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The Legacy of Fred Phelps


The news of Fred Phelps’ death last week caused me to reflect on two experiences I’ve had with Westboro Baptist Church. The first was my last congregation’s random selection for picketing by Westboro following our High School’s presentation of The Laramie Project, a play depicting the life and murder of a high school student named Matthew Shepard. In preparation for that Sunday, our local police department brought the five churches together to debrief us on what to expect and how to prepare.

The research the detectives provided us was fascinating. Westboro Baptist Church is basically composed of two families. While in name they are incorporated as a church, their primary function is to incite a reaction. Most of Phelps’ children are attorneys versed in second amendment rights. When Westboro pickets, they notify the local police the locations they have selected, whether it be a church, a military funeral or some other event. They want the police there to protect them and document physical aggression directed toward picketers as well as document any restrictions that may be placed on their protests. If they are forbidden to protest, or if some well intentioned person physically accosts a member of the group, they file a law suit. And through the years they have be surprisingly successful. Phelps’ children have filed and won many law suits, even arguing cases as high as the United States Supreme Court. To that, I simply say Westboro is not a “church.” Its a bizarre business.

My second experience came as a part of a military funeral I conducted for a Marine who was killed in action in Afghanistan. There were two funerals that day, and Westboro announced they would be at both. However they opted for the other. The stress that the mere threat of Westboro coming to picket this young hero’s funeral was tremendous. Local police, assisted by the Patriot Guard, did everything within their power to protect the dignity of the soldier and his family. But the stress was still heavy.

Fred is dead, but his legacy will continue. Its easier to hate than to love. Its easier to judge than to entrust God with that responsibility. Its easier to focus on contrast than comparison. The small children who picket, carrying signs that display repulsive language and images have been taught to hate and to judge. They walk the picket line dutifully, with empty eyes and a sign secured against their tiny shoulders. They are unresponsive to the jeers and profanity hurled at them by those who pass by. For me, the worst part of Westboro’s charade is the way they use children. Its cruel and sad and wrong. And its part of securing the legacy.

There is a verse in Hebrews 11 about Abel that says, “though he is dead, yet speaks…” Long after we are gone, our lives still speak into future generations whether for good or bad. Fred Phelps is dead, but he still speaks. And Westboro Baptist Church shows no sign of letting up. Check it out HERE.

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