(RNS) A “fringe hatemonger” — that’s what I called Fred Phelps in a letter to the editor of The Washington Times in 1999. In response he announced in a news release that he was coming to Colorado Springs to protest the “… false prophet James Dobson and his fag-infested Focus on the Family scam.”
It felt almost “out of body” to pull into the Focus campus one morning and see people holding explicit neon signs telling me I was going to hell. I was a fairly new believer at the time, and managing media relations for Focus on the Family. With my salvation came the holy conviction to begin the difficult journey to battle against my own same-sex attractions. The chants, the signs, the venom — it all felt uncomfortably familiar. Christians were once again protesting me. I couldn’t get away from it.
It also challenged my immature understanding of theology. “What if Phelps is right?” I worried. I buried these thoughts for years — though truth be told, they’d surface at nearly every mention of his name.
I know better now, but words spoken, for good or for evil, during the most vulnerable moments in life make an indelible impression. I have harbored a bitter root of ill will toward Fred Phelps. His hate lodged into my heart during a tender time of spiritual growth.
News that he was admitted to hospice and near death brought about mixed feelings this past weekend. I volunteer for hospice twice a week in a faith-based role. I care for and love people without a clue as to who they are or what harm they’ve committed in their lives. However, there are glimpses of the past.
• An elderly mother jolts herself back from the brink of death for days because she’s waiting to say goodbye to her son. She calls out his name over and over. In the end, her body gives out. He doesn’t visit.
• Another woman with hard memories also dies without family. She curses up a storm, then weeps over those she’s hurt and those who’ve wounded her. In the end, she commits her life to Jesus and the hospice chaplain baptizes her.
These are just two examples of a multitude of folks who have less than neat endings.
As a hospice volunteer I attend to “death vigils,” where I sit at the bedside of someone who’s about to cross over to the other side. It’s holy ground. I read Psalms; sometimes I sing hymns. I do my darnedest to lead them to peace with God. I know in my spirit when that moment happens, and then sometimes a last gasp of life is taken. What an honor.
I have a world of compassion for the dying. In large part, it’s my calling. But what would I do with Fred Phelps as he wastes away in hospice?
I consider the military funerals he and his church protested. I think about the LGBT community — of how many are tormented with thoughts of eternal damnation because of him. I wonder about all those who turn Jesus off completely because of his hateful words and spiteful actions.
Would I moisten his mouth with drops of water? Could I bring myself to wipe his forehead with a cold washcloth? Would I hold his hand and tenderly whisper the Psalms? Could I pour over him prayers of thanks and pleas of mercy from God?
These questions niggled at me this weekend, mostly because I likely minister to all sorts of men (and women) like Fred Phelps. But while there are signs of bitter, hard and even hateful lives, I don’t know the horror. I haven’t walked with them in life –or watched their antics on the news. I’m presented with frail human beings, desperate for peace, for human touch, for forgiveness and for mercy.
One additional thought occurred to me: There is one among us who is never conflicted by whether or not to forgive or readily extend mercy. It’s Jesus. He sees all of our hateful moments and hypocrisy — which I suspect are plentiful for most of us –and extends love without condition.
Fred Phelps lies in hospice. I don’t like to think of Jesus with him through the hands and words of a hospice volunteer — but that shows how far off the mark I am in the grace department. It’s a cause for prayer, for sure.
As the debate begins to rage about whether or not to protest Fred Phelps’ funeral, this gives Christians a unique opportunity. This doesn’t involve giving nod to his ideology or suggesting he even knows the true Christ. However, it may present the chance to talk about mercy and how God is willing to forgive the worst of sinners.
The passing of Fred Phelps, and our reaction to it, presents a witness of grace so rarely demonstrated in our world. May God have mercy on Fred Phelps.
(Amy Tracy is a writer for global mission at David C Cook in Colorado Springs. She lives with her adopted family — two best friends, four children, four dogs, two horses, two hamsters and one disagreeable cat. )
YS/MG END TRACY