Nifty title, huh? I think I have the evidence to back it up though, so please keep reading. Most of the time I rant about movies in this space (or books, from time to time) and I'm going to talk about a movie later, but first, I wanted to say a word about everyone's favorite pop culture icon, Fred Phelps. 'Who the fuck is that?' you might ask. Well, Fred Phelps is the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, that infamous little slice of fundamentalist frenzy that sends its members to picket at the funerals of famous gay people. Yes, I said “picket.” The church members carry signs that say “God hates fags” and “AIDS cures fags” and other fun things. Now as horrible as it might be to imagine picketing a funeral, a time of mourning, and pouring more grief on top of people that are already grieving, a lot of people (especially people in my small little backwoods community) wouldn't think this has much affect on them. After all, those people are many states away from us, so we don't have to see them, and we all know the bible does say something about gays being evil or something like that, so these crazy church people are only practicing their religion. It's not a big deal.
I'm not just being sarcastic, either. To be honest with you, as much as I wanted to vomit at the thought of someone picketing at a FUNERAL, I didn't think Fred Phelps and his creepy little church had much to do with my life, either. That was before Matt Webber. 'Who the hell is that?' you ask, 'Why the fuck do you keep throwing random names out there? We have no idea what you're talking about.' Well, let me tell you who he was. Matthew Alan Webber was a local soldier who fought in Iraq and died on April 27, 2006. I didn't know him beyond saying “hi” a few times, but in a town as small as this one, whenever local soldiers are overseas fighting, we see their names a lot. Local churches publish their names on bulletin boards and organize prayer chains, and when local soldiers die, everyone hears about it. When Matt died, people would come into work crying, because we all knew someone else who was still overseas fighting, and we all mourned for those who died. As much as it sucks living in a small town sometimes, this is one of the good things. Tragedies can connect us.
Something strange happened around the time Matt died, though. Remember Fred Phelps? Well, his church has decided that since God hates fags so much, that means God hates any country where a lot of fags live, so God hates America too (but...but...that doesn't make sense-hush, you and your logic, just try to follow this train of thought as it derails). So since God hates America (as we've established, because we're all a bunch of “fag enablers”) that means God hates anyone who fights for this country, so God hated the soldiers fighting for the USA, so God killed them, and people mourning the soldiers are mocking God, so they need to be told the “truth” and Fred Phelps and his church need to spread the gospel to those at these funerals. Again, kind of insane, but what does it have to do with us? Well, you guessed it, Fred Phelps showed up at Matt Webber's funeral to picket and protest and hand out “gospel” literature. We got warning about this a week or so in advance, and everyone at work was abuzz with the news, everyone wondering what kind of person would picket a funeral. When they found out that I knew who Fred Phelps was, they asked me about him, and I got to have several variations on the following conversation:
Them: Who is Fred Phelps?
Me: He's a pastor of a church that pickets at the funerals of gay people-
Them: Matt wasn't a faggot!
Me: Yeah, but since Matt Died protecting the U.S., and the U.S. has laws protecting the rights of gay people, Fred Phelps says God hates America, too
I have to hand it to people. As full as this city is of small-town rednecks, when Fred Phelps came here, no one took a shot at him. No one even threw a rock at him. The Mecosta County sheriff John Sontag (who knew Matt growing up, since he was Matt's rocket football coach) even said he'd have officers stationed around the high school during the funeral to protect the Westboro Baptist church protesters, saying: “We will protect these people, because that’s what Matt died for. He died so these scumbags can protest.” I personally think that's a laudable attitude, especially since I would have gone apeshit and at least thrown rocks at the protesters if I'd been at the funeral (this is why none of my friends would give me a ride to the funeral; they knew I'd go off on someone). I know, the protesters just want attention, I'd be giving it to them, it would be wrong to assault them, blah blah blah. I would probably have done it anyway. All my logic would have gone out the window the second I saw Matt's mother crying while people were standing across the street holding signs saying that God hates Matt. But no one from my area did that, and I admire their restraint. Score one for the rednecks.
The thing that stood out to me the most about this event was the conversations I got to have with people because of Fred Phelps' visit. Like I said, most people in this area have some idea that the bible says it's a sin to be gay, so on that basis, they can understand some church wanting to go off and preach at people about it, but that stance changes the second you start talking about protesting SOLDIERS. The grand majority of citizens in this area are military families, and we all know someone fighting overseas, so when the issue hits us closer to home, it's harder to be objective. I know people say it's a good idea to always be objective in debates and such, but I don't always agree. I don't think people really understand how hate poisons everyone it touches until they are confronted with it affecting someone they love. The people I talked with were shocked that someone would protest Matt's funeral just because he fought in a war representing a country that had laws protecting the rights of gay people. That's kind of what hate does, though. You start hating something, then you slowly begin to hate everything associated with it, and it spreads. I'm not a fan of arguing for a “slippery slope,” but this sure is the track that hatred seems to take when it infects people. For me, if anything good came out of Fred Phelps' visit at all, it was this: I got to talk to people, and they'd say “I can't believe he's protesting at Matt's funeral, that's so horrible,” and I'd say “He's done this to hundreds of funerals of gay people, too,” and they'd pause for a minute, then they'd say “That's horrible, too.” Yeah, it is. But I'm glad we all could learn something from it. Sometimes, when people are confronted with evil, they shrink away. Sometimes, they take the experience in, and they grow from it. I think the people in my town chose the latter path.
I recently watched the documentary “Fall From Grace,” about Fred Phelps and his church and how it got its start and how its teachings have spread, and it's pretty harrowing to watch. I didn't feel qualified to write a review of the movie, because I'd have a hard time being objective (there's that word again) but I thought I'd at least devote a post to the issue, because it's important to me. Watching the documentary gave me an inside seat to how hate spread throughout Phelps and his family and how it spread through their teachings and how it's grown stronger until it became what it is today; a monster that's so strong it even has his family protesting at the funeral of Heath Ledger, because he's an actor who portrayed a gay character. I guess no one is immune from the wrath of this God, because in Phelps' world, we are all fags now (well, at least we all have something in common, then). That level of hate must be difficult to maintain. I would do well to be sympathetic if not to Phelps himself then at least to the idea that it's not a good idea to hate so strongly that it ruins your entire life. So here's to taking baby steps toward not hating people. Here's to all the people whose funerals have been disgraced by Phelps' presence, and here's to Matt Webber, who even in death had a battle to fight against ignorance, and whose funeral helped a lot of people learn something. Even me.