The Rev. Mel White, a homosexual minister from Laguna Beach, Fla., walked in front of Westboro Baptist Church to protest the anti-homosexual message of the Rev. Fred W. Phelps, who has become part of the Topeka landscape. White met with Phelps on Wednesday.
To give up on the Rev. Fred W. Phelps because of his strident anti-homosexual protests is to commit an act of violence against him, the Rev. Mel White, a gay preacher, said Thursday night.
"I think Topeka has suffered more as a city from one man than any other city in the nation," White said at a forum at Washburn University staged by Concerned Citizens for Topeka Inc.
"I’ve heard story after story after story of what you’ve suffered," White said. "It is mind-boggling what you have tolerated, but tolerance is not the goal. The goal is to go beyond tolerance and reconcile."
In October, White achieved a degree of reconciliation with another well-known minister, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
White apologized to Falwell for the vilification heaped upon the televangelist by many in the gay community. In turn, Falwell admitted to White that his anti-homosexual rhetoric had grown excessive.
White called the encounter an example of how non-violence works, but emphasized one has to engage opponents to produce results.
"Jerry Falwell is not my enemy. He’s my brother, and I need to reconcile with him because we have the same heavenly parents.
"Fred Phelps is not my enemy. He’s my … uh … cousin," said White to the laughter of the crowd.
"We have to believe that Fred Phelps also can change."
White and Phelps met for 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon at the Westboro Baptist Church, where Phelps is pastor.
White said the two agreed to say publicly only that they had met and not go into specifics.
In a Thursday afternoon interview in his office, Phelps called the meeting "very cordial." Phelps said he didn’t sense any friction, but added the two continued to disagree on how God views homosexuals.
Phelps said the central message White brought was one of not preaching against homosexuals because "that makes a lunatic fringe perpetrate violence" against gays.
However, Phelps disagreed with White’s view of the Westboro church’s anti-homosexual picketing.
"He calls Bible meetings we have on the street a public hate demonstration," Phelps said. "Well, I’m not willing for them to take over the lexicon. It is a gospel meeting we have on the streets, not a public hate demonstration."
White called what Phelps and others do "spiritual violence." White turned the tables on Phelps by picketing his church and residence Thursday afternoon.
White carried two pink signs with black lettering. One sign proclaimed that God loves homosexuals. The other said, "God even loves Fred."
"It was done to say, ‘Fred, I love you. God loves you. But I am protesting that you say God doesn’t love gays, and that breaks the heart of God.’ "
While in Topeka, White also met with 47 clergy and religious leaders. He said at his lecture that some had declared their belief that homosexuality is sin. However, White said he didn’t meet with his fellow clergy to defend homosexuality.
"That’s not my goal," he said. "My goal is to advocate dialogue and peaceful dialogue at that."
In spite of their differences, Phelps said White expressed a willingness to keep talking. The two have pledged to continue their dialogue.
"He hopes to come back," Phelps said. "I told him he’d be as welcome as the flowers in spring."
As for White, he recalled how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was once criticized by his fellow civil rights leaders for suggesting Alabama Gov. George Wallace could change his segregationist views.
"If Wallace can change, Fred can change. If Fred can change, we can change," White said.
Such changes are needed by everyone, said White, who led the audience through some exercises that revealed biases and prejudices.
"Fred just reminds us of how we look some of the time, carrying our signs around the people we love the most and offending them by the way we’re carrying them. The silences. The words. The gestures. It’s not about Fred. It’s about all of us. Hate is about all of us.
"Hate speech cripples the soul and cramps the body and kills the spirit," White said. "Love speech enables and renews and restores."