TOPEKA, Kan. Oct. 6 – Long before the picketers, hateful signs and police, Fred Phelps was an Eagle Scout.
Phelps was born in Mississippi and his father worked for the Southern Railroad Detective Agency. His jurisdiction stretched from New Orleans to Washington D.C.
His sister became a missionary to Indonesia with his best friend from high school, and now she lives in Mississippi.
When he was 5, his mom died and his father eventually remarried. His stepmother was from a political family.
“I had a very, very conventional childhood,” Phelps said. “Eagle Scout, principal appointment to West Point and graduated No. 1 at 16.”
It was at this point in his life when he directed his focus towards leading a church.
“The next summer I got my religious experience at an old, used to call it, camp meetings at churches,” he said.
Phelps declined his acceptance to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and attended Bob Jones University. He was ordained as a minister on Sept. 8, 1947.
“I started preaching then and haven’t missed a Sunday or any other day since,” he said.
But for Fred Phelps, his current message really began in June of 1989 because of what happened in a small park here in Topeka.
“Fags took it over, they were off moaning in the bushes,” he said.
Phelps called and wrote the mayor about the issue for two years and felt the mayor could do nothing to eradicate the problem. He decided to take the issue into his own hands.
“I wrote them, phoned them, appeared before them, for two full years and it began to occur to me that (the mayor) was unable,” he said. “So I then I thought we’ll just make a couple of little signs, nothing big.”
The congregation began to picket after church to, “call attention to the community and give political cover for (the mayor’s office) to do what the law says it’s supposed to do,” Phelps said.
Other churches became involved and began to counter-picket and speak out against Phelps and his church. Soon police were called and the matter became the central issue in the community.
“It became the central issue of the local and political movements and the question would be, whose side are you on,” he said.
Many community members feel Phelps’ public demonstrations and anti-gay pickets are wrong.
“I really think it’s wrong,” said Ashley Paletta, a junior at Mission Valley High School in Topeka. “People can think whatever they want, but they don’t have to publicize it like that. My friends think the same thing, I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s right.”
Phelps and Westboro have been holding meetings in a building here in Topeka since 1955 and still remain today.
Phelps is known for his Hellfire and Brimstone sermons and his signs bearing phrases such as “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates America,” and “Thank God For September 11.” However, some critics wonder why he directs so much attention solely towards homosexuals.
“I didn’t do this, they pushed it to the front page of every paper,” Phelps said. “It’s what I’m supposed to do, every preacher is supposed to do that. Preach on any other issue, when this is rammed in your face, you are not a Bible preacher, you are a hypocrite.”
Considering his call to other churches to speak out against homosexuals, he considers himself allied with no other churches.
“God knows I’ve tried in these 55 years that I’ve been preaching this gospel,” Phelps said.
Despite community objection, Phelps has nearly 80 followers, many of them family.
“I grew up hearing grandpa’s preaching,” said Megan Phelps-Roper, an 11th grader and granddaughter of Fred Phelps. “This is what the Bible says I’m supposed to be doing. I’m not going to deviate.”
Phelps will be picketing CSU’s homecoming football game on Saturday to “celebrate the death of Mathew Shepard,” and to further exemplify his anti-gay ideology. He and many members from his congregation will be present at Hughes Stadium bearing signs.
-Edited by Vince Blaser, Ben Koerselman and Josh Hardin