Granddaughters of Westboro Baptist's founder recall fleeing the church

The Philadelphia Inquirer/October 20, 2015

By Dani Blum

The night before Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper left the church that had meant everything to them, relative after relative streamed into their rooms, crying.

Megan was trying to pack when a beloved cousin walked in, stone-faced, and told her she was going to Hell.

The Kansas sisters, in their early 20s, wondered if they had made the right decision, if they were even sane. But after four months of questioning the Westboro Baptist Church – the provocative religious community known for staging anti-gay protests at military funerals - they knew the only way to go was out.

The sisters, granddaughters of the church's founder, spoke Tuesday morning at the Anti-Defamation League's Ninth Annual Youth Leadership Conference held at the University of Pennsylvania.

They told 450 high schools students and educators from around the region about the decision they made three years ago to leave behind a community famous for its extremism.

Megan, now twenty-nine, said she had vivid memories of participating in Westboro Baptist Church pickets at age five. She, along with the other members of her family and the Westboro church community, would clutch signs denouncing homosexuals and Jews across the country. During high school, she and her sister would wave placards at lunchtime.

"It was my whole life," Megan said.

In 2009, Megan began to use Twitter to spread Westboro's message. She struck up a conversation with a Jewish blogger named David Abitbol - originally by Tweeting at him that "God hates Jews."

Their conversation moved from anger to intellectual discourse. David asked her about a picket sign that read "Death Penalty for Fags." Wasn't that hypocritical, he asked, since the church wouldn't condemn a congregant who'd given birth out of wedlock?

For the first time in her life, Megan felt that that the church was fallible.

"Imagine everything you believe about the world is wrong, and suddenly you realize that," she told the audience. "When you think that your beliefs come directly from God, and now you have to figure out for yourself what is right and what is wrong and what you believe. The whole world was unstable. It was like a constant earthquake."

Megan shared her doubts with her younger sister, Grace. On a freezing November night in 2012, they finally left the church and their home.

Since then, the women said, they have tried reaching out to their family, both in person and online. A few years ago, Grace tried to drop off a birthday cake they had made for their younger sister. Their mother locked the door and refused to let them in.

"They don't want to think about us," Megan said.

The women said they hope to undo the damage they caused when they were younger by speaking about their experiences.

"We've been searching for a way forward, a way to help the people we spent so many years hurting, a way to fight prejudices we helped foment," Megan said.

Nancy Baron-Baer, Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League, said she believes Megan and Grace's story has the power to inspire young people.

"They show there's hope for all of us," she said. "There's hope for humankind."

After listening to the Phelps-Ropers, the high school students broke into groups to discuss diversity and their own backgrounds.

"Being here was an eye-opening experience. . .," said Yamaira Crissey-Cartagena, a student at Esperanza Academy Charter School. "It was amazing." Read more

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