Megan Phelps-Roper Speaks in Orange County about Her Leaving Westboro Baptist Church and Her Journey Since
A talk yesterday in Southern California featured the most famous person to have left the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its protests. Speaking at an Anti-Defamation League of Long Beach/Orange County event in Irvine, Megan Phelps-Roper delivered an abbreviated version of her story prior to opening up for a question-and-answer segment. Offering “a short version of her story”, Phelps-Roper said that she felt “like I could talk about it all day.”
Starting off by describing how she had been raised to “pursue my church’s message with zeal” and of her attending picketing actions, Phelps-Roper then began describing how she began questioning being a part of the church. Questioning the church was no small matter, as she had been raised in it and her grandfather had started it. After relating an incident in high school when the attacks on September 11, 2001 occurred, she started to have some questions, however, she stuck with the church.
In 2009, she decided to join Twitter in 2009 as a way to help publish the messages of the church, although she “had no idea what Twitter would lead to.” One of the things she did on Twitter was to tell people to repent. On one such occasion, she sent a tweet to David Abitbol, founder of Jewlicious.com to tell him that “Jews needed to repent that they killed Jesus.” After some angry insults were traded, the Twitter conversation yielded to friendly barbs between the two. This then led into some textual querying, as “both of us were genuinely curious about how both of us read the Bible.”
As their Twitter conversation continued, she observed that “this is what I had been warned about” in the church – of being led astray by a crafty messages. Eventually, she met Abitbol, in person, in Long Beach, when they were protesting outside of the sixth annual Jewlicious Festival, followed by speaking to him in New Orleans that November when she was protesting outside of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. Finding that “the whole thing was strange and perplexing” in how they related to each other with a certain civility, despite their differences, they continued their conversations on Twitter.
On Twitter, Phelps-Roper noted, there were “questions and jokes that pickets could rarely afford”, especially since, on Twitter, the conversation was ongoing. Because of this, she said, “Twitter made something possible – seeing each other as human beings.” Eventually, Abitbol “managed to find an inconsistency” in Westboro Baptist Church’s theology, about a year after she first tweeted Abitbol. The issue at hand was that Phelps-Roper’s mother had birthed her first child out of wedlock, yet was part of the church; meanwhile, what does one then do with Jesus’ exhortation in John 8:7 that “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Also, by instituting the death penalty, one cuts off the possibility of repenting for that person. Shouldn’t there be a possibility of repentance?
Phelps-Roper stated that she had “always felt misunderstood at Westboro”, since, if “we were trying to help them avoid curses from God in this life and hell afterwards”, why were they trying to destroy other people. This led her to the thinking that “I realized we were the hypocrites.” When she sought out church members to raise this issue, they all tried to shut her down and not engage in a thoughtful conversation on the topic. Nevertheless, she realized she was right and that she finally began to see herself as challenging the Church and not just seeing herself as “insufficiently spiritual.”
Another issue that led her to decide to leave the church was in the power structure of the church. Since the church’s founding, her grandfather had been the pastor and made decisions. However, that began changing as eight men became church elders and they became even more fundamentalist and created more restrictions. With a new willingness to challenge the decisions, she began thinking about leaving. When she suggested leaving to her sister, Grace, that they leave, they worried about being cut off from their family. After going back and forth for four months, they finally decided to leave. Eventually, Phelps-Roper said, “it became less terrifying to leave than to stay.”
in her prepared remarks, Phelps-Roper said that “her mind and life has changed so much” in the three years since she left. She has also “been searching for a way forward” to help both herself, as well as others, heal. Phelps-Roper also mentioned that she is trying to undo a lot of the damage they have done when they were in the Westboro Baptist Church, the worst of which, she sadly noted, was the picketing of the military funerals.
In the question-and-answer segment of the event, she was able to delve more deeply into particulars. When asked about those who leave, she said that only 3-4 have publicly spoken out against the Westboro Baptist Church, but, when they do, they “are more demonized than Jews and gays.” While pointing out that “when I think about how such a small group of people can have such a huge impact,” she then sanguinely observed that “it’s actually empowering” to try to work for good in this world. In the aftermath of her departure, she said that Grace and her “have met so many people who are so kind and generous and have helped us out.” This was especially so when, just three years after having protested outside of the Jewlicious Festival in 2010, she and her sister were invited to attend and to speak at the Jewlicious Festival in 2013.
While having left the church has been a life-changing and positive turn in her life, Phelps-Roper said that the day she and her sister left “was really terrible.” What made leaving the church particularly hard was also having to leave their nuclear family, which she and her sister still love. Instead of departing in the middle of the night, as had her brother years before, she and her sister had left in the daytime after having discussed their concerns. While packing up and their parents “coming into our room and trying to talk us out of it was really traumatic,” she also knew that “it was the right decision.” However, “when we first left, we had no idea what to do” now where to live. She said that it felt like she had “an enormous boulder” on her shoulders. Yes, “it is an enormous comfort to know how to live one’s life,” but when one loses it, one feels completely adrift. And, “for the first year, we were.” Noting the tension in their lives since, “it’s been hard, but a really good road.”
When asked an interesting question about good things she had experienced growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church, she said acknowledged that “there was a lot that was taught that was awful, but there was a lot that” that was not. She said that the ethos of the church was to be “amazingly polite and kind and generous.” She also shared that Abitbol had told her and Grace following the Jewlicious Festival in 2013 that “they were their parents’ children” in that they had the fortitude to stand up for their beliefs. While they were taught to do this against those who disagreed with their beliefs, Megan and Grace stood up to the Westboro Baptist Church.
As to where they are now, Phelps-Roper said that when one is “coming from a place where we thought we had all the answers” to a place that they are not sure is quite destabilizing. While she has lots of questions about Christianity and the Bible, she still “reads the Bible a lot.” Professionally, she works at a title company and is working on a memoir. Noting the difficulty of writing the book, she said that “it’s one thing to talk about it all the time” and it’s another to write about certain incidents.
Her talk was received with great interest from the dozens of attendees to her talk and several stayed behind to speak with her following it, as it had generated a lot of fascination. Phelps-Roper’s story has become more widely known following Adrien Chen’s November article in The New Yorker about her and her departure. It shall be interesting to read her forthcoming memoir!