Raised in America’s most notorious and despised religious group, Megan Phelps-Roper celebrated tragedies as God’s punishment… until the kindness of a stranger made her question everything she knew.
For the first 26 years of her life, Megan Phelps-Roper belonged to America’s most notorious hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church, a community of religious zealots founded in the 1950s by her grandfather Fred Phelps. Westboro celebrates terrorist attacks and gatecrashes military funerals with signs that read, ‘Pray For More Dead Soldiers’. They picket the funerals of Aids victims holding placards emblazoned with ‘Fags Go To Hell’. Their abhorrent behaviour is fuelled by the belief that these tragedies are God’s will – his punishment for humanity’s sins. On the outside of their church in a suburban street in Topeka, Kansas, hangs a banner: GodHatesFags.com.
For Megan, the Westboro Baptist Church was her family: a close-knit group largely made up of relatives. It’s a family she still loves, even though seven years ago she told them she could no longer subscribe to their hate-filled doctrines.
Softly spoken and often trailing off because she’s overcome with emotion, Megan, now 33, tells me about that anguished, terrifying November day in 2012 when she and younger sister Grace left the leafy block that had always been their home. Sobbing, they loaded their possessions into a minivan, knowing they would be ostracised by the people most dear to them.
For Megan, most painful of all was saying goodbye to her indomitable, fiercely religious yet always loving mother Shirley, who had been her mentor, teacher and best friend. ‘I saw her mouth drop open in a look of shocked horror that will haunt me until I die.’ Even now, Megan is stricken by the grief she caused her mother by leaving. ‘We were very close. We spent most days together. She called me her right hand. I don’t think she ever thought I would leave, and for most of my life I had never wanted to.’ Megan still sends her mother birthday cards and letters – each is met with pointed silence.
Shirley remains one of Westboro’s staunchest supporters. Megan is now an outcast. Over the past decade, some 20 members, including her two elder brothers Joshua and Zach have left. Each one has been cut off. ‘[Remaining members] see me as corrupt.’ Her voice trails off. ‘I try not to think about what they call me.’ Instead, she prefers to focus on her new mission: to fight the kind of hatred and bigotry she lived first-hand and that she recognises in modern life. Her message stresses the importance of dialogue and empathy between people across ideological lines. She lectures in schools and universities and works with law enforcement agencies.
And she’s making waves. Her Ted talk I Grew Up in the Westboro Church – Here’s Why I Left has been viewed almost 8.5 million times online. Next week her hotly anticipated autobiography, Unfollow, will be published. It gives a moving account of her life growing up and the events that transformed her from one of the church’s most outspoken advocates to the peacemaker she is today. It’s already been optioned by Oscar-winning actress and producer Reese Witherspoon for a potential film adaptation.
Megan was just five when she joined her family in daily pickets against businesses and churches they considered to be sympathetic to gay and Jewish people – two communities Westboro has continually targeted. With her siblings she would hold up signs: ‘Gays Spread Aids’ and ‘Your Pastor Is A Whore’. Outraged passers-by would scream at them, sometimes pelting them with rocks, eggs – even bottles of urine. For the family it was proof God was with them. Megan learned ‘them and us’ early on.
The family were led by cantankerous founder Fred, a lawyer and radical Baptist preacher who believed the Bible to be factually true – and that only a predetermined number of people were selected for redemption. He beat, sometimes literally, his religious fervour into his wife Margie and their 13 children, including Shirley, who had 11 children of her own with husband and fellow Westboro acolyte Brent Roper. Thus he created an extended family of staunch believers in his extreme views: that sins – especially fornication and homosexuality – were to be punished by God. ‘We were raised to believe that our way of seeing the world was the only way,’ says Megan. ‘And that if you weren’t out there holding a sign, you weren’t doing the right thing.’
Yet Megan’s home life was paradoxically wholesome. The families lived in a group of ranch-style houses with a shared garden. Her parents were strict, but present and interested. She and her siblings attended regular schools where they were polite and dedicated students. Many of them, including Megan, went on to study law, like her mother and grandfather. Megan and her siblings shared community chores, played Nintendo, watched Star Wars, read Stephen King. ‘All the normal stuff… it just sat directly alongside our religious beliefs. And there was no doubt what was most important.’ The Phelps family were also fiercely intelligent, which Megan believes was integral to their myopic views. Armed with their law degrees and knowledge of the scriptures, they could argue any Biblical point that reinforced their beliefs. ‘We had so much confidence in our own way of seeing things that we couldn’t listen to anybody else.’ Megan says that even on 9/11 her response was immediate and instinctive: ‘I celebrated.’ Westboro believed it was God punishing America for embracing homosexuality.
In addition to picketing and running their website, Godhatesfags.com, Westboro churned out hate-filled press releases in celebration of Aids, school shootings, famines and plane crashes, using scripture to justify their twisted logic. By 2005 they had also begun picketing the funerals of US marines killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of God’s punishment of the sins of all Americans. They’d chant songs in celebration of the explosives that had killed the soldiers, as their grieving families passed by. They waved signs saying ‘Soldiers Die, God Laughs’. Anti-hate groups would descend on Westboro’s picket lines, trying to block them with American flags. Eventually lawsuits for intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy were filed against Westboro. The public outrage they inspired only served to ‘energise’ them, says Megan. ‘For us it was: these people are evil; we have to get out there and stand against them.’
Today Megan burns with shame at the suffering she caused. ‘I try to focus on using my energy to change things, but there are times when I feel so bad. To think what we took from those people. We acted as though it was no big deal. It was, and that is awful.’
Shirley was the family’s spokesperson, with Megan her sidekick. Armed with one-liners and Biblical verses, they did chat shows and radio phone-ins. They welcomed journalists into their home, including Louis Theroux, who has made three BBC documentaries about the Westboro Baptist Church, branding them ‘America’s most hated family’. Megan found Theroux ‘wily and affable’; they are now good friends.
It was when Megan joined Twitter in 2008 to broadcast the church’s messages that her life changed irrevocably. Initially the people she encountered on social media were hostile and she relished the fight. But, helped by the distance the internet provides, some conversations would provoke genuine curiosity in Megan. How had her family come to such outrageous conclusions about the world? Soon, there was hardly a moment in the day when Megan wasn’t debating some theological point on Twitter. Without realising it, she was forging friendships. Gradually the seeds of doubt about Westboro’s doom-filled interpretation of the scriptures were being planted. Contradictions were becoming apparent. Through contact with other people online she was beginning to discover empathy.
Megan was also falling in love. She had begun corresponding with a stranger whom she only knew by his initials CG. He popped up from time to time, asking her such detailed questions that he clearly read all her tweets. ‘He was never angry, just curious and respectful,’ she says. Soon her heart was flipping every time she spotted his Twitter handle.
One day he mentioned he enjoyed the online game Words With Friends. She let slip her username. For the next seven months they privately corresponded while playing the game. ‘It was intoxicating,’ she recalls. As their banter grew, his questions about Westboro became bolder. ‘Here was this person who was saying things that were reasonable. And I was thinking, “He is not one of us, but he doesn’t seem evil.”
Then one night in September 2011, Megan dreamt a tall stranger turned up at the church in Topeka and she ran to embrace him, not caring who saw. Megan woke, shaking. Her secret friendship had to end. ‘The dream left me with such a sense of yearning, I knew I had to stop talking to CG or it would be the end of me.’
Just before Megan cut ties, CG left enough clues for her to work out his true identity: he was a 39-year-old Norwegian lawyer called Chad Garrett Fjelland, who lived in South Dakota. In one of his last messages to her, Chad told her he loved her but could never join her church. On more than one night, she cried herself to sleep.
While Megan’s world had been shifting, the Westboro Baptist Church community had been changing, too. New converts had joined who began to criticise and sideline Megan’s mother and her now ailing grandfather. Her sister Grace had been accused of impropriety for being friends with a married man. The new guard began disseminating fake news to exaggerate the church’s reach – Photoshopping images so it looked like Westboro were picketing at the Royal Wedding and Whitney Houston’s funeral. ‘In the past, there was always an explanation from the Bible to justify the church’s actions. And I could go along with that. Now it all felt wrong.’
Then on 4 July 2012, while helping paint a new church member’s basement and distraught by the treatment of her family, Megan had an epiphany: ‘What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself?’ Guilt and confusion swept through her, along with one overwhelming thought: she no longer belonged there. It took another four months for Megan and Grace to find the courage to leave. The transition wasn’t easy. ‘Just after I left, the instinct to hide was paralysing,’ says Megan. ‘I wanted to hide from the judgment of my family and from a world that I had rejected for so long, a world that had no reason to give me another chance after a lifetime of antagonism.’ The sisters posted an apology for their past on Twitter, knowing this couldn’t undo it. Nevertheless the people Megan had met online – many of them Jewish or gay – forgave her and welcomed the apology.
Then there was Chad. The pair finally met in person four months after Megan left Westboro. ‘It was magical. I knew immediately that I could marry him.’ Their wedding took place in Norway in August 2016. Megan made a wedding album and sent it to her parents, though she doesn’t know if they opened it. Her voice heaves with emotion again. ‘I was sure that if my parents knew how happy I was, some part of them would be happy for me – even in spite of their disappointment.’
Today Megan lives in South Dakota with Chad and their daughter Solvi, one. It pains Megan that Shirley has never met her child. She sends photos, which are never acknowledged. In the meantime, she finds inspiration in her mother’s example of hard work and maternal devotion – even if her own message to the world is different. Sometimes she returns to Topeka, hoping to see her parents, even though she knows she will be shunned.
Ironically, Fred Phelps himself was shunned near the end of his life. Suffering dementia, he one day stepped out of the church to address some people who had set up an LGBT charity opposite. ‘You’re good people,’ he cried out before being hustled back inside. Shortly afterwards he was taken to a hospice to die.
Megan and Grace went to visit him there. He told them he loved them. The encounter gave Megan a huge optimism. She doesn’t believe in God any more. ‘But that’s not to say I’m not a believer now. I believe in so much – I believe in people. I believe in hope.’
Megan’s book Unfollow will be published by Riverrun on 8 October, price £14.99
Interview by Bridget Harrison