Second Westboro Granddaughter Loses Faith In Bigotry

Megan Phelps-Roper before the epiphany; @ CoffeeLovingSkeptic

Megan Phelps-Roper before the epiphany; @ CoffeeLovingSkeptic

In an interesting twist of either amazing synchronicity, or an indication of just how estranged the Phelps family is from its own members, a second story came out yesterday detailing the defection of yet another of founder Fred Phelps’ granddaughters from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.

February 6th must have been the designated day for alerting the world that the Phelps’ fiefdom is collapsing… from the inside out!

My particular February 6th story, Granddaughter Of Westboro Baptist Church Founder Defects From Hate-Cult To Speak Out, focused on Libby Phelps Alavarez, a granddaughter of original WBC founder, Fred Phelps, who fled the cult months ago and is in the emotional and sometimes confusing process of rebuilding life with her husband, living a mere 30 miles away from a family who has completely shunned her. She gave an interesting interview to the Today Show explaining her journey, what compelled it, and what the ramifications have been; you can read about it here.

Within hours of that story’s publication, I was alerted to another piece that ran the very same day, this one focused on Phelps’ granddaughter Megan Phelps-Roper, who left the church back in November and shared her story with blogger, Jeff Chu in a story also published on February 6th. Chu had interviewed Phelps-Roper earlier in 2011 as research for his upcoming book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? and, at the time, Phelps-Roper was firmly and enthusiastically ensconced in the WBC. His piece this week, Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church, was a rather astonished follow-up on Phelps-Roper’s unexpected defection of this past November, one which echoed many of the elements and issues I wrote about in Phelps Alavarez’s story of breaking away.

Strange, I thought in reading his piece, that these two granddaughters of the mighty church scion had made no mention of each other to either me or Chu, particularly odd given that the church is basically made up of the “family,” which numbers only about eighty members. And certainly, since defections are few and always controversial, one would assume the two women would have at least heard about each other, even if living in other parts of the country (Megan is currently in New York; Libby in Lawrence, KS). But whatever disparities exist, what is comparable between the two women are the reactions of the families involved, their particular form of shunning, or “gentle death”:

The act of leaving Westboro is as weird as the church itself. Sometimes it’s described as a shunning process, but that’s not entirely apt. It is, in the eyes of the remaining members, a sort of death, but it’s a gentle one, because the carcass isn’t just dumped or ignored. One church member, who has lost two of his kids to the outside world, told me that he still loved them and that he set them up as best they could with what they’d need to start their new lives—some money, some household goods, even a car. [Source]

Tragic, one thinks, to “gently” reject family in service to doctrine.

And, as it was for Libby Phelps Alvarez, it was that doctrine that both held and rebuffed Phelps-Roper as she grew from gullible youngster to questioning young adult. Now twenty-seven, she examines her past views with a sort of deconstructionist curiosity, speaking of the early indoctrination, the sense that what they were doing was God- and Bible-based, supported by a belief that they were fiercely “right.” As a child she spoke of “wanting to do good”:

For nearly all of her twenty-seven years, Megan believed it: believed what her grandfather Fred Phelps preached from the pulpit; believed what her dad Brent and her mom Shirley taught during the family’s daily Bible studies; believed (mostly) what it said on those signs that have made Westboro disproportionately influential in American life—“God hates fags”; “God hates your idols”; “God hates America.”

Megan was the one who pioneered the use of social media at Westboro, becoming the first in her family to go on Twitter. Effervescent and effusive, she gave hundreds of interviews, charming journalists from all over the world. Organized and proactive, she, for a time, even had responsibility for keeping track of the congregation’s protest schedule. [Source]

Yet, as the person who did outreach for the church, she also had the opportunity to step outside the enclave, both in its tangible and virtual forms, and in that wandering, made contact with the world beyond Westboro. She read and researched other religious texts only to realize, somewhat naively, that every religion is convinced of their own superiority and dominion. This was a cold-water dip of clarity that shifted something in her.

Even more illuminating was her budding online friendship with Israeli blogger, David Abitbol, who ran a blog named Jewlicious. This was unusual because, beyond their hate of “fags,” the Westboro philosophy bears a deep antipathy for Jews, anti-Semitism as loud and aggressive as their other aversions. Given this, Phelps-Roper’s meeting an Israeli Jew who happened to be bright, articulate and thought-provoking could only have a plate-shifting effect on the questioning young woman…and it did. They talked often and deeply online, debating the many issues that divided them. He asked her about the infamous “Death Penalty For Fags” signs and in that particular question, a light went off for Phelps-Roper:

“I was arguing for the church’s position, that it was a Levitical punishment and as completely appropriate now as it was then. He said, ‘But Jesus said’—and I thought it was funny he was quoting Jesus—‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ And then he connected it to another member of the church who had done something that, according to the Old Testament, was also punishable by death. I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.” [Source]

Within that revelation was epiphany, and from there Phelps-Roper began to question everything. The next time the family was protesting on the street she refused to hold the offensive sign, going, instead, for what she deemed “less offensive” – “Mourn For Your Sins” or “God Hates Your Idols.” But all the expressions of hate, and the rationalizations for that hate, began to ring hollow for her. She tried to shake off her doubts but having been brought up in a church that says “you cannot trust your own thoughts or feelings” – those being only in the purview of God – she lacked the confidence to find a firm footing in the midst of her swirling – and growing – spiritual suspicions.

There was no specific inciting incident but rather a critical mass of dissention that finally hit a tipping point. One night she just decided…and it was shortly after she left, with her sister, Grace, in tow. She describes their flight as a confused and almost furtive escape, returning home at one point to pick up things they’d left behind, then absconding into the night to stay in rooms found along the way. And as they made their physical journey, there was also the journey of heart and soul, the examining of all they’d been taught and no longer resonated. Phelps-Roper see her own spiritual defection as a slow, erosive questioning of principles she’d once openly accepted, that crumbled in the light of her expanding world.

Much like Libby Phelps Alvarez’s story, there is sorrow and longing there too; families missed and concern for the hurts caused by leaving. She does not have contact with her family still in the church and despite the conflict of spirit, there cannot help but be a sadness at the loss.

But these emotions are mixed with regret and shame felt over the hate propagated at their hands, even her very young hands that held those ubiquitous and vile signs with their ugly words. Phelps-Roper speaks to that regret with authentic pain:

“I definitely regret hurting people,” she says. “That was never our intention. We thought we were doing good. We thought it was the only way to do good. And that’s what I’ve always wanted.” [… ]

“I think I’ve known that for a long time, and I would talk to people about how I knew the message was hurtful,” Megan says. “But I believed it couldn’t matter what people felt. It mattered that this was what God wanted.” [Source]

What matters now to Phelps-Roper is figuring out a productive path that will allow her, finally, to truly meet her goal of “doing good.” She visits other churches, perhaps in an effort to see if one fits her newly aligned spiritual worldview. She thinks about redemption and resurrection and themes of second chances and righting wrongs. She says she no longer believes God “hates fags” or “almost all of mankind” (that isn’t in the WBC), but lacks confidence in what she does believe about God – not hard to understand, given the hate-filled deity of her childhood. But as she continues to explore what resonates in this new chapter of her life, she’s insistent upon one prevailing principle:

“I wanted to do good! I thought I was. And that wish hasn’t changed.” [Source]

Perhaps she should track down her cousin, Libby Phelps Alvarez, and together they could find a path that allows them both to achieve their goals to spread love and do good. Maybe the women of the Westboro Baptist Church, the church that believes women are not capable of leading, will ultimately lead the way for others to find honor and purpose and, perhaps, lead even more away from the hate and intolerance of their childhood church.



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