Nathan Phelps left his family on his 18th birthday. That was more than three decades ago. It was the last day he spent with them. He hasn't spoken to his father since he walked out.
I "cease to exist " to him, Nathan told me.
Nathan isn't the only child to leave home and never go back, but I thought his case deserved more attention because I met Nathan's family and attended church with his family. The Phelps family makes up 90% of the small congregation of Westboro Baptist in Topeka, Kansas. Nathan's father, Fred, is the Pastor and founder of the church. Westboro is often called the most hated church in America because it protests near military funerals, using signs like "God Loves Dead Soldiers," and "God Hates Fags," to act as "messengers of God." In many ways, Nathan's experiences bring a former insider's understanding of the family, the church and its controversial mission, which is why this is not the typical story of a child leaving home when he becomes an adult. Fred had thirteen children. Four of them left home.
Nate spoke last week at Clayton High School. Here's part of our interview:
News 4: "Your father told me he raised 13 children and that nine of them turned out good."
Nathan: "Three of us left, actually four, but Catherine (my oldest sister) has tried to stay there. So, she kind of lives in a no man's land. She attends the church, but she's ostracized. So, she has to sit in an ante-room there. They can't have anything to do with her."
At first, Nate told me it was a relief to leave his family. "Then, as I got older," he told me, "I had to go through a mourning process of losing your family."
Nate remains extremely critical of his father, Pastor Fred Phelps.
"He's being hurtful, terribly hurtful to people, and he's done that his entire life," Nate told me. "He believes this is what God wants him to do. I would say he's very insensitive. He's mean spirited. I think he's a sociopath. I think that he fits that. Just the way he was. His inability to empathize with others. His calculated cruelty, and then laughing at the harm that it causes. I saw it time and again growing up with him."
Nate told me his father physically abused him. When I asked his sister Shirley Phelps-Roper, the Westboro spokesperson, denied that Fred abused Nathan. "Of course not," she wrote me on Twitter, "because he did not."
During my interview with Fred Phelps, now in his 80s, I found him to be engaging, extremely intelligent, and at times, funny. We talked about faith, family and running, one of his passions, and one of mine. I also thought Pastor Phelps showed very little grace or compassion for others. I shared my observations with Nathan.
"I would agree with that," Nate told me. "And, that biting, that insensitivity, or whatever, we saw it clearly in him that as far as he is concerned, he understood the world. He understood things differently and better than anyone else did, and he just didn't have the time, or the interest in the meadering mental processes of the average person. He was just dismissive of them and that's part of what you see when you communicate with him."
Pastor Phelps refused to talk in detail about the children who rejected him. Instead, he took credit for "the good ones." Then, he strongly implied he was a better parent than I was because his children all went to law school, and I only had two teenagers who hadn't studied the law. He thought that was funny, too. Of course, it wasn't funny, at least not to me. I interpreted his repeated digs at me as a sign he was trying to put me in my place, and according to Pastor Phelps, I was beneath him.
Jesus Christ preached love, compassion and humility. Pastor Phelps preaches condemnation while he hurts people, then laughs at their pain.
The message delivered by Nathan Phelps shines a brighter light on Westboro, his family, and especially his father, Fred. But, unlike his father's sermons, which are claimed to be inspired by God, Nathan's talks are not.
The estranged son of Westboro Baptist is an atheist.