In those hurried hours as Megan Phelps-Roper prepared to leave Westboro Baptist Church, she had a final favor to ask of her father: Would he go into the church sanctuary and get a few things for her?
She wanted the simple, polka-dotted scarf that she had draped over her head each Sunday during worship. She also hoped to have her church Bible, its thin leaves dog-eared from years of use. She wanted a couple of the hymnals that held all the songs she’d grown up with—reassurances of God’s sovereignty and justice and love for His people.
Brent Roper went and did mostly as his daughter asked. He found the scarf. He picked up the Bible. But he left the hymnbooks.
Occasionally in the months since, Megan has pulled out that scarf and fingered the familiar fabric. More often, she has opened her Bible. But anything resembling certainty is so much harder to find than it used to be.
This week marks one year since Megan and her younger sister Grace announced their departures from Westboro, the Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas, best known for its “God Hates Fags” signs and campaigns. The two are still struggling to find answers to enormous, potentially unanswerable questions: What do you do with the shards of your faith? When you’ve said the things you’ve said and held the signs you’ve held—God hates fags! God hates your tears!—how, really, do you say sorry? What do you put in that cavern in your heart, your life, once filled by a family that isn’t allowed to want you anymore?
“I miss the certainty that I had before. A lot. It’s not just about God and religion. It’s every aspect of my life—not knowing where we’ll end up or what kind of work I should do or how to fix any of the things we did. I have to come to terms with not knowing,” Megan says. “But the uncertainty is preferable to absolute certainty that leads me to do things that hurt people.”
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, goodwill flooded Megan and Grace. Though some people tweeted that no apology would ever be enough, “the overwhelming majority of the response was so positive,” Megan says. “People were understanding and forgiving. There were a lot of things like, ‘I live in Boston, if you ever need a place to stay, let me know.’” They turned down almost all interview requests, declined offers to appear on NBC, CNN, and NPR, and spurned publishers who waved book deals at them. They feared even the slightest perception that they were trying to capitalize on their past.
But slowly, they did begin to talk. They opted mostly for settings that were off-limits to the general public and with a Jewish focus—in part because Jews are so frequently a target of the church’s protests. First, Megan and Grace spoke at a festival in Southern California called Jewlicious, which counts among its organizers the blogger David Abitbol, who played a key role in their departure from Westboro. They also went to Montreal, where they volunteered at a Jewish cultural festival called Le Mood. Telling their story was the price of admission.
There have been constant reminders of their Westboro lives. For instance, Canada has banned the church’s members from entering the country, and when they tried to cross the border to get to Montreal for Le Mood, they were turned away. Megan and Grace protested that they were no longer part of the church. “They wanted proof of permanent residency in the U.S., proof that we could support ourselves, proof of health insurance, proof that Grace was in school. We had to get letters saying we’d been invited to speak and that we’d left WBC,” Megan says. “A lot of people can get in just with a passport. We had to go back and get all our stuff together. ”
Eventually, they made it. They stayed in Montreal for a month, taking Yiddish classes, serving food at a soup kitchen, and attending community events. “We wanted to connect with people and talk and learn about other people’s views on God and life,” Megan says. One day, she went to a talk at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Montreal, where she met Sarah Englehard, a French-born Jew whose family was spirited to safety by a man who lied to border guards, telling them that he was delivering them to a concentration camp.
Megan talks about Sarah Englehard reverently. “She’s in her early 80s and she is still trying to encourage people to be understanding of each other and see the value of people who believe differently and help people and take care of people,” she says. “It was incredibly moving.” Englehard had a vague knowledge of Westboro, and kept asking questions, offering to connect Megan and Grace with a therapist who worked with former cult members. (When I ask Megan if she thinks of Westboro now as a cult, she doesn’t answer immediately. Then she says carefully, “I think there are cultish aspects to it, but ‘cult’ isn’t a helpful word in this discussion at all.”)
Englehard also surprised Megan and Grace by telling them that she was proud of them, even using the word “heroes.” “I said, ‘Ummm….’” Megan recalls. The idea that they did anything heroic by leaving is surprising, even appalling, to her. “Anybody who says something good about what we did—I don’t want to say I don’t take it to heart. But I don’t see it in those terms. It had to happen,” she says. “Anybody who got to the place we did would have done the same thing.”
Grace is now back at university in Kansas and working part-time as a barista. “An old family friend is letting me stay with them,” she says. “There’s another girl in an exchange program from Russia here, too. It’s so nice to have a close friend to do everything with.” This summer, she hopes to go to New York City—perhaps to work at Coney Island.
Megan is living in a small town in rural South Dakota—“Grace and I affectionately call it Tiny Town,” she says—and has a boyfriend, who is a lawyer. “He’s the most perceptive and considerate guy I’ve ever known, and I’m so, so lucky to have him,” she says. She is reveling in the stability of the relationship and the peace of the place: “The quiet here is incredibly nice after spending so long on the road and constantly going from place to place. It feels normal.”
But there is nothing normal about their lives. Westboro is never far from their thoughts, and it’s difficult to break completely from its orbit.
In August, Megan and Grace traveled to Connecticut to attend the wedding of Lauren Drain, a former Westboro member who wrote a memoir, Banished, about her life there and her subsequent departure. After Drain’s honeymoon, the three met up again in Topeka; Drain hadn’t been back in years, and felt like it was time for a visit. Megan confesses: “Sometimes I feel desperate to see my family.”
The three women parked down the street from the church on a Sunday morning. First, they saw one of Megan and Grace’s brothers, walking with his family to church. Then they saw their cousin Jael, who was pregnant, with her husband, Matt. “That was so hard—to be there, but to not be walking next to them,” Megan says. “Somebody looked over at the car, and we were all ducking down. It was ridiculous. There was no reason for that—except for fear.”
Even when they’re not revisiting Topeka, the past often pops up in unexpected ways. Recently, as part of Megan’s effort, with her boyfriend, to see all the Oscar nominees for best picture, they went to a screening of Philomena, which stars Judi Dench as an Irishwoman seeking the son she had been forced to give up for adoption. The movie is based on a true story. That son, Michael Hess, grew up to become a lawyer for the Republican National Committee during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies. He was gay, and died of complications from AIDS in 1995.
“I remember Gramps [Westboro founder Fred Phelps] preaching about Michael Hess,” Megan says. “The first few years after we started picketing, AIDS organizations and people who died of AIDS were big targets. We had lots of signs about them. I just remembered that when I heard his name.”
She thought about the issue some more when she saw Dallas Buyers’ Club, starring Matthew McConaughey as an HIV-positive man who smuggles AIDS drugs into the U.S. In her Westboro days, Megan says, “I think I would have seen the humanity in it— that they were real people and that what they went through was hard. But it would always be, ‘It’s really sad, but this is what happens when you disobey God by being gay.’”
Lately, Megan has been thinking about how to begin making amends to the gay community and to military families. “It’s really hard for me to think about sometimes,” she says. “There are the families whose funerals we protested—the parents, the sons and daughters, the siblings. I’ve been thinking about a girl in a class we attended at McGill University. It was a gender-and-women’s-studies course. She was really angry. One of her friends was gay and had committed suicide. You can say our intentions were good, but there were definitely people that we hurt, and that’s hard to face. But I feel a need to connect with people, to try to repair some of what I am afraid is irreparable. All I can do is try.”
There were costs to her activism, and there are costs to her apologies. There isn’t a day that goes by without her mind wandering back to her family. Megan was the one who got her whole family onto social media, and immediately after she and Grace left, they set up a phantom Twitter account where they could follow all their relatives’ tweets. At first, she checked it obsessively. Her heart would vacillate between fearful regret and bold self-assurance. “I still do go back and look now, and I think about their arguments and see how things are changing,” she says. “But it’s not constant anymore. I don’t need to constantly reaffirm to myself that I made the right decision by leaving.”
Not constantly but occasionally—and underneath her bolder exterior, Megan is still a daughter longing for her father’s affection and her mother’s approval. When I ask what she would tell her mother if she could, she says, “That I miss her every day. That I think of her when I make coffee every morning.” (Megan used to make Shirley coffee every morning.) “That I wonder how she is. That I wish I could see her. That I’ll never stop wanting that no matter what. That I love her.” (Shirley Phelps-Roper did not respond to requests for comment.)
As Megan meets and apologizes to people whom she believes she has hurt, she’ll still reflexively wonder, “What would our family think?” But these days, she self-corrects more quickly. She knows the answer to that question can’t change—won’t change—unless she were to return to the fold or unless they, too, were to leave. “I don’t get to be in their lives anymore, and they don’t want to be in mine,” she says. “What else is there to lose? There’s not much else.”
Grace, who tends to be the more taciturn of the two, opens up a bit when the subject of her family comes up. “If I could take back anything in my entire existence, it would be hurting my parents,” she says, her voice catching. She knows she can’t do that; in breaking with the church, she broke with them too. Instead, she finds herself defending her family when she hears them criticized, gingerly trying to navigate a thicket of emotions and contradictions. “I’ve argued with so many people at my school: Don’t write off my family. They’re not evil,” she says. “It may be wrong what they do, but I want to say, ‘Can’t you understand?’”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find.” He offers no timetable. Anyway, the Bible is nothing if not versatile. How else to explain how the same pages can inspire such radically different interpretations among those who call themselves followers of Christ?
As Megan wrestles with a faith that seems constantly to morph and never to settle, the book that was, at Westboro, publicly used as a bludgeon has become for her a security blanket. When she needs to look a verse up, she uses the iPhone app that lives on her home screen. When she craves reassurance, she returns to the red-covered Bible that her father retrieved from the church sanctuary. Sometimes she’ll flip to one page where, as a youngster reveling in her newfound ability to write her own name, penned “Megan Phelps-Roper” and the date over and over.
Things were simpler then. Clearer. Routine. Every Sunday, she’d be in that pew, with that Bible. Every night, there was Bible study at home with her mom, dad, and siblings—an hour, an hour-and-a-half together each evening, poring over Scripture. Megan would often wrestle with passages on her own, dropping by her grandfather’s house when she had particular questions about the interpretation of a verse. In turn, Fred Phelps would ask her for help typing up his sermons, especially if there was a long passage of Scripture to transcribe and he was tired.
Post-Westboro, the Bible has provided conversational fodder, especially when Megan speaks with people from different faith traditions. It’s something relatively easy to discuss once they’ve exhausted their questions about life in Topeka. “When I talk to people who believe differently than I did, I want to know how they interpret things,” Megan says. “I know it’s way more open to interpretation than I once believed. It’s been incredibly fascinating. And it’s honestly a comfort just to talk about it sometimes.
“I’m still pretty much at a loss for what to believe. The more people I talk to, their thinking, their logic, their understanding of different verses, their explanation for why they believe what they believe—it makes sense. It follows. But so many of them are at odds! There are so many ways of looking at things,” Megan says. “Right now, my fundamental belief in treating people right—empathy and kindness and generosity—those are… What’s the word? Primary? Paramount. I’d say paramount. And I guess, at this point, I accept not knowing. Because, practically, I know what I need to do: to show kindness and love and compassion to the people I come in contact with.”
Comfort, comfort: “Mostly, I read the Bible in the context of comfort,” she says. When I ask what part she typically turns to, she says it’s the Book of Ecclesiastes. Often ascribed to King Solomon, Ecclesiastes is the most doubt-ridden book of the Bible. “It’s comforting, the familiarity of it,” she says, pausing before she adds, “even if I’m not sure it’s of divine origin.”
Divine or not, you have to wonder whether there’s something a little mystical about the Bible that Megan took with her from Westboro. It, too, has a backstory. Before it was Megan’s, it belonged to one of her aunts. She too had sat in that pew, head demurely covered. She too had held that red-covered volume, paging through it and nurturing doubts.
She too left.
In her first fully public interview since leaving Westboro, Megan Phelps-Roper will be in conversation with Jeff Chu at the Level Ground Film Festival in Pasadena, California, on Sunday, February 23. For tickets, click here.
Read Damsel, Arise, Jeff’s story from February 2013 about Megan’s departure from Westboro.
This story was presented paywall free. To support Jeff’s work, you can subscribe to him on Beacon. Your subscription fund goes toward telling more stories like this.