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Fred Phelps’ Serious Misunderstanding of Community

Fred Phelps and the Boundaries of Inclusivity Sebastien Barre

Sebastien Barre

Cari Donaldson - published on 03/18/14

What’s at the heart of your community?

It’s been one of those weeks.  It began late on Wednesday, with what I foolishly thought was a weather-induced headache that short while later turned out to be the flu.  If you’ve never tried to stop the spread of a virus through a population consisting of six children with dubious hygiene standards, let me tell you, you haven’t lived.  And if you’ve never tried to stop the spread of a virus through a closely quartered, possibly savage population while you yourself are sick, well, you’ll just have to take my word for it – it’s like Outbreak meeting Recess.  Mercifully, my husband took a half day on Thursday, which allowed me to collapse in bed and self-medicate with a heavy dose of The X-Files on Netflix.

Things only got worse on Friday, when our dog got sick.  On the way to the vet, I was pulled over by the police, which resulted in the distressing discovery that due to a processing error, the family prison bus, also known as a passenger van, was not registered in the great state of Connecticut.  Drive the car again without it being registered, the officer grimly told me, and it would be impounded.  If you’ve never discovered that your only working car is now riding dirty, while your people are falling to the flu and your dog is sick, well, believe me when I say it’s like living in a country song.  Mercifully, my neighbor drove my husband to a rental place so we could rent a car long enough to take on DMV and get paperwork squared away.

Meanwhile, our dog kept getting sicker and sicker.  Our vet was completely puzzled, and since she’s a rescue dog that we’ve had for less than a month, there was a long, winding trail of medical history to track down – a stressful and expensive thing, to be sure.  Mercifully, people who’ve never met us but who knew our dog through her time at an Arkansas shelter started praying for her and raising money for her vet bills.

Yeah, it’s been one of Those Weeks.  But all along the way I knew there were people to help me out.  Family, friends, even strangers came to offer the sort of help that, by the very act of giving, forms a community that builds up and out, ballooning into time and space like sunlight.

Which is what makes the news that Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist infamy, is actively dying, so conflicting.  On the one hand, there is the immediate, understandable, easy response: relief, tinged with a fair amount of schadenfreude.  On the other hand, there is fear for the soul of a man whose spiritual legacy was one of total hate.

I remember the days following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, when news spread that Phelps’s church was coming to protest the funerals of the children and teachers who died.  Within hours, a virtual community had formed consisting of strangers united to help shelter the families in their moments of darkness.  It became a community that was formed over and over again in response to the violence promoted by Phelps.  A community that, mercifully, helped to repair a small section of human relations that Phelps and his group had wounded.

But community, in and of itself, cannot always be a moral good. Otherwise, what justification would there be for the near-universal repulsion felt towards Westboro Baptist Church?  

The answer, I think, lies in a number of things.  Membership in the community, for example; one would imagine that the less discriminating the membership guidelines, the better.  It’s the difference, say, between the KKK and a Vermont hippie commune.  But is exclusion necessarily a bad thing?  The strict definition of family, for example, limits membership to blood, marriage, or adoption, which leaves room for the full spectrum from real-life Archie Bunkers to the Jolie-Pitts.  Membership guidelines do not automatically render a community good or bad, rather; it is spirit behind the inclusion or exclusion that demonstrates the nature of the community.

Another test to determine the spirit of a community is looking at its focus.  Is there a “we take care of our own” mentality that develops no further, or does the community have a heart for the world at large, including those that fall outside the group?  It’s hard to argue that a community comfortable holding signs that join the words “God” and “Hate” has a heart for the world at large.  Or not a heart full of kindness, anyway.  Compare that to a community like Doctors Without Borders  or the Missionaries of Charity, or even the flash communities that have formed in the wake of religious violence in the Middle East, like this one, or this one.

Lastly, I think, the test for a community is the fruit of its existence.  What kind of psychic footprint does it leave in its wake?  How will people remember the “9 Nanas”, who have spent over 30 years practicing what is considered in Judaism to be the highest form of charity– that which the recipient never knows who his benefactor was?  How will people remember this couple, who has been assembling $20 “homeless care kits” and distributing them in their community?  

It’s not hard to imagine how people will remember Fred Phelps, or the church he founded.  But, while the fruit of the church itself is clearly rotten, it would be a disservice to not mention some of the communities that have formed as a tonic to that putrescence. The Patriot Guard Riders immediately springs to mind, along with lesser-known groups who helped form human barriers between Westboro Baptist and the mourners.  Beyond that, any person of faith who tried to heal some of the damage caused by a religious group insisting that God hated anyone, who insisted the God was anything other than Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and most of all, Love.

That’s what it comes down to – what is at the heart of a community?  Is it hate, anger, and blind condemnation, or is it love, peace, and a desire to help one another?

I’ll pray for Fred Phelps in his final days, not because I’m a good person, but because I believe in a God who is Goodness itself, and I tremble for Phelps’s heart of darkness when it stands before the Light.

Cari Donaldsonis the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories: How I Found God, Had Kids, and Lived to Tell the Tale. She married her high school sweetheart, had six children with him, and now spends her days homeschooling, writing, and figuring out how to stay one step ahead of her child army. She blogs about faith and family life at

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