By Marcus Lavergne
For some, a place of worship can become a prison where the words of those in positions of authority are everything. For Megan Phelps-Roper, the Westboro Baptist Church was that prison — one that she’s fought to free herself from. She talked to a group of about 30 people at the University of Nevada, Reno, last Wednesday about her journey and how it’s changed her outlook on life.
Westboro has become a well-known public enemy in the eyes of many. Throughout the church’s history, it has incited negative public reaction during numerous rallies and protests by doing things such as applauding national tragedies like 9/11. In 2006, the group received widespread media attention after picketing the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine. The event sparked a Supreme Court case in 2010, where in an 8-1 decision the high court decided the church’s actions were protected under the First Amendment.
Westboro’s actions were halted once in 2012 after it went to social media with claims that it would picket a vigil for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, during which 20 6-to-7-year-old children and six staff members were killed. The posts struck up controversy and caused severe backlash from groups like Anonymous, a hacker organization, that released the addresses of the church’s members. Westboro did not attend the vigil.
Phelps-Roper is the granddaughter of the church’s founder Fred Phelps, who passed away two years ago. She left the church in 2012 after 18 years of picketing and abiding by the church’s incendiary doctrine. Almost two decades of shouting oppressive statements like “God hates f**s” and “God hates Jews” while holding derogatory signs started to come to a close when Phelps-Roper started having discussions over social media with a Jewish man named David.
During her seminar, “The Other Side of the Picket Line,” hosted by Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi in a Davidson Math and Science lecture hall, Phelps delved into religion, her newfound respect for equal rights, and how her conversations with David began to open her mind to different possibilities and a perspective that the church had blinded her to.
“Twitter had made possible what was all but impossible on the picket line,” Phelps-Roper read from her prepared speech. “David and I started to see each other as human beings and were actually listening to each other. At the time, I didn’t understand how important that was.”
During Phelps-Roper’s story, she brought up one argument that was especially meaningful and eye-opening for her. David asked about a sign of hers, which read, “Death penalty for f**s.” He asked her if that meant the death penalty was for those who had children out of wedlock as well — another Biblical taboo. He also challenged Westboro’s theology by paraphrasing a famous verse from John 8:7, “he who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
It was the first test that opened Phelps-Roper up to a new way of thinking. A woman at her church had a child out of wedlock, but was not condemned. When Phelps-Roper asked older church leaders why, they told her it was because the woman repented. This only brought up more questions for Phelps-Roper — questions that proved difficult for Westboro leaders to answer completely enough for her. She found their reasoning dissatisfying.
“If gays deserved the death penalty then so did she, and if repentance had saved her then why were we trying to destroy others before they had the opportunity to repent?” Phelps-Roper read. “I suddenly saw that we were the hypocrites that Jesus was talking about in that passage.”
From that moment on, Phelps-Roper began to challenge and reject the sole doctrine that she lived by her whole life. A new path was revealed, but for Phelps-Roper, it didn’t come without remonstrance. Deciding to disconnect with Westboro meant disconnecting with family. During her last days at the church, about 80 percent of members were related to Phelps-Roper in some way.
When it came to the point where Phelps-Roper finally decided to leave the church, she was an adult who did not know many people outside the church and most of her family shunned her. She went from house to house for a while before deciding to go to France with her sister.
Phelps-Roper’s travels overseas and across the states have altered her views toward homosexuals, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses and many different groups targeted by Westboro.
During an interview after her speech, she said life totally shifted. A significant change came in the way Phelps-Roper, who no longer identifies as a Christian, reads the Bible Scripture. She realized that involving herself in practices like imprecatory prayer, or praying for evil or curses upon an enemy, was contradictory and wrong.
“Once we started to question, it was just going back and forth between those positions of ‘this doesn’t make sense,’” Phelps- Roper said discussing the months before leaving. “That going back and forth can make you feel like you are actually out of your mind.”
For Phelps-Roper, it took awhile to fully question the church’s authority with conviction and confidence. Now that she has come to terms with asking questions that defy what she learned throughout her years with Westboro, she’s been challenging the doctrine of the church openly and discreetly, something she calls “ironic.”
“That was my family,” Phelps-Roper said. “They were the ones, the same people who taught us to be strong in the face of your professors and your peers and journalists and counter-protestors and all of the people who were coming to attack us verbally and with their fists. My family, they’re the ones that taught us to stand up for what we believe in and that’s what we’re doing now.”
Phelps-Roper and her sister are now both heavy advocates of equal rights and global prosperity. An active blogger and writer, she is currently working on a book that covers her journey. As Phelps-Roper continues to advocate for peace, love and equality, others have found her life’s transition inspiring.
SAEPi’s president, Hannah Alterwitz, says that Phelps- Roper’s life can show students that everyone is capable of breaking away from negative habits and lifestyles.
“I think every student has had a moment where they make a snap judgment or stereotype a person,“ Alterwitz said. “Megan teaches us that we can change those perceptions if we put in the effort and training to do so.”
Marcus Lavergne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ mlavergne21.