They both showed up several times in my newsfeed today. Both Caucasian American men and both pastors named Fred, but otherwise they seemed complete opposites. Today was the birthday of Fred McFeely Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who passed away in 2003. His real congregation was the millions of children (including the one I was thirty years or so ago) who knew him through public television simply as their neighbor Mister Rogers. And today saw the death, after a long decline, of Fred Phelps, the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, famous for picketing funerals and other events with signs proclaiming God’s hatred for some people. The juxtaposition was jarring. I thought about the two Freds all day, and couldn’t help wondering if they will meet in the afterlife. What would they say to one another? What does each of them know now about God that he got wrong while here on earth? (None of us gets it completely right, I’m sure, not even Mister Rogers.)
I choose to believe that Phelps met a God of love as he passed from this life to the next. There are those whose tweets and Facebook posts I’ve seen today wishing him a speedy trip to Hell. But I don’t. I hope he found mercy, grace, peace, and most of all love on the other side of death. I say this not out of some altruistic concern for his soul so much as out of hope for my own. It occurs to me that I probably have more in common with Fred Phelps than with Fred Rogers most days. I know the dark satiety of being filled with anger, of holding on to my own self-righteousness so tightly that there is no room for love to squeeze between us, of reveling in being one of “us” while forgetting about “them.” I remember Jesus’s admonition to pray for my enemies, but even as I do sometimes, they are selfish prayers that my enemies would understand how wrong they are and come around to see things from my point of view. Just as much as Fred Phelps does, I need forgiveness. I need a calming of the storms within me. I need to be saved from myself.
Maybe Mister Rogers came around to this wisdom long before most of us do. Maybe he was aware of all his sharp edges that needed smoothing and so was able to extend the grace he needed to everyone, recognizing even the most hurtful others as neighbors. He made it look easy, but I doubt it was. Love never is. Fred Rogers is quoted as saying: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now . . . the lovely with the unlovely, the strong along with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.”
The struggle to love himself must have been too much for Fred Phelps. The acceptance and inclusion he denied others in the name of God could only have been born of some deep-seated sense of being unlovable and unacceptable himself. When I lash out at my enemies, it is almost always because I recognize something in them that I dislike in me. I imagine that those people calling for picket lines at Fred Phelps’ funeral have seen some shadow of themselves in him as well, too dark to confront. We all have the capacity for hatred in us that Fred Phelps displayed. But we also have the same great capacity for love and acceptance shown by Fred Rogers, who told all of us watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that “there are many things that are alike about all of us. For instance, we all need to be loved. Everybody does. Every person that you see in this world needs to be loved. And the marvelous thing about being human is that while we’re very much alike, each one of us is very different too. Isn’t it great that we can care about one another the way we do?”
One of the most grace-filled responses to the news of Fred Phelps’ death came from one of the most public targets of his attacks. Actor and gay activist George Takei was the subject of an open letter from Westboro Baptist Church when he announced plans to marry his longtime partner, Brad. Pastor Phelps and the church told Mr. Takei that he was bound irreversibly for Hell and that they planned to picket “the blasphemous affair” of his wedding (which they did not do, in the end). Though he could easily have expressed relief at Fred Phelps’ death or worse, as others have done, George Takei instead stated simply, “Today, Mr. Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.” I hope that, like Fred Rogers, we will each do our part to help one another find such peace in this life. And I trust that, like Fred Phelps, those who never quite find it here will be welcomed in by the God who is love.