Rev. Frank Schaefer gained national attention last year when he was defrocked by United Methodist officials for officiating at his son's same-sex wedding. An appeal hearing for Schaefer is scheduled for June, according to the Washington Post. The Pennsylvania pastor is the focus of a documentary in the works called An Act of Love, which is currently seeking funds through Kickstarter.
On March 16th, I had the pleasure of hearing Rev. Schaefer speak at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg. The atmosphere at the church was welcoming, with Silent Witness Peacekeepers greeting visitors at the entrance from under rainbow umbrellas. After performances by the church choir and the Harrisburg Men's Chorus, Schaefer told his story to the congregation from the pulpit.
Love was a recurring theme through Schaefer's talk. His decision to officiate at his son's wedding was an act of love and worship, for which he was punished. Schaefer lamented the heartbreak that his gay son endured due to the religious homophobia he encountered growing up, saddened that much of the church is trapped in "homophobic captivity" even today. Schaefer's Christian faith was rooted in acceptance and love, a love that infused his support for the LGBTQ community.
This talk of love from contrasted sharply with the hatred of an anti-gay man who was in the news that week. Not long after Schaefer's talk in Harrisburg, Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps died at the age of 84. Phelps and his family protested outside the funerals of AIDS victims and U.S. soldiers, brandishing signs that read "God hates fags" and claiming that their deaths were God's punishment for America's acceptance of gays. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church became a symbol of naked religious homophobia, stripped of any "loving" pretense or "family values" rhetoric.
Fred Phelp's reported wrath toward his family was as fierce as his hatred of gays. According to his estranged son Nate, Fred Phelps brutally beat his children with a barber's strap, mattock handle, and fists. Fred Phelp's world was one of rage, hatred, and unforgiving judgment against those who offended him.
Phelps' founded a church imbued with his sentiments, but in the end, his own creation turned on him. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, Phelps was excommunicated by the Westboro Baptist Church board of elders shortly before his demise.
Schaefer's act of love contrasted sharply with Phelp's legacy of hate, and the two events left me thinking about the impact of love and hate. Hatred, while a powerful motivator for the Religious Right (whether it admits it or not), cannot sustain them for the long term. This is not to say that the Religious Right is weak; to the contrary, it has shown itself to be powerful, influential, and destructive on a global scale. Rather, a long-term vision for a better world can never be built on hatred, be it hatred for gays, women, or whoever the nearest "other" is. Hatred defines itself against others, dividing instead of uniting. Hatred devours. Hatred cannot create or sustain a better world. The hateful, authoritarian vision of the Religious Right is anemic for this reason, and someday, it will fail. Observers saw the hatred burning in Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, and realized that it offered nothing of worth.
The love that Rev. Schaefer speaks of is a love that affirms the intrinsic humanity in all of us. Social progress is realized when that love cries out for justice and lifts up the marginalized. Love -- along with focus, determination, cooperation, and righteous anger -- is what has brought us so far in our struggles for equality. Love affirms. Love embraces others. Love creates. Love sustains. A truly loving vision not only imagines a better world, but finds ways of building it.
By showing the world how poisonous hatred is, Fred Phelps unwittingly helped love flourish in the hearts of his opponents. By showing warmth and acceptance to his son, Rev. Frank Schaefer helped love flourish as well. Here's to a vision of a world with less hatred and more humanity.
To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
Washington Post: Why Fred Phelps was so useful to the gay rights movement
Truth Wins Out: If Fred Phelps Is Near Death, We Shouldn’t Be Stomping On His Grave
The New Civil Rights Movement: First Westboro Protest Since Death Of Fred Phelps Met With Condolences