Megan Phelps-Roper at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Source: FODI.
Megan Phelps-Roper at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Source: FODI.

How I left most hated church

She was once the proud mouthpiece of one of America's most detested churches - the "God Hates Fags" sign-waving Westboro Baptist Church. But Megan Phelps-Roper doesn't shy away from her past.

During a talk at Sydney's recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas she arrived on stage as a clip of her younger self played on a huge screen behind her, denouncing sinners and announcing: "Obey God or you're going to hell, the end".

Members of Megan’s family picketing in 2006. Picture: Jed Kirschbaum/AP/Baltimore Sun
Members of Megan’s family picketing in 2006. Picture: Jed Kirschbaum/AP/Baltimore Sun

The words on the video echoed around the room. They were delivered with conviction, without hesitation or doubt and mirrored the church's message of unrelenting opposition to Jews, "fag marriage" and the wicked. Yet, years later she would walk away from the church her own grandfather founded.

Six years after she left Westboro, Ms Phelps-Roper is now married and has a newborn daughter. She can now say openly what would have been once unthinkable: she doesn't believe in God. She acknowledges it took her a while to stop being terrified of going to hell.

But Ms Phelps-Roper doesn't resent those who raised her.

Even though she opposes her former church and all it stands for, her love for her family still shines through. Her mother's name is her daughter's middle name and she still reaches out to them, sending letters and birthday presents.

Ms Phelps-Roper still says her mother is one of the kindest people she knows. However, she does hope to give her daughter something that her mother never did: the intellectual freedom to question things and not to have to agree on everything in order to gain love and affection.

"While the trauma and regret of that part of my life will always be with me, they are accompanied by a deep and abiding sense of hope," she said.

"My life was forever changed by people who took the time and had the patience to learn my story and to share theirs with me. They forsook judgment and came to me with kindness and empathy and the impact of that decision was huge."

Her new message is now to "love your enemy". It may seem an outdated concept in the age of social media where everyone relishes taking sides and there's a seemingly relentless search for the next controversy to trigger outrage but ironically it was through Twitter that her conversion took place.

Ms Phelps-Roper was 23 years old when she took over Westboro's Twitter account and it was through this platform that she first started communicating with David Abitbol, founder of the blog Jewlicious. Her intention was to antagonise him and she even picketed him once.

But he kept reaching out to her, answering her questions and treated her with kindness even though she was trolling him and goading him. He finally got through to her and it was through his encouragement that she started to question some of the beliefs that she had been brought up with.

"When people are in the thrall of poisonous ideology, it's really not all about deliberate ill will, or inherent hatred, or a lack of intelligence," Ms Phelps-Roper said. "It's about the unbelievable destructiveness and staying power of bad ideas and about finding ways to equip people with the tools they need to fight them.

"The more of us who are willing and able to reach out, to disagree without demonising, the more likely we are to change hearts and minds, to heal divisions and to create a better society for all of us in the process."

Ms Phelps-Roper acknowledges that not every bigoted person could be converted to the side of acceptance and equality but believes there is hope even for those who were raised from birth to fear and condemn others.

 

"Loving someone whose ideas we find detestable can seem impossible and empathising with them isn't much easier, but it's so important to remember that listening is not agreeing," Ms Phelps-Roper said.

Her approach is to assume good intent, to stay calm and patient even during contentious discussions, to ask questions and understand the perspectives of others.

It's a world away from the days she spent yelling at people on picket lines, holding up hateful signs and condemning people as sinners and unredeemable.

Her persistence in questioning and using logic to communicate with her former church has even led to it publicly back away from one of its most infamous placard slogans. The sign "fags can't repent" no longer appears at its protests.

Now aged 32, Ms Phelps-Roper believes people shouldn't be made to feel bad about admitting they were wrong about something.

"We are human beings, we are not born with all the things that we need to know to live the best life that we can live.

"We are constantly taking in new experiences that shape who we are, and that it's not a bad thing to change your mind, it's an admirable thing.

"If you are the same person today that you were a year ago, I think that's something you should be ashamed of, not changing our minds."

Megan Phelps-Roper at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Source: FODI.
Megan Phelps-Roper at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Source: FODI.


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