I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at the inaugural SASHA Conference on the University of Missouri campus this last weekend. SASHA stands for “Skeptics, Atheists, and Secular Humanist Association” and is the only Humanist student organization sponsored by the university.
It was not the reaction to my own speech but the person who spoke after me that I found most fascinating.
There are people and groups in this world that you either love or hate – there is no middle ground. One of those entities may very well be the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas. Fred Phelps and his family, really the only members of this church, are the people who protest at the funerals of those who gave their lives serving this country in the United States military.
Even the Ku Klux Klan has distanced themselves from this organization. If Westboro is too radical and homophobic for the KKK, something is wrong.
So when the gentleman who followed me last name is Phelps and is the sixth child of Fred, the question “Who is this guy?” needed to be answered. I researched, sat and listened with amazement.
I had the opportunity to have lunch with Nate Phelps on Friday and dinner with him on Saturday. I found an intelligent and articulate person, with a big smile and easy to a laugh. I met a man whose transformation from a physically and emotionally abused child of a Christian cult to well balanced person who discovered atheism.
If you think you know the Phelps family, you really need to listen to Nate’s entire presentation. From the beating he and his 12 siblings received to his mother’s humiliation when Fred shaved her head clean. Stories of Fred’s “voluntary” disbarment and his extreme hatred of gays, lesbians, transsexuals, bisexuals, and others, to Nate’s own work with LBGT communities in the United States and Canada to promote nonviolence and anti-bullying campaigns will amaze you.
Nate Phelps left the family at 12:00 AM on the morning of his 18th birthday. But to say he never looked back is a mistake. His story is scary and I invite you to watch a short video of his presentation I placed on YouTube.
His work with the LBGT anti-bullying campaigns is not really a “mea culpa” sending Nate on this mission, but a realization that as a secular humanist, he now understands that under our exteriors, inside of our skin color, sexual orientation or any other form of differentiation, we are all human and born with goodness. And that is Nate’s message.
There is a second part to this story and a lesson I want to bring to you and one I bring to my students each term. Critical thinking and listening requires that one must separate the person and ideology, that listening openly will change your perspective on the world around you. This does not mean you have to agree with the speaker or the position they espouse, but to better understand both.
In 2008, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee spoke on the Columbia College campus, speaking to medical care and ethics in the United States. Dr. Huckabee had just dropped out of the race for president, so this was not a political speech.
Kathy did not want to go to the presentation, after all Huckabee is a conservative Republican and opposed to Kathy’s own political views. After a bit of arm twisting, she relented and sat with me in the audience. She walked away with a greater respect for the man and at least one of his messages.
As Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, said on the eve of Israel’s independence, “One must open his ears to open his mind.”
I usually include “open one’s eyes” as well.
We all tend to stop reading or listening when the message is contrary to our own measurements of right versus wrong, our morals. We base our entire opinion on the title of a column or news event, the opening paragraph or the name of the author or speaker. There are those who disagree with President Obama because simply he is President Obama, or President Bush, or – you fill in the name.
I cannot tell you how many responses I receive from readers here and in my other columns, who base their response solely on the title of my column. My October 12 column here is a perfect example.
In “Defining Religion” I opened with,
You may recall that Rev. Jeffress introduced Gov. Rick Perry to the Valued Voters Conference. In that introduction he declared that though Mitt Romney is a moral man, he is not an Evangelical Christian. By declaring such, Jeffress declared that only a good Evangelical Christian could be President.
I received a good number of responses, but the ones claiming that I was “anti-Christian” never got beyond the first paragraph. It is a shame because the discussion had nothing to Christianity but with the definition of religion as it pertains to all faiths as well as atheism. It was a look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its amendments since as a legal issue.
We begin every discussion with a preconceived notion of the person, the topic, and the direction we believe the discussion will take, like my own pre-conceived ideas about Nate Phelps’ presentation. It is just unfortunately that few of us have the “guts” to go beyond first impressions.
Nate Phelps needs to be heard by all and you need to allow his story to mix with those you think you know. You do not have to support the LBGT community or be an atheist to learn what you do not know.