Rabbi Denise Eger, founder of LGBT Congregation Kol Ami, explains how even Fred Phelps’ own congregation excommunicated him from the very church he founded
Fred Phelps died at age 84. He was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. How did this former civil-rights attorney become such a vicious hater of gays and lesbians, Jews and America? Ironically, his own congregation excommunicated him from the very church he founded. Hate always turns in on itself.
I had several encounters with the Phelps family and their protests. The first time I came face-to-face with them was in the year 2000 in Greensboro, N.C. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (the CCAR), the organization of Reform rabbis, was meeting, and the main topic of our convention that year was a resolution on same-sex marriage. After a number of years working through committees, task forces, and dialogue sessions across the country, I was helping bring a resolution to the floor of the convention that would formalize the Reform Rabbinate’s support of marriage equality and the religious rites of a Jewish marriage between same-sex couples. Fred Phelps and company were outside the convention center with their “God Hates Fags” signs, screaming horrible, harassing, anti-Semitic words. They were few in number. And the local police cordoned them off into a specific area. We were in the hall making incredible history. The rabbis voted with a thunderous voice in favor of the resolution. There were a few lonely nos. But inside that hall was a feeling at that moment that God was truly present in our midst. We felt a new world of inclusion in the Jewish people. We all began to link arms and sing the Shehekiyanu prayer, thanking God for sustaining us and bringing us to this truly joyous moment. Jewish gay men and lesbians would be supported in seeking Jewish marriages. We were singing, “Amen, amen, aaaah-men,” over and over. It was an electric and truly spiritual and holy moment.
Yet as we left the convention hall, we were shouted at and spit upon and called the most horrid of names.
I encountered the Westboro Baptist Church on several other occasions, when they came to protest here in Los Angeles at several synagogues and schools. And of course I read with disgust as they protested the funerals of everyone from Matthew Shepard to the heroes of our military who died in service of our country.