Reaction Mixed to Death of Fred Phelps

By Alan Van Zandt |

Published 03/20 2014 10:56PM

Updated 03/20 2014 11:29PM

(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) As word spread of the death Fred Phelps, the head of Topeka's controversial Westboro Baptist Church, reaction was mixed.

The city's former mayor hopes it will put a stop to the group's controversial practice of protesting at the funerals of gays and military veterans.

"I'm hopeful that will end now," said Bill Bunten, mayor of Topeka from 2005-2013. "They have every right to believe what they want, but I don't think they should bring grief to others."

While most in the religious community did not support Phelps' message of hate, they were compassionate in his death.

"I'm sorry for those who were close to him and loved him as an individual," said Father Don Davidson of Topeka's St. David's Episcopal Church.

In St. Joseph, at Zion United Church of Christ, they say they preach a message of love, unity and understanding. They were neither mourning nor rejoicing in Phelps' death.

"He and his church have caused a lot of pain to a lot of people, not only in the LGBT community, but those who have lost people who have served in wars and in the military," said Stephanie Crowley, a member of the congregation at Zion United and also the chair of the Gay/Straight Christian Fellowship of St. Joseph.

"He embodied for me hatred, fear and ignorance. He was the epitome of all those things. I believe each life has value and each life is a lesson for us," she said.

For those who think they should protest Phelps' funeral as he did others, Crowley has a message.

"I don't think it's an eye for an eye. He obviously suffered in his life and spread that suffering to others," Crowley said. "I don't think we need to do the same, especially as Christians."

Westboro Baptist Church representatives have been in St. Joseph on multiple occasions, including last fall when they picketed at Central High School.

Westboro's protest of a St. Joseph soldier who died in Iraq in 2005 helped lead to a statewide law banning such demonstrations at funerals.

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