Dear Reverend Phelps,
Word has spread that your health may be failing. I am in no position to offer you anything but sympathy and my prayers: if you are to recover, may your recovery be swift and simple; and if it is your time to leave this life, may your transition be smooth and peaceful. I hope that your nearest and dearest are keeping you good company, and that you are comfortable and well-cared-for, wherever you may be. Illness can be a frightening time, and I hope that yours passes quickly.
But since recovery gets harder as we get older (it happens to us all) and someday the fight will simply be too much for your body, I want to take this opportunity to thank you while there is still a chance that you will (somehow) stumble across and read this blog post.
Thank you, Reverend Phelps.
I don’t suppose you hear that all that much these days. It’s pretty “in vogue” to publicly rebuke you, to curse your name and to sling hate at you. If we’re going to be completely honest here, I’m sure you can understand–you haven’t exactly been known for your “free puppy kisses and lollipops for everyone” approach to spreading your message. But I believe strongly in the idea that everyone who enters our lives is a blessing in some way or another–even if it takes a bit of soul-searching to find the blessing buried at the bottom–and you are no exception to that rule.
Here’s what I mean:
1. You’ve taught me about respect. If this is your first visit to BuffaloTracts, you may want to stop at this post before your blood pressure shoots too high, but if you’ve been here before, you know that you and I don’t really have a whole lot of beliefs in common. That’s ok; we don’t all have to agree. But the process of writing this letter–more precisely, the process of deciding how to address this letter–has really underscored what I’ve learned about the difference between agreement and respect; i.e., I don’t have to agree with a single thing you say to respect that, for instance, you have earned the title of “Reverend”, at least within your own organization. Whether I would join your church or not is irrelevant; and whether you would have any title at all in a church I would join is irrelevant; “Reverend” is your title in the church you lead, and “Reverend” you shall be called. It’s a respectful thing to do, much like calling the Pope “Your Holiness”. Thank you for helping me pin that down.
2. You’ve taught me that a person should never, ever be judged by their parentage. I went to school with a couple of your grandkids; as I recall, they were actually pretty nice folks. I mean, sure, we had to steer clear of certain topics, but even that was a good learning point: that it’s absolutely possible for people with radically different beliefs to coexist peacefully, as long as they’re all willing to play nicely and share the toys. And since I came from a lineage that included a lot of blue-collar folks but went to school with a lot of doctors’ and lawyers’ kids, I came in primed to feel inferior based on my background–but you and your grandchildren helped me see past that and start learning to recognize people’s individual merits regardless of what family tree they grew from. It did great things for my self-esteem, frankly. Thank you for that.
3. You’ve taught me that wildly disparate people can absolutely work together to achieve common goals. I think the various counterprotests around the nation are excellent examples of this–there is no way anyone can possibly convince me that every single person in the human wall at Aurora, or the human wall at Texas A&M, or the human wall at the University of Missouri, or the human wall at Newtown, or the human wall members of Angel Action, or the other human walls that come up when you search for “human wall Westboro Baptist Church” (about 425,000 hits when I searched just now–wow, that’s a lot of object lessons!) all knew each other before they arrived to form their walls on those days. But there they all were, some of them arm-in-arm, some of them wearing huge angel wings that they’d built for the occasion, some carrying signs, some revving motorcycle engines to drown out your chants–there they were, united by a common purpose. Total strangers. Working together. It brings a tear to my eye every time. Thank you for that.
I suppose the bottom line here, Reverend, is this:
I have (again with the honesty) absolutely not enjoyed the experience of interacting with you. We are not friends, and we are not particularly likely ever to be friends. I have not enjoyed seeing you on the streets of my childhood hometown, I have not enjoyed having your signs as part of the background scenery as I grew up, I have not enjoyed watching you gain a national stage, I have not enjoyed seeing Topeka’s private shame get international press, and I have not enjoyed witnessing the hurt and anger and fear your message has caused.
But I have learned to appreciate your existence for the lessons you have taught: about respecting someone despite fundamentally disagreeing with them; about basing your opinion of someone solely on that person’s own merits and actions; and about people’s abilities to overlook their differences in pursuit of a higher common goal. All those lessons, I think, were important in deepening my relationship with god. My god–not your God, because they are not the same entity at all.
If the role of a pastor is to bring people closer to the Divine, then by gosh, I reckon you’ve done it. For me, a woman whose sexuality and beliefs and politics would absolutely have inspired a garishly colored sign had you and I ever met in person.
Thank you for that, Reverend. You’ve done your work. Now rest comfortably, recover quickly if that is to be your fate, or transition gracefully if your time here is done. You’ll be in my prayers–whether you want to be or not.
Blessings to you,
Update, March 20, 2014: Fred Phelps has passed away. I hope his transition was peaceful and that he was surrounded by love as he left this life and entered the next stage of his soul’s grand adventure. I will continue to pray for his family’s peace during this difficult time for them–it is never easy to lose someone you love–and I trust that we will all take this opportunity to tell our own loved ones how much they mean to us. Remember, gang, today also happens to be Mr. Rogers’ birthday; let’s all be good neighbors and make careful choices about which Fred we want to be most like. Love you hooligans.