Fred Phelps died at age 84. He was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. How did this former civil-rights attorney become such a vicious hater of gays and lesbians, Jews and America? Ironically, his own congregation excommunicated him from the very church he founded. Hate always turns in on itself.
I had several encounters with the Phelps family and their protests. The first time I came face-to-face with them was in the year 2000 in Greensboro, N.C. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (the CCAR), the organization of Reform rabbis, was meeting, and the main topic of our convention that year was a resolution on same-sex marriage. After a number of years working through committees, task forces, and dialogue sessions across the country, I was helping bring a resolution to the floor of the convention that would formalize the Reform Rabbinate's support of marriage equality and the religious rites of a Jewish marriage between same-sex couples. Fred Phelps and company were outside the convention center with their "God Hates Fags" signs, screaming horrible, harassing, anti-Semitic words. They were few in number. And the local police cordoned them off into a specific area. We were in the hall making incredible history. The rabbis voted with a thunderous voice in favor of the resolution. There were a few lonely nos. But inside that hall was a feeling at that moment that God was truly present in our midst. We felt a new world of inclusion in the Jewish people. We all began to link arms and sing the Shehekiyanu prayer, thanking God for sustaining us and bringing us to this truly joyous moment. Jewish gay men and lesbians would be supported in seeking Jewish marriages. We were singing, "Amen, amen, aaaah-men," over and over. It was an electric and truly spiritual and holy moment.
Yet as we left the convention hall, we were shouted at and spit upon and called the most horrid of names.
I encountered the Westboro Baptist Church on several other occasions, when they came to protest here in Los Angeles at several synagogues and schools. And of course I read with disgust as they protested the funerals of everyone from Matthew Shepard to the heroes of our military who died in service of our country.
But now he is dead. He had been excommunicated from the church he founded, cut off from many of his children and grandchildren. Stories are swirling about the power struggle to control his church.
But in many ways the Westboro Baptist Church's open and raw display of hatred of gays and lesbians and their deep-seated anti-Semitism exposed to the world how easily one can succumb to extremism. The Phelps family protesters became caricatures of themselves. They protested military funerals because they believed that God hated America for its embrace of gays and Jews. They protested at the funerals of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, saying that Boston deserved it: "Here's a hint -- GOD SENT THE BOMBS! How many more terrifying ways will you have the LORD injure and kill your fellow countrymen because you insist on nation-dooming filthy fag marriage?!" They protested at the funerals of the victims of the shooting in Tuscon, where Rep. Gabby Giffords was injured, and at the funerals of the young victims of the massacre at Newtown, Ct., claiming that the victims deserved it for the nation's sins.
The family of Fred Phelps, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, took hatred into new and twisted heights. There was no compassion in their hearts for the pain and grief that they heaped on top of the pain and grief and loss that were already being felt in each of these cases. They would send out media alerts that they were going to protest funerals of celebrities to try to bring attention to their extreme form of so-called Christian fundamentalism. His hatred was based in a vision of the apocalypse.
But the media attention instead showed the world the humanity of those they protested. This included the humanity of gay men and lesbians.
I am sure that as Fred Phelps meets his Maker, he will have to account for his sins. Perhaps today he has to account for his stone-cold heart of hate that so infected his own children that they turned their hearts away from him. In Jewish tradition, when we learn of someone's death, we recite, "Baruch Atah Adonai, Dayan HaEmet" -- "Blessed are You, Adonai, the Truthful Judge." The Judge of All will judge Fred Phelps and his actions and his life. His soul will have to answer to how he lived out the Commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself."
I cannot judge a person. But I know the difference between compassion and hatred, hospitality and hostility. I learned them from them story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis. Too bad Fred Phelps didn't understand that Sodom was condemned not for sodomy or homosexuality but for the sin of inhospitality and hostility to strangers. They had to answer too. Now it's Fred Phelps' turn.