What has surprised me are the strongly hateful reactions from those in my social networks whom I know to be fervently Christian, to the point of proselytizing constantly. Their problem with Phelps and his church was the hatred it displayed, yet they seem to see no contradiction in displaying that same hatred toward Phelps. Motes and beams in eyes spring to my mind, as does casting the first stone, but Christianity has no exclusive claim on hypocrisy.
In 2011, on a motorcycle road trip through the U.S., I met with Fred Phelps Jr and a brother, Jon Phelps, at the home of one of them in Topeka, KS. I had tried to attend their service the previous day but, being a little nervous, tried to enter the church at the last moment and found it locked. I then e-mailed, explained I was a writer from New Zealand traveling through the country and had some questions I'd like to ask, and was invited to come back.
The main question I wanted an answer to was what is at the heart of every person and every story - Why? Particularly, why they did the things they do, why they increased the grief of those already suffering, why they thought their God equalled hate?
They had their own agenda, about which they were very forthcoming. They believed any publicity they get benefits what they see as the tasks God has assigned them, even if it was a modern-day gypsy writer from the other side of the world. It was only when I played the interview back many weeks later that I realized what a battle of wits it had been. I was determined to remain calm and ask rational questions, they wanted to argue scripture (which they all know far, far better than I ever plan to) and antagonize me. They had done their homework and knew of New Zealand's liberal stance on homosexuality and tried to link that, through scripture, to a series of earthquakes and aftershocks the Canterbury/Christchurch region had begun experiencing the previous year.
Through it all, what I found scariest was how normal an American family they seemed, if one did not know their religious views.
I was also, while in Kansas, honored to meet and interview some Patriot Guard Riders who told me why THEY do what they do. As I continued to travel through the U.S., I discussed both entities with many people and tried to put together my thoughts on the place of each in the world.
Many months, miles and a couple of countries later, I sat down to reprise some of my U.S. experiences, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and felt that the purpose of the WBC (and I believe everyone and everything has some purpose) was that, "Their presence at such public events [as military funerals] has so incensed middle America that it has made communities take note of the sacrifices made for them by the less than 1 percent that is the military."
I had the honor to ride in a funeral cortege with PGR members while in Chicago, and was moved to tears by not only the leather-clad bikers I expected to see standing strong and silent and escorting the deceased and his family to the cemetery, but by the streets we rode along lined with people standing silently, holding flags or hand-on-heart as the hearse and escort passed.
Perhaps some of that, I thought, is a result of the WBC and what they stood for.
I have regularly received notices from the Patriot Guard and wake most mornings to notifications of too many military deaths, ones I can put names to, tho thankfully not faces. This morning, there was a PGR National Message which, as I would expect of the PGR, was the classiest response I have seen to Phelps Sr's passing. It needs no further words from me:
Let’s first remember our Nation’s true Heroes. Those brave men and women of our military and first responders who gave their life so that we may enjoy the freedom to express our differences.
While it is hard to find anything good to say about his views or actions, we do give our condolences to his family during what must be a painful time for them. We take no joy in the sickness and death of any man. We do not celebrate the death of Fred Phelps. Patriot Guard Riders hope that Mr. Phelps somehow found the peace that seemed to elude him in life.
It is true that the PGR grew out of a response to protests at funerals. That's a fair statement.
However, that was 2005 and the PGR quickly learned that there was something powerful in a gathering of Americans who would simply stand and hold flags and let a family know that they were not alone. That powerful thing became our mission.
We are neither a protest nor a counter protest group. We honor fallen Heroes and those who have honorably served this free America. The presence or absence of a protest does not alter that mission.
If it not for this man and his family we might not have heeded the call to regularly honor the sacrifices of our nation’s true heroes and their families. Nor would we have come to know the brother/sisterhood that has become the Patriot Guard Riders.
Patriot Guard Riders