Megan Phelps-Roper opened a Twitter account as a twenty-four-year-old but unlike most young adults, she’d started her account so that she could communicate the beliefs of her church, her grandfather’s Westboro Baptist Church. Known most for its picketing military funerals and condemning homosexuality, the church’s message was one Phelps-Roper gladly shared with a broad audience who largely condemned her for her condemnation. But some of the individuals she encountered on Twitter patiently engaged her in conversation rather than ad hominem attacks, asking her questions. Over a series of 140 characters on Twitter, the threads of conversation began to unravel everything she once believed.
“I realized that if we were wrong about one thing, that maybe we were wrong about other things as well,” Phelps-Roper shared with me. “My family was full of lawyers, and focused on ideological consistency. Once you accept the premise, it becomes hard to argue your way out of that argument without it.”
Nearly five years since she and her sister left Westboro, Phelps-Roper will be seen across the country in NatGeo’s The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman. She’ll appear in the episode “Us and Them,” alongside an African American blues musician who befriended members of the Klu Klux Klan and President Bill Clinton. But she’s in the episode because she’s out of Westboro and exploring ways to bring people together, because David Abitbol of the blog Jewlicious asked her questions about her beliefs that made her think about what she was saying in a new way.
“We would picket, and one of the signs I would hold up was “Death Penalty for Fags,” explained Phelps-Roper. “We’d say the death penalty came from Leviticus 20, that ‘If it was good enough for God, it was good enough for us. But David asked me questions like, ‘Didn’t Jesus say that those without sin should cast the first stone?’ I said, ‘We’re not casting stones, we’re preaching words.’”
“It seems simplistic, but I never connected what Jesus said with what we were doing.”
Abitbol also asked Phelps-Roper about how she saw sin and what it would mean for the church she’d picketed for since she was five. There was a woman in the church who’d had a baby out of wedlock, and Abitbol wanted to know why that sin was lesser than homosexuality. His questions led Phelps-Roper to wonder why the church promoted death for those in sin, when death would prevent that person’s repentance.
“I had no confidence in my own thoughts, because I had trusted the group,” Phelps-Roper remembered. “When I asked questions, my family just reiterated the scripture supporting their premise, and wouldn’t address the scripture that contradicted their argument. We’d claimed a monopoly on truth, and suddenly, it was no longer undeniable to me.”
On November 11, 2012, Phelps-Roper and her sister Grace left the church, but Phelps-Roper had rejected Westboro Baptist’s teachings without embracing something new. “Even though there was much I had come not to believe, I had misconceived ideas about people, feeling negatively and not having a lot of hope. There was a lot of loss and it was really a depressing time.”
After leaving Westboro, Phelps-Roper began to meet people and ask questions of them about faith. She began to see that Westboro’s belief that the world was doomed didn’t work, that people had to determine their own reasons for believing what they believed, that people were trying to live the best way that they could.
When Abitbol reached out via Twitter to wish her a happy birthday, he had no idea that Phelps-Roper had left the church. But he invited her to meet some of the people that she had tormented for so long, like the rabbi who she and her sister had picketed with signs like “Your Rabbi is a Whore.” In these meeting, she heard about Tikkun Olam, the Jewish concept that means to “repair the world,” the responsibility of every human being to undo the harm they’ve caused.
Phelps-Roper became emotional as she reflected on her messages of hate and intolerance directed at hundreds of people over twenty-plus years. “The rabbi said, ‘You and your family have added to the brokenness in the world. You have an obligation to repair it,’” she told me. “I know I can’t do anything to undo all that I did in the church but I have to try.”
Reflecting on a recent trip to the movie theater to see Only the Brave, Phelps-Roper explained that she’d been overcome by the visual of the families of the firefighters, waiting to see which of their husbands, fathers, and brothers would come back each time. She thought of the way that she’d picketed the funerals of husbands, fathers, and brothers in the military, and how those people must have felt. But she recognizes her own humanity, and the way she was blinded by the group think, the sheer waves of hate and aggression around her. And she longs to tell people to love even those people, whether they be of a church, a mosque, a hate group, to see their humanity.
“I’ve seen since I left the instinct to shame the person [who leaves a group] forever,” she said. “instead of listening and asking questions. Whatever led them to that situation, being patient makes such a difference because people don’t change their minds in an instant. It takes time to offer up another voice.”
“The spirit of kindness and compassion, to do it in a way that we’ll be persuaded, is so important. We shut down when we’re attacked, instead of actually hearing what people are saying.”
“We’re all only human.”
In The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman on Wednesday night, audiences everywhere can hear more from Phelps-Roper, considering her humanity, her changed heart, and her hope for a world that can be known for what it stands for instead of all of the things it’s against.