A Gathering Voices Post by Lara Blackwood Pickrel
Since Sunday, I've been holding my breath.
Is it because I've been afraid of the news another phone call might bring? Yes. Is it because I've been more than a little terrified of the storms that have followed the Joplin tornado? Yes. Is it because I'm scared of the images that may pop up without warning on the television or computer screen - and the sense of helplessness those pictures stir up in me? Again, yes.
Still, those aren't the only reasons I've been holding my breath. I've also been holding my breath in hopes that complete stillness might keep him and his followers at bay, that not speaking his name might keep them off the scent and away from victims' and survivors' pain.
I suppose with language like that, I've got to clarify: I haven't been worried about Voldemort - I've been worried about Fred Phelps.
It was only a matter of time before Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church folk found the misery of Joplin irresistible. For whatever reason, they seem to glut on the pain of others. Whether it is the funeral of a gay teen or a soldier or a tornado victim, the despair of loss moves them to a revelry that borders on obscenity.
I know that I shouldn't be surprised. They do this every time - showing up to proclaim "God's hatred" in moments that instead require love. And every time they arrive with their signs and bullhorns, I struggle to find an appropriate response instead of a violent reaction (how do you stand up to hate without becoming a hater?). Again, I know that I shouldn't be surprised.
But this time it's personal. This time, when they celebrate the deaths of 125+ precious children of God, they will also be saying that they are glad Stan is dead. Stan, my parents' longtime best friend. Stan, my honorary uncle. Stan, the good-hearted, laughing-eyed husband and father who worked hard every day and still had time for kindness. Stan, a man whose life was snuffed out when a Walmart collapsed. On Sunday, when WBC starts spewing hatred, they'll be saying that God is glad Stan is dead.
I wasn't prepared for how angry that makes me. And what about his family? What about the families of all the other people killed, or all the people rendered homeless or jobless because of the violent storm? How will they receive such hateful news?
There's a part of me that wishes no one would pay attention to Phelps - that the news media would ignore him and that we all (myself included) could simply refrain from mentioning his existence. But that is not only unrealistic - it also squelches the goodness that can grow out of such darkness. Manure isn't fit for human consumption, but great nourishment rises up out of it; likewise, the nourishment that springs forth out of WBC's protests is not the message they proclaim, but the widespread acknowledgement that Phelps is a false prophet. If we can recognize falsehoods shouted in the name of God, then perhaps we can edge closer to truth.
Honestly, none of that makes me feel any better at the moment. I'm kind of glad that I can't attend Sunday's memorial precisely because in this moment I don't trust myself to face the Phelps clan. In my anger and grief, I don't trust myself to do or say the right thing.
So for now, all I can do is trust in God: that God has the power to transform even the foulest dung into fertile soil, and that in this moment God is planting seeds of love, compassion, justice and peace, even in me.