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Theology Thursdays: Road to Westboro - What led Fred Phelps to his beliefs and actions? by Fred Mann

It is a quiet family Sunday. Boys toss a football in the yard. Children scramble on playground equipment. Their moms and dads, aunts and uncles clean up after a birthday party.

The family's patriarch reposes comfortably behind a large mahogany desk in a long rectangular workroom next to the sanctuary of his church.

Pastor Fred Phelps, 76 and somewhat wilted after a fire-and-brimstone sermon that blistered the walls and all but rolled up the thin red carpets, is talking about quiet times like this. Quiet times when all of us think about life and death, heaven and hell, our place in the universe.

In such moments, Phelps says, he finds great solace in knowing he is almost universally despised.

"If I had nobody mad at me," he says softly in his Mississippi drawl, "what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the gospel?"

America has heard him and recoiled. At least 27 states are considering laws to ban or restrict picketing at soldiers' funerals. Such picketing is Phelps' latest effort to spread his message that God has turned against America for harboring homosexuality.

Phelps has been called the vilest of the vile, inhuman, even insane. He considers this evidence of his righteousness, proof that he is preaching the truth of God.

"'Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you and cast out your name,' " Phelps says, quoting from the Gospel of Luke. "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!"

The funeral picketing has focused national attention on his church, Westboro Baptist, and the complex on Topeka's southwest side where Phelps and some of his children and grandchildren live in modest wood houses surrounded by chain-link and wood fencing.

The fencing creates a spacious yard with a swimming pool, running track, tennis and basketball courts, and the playground.

Above the compound, an American flag flies upside down, the signal for distress. Above that a Canadian flag flies upside down, Phelps' response to a Canadian law prohibiting picketing at funerals there.

Phelps, who has changed from his preacher's outfit -- gray sport coat and black tie -- and put on a University of Kansas windbreaker, says he and his family have picketed more than 25,000 times since 1991. That's when they started a crusade against homosexual activity in nearby Gage Park after Phelps said the city failed to heed letters he wrote for two years.

In fact, if the city had cleaned up the park as he'd asked, Phelps says, the family probably wouldn't picket anything today.

Instead, people showed up at the park to protest Phelps' picketing, and Phelps declared war.

Since then, the family has picketed the funerals of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten to death in Wyoming; gay men who died of AIDS; miners who died in the Jan. 2 Sago Mine disaster; Frank Sinatra; Barry Goldwater; Mr. Rogers; and Coretta Scott King.

They spend a quarter of a million dollars on airfare each year, Phelps says. It is paid by the family, which includes 10 attorneys among 13 children.

"We do not ask for anything from anyone," says one of Phelps' daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a lawyer for the family firm, Phelps-Chartered. "And we will not take anything from anyone. We pay our own way."

Along the wall next to Phelps is a table with a computer, fax machine and printer. They are the tools Phelps and his family use to send out their message, to find out from the Pentagon which soldiers have died and where and when they will be buried, and to track the growing number of state laws aimed at them.

It's also how they receive daily feedback from the world beyond the church's walls.

"We get thousands of e-mails every day, most of it just raising Cain," Phelps says. "Nasty stuff."

From his chair behind the desk, Phelps smiles at all the hatred.

"I knew it was coming," he says. "I counted the costs, and I'm daily paying the installments. And it's a bargain."

Phelps leans forward, placing his hands with their long, slender fingers on the desk. He asks his listener to repeat what he has just said. He wants to remember it so he can say it again.

Then his face spreads in a smile that colors ruddy, jutting cheekbones.

"I knew it was going to happen because the Bible says it's going to be that way," Phelps continues. "Noah preached for 120 years. The flood came, and he hadn't convinced anybody.

"I knew," says Phelps, "that there wasn't anybody going to believe this."

'Profound determination'

Phelps wasn't always hated. He remembers when he used to be popular. Medals he received from the American Legion for character, honor and courage as a high school senior hang on the wall of his workroom.

"If it occurs to them, they'll probably want me to give them back," he says.

Born in 1929, the son of a railroad detective in Meridian, Miss., Phelps was an A student who finished sixth in his class of 216. He was class orator, an Eagle Scout and one of the top prep high hurdlers in Mississippi.

But today, Phelps can walk around his rambling wood-framed church, which is exempt from real estate taxes, and point out the bullet holes in the church sign, and talk about the vandalism, including a 1995 pipe bomb.

"I knew the value of everybody liking you," Phelps says. "The human emotion of wanting to be liked is there. But it is not dominating my life, I'm very thankful to say."

Popularity is an unworthy goal for a Calvinist preacher, he believes. They stress the absolute sovereignty of God's will; they believe that only those whom God specifically elects are saved, and that individuals can do nothing to effect this salvation.

Phelps was 16 when he received the call to preach. He had been appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but he had to wait until he was 17 to attend. He and a friend stopped in at a revival meeting at a Methodist church, and Phelps had a religious experience that he described as "an impulse on the heart." He scrapped plans for West Point.

"There was aroused in me at that time -- one who had wanted to go to West Point ever since junior high -- a profound determination that I was going to preach the word of God," Phelps says. "And that has not flagged from then till now."

Phelps has contempt for preachers like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham who he says like being popular and no longer preach the message that man is depraved and can't save himself.

"Man has no free will," Phelps says. "The savior says, if you think you got free will, grow a foot and a half."

Phelps still gets a chuckle out of Falwell, who recently appeared on TV in Virginia and declared Phelps insane.

Phelps and Phelps-Roper call up the segment on the computer and watch it again, Phelps chortling as Falwell utters "insane" one more time.

He has picketed Falwell twice.

Phelps enrolled in Bob Jones University instead of West Point. But he never attended classes there. He went to a Bible institute in Canada for a short time before moving to Pasadena, Calif., where he received a theology degree from John Muir College.

On the office wall is a framed copy of a 1951 Time magazine article with a photo of a 21-year-old Phelps speaking out against necking and petting on campus.

Later, Phelps went to Arizona and met and married his wife, Marge, in 1952. Fred Jr. was born in 1953. A year later the family moved to Topeka, where Phelps had been invited to be co-pastor of a Baptist church. After a stormy stay, he founded the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955.

To supplement his income, he sold insurance, vacuum cleaners, dictating machines and baby carriages door to door. The family also sold candy to get by.

Phelps had arrived in Topeka the day of the U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. He took that as a sign he should become a lawyer and do civil rights work.

Phelps graduated from Washburn University law school in 1964. By 1969 his license had been suspended. Eventually he was disbarred by the Kansas Supreme Court for activities the court found to be improper in connection with a lawsuit he filed against a Topeka court reporter.

He later was disbarred from federal court.

Phelps ran for mayor, senator and governor. He lost.

But his civil rights work was praised by black groups, and he was once honored by the Bonner Springs Branch of the NAACP.

Phelps picketed the Atlanta funeral of Coretta Scott King.

Today, a large poster with her photo, headlined "King in Hell," still sits by his pulpit.

"I'm mad at them for turning that movement over to the fags," Phelps says.

'Shepherd of the flock'

During his Sunday sermon, Phelps speaks of a CNN reporter who had asked him how Phelps would like it if people picketed his funeral when he dies.

Phelps thunders from the pulpit: "I'd love it. I'd invite them. 'Get yourself a sign.' I said: 'I'll put in my will to pay your way. But not first class.' "

Phelps has read reports that he's already dead. He's read others that have him dying of any number of ailments.

The truth, he says, is that he is in good shape. A former triathlete, Phelps still swims a half-mile a day when the pool outside is open. He rides a stationary bike and "wogs," a combination of walking and jogging.

At 6-foot-3, he is still lean, and although he walks with a slight stoop, his preacher's voice is still capable of exploding shrilly to climax a thought.

"Get right with God!" he shrieks to the flock in the small sanctuary, which contains about 50 people, almost all family members.

The church has roughly 75 members, of which 80 percent are related to Phelps by blood or marriage, said Shirley Phelps-Roper.

His children vouch for Phelps' health.

"People say he's half dead, but I don't think so," says Fred Phelps Jr., an attorney with the Kansas Department of Corrections. "There's a lot of different images out there. He's very dedicated, very committed, very compassionate, and certainly strong. I remember running a race one time, I was about 25, and he came right past me."

Jonathan Phelps, an attorney with Phelps-Chartered, says his father is a very caring person.

"It's a privilege to be his son because he has a lot of years of experience you can tap into, and he's ready, willing and able to share it with you so you can get by in this life," Jonathan says."His grandchildren love him to death."

But three of Phelps' children left the family long ago and have never returned.

Two sons, Mark and Nate, left in the 1970s and now are businessmen in southern California. They could not be reached for comment.

A third child, Dortha, left in 1990 at age 25 and changed her last name to Bird. She's a Topeka attorney and deputy administrator of the Kansas Workers Risk Cooperative for Counties.

"I felt like I was being controlled, and I didn't have any freedom," Bird says. "And if I didn't follow everything the pastor, or shepherd of the flock, says, I wasn't right with the Lord.

"What never ceased to amaze me is he could tear apart a document that was just a few months old as an attorney, yet he sees the Bible as the truth."

Bird says she hasn't spoken to anyone in the family since she left.

Phelps also has 54 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

While he worries about violence against his family at picketings -- he says they've been beaten in other states, and that one was punched in the face by a sheriff in Wisconsin -- Phelps says the Bible has plenty of verses that comfort them in their mission.

He laughs off accusations that his children and grandchildren picket only because he has brainwashed them.

"Man, I couldn't stop these kids from doing this. They'd get rid of me," he says.

"And beside that, they are happy little ducks. It amazes me. They are so enthused about this stuff. You try to keep them away from those pickets, they fight."

As for those who left the family, Phelps has turned his back on them and doesn't want to reconcile.

"The notion is repulsive to me," he says. "If the wife of your bosom, Moses said, comes to you secretly and says let's go another way, let's share another god, you're supposed to take her to the judges, tell them what she did... and stone her to death."

Growing movement

On the wall hangs the first sign Phelps held up in Gage Park, with the comparatively restrained message: "Watch your kids. Gays in restrooms."

Signs are more inflammatory now, and Phelps knows they hurt mourners.

He thanks legislators around the country for passing those laws and bringing attention to the family's message.

Phelps refers to the laws popping up around the country as a "popcorn movement," and he wishes Congress would pass a law unifying the rules for his protests.

"The federal court could do it, but it'd be better if Congress does it," Phelps says. "I look forward to it. I want to see those jackasses up there wrestle with the First Amendment."

Meanwhile, he and his family picket somewhere every day. They picket about 15 churches every Sunday. For pickets within driving distance, they travel in Honda minivans of different colors, with trucks carrying their signs.

Phelps says he has no plans to stop picketing, and he has no plans to soften the message.

He doesn't know what the future will bring.

"I'm just along for the ride," Phelps says.

He thinks he is on a roll, gathering strength.

Outside, where the grandchildren toss the football and play on the playground, is proof of a growing flock.

The birthday party, held in the basement of one of the houses in the compound, celebrated five of the grandkids.

Phelps sat quietly during the party, holding 12-week-old great-granddaughter Zion on his knee. He grinned as he peered into her eyes and patted her tummy while the family ate and sang hymns.

"Man," Phelps says, "we haven't even got started yet."

This article appears in The Wichita Eagle.

Fred Mann

Thursday, June 8, 2006

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