives," he added.
It's no news that Phelps is widely disliked among a wide swath of Americans. The small, family-centric church he founded in 1955 has been condemned by hundreds, if not thousands, of religious and civic leaders. It's so extreme in its views on the LGBT community -- as well as natural disaster victims, those in the military, the American government and Jews, among other targets -- that it's often described not as a church, but as a cult-like hate group.
That history is not reason enough to be happy about his death, says Jeffrey Seglin, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School who writes "The Right Thing," a syndicated weekly ethics column.
"[Westboro Baptist] celebrates when others whose lifestyles they disapprove of die ... That's part of what's viewed as loathsome. How is celebrating Phelps' death not the same sort of behavior that his detractors find contemptible?" he asked.
Phelps' near-death condition, which has been denied by church leadership, was first reported on Facebook in post by his son Nathan Phelps, an ex-church member. Another estranged son, Mark Phelps, later confirmed the news to the Topeka Capital-Journal. In a statement on its website, church leaders said news of Fred Phelps' condition was "highly speculative," but said he is under hospice care and has "health issues." The church also would not confirm that it had excommunicated Phelps in August -- an assertion that Nathan Phelps, who did not reply to an interview request from The Huffington Post, and Mark Phelps have both made.
Whether Phelps dies in the coming days or years, the question of how the country responds remains.
One former church member, Lauren Drain, who left Westboro in 2008, is making a plea on behalf of its founder. In a statement, Drain said she was "devastated" and prayed "that despite all the many families and people affected by the WBC, that they will not have vengeance ... but rather pity."
And for those like Fr. Thomas Sheehan, a Jesuit chaplain at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass., who has closely been watching the church's activities for many years, it will be a chance to show "light to dispel the darkness."
"Retaliation in kind continues to wreak havoc all over the world, on both the individual and group level ... I believe that even among the unchurched who were offended and abused by Phelps' anti-gay hate speech, there is a solid philosophical basis for following a more merciful approach -- that of love," said Sheehan, who frequently ministers to dying patients and their families. "'Do unto others what you would have them do unto you' fits into love's structure: it's virtue."