Thursday, July 24, 2014

THE EARLY DAYS WITH AN ANGRY MAN - PART 1




In 1954 my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., was roundly admired for his thunderous preaching, and was quickly hired as an associate pastor. The ladies at Eastside Baptist Church all liked my mother and made the young mother welcome in their circles.

Things went swimmingly. The Eastside congregation was planning to open a new church across town, and it seemed natural when their pastor, Leaford Cavin, asked my father to fill the job. The Eastside church issued bonds to purchase the property at 3701 W. 12th Street in Topeka, Kansas. To help my father get underway, the congregation re-roofed the building, painted it, and bought the songbooks necessary. A start-up group of about 50 former members of Eastside volunteered to attend services at Westboro. The church formally opened on May 20, 1956. My father had it all; a fine church and a congregation of his own.

So what went wrong?

"We gave him his church; painted; roofed it; even bought his songbooks; and after only a few weeks, he turned on us," says a long-time member of Eastside. Apparently not everyone in Leaford Cavin's church was enthusiastic about my father. One from that time recalls my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., my mother, Margie, 2 year-old Fred, Jr., and 9 month-old Mark, that’s me.  We were in the pews one Sunday with the rest of the congregation, listening to Cavin preach. As a 9 month-old, I suddenly began squirming during the service. To the appalled amazement of his fellow worshippers nearby, my father, the junior pastor, repeatedly slapped me across the face with an open palm and backhand, snapping my tiny head to and fro. Afterwards, several of the men in the congregation confronted my father and told him never to do that again.

By the time I actually heard this story at age 40 it made me laugh. Not because I wasn’t appalled at being slapped repeatedly in the face as a baby.  But because my father never once, to my knowledge, took the input of another human being in response to his sinful or wrong behavior.  So it was a bitter laugh of resignation.  I remember my mother once telling me-proudly, as if she'd effected a big change in my father’s behavior-that my father had beaten my older brother when he was only five months old. She said she'd argued with him about it and he'd agreed to hold off beating us kids till we were a year old." What a very sad and small “victory” for a woman who was to have 13 children with this man.  To have exacted a promise from him that he would not begin to beat his children till they were one year old.

"Phelps was wrapped pretty tight, even back then," recalls an old member of Eastside. "He was very severe with his children and a lot of people didn't care for him. But we all thought he was a man of God."  As I think about this now I feel sad.  What might have happened had anyone truly tried to get in my father’s way and slow him down?  The Bible is clear about the required ways to challenge sinful behavior in another person.  It begins with going in person and if the recipient refuses to listen there is a further mechanism for taking others to confront the issue.  I have no idea what would have happened had this little church pursued my father in a confrontation about his sin, and its impact on his congregation. Probably my father would have found a way to do what he was bound to do.  But I wonder…

Within weeks after receiving his new status, building, and congregation, my father who had been warmed on the hearth of Eastside's hospitality, turned and bit the hands that had helped him. My father and Leaford Cavin had an almost immediate falling out over whether God hated the sinner as well as the sin. Pastor Cavin’s position was that God clearly loved the sinner, and only hated the sin.  Fred’s stance was that God hated both the sin and the sinner.  And that understanding impacted every aspect of my father’s life as far as I can tell. But sometimes my dad would simply tell folks these were “theological differences” meaning that they were things good willed people could differ on.  And then other times he would be very upset and angry with people who didn’t believe as he did.  Over time my father would come to believe that indeed God did not love sinners at all and that only a few people would be allowed into heaven and the truth was it was only those in his church.  Oh my father lost his moorings in this life.

Really, it was Fred’s internal anger, not disagreements about doctrine that caused him to act the way he did. When a man in my father’s new congregation came to him for marital counseling, the pastor recommended a good beating for his wife. The man followed his spiritual guide's advice. Later, he called my father from jail to ask for help with bail. My father paid the confused Christian's bail, but stuck to his guns. A former member of the early Westboro community remembers the following Sunday Pastor Fred was fiery in his message that a good left hook makes for a right fine wife: "Brethren," preached my father, "they can lock us up, but we'll still do what the Bible tells us to do. Either our wives are going to obey, or we're going to beat them!"

I wonder if my father may have ever noticed that the Bible never instructs husbands to force their wives to obey. The Bible teaches husbands to love their wives as their own body and to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. B.H. McAlister, the minister who ordained Fred, made this comment about leaders in the church.  He said "leaders break down into shepherd and sheep-herders. The first lead, the second drive the sheep. If love is absent, the pastor is one who drives the flock; with love, he leads it."

I remember my father used to frequently tell of the time he “purified” the flock and paid the price for his courage. Apparently a female member of that early Westboro congregation was discovered allegedly having an affair with a soldier from Ft. Riley. Only the males in the congregation were allowed to vote, and my father prevailed upon them to officially cast this woman from their midst. Away from the effects of my father’s heated rhetoric, however, many of those swayed by his logic felt first remorse, then disgust at their part in the moral lynching. It wouldn’t surprise me, either, if one or two of the wives may have had a word or two to say about the public lynching, in private to their husbands. I remember my father always referred to this incident to explain why his congregation had deserted him. I doubt my father would have understood it was really him who deserted them.

In later years, my father was convinced he was alone in his church with only his children to listen because those who'd started Westboro were too weak for the harsh truth of God: that God hated sinners as well as the sin. I am not sure my dad ever understood where that teaching would logically take us.  If we were all sinners, and we were, then that meant God hated us too. It would be years before I would understand the power and the depth of God’s love for me and for the people He created.  And the teaching of my dad was the biggest derailer and destructive force taking me away from that important Truth; of God’s amazing love.  For me!  For my siblings!  And for the people I ran into selling candy or running by on the way to Lawrence.  That He loved them all and died to set them all free.

If the local Baptist churches were still unsure about the new fire and brimstone brother from Arizona, shooting his neighbor's dog didn't help. Aside from etching one of my earliest memories, shotgun-blasting the large German shepherd that had wandered into our unfenced yard quickly got my father, the novice pastor, noticed in his community. The incident was discussed in the papers, and the dog's owner sued the arrogant minister. My father defended himself and won, an action I believe may have encouraged my father’s turn toward practice of the law.

But the irrationality and violence of the act sent the last of his congregation scurrying back to Eastside. For weeks after the shooting, one church member recalls, someone placed signs on the lawn in front of Westboro at night that declared prophetically: "Anyone who'd stoop to killing a dog someday will mistake a child for a dog." Soon it was clear no one wanted any part of my father’s god, not if he hated like my father. And that posed a problem for my father: he still owed 32 dollars a week on the bonds for the church, and no one was paying for his hate show on Sundays.

To cover his mortgage and support his family, my father, the failed pastor, turned his pitch from God to vacuum cleaners during the week. During the following five years, he went door-to-door in Topeka, selling those and baby carriages and, finally, insurance. In a pattern that held ominous overtones for the future, my father at some point sued almost everyone who employed him during that period. The Bible is very clear about how generally wrong it is to sue people, especially others who love God.  There is a verse that says “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” If the Bible says that even having lawsuits makes one a defeated person, my dad was apparently one defeated guy.

I remember later, once when I was selling candy, I met a man who said he knew my father.  We chatted a bit and that was all there was to it.  When I returned home from the night’s candy selling outing; not knowing any better; I mentioned the brief conversation to my father. He went into a rage and beat me.  He told me he wouldn’t tolerate me fraternizing with the enemy, and that the man had defrauded him when he had worked for him in the past, and had done damage to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. This not only shocked me, but I was deeply hurt by the injustice of getting beaten because of an innocent conversation I had with a man who I had no way of knowing was the wrong man to have talked with.

My father also carried on a running feud with Leaford Cavin at Eastside Baptist. Cavin spent several years trying to discover how to repair his mistake and stop the nightmare unfolding at the Westboro church. "Eastside held the mortgage on Westboro," remembers one churchgoer who was involved in the finances there, "and we always hoped Fred would miss a payment so we could foreclose. But he never did."

To save money, my father moved all of his family into the church building. Since the congregation at Westboro was essentially our family, Cavin convinced John Towle, county assessor, that Westboro should be taxed as a private residence. The controversy was covered in the media, and the exemption for 3701 West 12th Street was lifted. But again my father, the fighting Pastor, taught himself enough about the law to successfully contest the decision before the Board of Tax Appeals. For good measure, he sued Cavin and Stauffer Communications for libel. He lost the suits, but the lines of his future had now been drawn: my father had his castle and his church and he'd learned how to defend them at all costs.

His chosen community of Topeka, Kansas detested him, but that was to be expected when Fred considered himself one of God’s “chosen” but immersed in a world of damned souls. Fred was content that his god hated those who questioned him. And he was content to remain in his private fortress and sally forth occasionally to wreak havoc on his community.  One old member of Eastside is philosophical about the feud with Fred: "I'll tell you one thing: we can feel awfully lucky he turned down that slot at West Point. Right now, he'd probably be a general-with his finger on the button."

It was during this period that Fred cut the final ties with his original family. When talking with friends, my father’s father never discussed the son he had in Topeka, says Mr. Stokes, a retired army officer who lives outside Meridian, Mississippi. Stokes was a close friend of the elder Phelps and a pallbearer at his funeral in 1977: "He had some fundamental beliefs that were unshakeable, but he didn't force them on anyone." In his later years, Stokes says, my father’s father was active in the Methodist Church. "He was a very kind, grandfatherly person. He was at peace with himself and didn't have any rancor toward anybody at the time of his death."

My grandfather (whose name I did not learn until the mid ‘90’s from Capital-Journal reporters) once came to visit our family in Topeka when I was a young child. I recall standing on the platform at the railroad station with my father and grandfather. As we waited to put my grandfather on the train back to Meridian, my father told the weeping old gentleman never to come back, not to call, nor to write. I remember my grandfather was crying. He told my father to get back in the Methodist Church and stop all this nonsense.

At the time of my grandfather’s death, my father admitted there had been a rift between him and his father. "He was disappointed when I didn't go to West Point, which is understandable. He worked hard to get that appointment for me, and he was a very active Methodist, so he was disappointed in that. But my dad was a super guy that I loved deeply and I miss him." Relatives in Mississippi said my grandfather never really got over his estrangement from his son. "It grieved him a lot," remembers one.

When my father was 15 and in his last year of high school his father, 51, married a 39 year-old divorced woman named Olive Briggs. My father would leave home soon after and grow up to be a fierce critic of divorce. Olive's sister said Olive was a kind Southern lady who never had children and treated my father and his sister, Martha Jean, as if they were her own. The new Mrs. Phelps often talked to her sister about the trouble between the former railroad detective and his son, the Baptist preacher. "Olive would say he grieved over that every day of his life. That he never would have parted ways. It was his son who parted ways."

Other relatives recalled that, each year, the grandparents sent birthday and Christmas presents to their grandchildren in Topeka. Each year they were returned unopened. I remember the first year we received Christmas presents from my grandfather.  We opened them before my father had seen them. They were really fun and nice and I was very excited to have Christmas gifts. It was the first and only time we would have Christmas gifts.  When my father found out about the gifts, he snatched them from our hands and that was the last we ever saw of them.

For photos of my grandpa and grandma my father gave his extra touch: When they once sent him pictures of themselves for us kids to have, I remember watching my dad cutting them meticulously into little pieces with a pair of scissors. Then he placed them in an envelope and mailed them back.

There would be no relatives dropping by from my mother's side either. Though my mother had nine brothers and sisters still living in rural Missouri or nearby Kansas City, with one notable exception, we, her own children, never met them or so much as knew their names. What was the legacy my parents were choosing for their children?  Clearly it ended up involving isolation from any family or friends with a focus on an Us against Them mentality each step along the way. 

This isolation policy would express itself in my father forbidding us children to play or talk with the rest of the youngsters in our neighborhood. As young children, my brothers and sisters and I wanted friends to play with and talk to, but was taught to believe it was the wrong thing and felt guilty even desiring such a luxury. Neighborhood children would initiate conversation or want to play, and I would feel really scared and not know what to do or say. Sometimes I couldn't avoid talking, and it made me feel really uneasy and scared that my father would catch me talking with them. My father used to make me go and tell the neighbor kids they couldn't play by the fence, or talk to us, or come in the yard. He'd say, "I'm tellin' you, if those fucking kids are in this yard again and I catch them, it's you I'm going to beat!" My father told people his whole adult life they were dishonoring Christ because of their actions. As far as I can tell, my father’s lack of love for people; precious, beautiful, amazing, ordinary people; was the greatest dishonor he could think of doing to Christ.  And he did it most days of his life for as long as I knew him.

I used to have to fight the kids sometimes, or yell at them, or push them out of the yard; or I'd turn my back and ignore them so they wouldn't want to talk or be friendly and get me in trouble. While this was in keeping with the fortress mentality my father embarked on shortly after opening Westboro, it is interesting to speculate how things might have turned out differently had we children had normal contact with neighbors and members of the community.  And how much of the strange goings-on within the fortress which my father so feared would come to light might indeed have with some simple human contact.  Had we children been allowed outside confidants and friends, the story of Westboro Baptist Church might have been very different.
When I read this list of 25 attributes of a cult I realized that in every sense of the word my father’s “church” was never a church.  It was truly a cult. 

 25 ATTRIBUTES OF A CULT:

This list is taken from a college course called "The Psychology of Fundamentalism" offered by the University of Texas

1. the leader is charismatic and often militaristically demanding
2. the leader is always right 
3. elitism, the leaders treated as royalty or a sense of awe, hierarchical, authoritarian power structure 
4. lower members get no respect, or get abused 
5. leader is not held accountable for his actions or the actions of his authority structure 
6. leader will not tolerate or receive criticism, but leader criticizes all others 
7. there is no exit 
8. if members exit they are considered rebellious, out of the will of a higher power or the leader 
9. members do not have any association with members that have left the group 
10. there are no graduates from the “program” or group, just deserters or evil people 
11. there is cult speak (a language many others cannot understand) 
12. personal attacks on critics or those who are not in the group 
13. solidarity within themselves, no outside allegiance or association
14. use of guilt to manipulate members 
15. the leaders of group are self absorbed 
16. instant community 
17. members unable to tell the truth 
18. money grubbing 
19. newcomers don’t “think right” and need to be trained 
20. system of punishment and reward 
21. intrusiveness 
22. sense of powerless, dependency, covert fear, guilt 
23. members and leaders are imbalanced or mentally ill 
24. thought stopping language, clich├ęs, or slogans 
25. demands of ultra loyalty or ultra trust in the groups process and others

When my father’s sister, Martha Jean, and her husband, my father’s teenage best-buddy, John Capron, returned to the U.S. on a year sabbatical from their Indonesian missionary work, they came to see my father. In part, they'd come to arrange a reconciliation between my father and his devastated father. They never got started.  He wouldn't even talk to his sister. My father bid her leave and never return, just as he had his father. I remember riding my bike along in the street, both curious and confused, watching my aunt go weeping down the sidewalk for several blocks from our house. I remember watching my mother and Martha Jean talking, and they were crying.  I didn’t completely understand, at the time, what was happening, but I knew it was not good.

With that, my vengeful father had succeeded in cutting all lines leading to his captive congregation. Anyone in the outside world who might know of our existence or be concerned for our welfare had been driven off.  We were now truly in an unprotected state that would exist for years that would allow our abuse to continue undetected, unrestrained and simply unstoppable.  Oh, the utter hopelessness when children of serious abuse are cut off from all normal contact.
 


END OF PART 1 - THE EARLY DAYS WITH AN ANGRY MAN

Mark Phelps

6 comments:

  1. Hello Mark,

    I'm an Irish person who has become fascinated by the Westboro Baptist Church, its history and its story. I came across this blog by finding out about your wonderful brother Nate and his story, and, by extension, you own.

    I've read Addicted to Hate and take it that much of the information for this blog was taken from that. I think it's telling that that so much of that text is relevant today, 20 years later, even after your father's passing.

    I am writing this post to commend you for doing what you have done in telling this story. I absolutely believe it's something the American public needs to hear to understand the origins of the WBC and, in so doing, find ways that American society can collectively deal with this 'church'.

    I hope your recovery from your father's abuse, both physical and mental, is successful and that you and Nate have many happy years ahead of you both.

    Kindest regards,
    A human being from Ireland by the name of Luke who cares about his fellow brothers and sister irrespective of where they come from.

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    1. Luke, thank you very much for your comment and your encouragement. I will continue to post more blogs and will include significantly more and different information than was included in Addicted To Hate, specifically, my process of identifying the abuse I lived, and my recovery from the abuse. Thank you very much Luke!

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    2. My pleasure, Mark :) If it's okay with you then I'd like to comment on this blog more often in the future

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  2. Hi, Mark -

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I, like many others, am fascinated by Westboro Baptist Church and its current and former members, although I try always to remain at a respectful and friendly distance, for fear of seeming maybe *too* interested. It's been a privilege getting to know two of your nieces (albeit "electronically"), and I so admire the courage it takes to make one's story known, particularly when it involves recovery from any kind of trauma.

    Looking forward to reading more from you. Cheers and blessings.

    -Lisa

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  3. So sad. I wasn't the only one.����

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