Preaching Compassion After Westboro: Spotlight on Megan & Grace Phelps-Roper
Originally posted 5/21/2018 on my former blog, Max Goes Godless.
Hey again! After skydiving, Samoa, and a broken computer, I'm finally back to the keyboard. And I'm excited for you guys to read the first post in the Far From Alone series, a weekly spotlight on people who are moving out of situations of control and toward their own versions of freedom.
Far From Alone is about people who are building lives they love. Having the courage to let old beliefs change. Finding confidence and peace. Taking the reins in their own lives.
And it's for anyone who could use a little reminder that they can do it too. As someone who spent a long time in the closet, and is now out and free, I remember what it's like to think you could never build a new life... and I get it can feel lonely sometimes as you build it. I know people out there (like you?) feel the same way.
So, here's hope. Inspiration. A little light along your path, whatever it may be.
Picking my first spotlight was natural. These are the first 2 people whose stories gave me strength when I still lived in the closet. Now, with their grace, compassion, a talent with words, and courage beyond measure, they inspire me to have the guts to turn your mistakes into lessons for good. Here's Megan & Grace Phelps-Roper.
The beginning: when family means church means Anti-Defamation League-approved hate group (oh my)
Grace and Megan were born into the Westboro Baptist Church, that little church from Topeka, Kansas that's infamous for their hate speech and protests against LGBTQ+ people, American soldiers, politicians, people of other faiths, and more. They picket synagogues and the funerals of soldiers. They hold up signs saying "God Hates F*gs" and write lyrics to songs like "God Hates the World."
Family, am I right?
For Grace and Megan, pulling up to pickets, squeezing as many signs as possible into their hands, and chanting, singing, and shouting with their parents, was just an everyday activity. Westboro started pickets when Megan was 5. Church was a family affair; their grandfather, Fred Phelps, was the church founder. They believed that the world was coming to an end soon, and it was their duty to show compassion to the human race by warning them to repent of their sins as clearly as possible.
Picketing funerals and offending people was common sense. An act of love. Divine purpose. And everything they knew.
Megan looked forward to pickets. She learned to hold 4 signs at once and took on social media for the church so they could reach even more people with their message. "Mourn for your sins" was one of her favorite slogans. She Tweeted quotes from her grandpa's sermons and ignited controversy on Facebook.
Funnily enough, joining Twitter proved to be Megan's first step away from her church and the world she knew.
Twitter's word count limit forced her to drop the insults and get clear with her message. Engaging with trolls led her to surprising conversations.
Megan fixed her crosshairs on the 2nd most influential Jew on Twitter, David Abitbol, who ran a blog named Jewlicious. At first, they slung insults and sarcasm, but curiosity began to color the debate as it stretched on. David asked her why she picketed; hoping to gather ammunition against the faith, Megan posed questions on Jewish theology. They developed an unexpected respect for each other, appreciating one another's jokes, and Megan grew to see that David was human too.
Seeing people for people, doubting the undoubtable (let the character development arc begin)
David and Megan continued talking via Twitter for a year, and over time, his questions started to break through a system of beliefs that was supposed to be rock-solid. The relationships she developed with others on Twitter had transformed an audience to be preached at into a collection of real people she cared about. Megan brought her questions to her mom and other members of the church, but their answers couldn't satisfy the growing doubt inside her.
In February 2011, Megan got a nasty tweet from a man known only as C.G. Her friendliness took him off guard, though, and they ended up exchanging Words with Friends usernames. They started talking through the app. C.G. made points about Westboro's hurtful practices that hit home. She began listening to indie rock bands he recommended, and Grace noticed the change. But one night, Megan had a dream. A car pulled up, and a man got out: C.G. They hugged. And she woke up.
Terrified of what her feelings for C.G. might mean, Megan eased off social media, but back home, she found Westboro changed. Her mother, Shirley, was accused of overreaching her authority, while church decisions shifted from consensus and into the hands of 9 elders, all men. Westboro stopped emphasizing Bible passages about strong women and turned to wives submitting to their husbands.
By now, Megan was 26, and she could no longer ignore double standards like these. On July 4, 2012, Megan and Grace were painting the basement of a Westboro member when Megan was struck by the lyrics of "Just One" by Blind Pilot, a band she found through C.G. The chorus was, "I can't believe we get just one." One life, Megan thought.
If they were wrong and Westboro was right, they'd lose their very souls. But if Westboro was wrong? Megan couldn't bear the thought of spending life fighting for the wrong thing. And impossibly, truth and love won out.
Grace was 7 years younger than Megan, but they'd always been close. Megan asked Grace what she thought about leaving Westboro. Grace refused -- they'd lose their families, go to hell, and forfeit the purpose of their lives up til now. But Megan's faith was shaken for good. Her "brain felt like it was exploding." She peppered Grace with questions about their faith. And Grace questioned too.
Megan and Grace today
In October 2012, Grace and Megan decided to leave. A sympathetic high school teacher allowed them to start shifting their things to his house, but on November 11, their parents discovered the plan. Megan and Grace packed as their parents and family members tried to convince them to stay. But the sisters left. Their dad drove them to a hotel room he paid for, and although the church's policy was to cut off contact with those who left, their mom's final words that day were, "You know you can always come back."
Megan and Grace were adrift for a time. They couldn't stop crying and they feared God's retribution at any moment. But Megan couldn't sit with the knowledge of the pain she'd caused people. She and Grace wanted to do good, to make amends. She shared their story on Medium and got back on Twitter, and she was met with an outpouring of support.
David Abitbol was among Megan and Grace's earliest supporters. He invited the two to speak at a Jewlicious festival and stay with an Orthodox rabbi's family, who Grace became good friends with. Megan and Grace began to challenge themselves to see people they once insulted, mocked, and even called death for in a courageous new light, and they found kindness in return.
The sisters still have the same fire to fight for what they believe is right that Westboro instilled in them -- it's just that what they believe is right is wildly different now.
Today, Megan (now 32) uses her voice to advocate for empathy and bridging differences. Her passion for tough conversations and understanding that the other side of any debate is still human only gets more relevant every day. In 2017, she gave a TED Talk on her life in Westboro and her lessons on conversing across ideological lines. Her forthcoming book, "This Above All," is slated to become a feature film. Beautifully and funnily enough, on August 15, 2016, Megan married C.G.
(Megan holding 4 signs at once at a picket; Megan interviewed by Morgan Freeman for "Story of Us" in 2017)
Grace (now 25) lives in Dublin, Ireland. She has worked for an LGBTQ advocacy group in Florida and been involved with Planting Peace, a nonprofit that spearheads humanitarian campaigns. Among them? Buying 2 houses across from Westboro and painting them in the colors of pride: Equality House and Transgender House.
(Grace at a Billy Graham picket, and Grace speaking at a Connecticut high school in 2016)
A few years after Megan and Grace left, their younger brother Zach left as well. The 3 of them join a total of 19 people who have left WBC thus far, including Nate Phelps (son of Fred Phelps and member of Recovering from Religion's board of directors) and Lauren Drain (now a fitness model and coach; Megan and Grace walked Lauren down the aisle at her wedding.)
Far From Alone
Reading about Megan when I was in the closet, doubting what I could not doubt, trying to imagine leaving everything I knew, was a lighthouse in the dark. I clung to Megan's name like it could save me. And it could. So I'm passing it on to you.
If you grew up around people who demonized or cast judgment on others,
If you've ever doubted beliefs you once thought were unshakable,
If you've had to uproot and start life from scratch, not knowing where the wind would take you...
Here's a first reminder from me to you.
You are far from alone.
For more inspiration:
Unfollow: How a prized daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs, a great New Yorker article following Megan's journey
Lauren Drain's GoFundMe raising safety net funds for escapees of WBC
Does Megan and Grace's story resonate with you too?
Got any suggestions on an inspiring person I should cover for Far From Alone? Let me know here!