The pastor and parishioners of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., are getting a lot of attention this week with plans to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11. And it has pissed off the former go-to Christian fundamentalist church.
"We did it a long time before this guy," Shirley Phelps-Roper said in an interview with The Kansas City Star, referring to her family's Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church and a Washington, D.C., event two years ago where they burned the Quran with little fanfare.
Led by her father, Fred Phelps, the church is known more for condemning all of society than converting non-believers. The church's website, godhatesfags.com, says the nation will burn for accepting gays and lesbians and calls on Jews to repent. The group protests gay events, Jewish centers, and military funerals while linking disasters and death to the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians. Earlier this year, the church came to Charleston to protest a military conference, as well as local bases, public schools, and Jewish centers.
The small church is made up largely of Fred Phelps' children and grandchildren, but some have been able to escape. Nate Phelps, who left home at 18, will speak to Alliance for Full Acceptance, a local gay advocacy group, at 5:45 tonight at the Charleston Marriot on Lockwood Boulevard.
In 1976, Nate Phelps thought he'd left behind his father's hateful rhetoric and the narrow belief that none will be spared except for the Westboro congregation. But the church's growing prominence in the public debate over hate-filled messages and free speech led to phone calls from reporters and fostered his own ongoing struggle internally.
"I was still so steeped in what I was taught, I felt my leaving was traitorous." In the big picture sense, he was taught it was a ticket to hell. But Nate Phelps says his father also preached that anything bad that happened to those who left the church was God's punishment for their abandonment. That reasoning has brought some back to the flock when they've struggled on their own, Nate Phelps says.
His father often preached against gays as incapable of redemption, so he says it's not surprising that the church would focus its anger on the LGBT community.
"This was just a perfect fit for him," Nate Phelps says of his father.
As the reports of the protests grew, his first concern was that it would enable the church.
"I was worried that people were going to embrace him," Nate Phelps says of his father. While it has become increasingly obvious that the nation won't ascribe to Westboro's values, Nate Phelps has heard from individuals who came to believe they were condemned to hell because of his father's message.
"People are hearing this stuff and they aren't just in metaphorical pain, they are physically suffering," he says. "I have this unique perspective — do I just ignore it or do I do something with it."
He's doing something with it, speaking in front of groups like AFFA on escaping Christian fundamentalism and gay rights. For more info, visit natephelps.com.