I had contradictory thoughts when I heard that Fred Phelps, founder and former pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, died last week. I flitted first to the notion that Phelps wasted much of his life being hateful, as was so clearly demonstrated by the odious protests his group held outside the funerals of America’s fallen soldiers.
Then it occurred to me that, no matter how I view the man or his actions, his wife and children have lost someone important in their lives. When you peel away the layers, some if not all of his family is now bereaved and in genuine pain.
To me he was a bit of a caricature. Honesty, I cannot imagine thinking that getting in the face of those who have just lost someone they really love is a good or even human notion.
Or can I?
I laughed when I heard that some folks were talking about protesting at his funeral, a kind of “how do you like it” response. I guess there really is a fine line between judge and judged.
Two things kept that protest idea from reaching fruition: His family announced there would be no funeral and the people considering such a protest realized they would be doing the very thing that most of us loathe about this group’s protests.
What it never occurred to me to do, though, is what actually happened in Kansas City, Mo.
Just two days after Phelps died at age 84, some members of the church he founded — the very church some reports say excommunicated him last year — were outside a Lorde concert with their usual hateful signs. They don’t “pretty up” their language, which is often coarse. They hurl insults at people going past and hold signs that say things like “God hates you.” Most of their signs target homosexuality and their belief that God kills American soldiers to express his wrath on the topic.
This time, at least, they picked a more appropriate venue. No matter how one feels about the group’s message or the words they employ to deliver it, I think most people agree protesting outside a concert is not the same as disrupting the memorial a bereaved family holds to honor a husband, wife, son, daughter, mom, dad, sister or brother who was killed.
Some of the best-behaved people I know have picketed outside movie theaters, state office buildings and businesses at various times to get attention for their views. My brain doesn’t shriek with disgust or disbelief about it when I pass a rally outside such a venue. I can disagree wildly and not register the fury that the notion of picketing dead soldiers brings. When the venue’s right, you agree or disagree, honk or don’t, stop or keep driving.
I don’t often, however, think protests are beautiful, either. And that’s really the only word I can conjure to describe the “protest,” if you could call it that, that took place in Kansas City last week, across the street from the Westboro crew. I'm not sure if an organization or individuals came up with it.
You may have heard about it by now, but it’s worth repeating, because it’s one of those lessons in what it takes to be a decent human. There are events that point out what makes us the same, even as we are all so different in our views and actions. Births and deaths are among those events: We all know the reverberation of the truly large “hellos” and “goodbyes” that shake our lives.
People arriving for the Lorde concert saw Westboro’s usual “God hates ” signs. And on the other side of the street, they saw a massive banner with a message that was eloquent in its simplicity:
“Sorry for your loss.”
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