In the late 1990s, I joined an LGBT rights movement called Soulforce, inspired by the principles of non-violence and social justice utilized by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as Mahatma Gandhi. One of our first direct actions was in Lynchburg, VA, where we met with Reverend Jerry Falwell, and other members of his church. Our goal was to begin a dialogue, and to try to end the hateful rhetoric that was leading to the loss of life, both through hate crimes as well as a daunting number of suicides. It was right after the Matthew Shepard murder, and emotions in the LGBT community were soaring.
At that time, for so many members of the community, living authentic and open lives was not a viable option. You could lose your job, your housing, be arrested, or even killed, just for loving the wrong person. However, it was quickly becoming evident that the cost of silence was outweighing the risk of openness and truth. The silence that saved our lives for many generations, was holding us back from living meaningful lives. While there had always been a small contingent of brave and selfless heroes of the LGBT community fighting for our rights, more and more of us were finally deciding it was time to take a stand. Soulforce resonated with me, because it addressed the source of the discrimination where it was the most prevalent, in the churches.
We gathered in Lynchburg, and although we had originally planned to have a dinner with Reverend Falwell and his supporters, at the last moment they said they could not possibly eat with us, as breaking bread with us would compromise their morality. At every turn, we were made to feel less and less human. As we arrived on site at Thomas Road Baptist Church, we were met not only by the scorn and judgment of the church members, but also by picketers from Westboro Baptist Church.
We were instructed at every point to ignore them and not to engage. That was quite hard for me at the time. I was in my early 20s, still in the beginning stages of recovering from an evangelical upbringing that taught me to ignore, suppress, and hate the person I was. Soulforce was a new form of salvation for me. I found out that God loved me and made me, just as I am. I found out there were other people like me, who believed in God and who loved God, and who were also born lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. It was the biggest joy of my life, knowing I could still have a personal relationship with God, without turning my back on the person I was born to be.
My wounds were fresh — coming out to the rejection of my family and most of my friends, being told I was less than, a sinner, disgusting and wrong. Having the opportunity to participate in a group like Soulforce, that attacked the source of the rhetoric and the hate directly from the pulpits, was both freeing and conflicting. It was hard to love the people who had made me hate myself for so long. Adding the component of the group from Westboro Baptist Church, with their spiteful signs depicting explicit sex acts, using young children to communicate their message, and preaching a clear message of hate, made this meeting with Reverend Falwell all the more emotionally charged. We were already confronting our tormentors… those who made us hate ourselves… those who made us believe that we were mistakes… those who told us that God didn’t love us, and that we were going to hell… and as we summoned the courage to walk into the church that had famously and loudly preached against us for so many years, we were taunted and yelled at and humiliated by the picketers who shouted to us that God hates us… a message we had all worked tirelessly to heal from.
The following year, I attended a two-week non-violence summit in Cleveland, where our final event was a protest of the United Methodist Annual Convention. Reverend Jimmy Creech had just been defrocked by the Methodist Church for marrying same-sex couples. He was one of the leaders in our training. Alongside him were Soulforce founders Mel White and Gary Nixon, as well as Yolanda King, Arun Ghandi, Bob Graetz, of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and many other amazing leaders in nonviolence and social justice. It was one of the most inspiring and life changing times in my life, and once again, Westboro Baptist Church was present.
Much like in Lynchburg, emotions were blazing. We interlocked as a human chain, blocking the entrance and exit to the convention center with signs that said, “No entrance/exit without justice.” We were arrested for blocking the exit and entrance, all the while with the WBC members taunting us, and yelling hate speech toward us. We simply ignored them, praying for strength, courage and peace, and singing songs of freedom. The more they yelled at us, the louder and stronger we sang. For several blocks in downtown Cleveland that hot summer day, “We Shall Overcome” echoed through the streets, drowning out the cries of hate from the congregation from Kansas.
Years passed, the world began to change, and a funny thing happened. I started to see the value of the WBC pickets. They had moved on from just picketing LGBT people and supporters, and they were now picketing funerals for soldiers who had died defending our country. Now, not only were they hurting us, they were hurting everyone. Inspiring widespread disdain, the tides were turning. People started to feel bad for the groups they were protesting, and their tactics were actually backfiring. They didn’t seem to notice or care, as long as they were in the public eye. They went from being a dreaded enemy of the LGBT community, to almost a secret weapon. Their hate actually made us more sympathetic, and I welcomed their increasingly demented and frenzied protests.
Early on, I spent a lot of time on their website. They used to have hand drawn flyers announcing their protests, with ridiculous cartoon style drawings of whoever they were protesting, as well as nonsensical rants describing why they were protesting whatever bride of Satan or fag nation had garnered their attention that particular day. From once being a source of pain, they had almost become a source of amusement for me.
Not too long ago, I had the thought that I could only hope I lived a life that would warrant a funeral picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church. I posted a Facebook status to that effect, and not long after, I noticed several others shared that sentiment, independent of my post. For quite some time, it became a pretty widespread sentiment that I saw throughout many different unique corners within social media. What a shift from the horror and hurt they caused not so many years before! A WBC picket had evolved into the badge of honor for a life well lived.
It is now 2014. Reverend Phelps is nearing death, and the world looks very different than just 15 or 16 years ago. Gay marriage will soon be legal in every state in the U.S. Signs saying “God Hates Fags” are no longer hurtful. They are more an object of amusement at best and an eye roll at worst, than anything else. I can still quickly remember a time when that wasn’t the case.
It would certainly be understandable if there were members of the LGBT community, as well as so many others, who felt inclined to picket the funeral of Fred Phelps. Though the weight of his actions and pickets has dissipated over the years, there was a time when his actions and leadership cause a tremendous amount of grief for an awful lot of people. It is my hope, however, that no one will descend to the level of hatred and pettiness that seemed to fuel the last decades of his life. We would only be harming our own souls, to carry out such a callous, immoral and emotionally void action. It is my prayer that in the last moments of his life, the Reverend is able to find peace and love, as he prepares to be humbled before his maker. The time for the hurt is ending. It is time to let the healing begin. Truly, the best way to avenge hurt inflicted by our enemies is to simply forgive them, and not allow them to have a stronghold in our hearts.
Rest in peace, Fred. I forgive you.