There’ll be no answer if she knocks. Megan Phelps-Roper knows that, and so her visits to the home of her parents in Topeka follow an achingly quiet routine.
She slips a card or a note into the crack of the door, something to let them know she was there, that after seven years of separation she still loves them and cares. And she turns and walks away.
This is the hardest part of the path she has chosen.
Phelps-Roper left everything she knew — her family, her home, her membership and lifetime of work in Topeka’s virulent Westboro Baptist Church — almost exactly seven years ago. The granddaughter of church patriarch Fred Phelps, she joined Westboro’s sinners-be-damned picket lines as a 5-year-old and, by her 20s, became one of its most prominent voices, homilizing and deftly trading taunts with legions of the unfaithful on Twitter. But she came to see the church for what it was, she says: hateful and hurtful and too often misguided in doctrine.
Anguishing as it was, and she knew would probably always be, Phelps-Roper broke away with her sister Grace in November 2012. She was 26. Grace was seven years younger.
“It was absolutely terrifying,” Phelps-Roper says. “But ultimately, it was really liberating to be in a position to have to remake yourself and your world view.”
Married, a mother and living contentedly in a small South Dakota town a little more than seven hours due north of Topeka, she now practices a different kind of evangelism, extolling empathy and communication as counters to extremism. Phelps-Roper speaks at schools, churches and law enforcement gatherings. She gave a TED talk in 2017 that has generated more than 8½ million views.
And she has written about her life in and after Westboro in “ Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church.” Released earlier this month, it’s an intimate, often unsettling and yet evenhanded look inside the workings and unshakable beliefs of the church and a moving account of Phelps-Roper’s gradual change of heart and decision that she could no longer stay.
The day that she and Grace left was almost cataclysmic. Recounting the reaction of their mother, Shirley, Phelps-Roper writes, “I watched her mouth drop open in a look of shocked horror that will haunt me until I die.”
She continues to reach out, but there has been no communication since then from her parents or her seven brothers and sisters still with the church. (Two brothers also chose to leave, one settling in Overland Park.) Phelps-Roper gets to northeast Kansas several times a year, for holiday gatherings or speaking engagements, and invariably makes her way to the enclave around Westboro that once was her home. “I go back and walk the neighborhood,” she says. “And I always leave something for my parents in the door.”
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She writes of her family, “I don’t think they’re bad people. I think they’re good people who have been trapped by bad ideas.”
Phelps-Roper recently discussed her book, which has gotten the attention of Hollywood. Reese Witherspoon is among the producers of a film, still in development, to be based on the memoir and a 2015 story on Phelps-Roper in The New Yorker.
Excerpts from her conversation are edited for length.
Q: Many will leave a lifelong home or job or church or friends. Even family. You walked away from all of that. Can you help the rest of us comprehend that decision?
A: From the moment the thought first occurred to me that Westboro might not be the place … I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I knew it was going to cost me. It wasn’t just that I was leaving this wonderful family. The alternative was (entering) the world that I had spent my entire life demonizing. I remember there was a time in the four months before I left that I was so angry. Why do I have to make this decision? Why are these my only two options?
That’s one of the things that was so wonderful about David Abitbol (a Jewish blogger who is now her friend) and what he said to my sister and me about leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, that in a way it was the most Westboro Baptist Church thing we could have done. Him telling me that we were our parents’ children and this was a value they had instilled in us — this commitment to truth and sacrifice for what you believe in — was one of the things that made me realize I could hold onto much of what I had.
Q: You dedicate “Unfollow” to your parents. Does your estrangement get any easier with time?
A: I wouldn’t say easier. I have a daughter now and, when I first found I was pregnant, I definitely felt my mother’s absence more poignantly than I had since I’d left. It’s one of those things I eventually turned around, recognizing all the things about my mother that I want to live out in my own life as a mother. … I try to redirect my focus, but sometimes I just can’t.
Q: Besides the notes and cards in the door, how do you try to reach out?
A: I respond to things they post on Twitter. I address arguments they make in interviews and things like that. I’m always thinking about how to reach them, how to make arguments to them (about Westboro) in the kind of way it worked for me, when people reached out to me. Occasionally, they’ll respond on Twitter. But their general M.O. is to pretend we don’t exist.
Q: Did you have to think about keeping your maiden name, attached to “the most hated family in America,” after you married?
A: It’s partly the attachment to my family. It’s also partly because of something I realized shortly after I left. I want to reform the legacy of the name, if that makes sense.
My husband and I eventually want to start a nonprofit and call it the Westboro Foundation. It was his idea, and I love it. I would love for Westboro to come to mean something besides “God hates gays.”
Q: What are your emotions now when you see an image of one of Westboro’s “God Hates (Gays)” or “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” signs?
A: Growing up in Westboro, there was a culture of celebrating death and tragedy … a very calloused way of seeing other people’s pain. After I left, it took me a while to be able to really empathize with what it must have been like for the loved ones of people whose funerals we protested. I had never experienced the death of someone close to me until my grandfather passed away. ( Fred Phelps died in March 2014, months after he was excommunicated from the church, former members say, for advocating kindness.) Now, going to a funeral, I’m just a basket case. It is overwhelming, that feeling of regret.
And of course, there’s the years and the time and the talent and the energy we spent doing those things. Obviously, we did them because we thought we needed to. We thought it was the right thing to do, that God required it of us. It didn’t feel optional. (But now) it’s really sad to think of what we as a church might have accomplished in the absence of these beliefs.
Q: Your story underscores the power of Twitter, doesn’t it? Not just as a megaphone for the church but also a means of opening your eyes and mind.
A: It blows me away. Twitter is so demonized now; people say it’s a cesspool and it’s toxic. And I feel like saying (back) that it’s a cesspool because we’re making it one.
There are things that Twitter as a company has to do, like dealing with bots and true threats of harm, things that are illegal. But it was the willingness of people to reach across the chasm between Westboro’s beliefs and basically everybody else in the world to talk to me, to listen to me and ask me questions and try to understand where I was coming from, that eventually transformed my life. This person who was doing things that were really hurting people is now doing the opposite.
Q: Do you have a sense for where Westboro is today? Do you have hope that it will change?
A: Actually, it has changed in some ways. And good ways, largely. A lot of their new signs are things like “Be Reconciled to God” and “Racism Is a Sin” – much gentler positions that many mainstream Christians would agree with.
They don’t have nearly the voice now that they did before. People have said it’s because of the way we are as a country. They have competition. There’s so much hatefulness and division. … That’s really scary to me, and really sad, because it’s much more destructive when it’s the culture at large and not just this group of 80 people.
Q: You write in almost an aside in the book, “I don’t pray anymore.” Did you mean that literally? Where are you with God now?
A: “I’m not religious anymore. There are a lot of lessons from my upbringing that come from the Bible, and I absolutely still believe in. But for me now, it’s not because they’re in the Bible. It’s just because they’re good, and the impact that they have in the world is good.
I no longer believe that the Bible is the literal and infallible word of God. And I don’t believe in God as a figure in the sky listening to your prayers, things like that. I don’t like to say that I’m not a believer because I absolutely still feel like a believer in a lot of ways. It’s just that now my belief and my hope are in people and the possibility of change and the power of human connection.
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and senior editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Megan Phelps-Roper will speak about her book, “Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church,” at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 28 at Watermark Books, 4701 E. Doulgas. Admission is free. Reserve a spot at eventbrite.com. More information at Watermarkbooks.com