OpEd: RIP Fred Phelps, Remembering Westboro’s Trip To RVA
Fred Phelps has died.
In one sense, there is not much else to say—he was after all not a friend of mine or of any of my friends or acquaintances. I am not even sure if his family is really mourning—there having been several splits within the group known as Westboro Baptist Church.
And yet, one feels the need to say something. After all, LGBT folks have endured a lot of venom from him and those he led.
Still, although he and his group made a lot of noise, spewed a lot of venom, they hardly caused all the hate in the world, or even the United States.
I do not exult in anyone’s misfortune, and I do not gloat over the death of another—I prayed that Osama bin Laden would find peace. I pray the same for Mr. Phelps. It does not appear to me that he found much of it walking the earth. May it be better for him now.
It was March 3, 2010 when I had my face-to-face encounter with Westboro Baptist Church. Mr. Phelps was not present that day; in fact, I don’t think he went to many of these events, and certainly not in the later years of his life. But his unrelentingly angry presence was felt in the vituperation hurled by his followers.
Their target that day was not primarily LGBT folks, although during that visit to Richmond they did stand outside Hermitage High School because the school has a Gay Straight Alliance. Instead, in Richmond on March 3, 2010, they were largely focused on spewing anti-Semitic hate.
So I, with other Christian, Jewish and Unitarian clergy colleagues—and about 400 other Richmond citizens—encountered them at the Virginia Holocaust Museum.
The choice of the museum—a memorial to those lost in Nazi death camps and other victims of Nazi hatred, and a center for educating young people and others about the ugliness and danger of hate—was a direct challenge to the truths about hate that much of the world, though clearly not all, has learned through the operation of Nazi terror: hate is hate, no matter the target. And hate kills—body and spirit, of the intended victims, and the haters, too.
One who knows the horrors of hate better than most other Richmonders is Jay Ipson, the founder and, at that time, the Executive Director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Jay is himself a Holocaust survivor—he and his parents, Lithuanian Jews, made it out alive, hiding and barely subsisting for long periods of time. Jay knows about hate. First hand.
But the graceful, inspired, and inspiring, thing about Jay is that has dedicated himself to combatting hate, not only that directed at his own Jewish people but also all other peoples who face hatred for being themselves.
The Westboro Baptist folks are particularly virulent in their condemnation of Jews and Judaism. And they link Jews to LGBT people as well. In 1995, Fred Phelps himself led a protest at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, and he said, “God has smitten Jews with a certain unique madness … Jews, thus perverted, out of all proportion to their numbers energize the militant sodomite agenda… Jews are the real Nazis.”
I don’t know if these visitors to Richmond knew it or not, but I, as a leader in the LGBT interfaith community, knew that Jay was and is proud to stand with us: to open the Holocaust Museum to our events, to teach young people who homophobia is a form of hate as ugly and death-dealing as any other, and to accord the pink triangle—the symbol gay men were forced to wear by the Nazis, like the yellow star forced on Jews—the same status as all the other marks of Nazi hatred and annihilation.
So, on that day in March, as I stood behind Jay—he led our march out of the museum to meet the Westboro Baptist protesters—I was deeply moved, not only to be standing with valued colleagues (some of whom were not then as supportive of LGBT equality as Jay) but most of all to be standing with this good man, and to be standing with and for his people.
He had told us that all he would say was to issue an invitation to them to come inside. They angrily refused, saying ugly things about him and the clergy, too. After many taunts, Jay became unnerved and started to respond, not with hate, but with anger.
Some of us were concerned about Jay’s health, and also knew that argument was futile. So, some helped him re-center himself. Then, Jay turned around, and walked with dignity back towards the museum.
That is the memory—Jay Ipson walking with dignity back into this living museum he and others built—I cherish. In a perverse way I thank Fred Phelps for it. That day, thanks to Jay refusing to bow to hate and inviting us to join him, I, and others, got to stand up against the haters, but perhaps even more, we got to stand for justice and freedom and liberty.
My only regret that day was to look around and realize how few faith and LGBT leaders there were. I know they reject Westboro hate. But we always need be vigilant and we need to speak up clearly. Dr. King observed long ago that is the silence of the good people who hurts the most.
So, as Jay would say, we still have work to do.
Rest in peace, Fred Phelps, rest in peace.
Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline is President of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, an interfaith organization of gay and straight clergy and lay people working for equality for LGBT Virginians. Read more of his thoughts on faith and spirituality on his personal blog.
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