Thursday, March 24, 2016

Breaking pieces off Westboro Baptist Church

I admit to a certain fascination with the Westboro Baptist Church and their antics. If you need a refresher course as to who they are, they are the ones who routinely picket gay funerals, funerals of celebrities and servicemen with their obscene signs and horrific messages such as God Hates Fags, and So-and-So (whoever the funeral happens to be for) is rotting in hell as we speak.

As granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the church’s founder, Megan Phelps-Roper believed this message with all her heart. 

Until she didn't.

This week I am recommending Unfollow, a long form article which offers a compelling look inside the Westboro Baptist Church through the eyes of the granddaughter who left it. New Yorker staff writer, Adrian Chen has done an admirable job of explaining how the life and beliefs of Megan Phelps-Roper were changed by Twitter. Yes, Twitter.

Click here for the link. It's worth the read
. I’ll wait. 

It's worth a read for a number of reasons. It’s important to realize that no matter how heinous the crime (Megan yelled “Awesome” in the halls of her high school when the news of 9/11 broke.), people can change. Minds can be changed. Beliefs can take a 180 degree turn. This is good to know in a society where hate crimes, misogyny and abuse seem to prevail at every turn—and even by high ranking politicians and would-be presidents of major countries.

This article also demonstrates the power of story. While on a recent all-day car drive, I had the fortunate experience of listening to a podcast interview with Quaker elder and peace activist Parker Palmer on CBC’s Tapestry. I was mulling over how to approach this blog post while I listened, and Palmer gave me the ideas and structure I needed. 

Story. It's all about story.

Debate and argument do little to change people’s ideology, he said. What changes people plain and simple, is listening to their stories.

This has been true for me. Before I met my gay friend, I thought differently about gays. The Bible speaks against them, doesn’t it? It’s a choice, of course, isn’t it? Gays can change if they want to, right? And in that way, and for a long time I'm ashamed to say I believed an ideology not much different than that held by the Westboro people.

But when I actually got to know a gay person—when I listened to her own story in her own words—there was this deep and profound shift inside of me. I realized that the proof-text Bible verses that I had heard all my life did not say what I was trying to get them to say. It is a shift that is still going on.

My gay friend was the “other.” And in allowing someone "not like me" into my life, in sharing our two stories, I grew. I hope she did, too. (She admitted that prior to meeting me she was “afraid” of Christians, confused about their “agenda.” Sound familiar?)

Here’s the podcast in its entirety, and I urge you to take the time to listen to it.

Phelps-Roper was changed by interacting with several Jewish scholars on Twitter. She was changed when she heard their stories. They became real people to her, and she couldn’t hold the obscene signs so high in the air anymore. Suddenly she found herself embarrassed by what her family was proclaiming.

More importantly, these Twitter followers listened to her story. They didn’t treat her the way she’d always been treated—with hatred and disdain and inordinate amounts of disgust. They interacted as people.

Stories also came to her in the form of photo essays. 

Chen writes,

One day in July, 2011, Phelps-Roper was on Twitter when she came across a link to a series of photographs about a famine in Somalia. The first image was of a tiny malnourished child. She burst into tears at her desk.

Photos. Megan was crying over pictures, but pictures that were a part of a greater story, a story she had never noticed before.

The article also includes a very interesting short video interview with Megan Phelps-Roper.

I told you I have been fascinated by Westboro, and I have watched with interest several BBC documentaries about the family hosted by Louis Theroux. In this documentary you can see a much younger Megan before she left the family church

My fascination with this family might stem from my own childhood. I, too, grew up with the prospect of Hell looming over me at every turn. When I was little I remember being obsessed with dead people and wondering where they were. Were they in heaven right now? Were they in hell right now? And of course hell was this place of never ending, constant and unending torture which involved a lot of flames and fire. I’ve since learned that most of this view of hell comes more from Dante’s Inferno than from any verse in the Bible. Because my father was a minister, we always knew when people died and he preached at their funerals.

Scroll back a few blogs to my endorsement of Faith Shift to see how much my own beliefs have shifted and changed. I am quite convinced that God's love and grace is far broader than I had ever imagined.

Maybe Megan knows that now, too. What I wish for this beautiful young woman as she continues on her journey is peace and community and many kind friendships. 

NEXT TIME: Wet Thaw, a small collection of short stories by my friend and literary writer Deb Elkink.


  1. What you say is true. My husband and I convinced a family member that accepting refugees wasn't an awful, foolish thing. That there isn't 'our own kind' to look after. We related stories of real people and my own experience of coming to Canada as an immigrant in a family looking for a better life.

    1. I so agree, Barb. And taking in refugees is one way of learning about another culture - or listening to their stories. Thanks for sharing.

    2. A Haitian proverb says, "The affairs of a household are a mystery." This is true when it comes to family dynamics, but the real message is that one really doesn't know what goes on behind the scenes or curtains in a family. As is so true in this situation is that we never know what terrible things go on behind closed doors. In the case of the Westboro "church" family, is almost the reverse. They claimed to be a church family yet everything that was out in the open was so contrary to what a church--especially a Baptist church--should stand for. As in the case of refugees, what we don't know scares us until we pull back the curtain, open the door and let these visitors in. I so wish that my fellow Americans (and Canadians) would not be so afraid of immigrants (refugees, illegals, or otherwise). They are only coming to our shores the way they do because that's the only way they can get in. Our immigration system is broken and so unjust and needs to be fixed so people can be healed.

    3. That is true, Jim. And if we would only see beyond the crazy, weird and self-serving news headlines, maybe we could get somewhere. I have friends in my country of Canada who are 'afraid' to go to the US (even though we are such close neighbors), because they watch the news. All they see of America is guns and violence and shootings. There are so many good people in America - people who love peace and are raising families, and love their families and go to work every day and read and bake food and live in community. Also, we get the same biased news about the middle east. The news would have you believe that the entire place is war torn and bleak, when in reality, there are good people there who live in community and are raising their children with love and guidance, and all they want is a better place for families. It is true that we need to see beyond the stereotypes.