Thursday, March 24, 2016

Breaking pieces off Westboro Baptist Church

I admit to a certain fascination with the Westboro Baptist Church and their antics. If you need a refresher course as to who they are, they are the ones who routinely picket gay funerals, funerals of celebrities and servicemen with their obscene signs and horrific messages such as God Hates Fags, and So-and-So (whoever the funeral happens to be for) is rotting in hell as we speak.

As granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the church’s founder, Megan Phelps-Roper believed this message with all her heart. 

Until she didn't.

This week I am recommending Unfollow, a long form article which offers a compelling look inside the Westboro Baptist Church through the eyes of the granddaughter who left it. New Yorker staff writer, Adrian Chen has done an admirable job of explaining how the life and beliefs of Megan Phelps-Roper were changed by Twitter. Yes, Twitter.

Click here for the link. It's worth the read
. I’ll wait. 

It's worth a read for a number of reasons. It’s important to realize that no matter how heinous the crime (Megan yelled “Awesome” in the halls of her high school when the news of 9/11 broke.), people can change. Minds can be changed. Beliefs can take a 180 degree turn. This is good to know in a society where hate crimes, misogyny and abuse seem to prevail at every turn—and even by high ranking politicians and would-be presidents of major countries.

This article also demonstrates the power of story. While on a recent all-day car drive, I had the fortunate experience of listening to a podcast interview with Quaker elder and peace activist Parker Palmer on CBC’s Tapestry. I was mulling over how to approach this blog post while I listened, and Palmer gave me the ideas and structure I needed. 

Story. It's all about story.

Debate and argument do little to change people’s ideology, he said. What changes people plain and simple, is listening to their stories.

This has been true for me. Before I met my gay friend, I thought differently about gays. The Bible speaks against them, doesn’t it? It’s a choice, of course, isn’t it? Gays can change if they want to, right? And in that way, and for a long time I'm ashamed to say I believed an ideology not much different than that held by the Westboro people.

But when I actually got to know a gay person—when I listened to her own story in her own words—there was this deep and profound shift inside of me. I realized that the proof-text Bible verses that I had heard all my life did not say what I was trying to get them to say. It is a shift that is still going on.

My gay friend was the “other.” And in allowing someone "not like me" into my life, in sharing our two stories, I grew. I hope she did, too. (She admitted that prior to meeting me she was “afraid” of Christians, confused about their “agenda.” Sound familiar?)

Here’s the podcast in its entirety, and I urge you to take the time to listen to it.

Phelps-Roper was changed by interacting with several Jewish scholars on Twitter. She was changed when she heard their stories. They became real people to her, and she couldn’t hold the obscene signs so high in the air anymore. Suddenly she found herself embarrassed by what her family was proclaiming.

More importantly, these Twitter followers listened to her story. They didn’t treat her the way she’d always been treated—with hatred and disdain and inordinate amounts of disgust. They interacted as people.

Stories also came to her in the form of photo essays. 

Chen writes,

One day in July, 2011, Phelps-Roper was on Twitter when she came across a link to a series of photographs about a famine in Somalia. The first image was of a tiny malnourished child. She burst into tears at her desk.

Photos. Megan was crying over pictures, but pictures that were a part of a greater story, a story she had never noticed before.

The article also includes a very interesting short video interview with Megan Phelps-Roper.

I told you I have been fascinated by Westboro, and I have watched with interest several BBC documentaries about the family hosted by Louis Theroux. In this documentary you can see a much younger Megan before she left the family church

My fascination with this family might stem from my own childhood. I, too, grew up with the prospect of Hell looming over me at every turn. When I was little I remember being obsessed with dead people and wondering where they were. Were they in heaven right now? Were they in hell right now? And of course hell was this place of never ending, constant and unending torture which involved a lot of flames and fire. I’ve since learned that most of this view of hell comes more from Dante’s Inferno than from any verse in the Bible. Because my father was a minister, we always knew when people died and he preached at their funerals.

Scroll back a few blogs to my endorsement of Faith Shift to see how much my own beliefs have shifted and changed. I am quite convinced that God's love and grace is far broader than I had ever imagined.

Maybe Megan knows that now, too. What I wish for this beautiful young woman as she continues on her journey is peace and community and many kind friendships. 

NEXT TIME: Wet Thaw, a small collection of short stories by my friend and literary writer Deb Elkink.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

We are not all so different

I have a small book to recommend this week. It’s not a huge historical saga spanning generations. It’s not a book with a broad political statement. It’s not something that will change your life in profound ways. It’s simply the gentle tale of Lucy, a young girl in her last year in high school, a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, and trying to figure out life. I guess it fits in the category of Young Adult or YA as it is abbreviated. What is remarkable is that Totally Unfamous is entirely written in verse, in poetry. And good poetry. There are times when I absolutely fell in love with the word pictures, but more about that later on.

My husband, who got to know the author a bit, was the one who first introduced me to this book. “I have something you have to read,” he told me. I did, and blown away by its simple beauty even then.

Lucy’s mother died in a horrific car accident and her father has remarried. How does Lucy feel about that? She’s not sure, and when her father’s new wife is pregnant, Lucy is even less sure. Throughout the book, the soon-to-be step-sibling is called "the half-baby.” Maybe that will tell you how she feels.

I’m leaving off the best part. Lucy is a gymnast. I learned terms I had never known before - aerials, Arabians, flight series, floor work. I have a granddaughter who is a gymnast and I know the dedication, the time spent in the gym. It’s not just an extra-curricular hour after school. It’s four hours after school every day after school and more on weekends. We’re talking major athletics. I never cease to be amazed when I watch her go through her routines.

Here is how the story begins:

what they see

they see
a gymnast
a girl
an athlete
someone quiet
someone average
someone small
they don’t see
so much
they don’t wonder
if every time I flip
my body into the air
doing some crazy trick
once did
if maybe I haven’t
lost myself
in this gym
I call home

I know what you’re thinking - I don’t read YA fiction. And maybe you don’t. But let that first passage resonate for a minute. We can all say that, can’t we? What do people see when they look at you? At me? They see someone doing some “crazy trick” like baking bread, like weeding the garden, like driving to work. But do people see the real you? The real me? Probably not. And you can get to feel "lost" in that garden, that kitchen, that office, you call home. 

I want to share some of the more beautiful poetry in this book, and some of these I will copy out in full:

the worst thing in the world

is having your whole life
laid out before you
with every possible side road
mapped and planned
and realizing
that the map that you helped make
is no longer what you want
but you don’t really know
what it is you want
so you stay quiet
and keep following the map
simply because
you don’t have any better ideas
I need a better idea

A person doesn’t have to be eighteen to feel like this. I’m way past 18, and there are days when this could be my journal entry.

Shortly after her mother died, Lucy had difficulty performing in the gym. Her body simply would not obey her.

I couldn’t focus then either
everyone around me got better
while I slowed down
my body feeling heavier
as if the air had become thick
like honey

This is a teenager. As we get older, all those aches and pains add up. There are days when I get out of bed and it feels as if I, too, am walking through honey. One of the things I enjoy is volunteering at a nursing home. I see people there, people once vibrant and alive, who baked bread and canned peaches and chased after children, but whose bodies have betrayed them. Merely getting from one room to the next it’s like the air had thickened around them, became hard to navigate through.
We are not all that different. No matter what age we are, we are not all that different.

Sometimes the simple things speak the most to us.

No spoilers here, but this lovely little book follows Lucy and her friends, her new on-again off-again boyfriend, but also deals head on with darker subjects - unwanted pregnancy, rape, stalking, fear and God, and all written in this sensitive poetic way. 

Some of the wisest words ever written are - “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” I thought of that quote continually as I read this book. 

When I see that young, beautiful eighteen year old (and all teenagers are beautiful, all of them), maybe it will help me to look past her youth and see the pain and anxiousness going on inside there. And when I see the beautiful elderly woman (and all of our elders are beautiful, every single one of them), maybe it will help me to look past her wisdom and age and see the pain and anxiousness going on inside there.

No, we are not all so different.

Next Time: Unfollow, a long-form New Yorker article which gives a brief but utterly captivating look into the Westboro Baptist Church through the eyes of the granddaughter who left it. Click here for the link to read it.