Home CommentaryStudent Life Running from hell: growing up in America’s most hated family

Running from hell: growing up in America’s most hated family

by Archives November 11, 2008

VANCOUVER (CUP) – The mattock, a close cousin of the pickaxe, is used to dig through tough, earthy surfaces – it loosens soil, breaks rock, and tears through knotted grass. Its handle is a three-foot wooden shaft, twice the density of a baseball bat, and its dual-sided iron head is comprised of a chisel and a pick.
It was Pastor Fred Phelps’ weapon of choice when beating his children, says his son, Nate Phelps.
“The Bible says: ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child,’ and he would be screaming that out as he was beating us,” said Nate.
One Christmas night, Nate says Pastor Phelps hit him over 200 times with a mattock’s handle, swinging it like a baseball player.
Nate and his brother Mark have maintained the allegations of abuse against their father since being interviewed in the Topeka Capital-Journal in 1994.
The Pastor and his other children have consistently denied the allegations, which have never been proven in court.
Nate says he would hide out in the garage with his siblings, where they could escape their father’s wrath. What Nate couldn’t escape, however, was the fear of going to hell.
He suffered much abuse growing up under the roof of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church – and he still suffers today.
The church, which believes that “God is hateful,” hasn’t changed its grim outlook since Nate’s time there 30 years ago, but it has expanded its fame. WBC has become well known for picketing funerals, where its followers, predominantly Phelps’ family members, proclaim that God is punishing “fags and fag enablers.”
To further the damage, the church frequently targets military funerals.
“WBC will picket the funerals of these Godless, fag army American soldiers when their pieces return home,” their website says. They believe God is punishing America for facilitating homosexuality, which, according to the church, ought to be a capital crime.
More recently, WBC planned to protest the funeral of Tim McLean, the young man who was beheaded on a Greyhound bus.
However, they were barred from crossing the Canadian border.
It is little wonder that Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary on the Phelps was titled The Most Hated Family in America.
Incidentally, it was when I mentioned this documentary that Nate introduced himself to me.
It was a Monday in September and I was on my way to the Cranbrook Airport. Cranbrook, a modest city of about 25,000, hides in B.C.’s Kootenays region. It rests behind a shroud of mountains, clean air, and restful silence.
I began a conversation with my cab driver, who looked to be in his late forties, with a trimmed beard and kind eyes. He told me that he once owned a chain of print shops with his brother, that he liked the BBC, and that Pastor Fred Phelps was his father – only after I had mentioned WBC, unaware. Following this coincidence, he agreed to an interview.
Nate’s conditioning began over 40 years ago in Topeka, Kansas, where WBC was formed and still exists today. As the pastor, his father quickly alienated himself from church members.
“A young lady got pregnant by a soldier at Fort Riley,” said Nate, “and [my father’s] response to that was to kick her out of the church . . . and that sent most of the people packing. There was already that siege mentality developing: us against the world.”
Nate left home the day he turned 18. For a while, he worked for a lawyer in Kansas City, eventually moving to St. Louis to work for a printing company with his brother Mark. He and Mark opened up their own print shop soon after.
But then, after three years and despite his brother’s disapproval, Nate returned home.
“My sisters were trying to convince me that things had changed,” he said. “I attended college for a semester and realized that while he may have been less prone to physical violence, he still was the same person. He just used different techniques to violate people – with his words and his deeds.”
In October 1980, Nate left for good. He found residence above a Volkswagen repair shop, where he spent about six months in a drug and alcohol-fueled haze.
He eventually ran into Mark’s wife and she suggested that he and his brother reconcile their animosity, caused by Nate’s temporary return to WBC.
And so Nate moved to California to work with his brother again. Late one night over a decade later, Nate found himself listening to his father being interviewed on a radio station in Los Angeles – it wasn’t long after Fred had gained national attention with his protests.
Nate called in under the impression that the interview was a rerun, but realized after calling that his father was on the air live.
“I was freaked out. I got on and I challenged [my father]. . . . That lasted about maybe a minute, and it devolved quickly into him calling me every name he could imagine, and then he handed the phone to Shirley, and she delivered a few diatribes.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper, Nate’s sister, has gained her own reputation for being the church’s other loud voice.
When contacted about her brother, Phelps-Roper responded with the following.
“Nathan Phelps is a rebel against God,” she said. “He has nothing to look forward to except sorrow, misery, death and hell.” “They told him the truth about what the Lord his God required of him. He was not going to have that.”
Shirley also claimed Nate “left when he was a raging disobedient rebel with selective memory.”
“What in this world is he doing in Canada?” she then asked.
Nate met his ex-wife in ’81, married in ’86. They had three children together and he helped raise a fourth. They moved to a new, pre-planned city, Rancho Santa Margarita, nestled at the foot of Saddleback Mountain in California.
“It was like paradise,” Nate said. “It was a perfect little town, and we were young and starting a family. It all just seemed so ideal.”
They joined a church, where they met many other families, five of which they became close with.
“Every Sunday, I was listening closely and trying desperately to find something in the preaching or in the words that would convince me that this was right. Even while I was doing that, I was always skeptical . . . but I never voiced it. I was very good at playing the apologist for the Christian faith. In fact, I had quite a reputation for writing and talking in defence of Christianity.”
The turning point was one Christmas, when Nate decided to teach his children about God. In the end, his son Tyler began crying in the backseat of the car, saying he didn’t want to go to hell.
“He wanted to believe because he didn’t want to go to hell,” Nate said. “I was just stunned because I didn’t know what I had said or how I had left him with that fear. I thought I was doing a good job of presenting it without the fear.”
“Thinking about it after the fact, I realized you can’t do that. With a young mind, it doesn’t matter. You can try as much as you want to talk about how good God is, but the bottom line is there’s this intolerably frightening punishment if you don’t accept it. And how does a young mind deal with that?”
Eventually, Nate told his wife that he couldn’t continue believing. Then he told the men from the five families that they were close to, and they responded by disappearing from his life.
“As far as they were concerned, I was a traitor…”
In 2005, Nate’s marriage failed. Around the same time, he met another woman online named Angela.
She lived in Canada, and Nate knew he had to make a tough decision.
“The decision was that I was going to come here to her,” Nate said. “When I left, one of the first things [my wife] did was blame the failed marriage on us leaving the church.”
He moved to Cranbrook in December 2005. Since then, he’s been doing a lot of reading and thinking.
“I do declare myself an atheist now,” affirmed Nate. “Although I’m willing to admit there’s stuff in life that I’m not real clear on yet,” he added.
Despite this, he still lives with anxiety caused by his experiences over 40 years ago.
“I spent the first 25 or 30 years of my life denying that anything was wrong with me . . . then, bam, all this weird stuff just starts coming out.”
“It’s so, so difficult to go back and look at stuff and try to make sense of it, especially being this far removed from it. I’ll immerse myself in it for a couple weeks, and then I got to back away because it’s too destructive. But I have to believe it’s going to turn out.”
I asked Nate what he wanted for his future.
“I think the best way to answer that is what I said to my wife when we were fighting at the end.” He paused for a moment. “That I just want peace. I want to not wake up fearful every morning.”

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