This week’s news of the death of Fred Phelps Sr. brought me back to the first time I covered a soldier’s funeral and saw picketers from Westboro Baptist Church.
I got to hear first-hand the hatred Phelps and his followers embraced and attempted to spread, trying to convince others that their hate-filled God killed soldiers because he despises homosexuals.
Those picketers seemed gleeful as they waived their signs for passersby — including mourners — to see.
Right now the news story of Phelps’ death is mingling on my desk with a list of Kentucky hate groups compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Shamefully, our area is represented on that list.
For some people, hate is frighteningly easy to embrace. And it can be an easy sell, particularly when combined with fear.
Hate, or you and your family will be hurt. Hate, or your community or country will suffer. Hate, or God will hate you.
This hate is spread so easily and in so many seemingly safe locations — over the dinner table, in places of faith, or in public places.
It wasn’t so long ago that I met a friend at a local diner only to hear a patron at another table manage to disparage both women and blacks while uttering what he thought was a joke. His hatred was emphasized by his casual use of a racial slur.
It was just several months ago while I waited in a doctor’s office that I overheard two men share a racist “joke” about our president. I interrupted their laughter by telling them I found their humor offensive and suggested they consider that other people may not want to hear what they have to say.
I had a brave moment that day. I regret to say I didn’t do the same in the diner. While I knew not everyone in the diner shared that man’s hatred and ignorance, I did know it would cause an awkward moment for the diner’s staff and my friend if I said anything, so I bit my tongue.
It seems to me in this country there’s been a gradual shift from hatred to acceptance of others regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation — but it’s been frustratingly slow. And the lingering haters keep sharing their message over breakfast at diners, in waiting rooms, and while picketing soldiers’ funerals.
Fred Phelps Sr. died a well-known salesman of hate and fear. He missed his last chance to abandon the negative swill he embraced. My hope is that those among us who pursue similar dark paths change their course and their thinking long before that inevitable conclusion.
Becky Killian is the editor of the Times-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org