Letter: Gay minister reflects on 12-year relationship with Westboro Baptist pastor

March 27, 2014

By Rev. Patrick Rogers

I am 57-year-old, a gay man, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ denomination, a Christian and I was in a relationship with Rev. Fred Phelps, former pastor at Westboro Baptist Church, for over 12 years. Yes, you read it correctly; Fred and I spent twelve years together in a relationship.

We first met in 2002, during my first year in seminary. I was doing research and writing a paper about Christianity’s struggle with inclusiveness regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. I was aware of the Matthew Shepard story of the gay teen that had been killed and left to die while tied to a fence post and I searched the internet to learn more about that heartless act. The top link in my internet search revealed the Westboro Baptist Church’s website. I clicked on that link to discover an animated graphic of the flames of an intense fire with a picture of Matthew Shepard’s face among them and his face was bopping up and down amidst the flames. The caption read “Burn in Hell Faggot”. The church’s founder and pastor was Rev. Fred Phelps.

Needless to say, I was in shock. I could not reconcile how any person’s or church’s interpretation of scripture or how any one could lead to such an understanding. Where was the “holy” anger regarding this senseless act of violence? Where was the sympathy and compassion for Matthew Shepard’s family?

Fred and my relationship got off to a difficult start. We had issues but it was clear that Fred loved God with an incredible intensity and he didn’t care how the Christian majority felt about his approach. Being a gay man and entering seminary and answering my call to become a Christian pastor, I loved God with that same amount of intensity and I also did not allow the Christian majority to dissuade my call to ministry nor its approach. Fred and I had that in common and that commonality was how our relationship began.

After the paper on inclusiveness and my introduction to Fred, four years later we were destined to meet again. After obtaining my Masters degree in divinity and completing internships with my denomination and a hospice organization, I received my very first “call” to pastor a church.

I was called to serve a predominantly gay church in Topeka, Kansas. During the interview for the position, I was asked by the church’s board of directors how I would handle the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of our church. After all, the headquarters of Westboro Baptist Church and Fred’s home was merely blocks away from this “inclusive” community of faith.

My answer to the board members was “If it is hot when they are picketing, we should take them water.” That was my plan on how to handle the new phase of Fred and my relationship. My plan was to treat Fred with nothing but love and kindness. We would win him over that way!

I was the Interim Pastor at that church for a two-year period. One of Fred and my most difficult times was a particular Sunday morning. I always arrived at the church building early and was usually the first to arrive as I liked my “quiet” time in the sanctuary before members arrived. As I pulled in to the church parking lot, the Westboro Baptist Church members had already arrived and had their picket signs held high. My heart was deeply saddened as a twelve-year-old girl was standing among her Westboro family members and holding a picket sign that read “Your Pastor is a Whore”. I felt extremely sad for the young girl as I felt that she had little to no idea nor the implication of the sign that she struggled to hold high up in the air. I was frustrated with Fred as I could not understand nor see any good in this situation. Our relationship suffered.

As I got to know the members of our church that I served and also talked with many people who lived and worked in the city of Topeka, I was quite surprised at their views regarding the Phelps’ family and their “unconventional” approach to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One prominent view and assessment of many of the Topeka residents was that the Phelps’s approach to ministry provided additional support for the LGBT community. How could that be? I was told by numerous individuals that the presence of the Phelps’ picketing and the messages of “God hates fags”, and “Burn in hell faggots” made people stop and take a personal inventory regarding their own discomforts or questions regarding homosexuality.

Very often this process helped many realize and face their own “middle of the fence” positions regarding homosexuality. They had to look deep inside and answer some very important questions regarding their own personal views. They quite often came to the conclusion that they are called to love “all” their neighbors regardless of sexual orientation and treat them with the same love and respect demonstrated by Jesus. Often they became avid supporters of the LGBT community. So the results of Fred’s actions had led many to the inclusive nature of God. Not what I had expected.

Whereas I didn’t agree with the Fred’s approach to spreading God’s love, and would have previously never had expected the demonstrations to result in bringing people to a fuller understanding of the meaning of God’s message of inclusiveness, they had done so. This experience had affected my feelings towards Fred but we still had so many unresolved feelings towards one another. The Phelps’ family became even more active with picketing funerals of those who had given their life in service to our country as well as those who had died from AIDS. Yet we both shared a passionate love for God. Yet my personal conflict was that the scriptures told me that we were united as one through Jesus Christ.

It has been five years since Fred and I lived only blocks away from one another. Yet even though many miles separated us, we remained connected to one another through our love of God. The similarities regarding our passion for God still existed. Passion is what we had in common.

And then a couple of weeks ago, I learned that the person that I had been in relationship with was ill. The reports began and I was informed that Fred was near death. The news was difficult to hear as we had been in a 12-year relationship. Even with our extreme differences I just wanted Fred to have a little more time before he was to go home to God, the same God which we both had worshiped. The same God that we both had served. I wanted Fred to have more time so that he could learn to see and experience God the way that I had.

As the time drew near to Fred’s death, he was on my mind. I wondered then more than ever where his anger had come from. Yes, he was passionate for God but what were the experiences in his life that led him to stray so far away from the true nature of God. In his last remaining days, I had a premature feeling of loss for the time that Fred and I could have spent sitting in my Topeka church parlor or me in his church parlor. I felt a loss for the time that we could have spent mourning together the death and loss of Matthew Shepard. I felt a loss for the time that we could have worshiped together. I felt a loss for the time we could have spent together feeding the homeless and praying together for those in need.

And the day came when I learned of Fred’s death. The first thing that came to mind was that Fred now knows the true nature of God’s unconditional love. I won’t miss many of the ways Fred went about serving God but I will miss the passion and love of God and Christ that we shared.

I learned from my relationship with Fred that the most influential power that Fred had over me was to make me not love him. Fred came close to achieving that many times and quite often in our 12-year relationship. Many times I wanted to just give up, call it quits and walk away. Yet it was my love for God and my passion for God that led me not to give up. I loved my brother Fred.

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