Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kids' Work

Work is a good endeavor and I believe work is a gift. In my opinion, to be able to engage your mind and body in constructive activity is one of the greatest experiences a person can have. It gives a person a sense of accomplishment and can build self-esteem when worthwhile tasks or goals are completed. I was given the gift of work from my earliest days in life by my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr.

At age five I was responsible, along with my older brother, to mow the lawn and trim under our chain-link fence and along the lengthy curb at our house/church, and for pruning the many bushes and trees on the property.

Also, at about this same age, my older brother and I were responsible for the music at our father’s church. I played the organ and my older brother played the piano for morning and evening services.

Around this same age we were provided with bicycles equipped with baskets and given the job of running to the grocery store with list in hand and money in pocket. The employees at our local grocery were very kind and helpful in getting groceries bagged in bike-worthy packaging.

Along with some of our other brothers and sisters, we were responsible to maintain the facilities at the church; sweep and mop the floor, dust the pews, instruments and other furniture and generally keep the place straightened up and presentable.

Also, at a very young age, we were responsible for maintaining a large part of the household chores; dish washing, clothes washing and folding, vacuuming, mopping, dusting and such things. We also spent a lot of time taking care of our younger brothers and sisters.

In my opinion, these were all good things and they equipped me and my siblings with a terrific sense of responsibility and a very strong work ethic.

In 1966 our family’s finances were still very tight, even though our father had passed the bar and had begun to practice law. I remember Mom opening the mail one day and showing me a $100 check. "It's all we have for the month," she told me, and she started crying.

Not long after, my father was suspended from the bar for two years for cheating and exploiting his clients. So at this point with a family the size of ours the finances were beyond tight. We were at a crisis point.

Shortly after my father was suspended from the bar, one afternoon he was melting some World's Finest Chocolate with which to make chocolate milk. He removed the almonds. In the midst of stirring it, he suggested someone should take the rest of the candy bars and see if they couldn't sell them around the neighborhood. I jumped at the chance. I had watched my Mom cry when the checking and savings accounts were empty. I had watched her cry when the mail box didn't have a check in it because her husband hadn't worked in so long. So I responded to the cry of my Mother’s heart and I worked.

At first we sold candy door-to-door on the streets near our home. This worked out so well, we formalized the nightly routine and started systematically canvassing the streets on the south and west sides of our home town of Topeka, Kansas.

From this point, we expanded to all the neighborhoods of Topeka, covering the city from one end to the other, door to door. One time when we were selling in residential areas one of us decided to hit the businesses we came to at the end of a certain street. We discovered that businesses were even more lucrative than going house to house, so we started including the business areas in our candy selling endeavors.

During the school year, Mom would pick us up after school and take us directly to that day's targeted area for candy sales. The pint-sized sales staff would then divide into teams of two or three for safety, canvassing neighborhood homes and businesses. Every hour we would rendezvous with Mom at a pre-set spot to turn over the cash from sales and for resupply of candy from the station wagon. Work shifts on weeknights went from 3:30 to 8 p.m. We knocked off at 8 p.m. because we had to get to our nightly run at the track.

If you’re a parent you are probably wondering where our dinner came in all this activity. My father never made provision for his children to eat. Our physical needs were simply not on his radar. So we children had to fend for ourselves. And what that amounted to was eating the candy while we were selling, or padding the profits a little bit to be able to go to a burger joint in the middle of selling or grabbing a snack while we were changing clothes. Sometimes Mom would bring snacks for us to eat on the run. But usually something we kids had to figure out ourselves. Sometimes we had to wait until we got home from running. So, while we were never hungry in my house for very long it was not unheard of for a kid to go from lunchtime at school to 10:00 o’clock at night after a five mile run with no food. And then have to scrounge for whatever food we would get ourselves after we got home from the run and before we started our homework. The work ethic that I spoke about was real, but there were times when things were being expected of our young bodies that were more than we could handle.

Before too long we had worn our welcome thin around Topeka so we expanded our horizons out to other cities. We started with Lawrence, Kansas and Manhattan, Kansas and quickly expanded from there.

On weekends and during the summer, the candy crew blitzed major metropolitan areas within a 4-hour drive of Topeka; Kansas City, Lawrence, Emporia, Wichita, Omaha, and St. Joseph. Hours, including wake-up, preparations, and transport, stretched from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. There were a lot of times when we would be out there well after dark, and snow was on the ground. We continued to maintain our presence in Topeka, as we added on these other cities.

The family selling candy door-to-door at night and in the snow attracted the attention of Topeka police, who received occasional queries about the welfare of the children, a law enforcement source recalls. I enjoyed a police car ride on more than one occasion. But detectives found no violation of the law, and no charges were ever filed. We sold candy, and then we sold candy.

When candy sales first began, our father allowed us the chance to sell on commission. That didn't last very long! One night we came home and our father said he'd changed his mind-he wanted us to hand over our share of the money. We kids were reluctant at first. We'd worked hard for it and now he was going back on his word. Then our father went into a rage and-believe-you-me, we turned over the cash real quick. And learned one more thing about what my father’s promises to his children meant.

From there, things went from bad to worse. The former door-to-door vendor of baby carriages and vacuum cleaners, my father, knew about sales quotas and target volumes. If we sold enough candy on a certain day, Father would be in a good mood that evening and everyone could relax, usually. But if we came back not having generated the sales amount expected, Father would take the money and then get really moody. Sooner or later, he'd find something to get mad about and one of us would get a beating that night or we would all get to listen to him throw a cursing fit while trying to do our homework.

You see, the law of averages according to my father would dictate a certain amount of sales results. If you made a hundred contacts, you were sure to secure a certain number of sales. If the sales were insufficient, our father quickly assumed we had not been maintaining a sufficient effort. This was bad for the sales team!

I became the 'bull' in charge of motivation in the field. If one of the kids hadn't sold their share of the candy, in the car during their check in, they suffered the 'chin- chin'. The offender, sitting in back, had to lean forward and rest their chin on the front seat. I, sitting in front, would then slug them in the face. Yes, you read that right. This was what my father required me to do to “motivate” people to sell for him, regardless of any damage this did to my relationships with my siblings!

Because of the mounting pressure from Father for his children to return with ever larger cash sums, several of the children began to steal from purses and unwatched registers in the offices and businesses they frequented to sell their sweets. In many of the cases, complaints were filed with statements from eyewitnesses. On one occasion, one of my little brothers was questioned by juvenile officers concerning cash theft from the old historical museum on 10th and Jackson in Topeka. Allegedly the child then confessed to a string of similar crimes. Charges were never filed. Apparently no one in the D.A.'s office wanted to tangle with our barrister father or his children unless the crime was serious and the evidence airtight.

But if the Westboro Baptist Church's gang of urchin vendors is remembered for anything by law enforcement officials, it is of their raid on the general offices of the Santa Fe Railroad. There, on three separate floors, witnesses observed one child allegedly distracting employees while other Phelps children rifled through employees' purses.

The stealing was strictly the kids' idea. But it was done to top off the kitty so we wouldn't get beaten by our father. And we had our sales history to back up the correlation between our sales and beatings. Our family sold candy from 1967 until 1975 and some of those places we'd gone into a hundred times. By then, everyone knew the candy sales were a scam. But even if we'd been told 'no' a hundred times, we still were to go back for the 101st. And, if they said 'no', we still had to bring home cash to show Father.

Eventually we extended candy selling hours so we could hit the bars later in the evening because those who had been drinking were very generous with their money and this resulted in quite a boost in our sales numbers. But we all saw things we should never have seen and heard things we should never had heard in the bars and taverns, as we worked hard into the night to meet our father’s expectations for sufficient sales. If our father ever expressed concern about what all this was doing to our moral character we never knew it.

Reveille was always at 5 a.m. in our household. My father would take his big brass bell and go through the house ringing it with a great big grin on his face. He’d walk throughout the place hollering his boisterous ‘Get up out of there! Get up out of there!’ Five a.m. brought more chores before going off to school. After class Mom would pick us up for candy sales until 8 p.m. As soon as we got home, we'd have to change into our running clothes, drive to the Topeka High School track, and stride out 5 miles. After the first year of running our father changed our running venue to the Topeka West High School track and upped the required running distance to 10 miles for the older children, and the little ones had to run the full time period the older children were running their ten miles.

We would not return home and clean up before 10 or 10:30 p.m. After that, came dinner. Our family never ate together. Mom or one of our sisters usually made something and left it on the stove for kids to eat when they got the chance.

Sometime after dinner and before we fell asleep, we were expected to complete our homework. Trying to stay awake for that, after having run 10 miles, hiked over suburban hill and dale selling peanut brittle, and having spent a full day at school, was frequently physically impossible. Yet, if we brought home bad grades, we were beaten with savage abandon by Father.

In addition, it was usually during the homework period from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. that father would go on a rampage, or Mom would be called up to him to take care of his emotional needs and leave the youngsters with the older kids. With this as our daily schedule, our father allowed his young family an average of only five to six hours of sleep each night. Five to six hours of sleep a night on a routine basis is not what is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics!

In general, it seemed my father was happy to keep us busy or gone.

Our father simply could not tolerate human needs outside his own. If you had a problem, it was not appropriate to turn to father for comfort, advice, support, or any kind of a solution. In fact, it could be downright dangerous. Father would get outraged whenever one of us had some difficulty that focused attention off of him. Basically, to have a problem was to risk getting a beating, regardless of what kind of a problem it was, or even if it wasn't your fault, unless Mom could keep father from finding out about it. When I think of all the amazing opportunities parents have to teach their children important things when a problem occurs makes me realize my father honestly did not want to teach us anything. We were simply expected to know things, and not to know was to risk getting beaten . . . again.

During at least two years, the candy sales would be our family's only source of income. But my siblings and I were up to the challenge. Basically, we had raised ourselves up to now. It would have been a lot easier if we'd just been left alone to do our own parenting, but we also had the paramount task of looking out for an abusive father.

After a few years of the candy sales, father diversified.

A notice was placed in the paper asking for pianos to be donated to an unspecified church (my father’s ‘church’). Another notice was placed in the sales column, advertising pianos for sale. This arrangement flourished from 1971 through 1972, until someone in the Kansas Attorney General's office connected the two ads. Pastor/Father was ordered to stop, and he did. I’ve said before that my father was unwilling to listen to counsel from others but occasionally when caught doing something illegal or just plain wrong, he would choose to stop; but only occasionally.

But we moved a lot of pianos before then. My older brother and I got very good at loading and unloading pianos onto and off of our pickup trucks. And we were quite gifted in getting the pianos to make beautiful music regardless of their condition and thereby aid in the selling. We made 150 to 200 bucks from each piano sale.

Also, starting in 1970, for four summers, my older brother, Fred Jr., and I, were cut loose from the candy sales during the summer to run a new “father enterprise”; a lawn care/tree trimming/trash hauling/general cleanup/furniture moving business. The two of us generated a nice income from these efforts!

The summer I turned 16, I had a pick-up truck and my brother had a pick-up truck, and we had three lawn mowers. Father paid for these items from our work selling candy. He was dispatcher and scheduler. We were the ones who did the work. He arranged things so tightly we just plain worked our rear ends off from 5 a.m. to after 9 at night.

He'd rush us out before dawn, no showers, no breakfast, and we'd be out to the dump to empty our trucks and begin our first job for the day. He wouldn't budget us money, or schedule us time for lunch. He never saw fit to give us work breaks or breaks to keep well hydrated. My father simply did not see us as children with physical or psychological needs, but as possessions to use for his own gain.

My father had me so intimidated, I would have gone along with this program of no food, but Fred Jr. usually said otherwise. He'd insist we take time and dollars to go to McDonald's for something to eat. Then I'd have to overbid the next job, and we'd have to finish early so our dad wouldn't catch us. And all this consternation and worry because we simply wanted to have either breakfast, lunch or dinner while working a 16 hour day! We were children who wanted to eat each day…and that was simply not in my father’s thinking.

When I was to become a parent years later to my precious girls, I would witness the simple pleasures of being able to provide all my children’s needs. And to watch them grow up with a strong sense of security that parents were the safest people in the world and could be counted on. That security was something I had to gain through other loving relationships than my own childhood family.

The children's candy crusade at Westboro Baptist Church carried on for approximately eight years, from 1967 to 1975. Its stated purpose was to raise money for a new organ in the church. The one finally purchased had two keyboards and nine to twelve foot pedals and I played it at church services. It was a Baldwin.

The equivalent organ today sells for over $12,000, far more than it did 40 years ago. During the later years of the fundraising campaign, father claimed the church needed the money for a new carpet. At, say, 100 square yards, it would cost $6,000 to lay a moderately priced carpet in the present church, far more again than in 1973.

The target goal of the fundraising could then be safely placed at $18,000. My brother and I calculated a rough estimate of the daily cash flow volumes during the candy sales from 1967-1975. This is not a wild guess because during some of these years, I collected the money and counted it at the end of each day.

Estimated total dollars from candy sales: $363,360.

As one can see, $363,360 does significantly overshoot the stated goal's estimated cost of $18,000. This leaves $345,360 unaccounted for, plus the income from the piano sales and lawn mowing/clean-up business which was into the tens of thousands.

The candy was marked up 100 to 200 percent from the suppliers' price. Assuming an average 150 percent markup, approximately $218,016 went to my father and $145,344 to the suppliers. On an annual basis, this would equal approximately $27,252/year for 8 years. This is approximately twice the annual salary of the average Topekan at that time.

What happened to the $218,016?

My father defrauded his community of $218,016 earmarked for a non-profit religious enterprise. It was instead consumed as personal income without paying a single rusty penny in taxes. I have often thought about what my father was truly living out before his children in that decade. He stood up in front of his church week after week and told us we should follow the truths of the Bible. And he held that Bible up in front of a watching world and bashed them with it every chance he got. But he held us and the world to a standard he refused to keep himself.

One verse in the Bible about pastors says “a church leader must be above reproach. He should be faithful to his spouse, sober, self-controlled, and honest.” It is hard for me to imagine what my father was thinking when he routinely did things that were so incredibly dishonest and yet held himself out to others as someone who had anything at all to speak into their lives. And the truth is he didn’t. I would tell no one to listen to a preacher who lives his life dishonestly. If he can’t live his life in a way that is above reproach we dare not listen to him. If ever there was a profession where someone’s actions and words must match it is a shepherd of the people of God.

I worked so my father would like me. I worked so my Mother would love me. I worked so my father wouldn't beat me. I worked so I would feel like I was on the team. I worked when father was throwing his rages. I worked when I saw Mom crying. I worked because Mom said, 'you're my good little helper, and I need you to do this because I have to be with your father'. I worked because Mom would cozy up to me and ask me to work, like a confidant and partner would ask another close partner to stand with them to get through a tough circumstance. And while that was gratifying to be needed by my Mother my work was never enough. It was never enough to stave off the horrible abuse that my Mother and my siblings and I had to endure. Work was the only “weapon” I had in my arsenal that even began to help to ward off the abuse and pain of our existence, and work in my case simply could not appease the tyrant who controlled us all. But I tried and didn’t stop trying for as long as I was with my family.

There is much sadness for me as I write these words. It is a reminder of the incredible physical and emotional burden my father put on our family as he chose to step away from his responsibilities as a bread winner and father and put that responsibility on his young children and his wife. Sleep deprivation is a technique used in torture of various kinds and when I think of the needs of our young bodies for wholesome food and sleep I see the behavior of my father toward his children as both neglect and abuse. It kept us in such a state of deprivation we were far less likely to exercise independent thought and reasoning to think through what was going on in our family.

Children who go through the kinds of abuse we went through sometimes begin to form a plan as a means to maintain hope. Hope for the future and hope to get them through each day. I know I began to consider leaving our home around the age of 13. I don’t know exactly what pushed me over the edge. Being asked to be the person who would punish and hurt my siblings just for not making their nightly sales? Being beaten? Watching my little siblings being forced to run mile after mile when their little bodies were beyond exhaustion? Watching my Mother have to be degraded and demeaned as a woman? Being aware my father who held himself out as a pastor was defrauding and committing crimes against his community? Never being allowed time for myself to think or play or make friends or have normal sibling relationships? Living always, always in hyper vigilance and fear? I am not sure but one day I was finally able to leave. Finally able to be set free from the evil and abuse our father perpetrated on us all.

What I find interesting and even confusing sometimes is that despite my father’s abuse of us within the context of work, I learned many valuable lessons from the work itself. I might have thought with years of getting only five or six hours of sleep and being forced to work day after day and night after night through all kinds of weather, on weekends and holidays, that I might have been totally spent. And become some kind of lazy person in rebellion to that. Oddly that is not what happened. I may have used work as a young person to stay safe from my father’s abuse and earn my Mother’s respect and love, but I still gained much from my ability to work. And work hard.

Proverbs says “In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads to poverty.” Proverbs 14:23 I believe there was some profit in the labor I did. I learned how to do many things. I learned some things about how to relate with the human race. And I learned the limits of what my body could take. And that was not all bad. I now recognize that hard work was where I gained my sense of self respect, such as I had as a kid. I gained at least some respect from my parents when I worked hard. And that must have meant a lot to my little child self. And even though a lot of what I did was for self-preservation, I still got some kudos, some good feelings from my parents via work. There was really very little else I ever received positive regard for from my parents.

The danger from all of this were the lessons I learned about how hard I could push my body and my mind as survival techniques for growing up in the Phelps Compound; where any stepping out of line received beatings. It would take me years to learn how to balance work with the rest of my life. And to realize I could use work in a healthy way. That I could honor my family with a good income, that I could serve my community and that I could use gifts God gave me in a good way.

I wonder if any of you who are victims of abuse have similar stories. You may have very mixed feelings initially about some of the coping skills you had to learn as a child. You may see the coping skills themselves as so tied up in your abuse that you really do not see anything positive coming from those activities. Perhaps you shy away completely from those coping skills today, even if they would help you or could be healthy in certain situations.

I found that when I went through a period of intense counseling to try to remove the poison from my soul for what my father did to us, that I began to recover my sense of balance. Sometimes I could actually enjoy work. And not see it as something only to drive me to some miniscule sense of satisfaction. But something that was just a blessing, where I gained a sense of pride in doing a good day’s work, and enjoyed using my body and mind in good, valuable ways.

You may be like me in that there are some aspects of your life you have to remain vigilant about. For me I have to remind myself that work is not what defines me anymore. Work and its rewards are something I now do by choice. I realize now I am completely loved by my Father in Heaven. That He rejoices in me and loves me completely. And He values me just for being me. And that I can bring Him joy just for being me! Without performing! And that has been so good for me, to finally be the beloved son. And rest in that, that I am just the son. Loved! Valued! Even treasured…and it has helped me treasure those precious to me, my family. And it has allowed me to treasure others beyond my family as well.

Oh, what an incredible day that was when my heart opened up to receiving love from God. And then equally incredible was when He began healing my wounded heart till I was able to truly love others. Not for what they did for me, but for who they were.

I hope each of you reading these words who are still suffering from the effects of your abuse will one day step into the healing of your soul and mind and heart. And when you do I hope you’ll write to me and let me encourage you along your journey. Because rediscovering yourself and who you were created to be is a wonderful thing!

Blessings on that journey!

Mark Phelps


  1. You have lived a remarkable life. It is so beautiful how God can make good out of bad. I am so glad he rescued you out of that hell and brought you to a place where you can appreciate some of what you went through as part of His plan for you. He has a wonderful plan for all of us. Leta

    1. Thank you Leta! God does make good out of bad, routinely! Thank you for your encouragement and support.

  2. It's so hard to read but thank you for sharing. Wishing you peace❤️