Gramps is smiling. It’s a beautiful April afternoon. The sun shines. The birds chirp. And the old man surveys a harvest reaped from the seeds he has sown.
His daughters flutter to replenish food and drink. His sons sit in patio chairs and pick at bowls of homemade chili. Grandchildren let out excited shrieks as they chase one another around the swimming pool, bounce on the trampoline and play basketball on the full-length court.
Life is good. And this—a birthday party for seven sheep in the old man’s flock—is a celebration of life. Even if a death had provided the icing on the cake.
A bitter enemy of the family passed away a few hours before. A loathsome man. A despicable charlatan. A person Gramps will acknowledge the following day by shouting, for the world to hear, “The Lord God almighty held that serpent, that spider, that insect, by a slender thread over the fires of hell for 84 years and then threw him in!”
The incinerated insect in question is Pope John Paul II.
You see, “Gramps”—as he’s known to the select few who don’t wish him dead—isn’t merely the patriarch of 13 children, 53 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He is also Fred Phelps, Sr., spiritual leader of the most widely reviled congregation on the planet. A man—and a church—that can be summed up in three words: God. Hates. Fags.
A message that has been spread far and wide over the past 14 years at picket demonstrations the church affectionately calls “Love Parades,” the latest of which is scheduled to roll into Santa Fe on April 23.
The Southern Poverty Law Center—a preeminent civil-rights watchdog organization—considers the congregation to be in the rarefied company of Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan in its profile of active hate groups. The Anti-Defamation League issued a special report detailing bigotry the church has allegedly shown towards gays, Jews, blacks, Christians and America in general. Elizabeth Birch, the former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, has called Phelps “a walking hate crime.”
Right now Gramps is more of a shuffling hate crime as as he gingerly makes his way toward toward the buffet table. He is wearing a red-and-blue University of Kansas windbreaker, his trademark white cowboy hat and the grin of a man who loves to be loathed.
This year marks SFR’s 40th anniversary. Celebrate with us by reading excerpts of stories that have graced our pages through the years. On March 14, 2014, Phelps’ estranged son, Nathan Phelps, shared on Facebook that his father had been excommunicated from the church and was “on the edge of death.” Phelps died five days later.