I went to college with Fred Phelps.
I went to the University of Kansas for school, and he went there with his congregation to protest the Big Gay Agenda. He held signs promising us a swift trip to Hell in front of the liberal arts building where my first out gay friend and I boywatched together on the broad, sunny plaza known as Wescoe “Beach”. He protested outside the Kansas Union where I got gouged on textbooks—believe me, I wished to protest those days too.
And to my everlasting mystery, he picketed and shouted outside every single one of my college choir concerts. Monteverdi’s Vespers. Tallis’ soaring, complex 40-part motet. Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Franz Biebl’s achingly beautiful “Ave Maria”, sung at every Christmas concert. The greatest music ever composed—most of it commissioned and performed for the greater glory of God—earned his scorn without fail. Not that he ever heard a note of it.
Obviously, this defies logic, as did his entire mission in life. Logic has little to do with fear and hate. To Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, all that mattered was the existence of LGBT people living happy, honest lives on and around the KU campus. Do liberal arts and the fine arts department have a particularly higher number of them? Who knows.
In any case, a kind tradition developed among the upper- and underclassmen at KU. The first time freshmen encountered the WBC was usually on Jayhawk Boulevard. The placards they held proudly weren’t the only statements they made; they said hateful, hurtful things to anyone who walked by. Many freshmen felt compelled to stop and try to reason with them, to ask them to reconsider their beliefs—especially if they had children with them (which they usually did). Reason turned to frustration as the students met their implacable, mile-high wall of bigotry and conviction.
Just as fury began to ignite, some upperclassman would approach and put a gentle arm around the freshman’s shoulders. “Come with me,” they’d say quietly as they guided them away. Out of earshot, the older student would say something compassionate and honest about futility and self-care, irrationality and good intentions. With a pat on the shoulder, they’d go their separate ways: one gratified at having done a good deed, the other sadder but wiser for the experience.
In a year or two, they’d be the older students, guiding another generation of freshmen away from Phelps.
I don’t hate Fred Phelps—he hated enough for a million people’s million lifetimes. I don’t believe he’s in Hell, because I don’t believe in Hell. But if God is Love in the Christian Gospel, he spent his whole life away from God, which is the very definition of Hell in many religions. And he died in a world that more lovingly and openly welcomes the whole selves of LGBT people than it did when he began his work, so he must have known that his mission was an abject failure. He was even abjured by his own flock on his deathbed, after watching many of his own children and grandchildren defect from his church (and even Christianity, in a few cases) over the years. When you pursue scorched earth policies, all you have left at the end is a whole lot of scorched earth.
I know the immeasurable psychological and spiritual harm his hate has caused people over the years, but I don’t rejoice in his death. I don’t want to dance on his grave. I think he would take it as a sign of his righteousness if hundreds of people picketed his funeral with profanity and disrespect. The silence of business-as-usual in Topeka that day would be the most effective punishment of all.
But he wished my friends and me dead at every one of my choir concerts. And I find I have the urge to sing towering works of glory and beauty where he lies dead.