Sometimes I hate telling people I live in Kansas, a state that’s gained infamy as the home of Topeka’s cultlike and homophobic Westboro Baptist Church.
The group (it pains me to call it a church) picketed graduation ceremonies at my daughter’s high school for years, all because the school had presented “The Laramie Project,” a play about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard a decade ago.
Westboro’s back in the news this week, but not for its usual hate-filled protests at the funerals of soldiers or victims of mass shootings. No, the organization, which has fewer than 100 members, is down two more now that Megan Phelps-Roper and her sister Grace, granddaughters of Westboro founder Fred Phelps, have publicly announced their departure. Megan was well-known as the “face” of the organization, using social media to spread the group’s message.
But Megan’s Twitter feed, which once sent as many as 150 tweets a day, had been silent since Oct. 30 until this week when she posted a link to an online statement titled “Head Full of Doubt/ Road Full of Promise,” revealing that the two young women had left Westboro and their family.
“There’s no fresh start in today’s world,” she wrote, quoting from “Batman.” “Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what you did.” But she concluded her statement with: “The changes we make in our lives will speak for themselves.”
Megan confessed that the two sisters knew they’d “done and said things that hurt people” and said they “regret that hurt.”
The 27-year-old admits they aren’t sure what they’ll do next. “We’re trying to figure it out together,” she wrote. She also emphasized their love for their family. “They now consider us betrayers, and we are cut off from their lives…. We will never not love them.”
Just a little more than a year ago in an interview with the Kansas City Star, Megan said, “I don’t want to be led astray.” That article ended with her saying she was there, with the group, because she wanted to be there. She believed, she said. “I’m all in.”
But something happened. Megan explained it to online journalist Jeff Chu: Her doubts started when David Abitbol, an Israeli Web developer and founder of the blog Jewlicious.com, responded to a comment of hers about homosexuals with, “But Jesus said, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ ” She found it “funny” that a Jew would quote Jesus, but then Abitbol pointed out something besides homosexuality that was punishable by death, according to the Old Testament.
“I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent,” Megan told Chu. “And that’s what Jesus was talking about.”
She continued to question Westboro’s doctrine until realizing, “The idea that only WBC had the right answer was crazy.”
As expected, Westboro has basically denounced the Phelps-Roper sisters, posting a video on its Twitter feed that explains its official position “on all members who fall away.”
The sisters are hardly alone in their decision to abandon Westboro. At least 20 members, with three-fourths of them in their teens or 20s, have left the organization since 2004, according to the Kansas City Star.
Fred Phelps’s son, Nate, left the family at midnight on his 18th birthday in 1976; he’s working on a book about his experience and travels around the country speaking out against Westboro.
A cousin, Libby Phelps-Alvarez, who ran away from her family while her parents were at a demonstration four years ago, said on the “Today” show that she had not seen her family since: “My aunt e-mailed me and said that nobody wants to talk to me anymore.”
Phelps-Alvarez said that the protest at the funeral of a soldier married to a friend of hers led to her departure from the group. She says she believed she was “brainwashed” into accepting the group’s extreme beliefs.
Lauren Drain’s memoir, “Banished,” to be released March 5, tells about her seven years at Westboro Baptist Church. Her father was working on a documentary about the group but became so fascinated that he moved his family from Florida to the Phelps compound when Drain was 15 years old.
The U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t able to stop Westboro’s demonstrations at the funerals of America’s soldiers slain in war; instead, Westboro’s right to free speech was upheld in a March 2011 decision.
What precipitates the end of Westboro’s reign of hate may come from within, as the newest generation chooses to escape from the family business.
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.