September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and Sunday was World Suicide Prevention Day. The irony of where I was and the people with whom I spent that day is not lost upon me ... far, far from it. On Sunday, I stood outside of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, listening to two of the adult children of Fred Phelps talk about the abuse they were subjected to in their youth. I listened as they once again recounted the physical beatings, the mental torture and the emotional manipulation they endured within the walls of that building and I wondered, as I have so many times since I've come to know them, how Nate, Mark and Dortha managed to survive.
Sunday was the second time I've stood in the middle of the quiet residential street staring at the building and the hate-filled signs that are hung outside its doors and planted within its yard. Sunday was the second time I've gazed at the American flag hanging lifelessly upside down on a weathered flag pole in the side yard at Westboro. Sunday was the second time I've seen with my own eyes the physical building where the despicable legacy of hate left behind by Fred Phelps lives on. But there was something I saw on Sunday for the first time as I stood in front of the place filled with such hate ... something I didn't expect to see ... something I simply cannot erase from my mind or eradicate from my heart.
During the time we were outside of Westboro filming Nate, Cindi and Dortha, I noticed several cars pull up in front of the church so that the folks inside the cars could take photos. Most of the people stayed inside their cars to take the pictures, but one group of teenagers stealthily ventured out hoping to grab a quick selfie in front of the WBC sign. I offered to take the photo for them and suggested that they move in closer to the sign so that I could better frame the shot. Two of the kids thought my idea was great and quickly moved up next to the sign. There was an instant look of terror in the eyes of the third teen, however, as he said, "No, we can't do that ... I'm afraid of them coming out here." I assured the young man that Nate would gladly protect him should a Westboro member come outside, and he finally moved forward long enough for me to snap a couple of pictures before he ran back to the car and climbed into the back seat to wait for his friends.
As I drove home from Topeka last night, my mind was filled with images of the people who've been damaged by the message of Fred Phelps and Westboro. His own children and grandchildren and the children and grandchildren of other families within the church. The family members of fallen soldiers. People within the LGBT community. Those of other faiths. Those who are divorced. And so many, many others. Seeing the setting sun in the back mirror as I drove down the highway, I found myself wishing I could ask Fred Phelps a question. I found myself wishing I could ask him if it was worth it. I found myself wishing I could go beyond the grave and look him in the eyes and ask him if the hurt he caused others was worth it. I like to believe there is some form of justice that is served after this life, and if that's truly the case, then I would like to ask Fred Phelps if the damage he wreaked and the pain he caused and the hurt he meted out upon the innocent and the marginalized was worth it.
Here's the thing ... most of us don't abuse our children or preach hate from every corner or carry signs decrying our perceived evilness of those who are different from ourselves. Sometimes I think we might as well, though. With the words we speak or don't speak and the things we do or don't do, we are just as guilty of bringing great harm to the hearts of others and wreaking havoc in the lives of those we encounter every day. Was it worth tearing apart your kid's self-esteem? Was it worth losing a special friendship? Was it worth making someone feel unnecessary? Was it worth irreparably wounding the heart of one who cared about you? Was it worth hurting another person's feelings? Was it worth causing your spouse to doubt their importance? Was it worth betraying someone's trust? Was it worth causing another to doubt the validity of their existence? Was it worth the pain you caused? Was it worth the hurt you induced? Was it worth the damage you left behind?
Was it worth it, friends? Was it really and truly worth it?