Fred Phelps Was Not a Good Man, But He Gives This Activist Hope
The late Fred Phelps was something of a boogey man in Topeka, and Kansas in general. There may be an abundance of homophobia (though, as someone who lives here, I think it’s getting better all the time), but the vast majority don’t approve of how hateful the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is. As the founder and leader of that church, Phelps’ name was and remains synonymous with homophobic Christianity.
It turns out, though, that people are weird and complicated and can change. Planting Peace, the organization that runs the Equality House across the street from the WBC, published a statement from Zacharias Phelps-Roper, a former member of the WBC and the grandson of Phelps. Phelps-Roper claims that, before his grandfather was excommunicated, the founder of one of the most hateful organizations in the country came to support Planting Peace and their LGBT youth programs. Allegedly, in reference to the neighboring Equality House, Phelps said, “You are good people.”
It’s important to note that the WBC itself hasn’t confirmed any of this, and Phelps wasn’t exactly out there on the corner of 17th and Gage holding his own counter protest. So we don’t know beyond a doubt that it’s true. If it is true, however, it gives me great hope.
You’re reading Care2, so I’m willing to bet that you’re the activist type. Or at least were, before the rigors of adulthood got you down. I used to be the marching in the streets, collecting signatures type. I’m not anymore. I got tired. Present-day Kansas is not known for its progressive politics. Hitting failure after failure and the inability to communicate arguments that I thought were self-evident really wore me down. I felt hopeless. I was working too hard for no progress at all. At some point I just decided that I couldn’t do it anymore.
If you are the activist type, this feeling is probably pretty familiar. It’s why the human rights conferences I would attend usually had at least one workshop devoted to self-care.
Clearly I didn’t cut myself off from activism completely. I still write (obviously), but I’ve cut out activities that are really not in my wheelhouse. Cold knocking on doors, for example, takes a special kind of person, and it isn’t me. But, even now, I still catch myself looking at my computer screen thinking, “What is the point?”
This, my friends. This is the point. If Phelps did have a change of heart at the end, it shows that what I thought was impossible is actually possible. Phelps was a complicated man, but also a hateful one. This is one person I thought would never change. I find the prospect that he did to be breathtaking.
Actually, I have complicated feelings about any potential conversion to the equality bandwagon. I don’t want to whitewash his legacy. If he did change his mind, he didn’t do so in time to do anything about it. What he left behind is organized hate, plain and simple. He used his life to hurt so many people, and that needs to be what is remembered about him.
However, I do think there is a lesson here for people who devote their lives to making the world better. Change is incremental and it takes time, but it’s possible. This doesn’t rehabilitate Fred Phelps in the slightest, but it shows that trying to change the world is not a fool’s errand.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons