When Fred comes to town

The Washington Post has published a follow-up to its two-article series on Michael Shackelford, a gay teenager living in the very red locale of Sand Springs, eight miles west of Tulsa. When the Post concluded its second article on Sept. 26, Shackelford had decided he would feel more at home by joining his older sister in Las Vegas. The Post's update highlights one hell of a curveball: young Shackelford has become the latest target of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church, godhatesfags.com and godhatesamerica.com troika. A visit from the Phelps clan, as Samuel Johnson once said of the gallows, concentrates the mind wonderfully -- in this case, the mind of Cornerstone Church, which Shackelford attends with his mother, Janice.

Series author Anne Hull describes how pastor Bill Eubanks prepared after he saw a fax announcing the Phelps crew's intentions to protest at Cornerstone for welcoming Shackelford as a worshiper:

The week before the protest, the pastor announced from the pulpit that they were in the midst of a spiritual battle. He read parts of the flier aloud. "We are family," Eubanks said. "We are going to stand united as a family."

The response surprised Michael, who thought he would be cast out. People were being nice to him. Only a few weeks earlier he'd been called a "queer" at Arby's. Now there was a new menace in Sand Springs, and it was Fred Phelps.

Hull describes the scene inside the church on the day of the Phelps protest:

"There is darkness and there is light and we are in the middle of the light," Eubanks said, to more thunderous applause. "Say it: God loves us all. All of us!"

After the service, several people came up to hug Janice. One woman held her in an embrace that lasted two minutes, whispering to Janice the whole time.

A burly man with a crew cut gave Michael a thumbs-up. "Man, you be who you are," Shannon Watie said, holding his Bible. "We got your back."

Watie later said that he respected Michael for having the courage to come out. "I have the sin of pride, the sin of lying sometimes," said the 37-year-old father of two. "The reason why Jesus was on the cross was because we all do."

Watie voted for Oklahoma's ban on same-sex marriage. Civil unions? He might have considered those. Homosexuality? "That's between the person and God," Watie said.

Out in the foyer, Eubanks saw Michael and seized the chance. He invited Michael to lunch. There was work to do.

Hull has written a subtle story. The members of Cornerstone Church will not be sympathetic characters for many gay or gay-friendly readers -- I can already envision the comments on this blog condemning their views as heterosexist or homophobic. But it would take an awfully stubborn reading of Hull's work to insist that they're not showing love, as best they know how, for Michael Shackelford.

[Director Steve Drain offers an offbeat portrait of Phelps and his family in his film called Hatemongers. For much of the film, members of the Phelps family speak for themselves. One of the funniest moments (RealAudio clip) is when Phelps revels in making George magazine's list of "The 20 Most Fascinating Men in Politics." Phelps crows that, at No. 5, he outranked Geraldo Rivera and Larry Flynt: "Look at old Geraldo at No. 16. See, he ain't nothing -- 16."]

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