Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Kansas' Westboro Baptist Church & the saddest family in America
By Diane Silver
I finally forced myself to do something I've been avoiding. I've done it because the Phelps clan and the Westboro Baptist Church have already said they're going to picket the funerals of those killed at Virginia Tech.
Because of that statement -- that horror really -- many people have been coming to this blog. I think they are coming to try to fathom why someone would be so hateful as to inflict more pain on those already drowning in grief.
That long-avoided task was to watch the recent BBC documentary, the Most Hated Family in America. I've posted the first part of that film, the rest can be found at YouTube, and I urge you to go and watch it all.
I decided it was time to see if Louis Theroux and his BBC crew captured something about the Phelps that I'd never seen.
I can't say I know them. I'm not certain anyone does who isn't in their church, but I have bumped into them on and off for the past 20 years. I live in a neighboring town. I'm active in gay rights in Kansas and have been around their picketing many times. I worked for a candidate who ran for governor against Fred Phelps. I know many people who live in their neighborhood.
After watching the documentary, I came to a couple of conclusions.
The Phelps are not only the most hated family in America, they are also the saddest. I've always suspected this, but watching this film brought it all home.
Their children are isolated and constantly indoctrinated. They appear to be loving to each other, but have no real friends outside of their family and church (about 70 folks, almost all family members.) They think they're living in the end time, and the young women of the family probably won't marry. A 21-year-old had to ask her mother for permission to have coffee with the filmmaker and his crew, and Mom said no.
And Fred, oh, Fred. I've met him on and off over the years. Once I met him when I was a reporter and he was being nice because he wanted a story. (He had no idea I was gay then.) I met him when he did a TV debate with the other candidates running for governor in the 1994 Democratic primary.
Fred was a smart and quick-witted man. He was always hateful, but he was never slow. The man in that film, though, could only reply with set phrases. Fred could only read his sermon.
It's clear from this film that Fred isn't well. I'm guessing that his mind is failing and that's why he avoided talking at length with the BBC interviewer. I simply don't think Fred could keep up. Of course, I have no proof of this. Call it a hunch, though.
Fred's preaching seems the same as it has always been. The BBC interviewer put it right in saying that the church was based on the ranting of a "rageholic." Fred has always been almost incomprehensible in his fury, and it is sad to see how the whole family spouts his ideas.
These people, particularly the younger generation, are trapped. If they are to continue to be part of their family, to have contact with brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles and grandparents, they must play along with the church. They have to picket. They have to be hateful to others. In being so awful, they get hate and anger thrown back at them. All of this makes them even more isolated.
Think about how hard it would be to cut yourself completely off from your family. I know people do it, but such an action is never without cost. No wonder it's so hard for Phelps kids to walk away.
I do know of some who have done it. I know of at least one who climbed out of a window to escape and then into the car of an acquaintance of mine, and yes, I've heard the story first hand. The film shows one young woman naming those of her generation who have left the family.
In the end, though, understanding the trapped horror of this family won't mend the hearts of those attending funerals. I understand the anger that people want to vent. I know some people have tried to do that on this blog.
All I can say is that there is an illness in the Westboro Baptist Church. Because we live in a free society with a First Amendment, we can't stop them from speaking. However, we can do our best not to add to the hate and the anger the Phelps put into the world.
So if they do picket the VT funerals, I suggest that you do something Jesus did, and turn the other cheek. (Yes, I know it's a horror, but do you really want to focus on your fury at them instead of giving love to those who need it?)
Put as many people as you can between the Phelps and the funeral. You should probably have those people sing because the Phelps' love to sing their hateful songs. Surround the funeral with love, layers of love. At all costs, don't engage any of the Phelps. You will never change their minds, and you'll walk away feel like you're covered in slime.
Wikipedia has a good article on Fred. It talks, among many other things, about how he was disbarred for abusing witnesses. I've skimmed the article and it looks accurate, although I haven't confirmed every detail.
All of my Fred Phelps posts can be found here. (Don't forget to scroll) Here's a quick index of the most useful posts.