“Westboro Asks Public Not to Picket Phelps Funeral’ …as these words showed up in my newsfeed, I felt something pretty close to hatred roar to life within me. The ‘Phelps’ being alluded to in this statement is Fred Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of the Westboro Baptist Church who died on March 19th. Westoboro is an organization that has been thriving on hatred since 1955. This ‘Reverend’ is best known for the hundreds of funeral pickets that his organization has carried out against soldiers, gay people, Jews, minorities, immigrants, politicians, celebrities and murdered young men and women. I have since read that there will be no funeral held for Phelps- so the news release that caught my attention was likely not legitimate, but it doesn’t matter- legitimate or not, this man’s legacy of hatred was as real as it gets, and the mere mention of his name released something that had been dormant within me for a while.
I have known several families that endured their loved one’s memorial service being picketed by Westboro members holding signs and shouting things like, ‘Burn in Hell!’. Its hard not to collect a bit of flammable liquid in your gut when you witness this kind of hatred being spewed across a family’s grief in the way that Westboro has been doing for decades. But if I go with my raw emotion and strike the match of hatred, this will do absolutely nothing to the members of the Westboro church – but it will, without doubt, singe me to my very core.
When I am confronted with the Fred Phelps’ of the world, it takes all I’ve got to dig deep into my inner well and pull the waters of love to the surface. But I must- it’s the only thing that can kill the flame. Lucky for me, I need only look to the world around me for inspiration. One of the families most brutally victimized by this organization lived in my home community. Their loved one was a beautiful 19-year-old woman who had a life full or promise ahead of her. In January of 2008 she was kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Her death filled an entire community with an anguish that still remains to this day. Her family- despite their loss, despite the horrendous circumstances that surrounded that loss, and DESPITE the Westboro Baptist Church picketing her funeral and yelling obscenities– have walked in grace and beauty every single day. And on the days when they cannot, I have heard them decline comment and simply turn away from the flames. Instead of spewing hatred, they have embraced advocacy and prevention. They have worked tirelessly to have laws changed so that other families will never have to endure what they have… and they have quietly carried on in lives haunted by a sorrow you and I can never imagine. They do not have to hold a picket sign and shout obscenities at his funeral…. they just quietly carry light every day- and this is the strongest protest to Westboro’s doctrine of hate that we could ever see.
This family has walked a dark path with such dignity… and I will try to follow their lead. As I do, I find I don’t need to dig so deeply into my own well- because I can dip into the river of grace that flows in their wake.
Reading that news clip about Westboro Baptist Church tempted me to strike the match of hatred, but this family reminded me that I can choose instead, to drink from the cup of Grace.