101 Megan Phelps-Roper
Former Member of Westboro Baptist Church
“We would see something terrible that happened, like if there was an earthquake or a fire or floods or hurricanes, or a celebrity died. Everybody around me, my family, the church members, we’d be celebrating and making plans to go and protest the funerals. And, you know, at the same time on Twitter, I’m seeing people mournful and grieving.”
Megan’s memoir of growing up in, and eventually leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, is beautifully written and absolutely captivating. She lives in South Dakota with her husband, Chad (who she met on Twitter) and her magical baby girl, Solvieg.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): In 1992 when I was newly sober, I sat in the tiny New York apartment of a woman with advanced AIDS, while I fidgeted with the papers on which I’d handwritten all my sins. It was the fifth of twelve steps required of me to try and stop being such a drunk mess, and I was so filled with shame about my past that the only reason I trusted her to hear my moral inventory, was that I was certain she’d not be alive eight or nine weeks later.
She offered me some tea and after placing a red cup and saucer next to me, she took her seat on a worn easy chair from which she listened to me tell her about all the shit I’d done. Anna sat there, kind-faced and patient. Her breath rattled in and out of her lungs as my list of affairs, crimes, and betrayals rattled out of mine. I’d been terrified of her judgement, but she held my confession with nothing but an easy compassion, and that compassion softened everything in me enough that I could see the truth of my wrong-doing with even more clarity. I actually added some things in the moment I’d been too afraid to write down beforehand. When I finished, she adjusted her oxygen tube and just said: “Let it go, girl. That shit is in the past now, so you can stop bringing it with you into the present.” Her compassion moved the needle for me in a way that her disgust never could have—and for that I will always be grateful.
So I’ve found that I am not so interested in compassion as a virtue you can adopt to try and make yourself a better person. I’m actually pretty suspicious of virtue peddling in general.
No, what I find interesting is the effect of compassion. How does it feel in my body and in my spirit when I have compassion toward someone as opposed to judgement? How does it feel when someone is in a place of compassion toward me?
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber, and you’ve stepped into The Confessional, it’s like a carwash for our shame and secrets.
Today I’m speaking with someone who had a “God hates fags” sign put in her hand when she was just 5 years old. Her family is known internationally for saying hateful things to people who are in pain.
Stay with us.
NBW: Joining me in The Confessional today is my friend Megan Phelps-Roper. Thank you, Megan, for coming on the show today.
Megan Phelps-Roper (MPR): Thanks for having me, Nadia.
NBW: So give me a little background about the story that you had in mind or the sort of thing in your life that you had in mind that you wanted to get off your chest, especially for people who might not know your story.
MPR: I grew up at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. The church was started by my grandfather, and it’s almost entirely populated by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
And they are well known internationally for staging public protests against the LGBTQ community, particularly, but also at places like soldiers funerals and funerals of people who have died, you know, victims of tragedies.
NBW: Megan, why was your family protesting a funeral? Like you think of a protest as like we are against what is happening and we want our voices to be heard. So what were they sort of against, at, let’s say, soldiers’ funerals?
MPR: We were protesting the sinfulness of the nation and saying that this tragedy has befallen you because you were sinning against God and this is his recompense, and if you want this to stop, if you want this to change then you need to repent and change your ways. And, that’s how you avoid curses from God.
NBW: And it was your sort of duty to let people know this. Is that right?
MPR: It was not, it was not optional. And and so we started carrying signs that said, “pray for more dead soldiers and pray for more dead kids.” Which seems insane to say, but when you are surrounded by this group of people and again, they’re people that you love and respect and care deeply about, and you’re standing shoulder to shoulder against this world of sin—and it allows you to say and do things that you never would in any other context.
NBW: So tell me about the moment or the action that kind of weighs on you the most on having more of an understanding of how it might have felt to the other people.
MPR: There are a lot of those. You know, mostly the things I think about are the funerals. From my view now, we were especially cruel standing outside of those funerals. You know, sometimes there would be people out there counter-protesting, holding American flags or signs or parking their cars, doing anything they could to put a barrier between us and the families. And we would literally be dancing around them, you know, doing whatever we could to make sure the signs were visible. But we were laughing and chanting. Sometimes we were right outside the churches and the families were walking by. You know, those are the moments that I thought about a lot. And, you know, it’s incredibly painful because, again, there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing I can do to undo what we did.
NBW: When did you start to feel unnerved by what you and your family were doing at these protests?
MPR: I mean, it started for me with these conversations on Twitter. I was there to spread Westboro’s message. And, you know, I was convinced that was the best thing for me to do with my time and energy, and with this new tool that God had created for us to spread his message.
NBW: And so you start tweeting “God hates fags,” you know, “we should pray for more dead soldiers.” All of the Westboro stuff.
MPR: Yes. we had to show that even in the face of so much hatred, and even when it’s things like death threats and rape threats, we had to show that we were unmoved by it. And the way we did that was by laughing. And so, my tweeting took on that kind of jocular tone, too. And I think that’s part of what helped outsiders like recognize like, oh, she’s just um… yeah it allowed other people to see me as a human. And so that enabled this conversation, we were curious. I was curious about them and they were curious about me.
NBW: Like as a person. Is that right?
MPR: Yeah, as a person.
NBW: How did that show up?
MPR: So for instance, most people weren’t interested in my experience as a member of Westboro, I mean, as a protester. They wanted to talk about the things that I believed that showed that I was a terrible person, but, you know, sometimes they would ask me, like, you know, “everybody hates you, that must be so hard,” you know, things like that. I mean, they’re clearly showing interest in my experience as a human being. And not just what Westboro believes.
NBW: The thing I just find really amazing is that it seems like if somebody has ideas that we think are really harmful or dangerous, or they have actions that hurt other people, it feels like it is our responsibility to fight back and to call them out and to have this very accusational tone.
MPR: And to only see them as those horrible things.
NBW: And so the thing I think is so interesting to me about your story of you changing and your thinking changing is that it didn’t happen as a result of people yelling at you on Twitter, it happened as a result of people having compassion for you and curiosity about you.
MPR: Yeah, so when people were treating me this way, I started to reflect that back at them, too. And so, you know, there would be moments when, normally we would see something terrible that happened, like if there was an earthquake or a fire or floods or hurricanes, anything bad that happened, celebrity died, everybody around me, physically, my family, the church members, we’d be celebrating and making plans to go and protest the funerals. And at the same time on Twitter, you know, I’m seeing people mournful and grieving when these terrible things were happening.
That was kind of the very beginning of this little bit of disconnect between how I was feeling and how everybody around me was thinking and feeling. And that disconnect just grew over time so that by the time I saw one of the guys that had become this friendly voice on Twitter, this Australian kid, and so he tweeted a photo essay from the Atlantic of this famine in Somalia. And the first image is this little, you know, very small, emaciated baby and I immediately started crying and my mom sees me crying from across the room. And she comes over and asked me, what’s wrong? And I just pointed to the screen. I couldn’t talk I was crying so hard. And she asked me to send it to her, the link to that article, so that she could write it Godsmack about it to say that this is a punishment from God because you all are so evil.
And, you know, I was at this point, though, I was kind of actively looking for an explanation, like why do I feel this way? And so I’m looking for compassion in the Bible. I’m actively looking for mercy in the Bible. And I did find it. I felt like it was missing in Westboro’s message. And I was seeing it in places like Twitter where I should not, by Westboro’s account, I should have been finding those things there.
NBW: It sounds like a really um lonely place to be. But also terrifying since leaving the church meant a total estrangement from your family and everyone you knew and loved.
MPR: Yeah, it was. I mean, to feel like I was betraying my family even to think differently on any of those questions, it makes you terrified to even go there in your mind.
NBW: I’m sure. And yet there was a period of overlap there, when you started to question your family, but you were still at the same time, writing hateful song parodies, right?
MPR: So there is this one that I wrote in the middle of this period where I was on Twitter and, you know, kind of trying to prove to myself, I think, even more than anybody else in the church that I was still on board. So this was a parody of Check It Out, Nicki Minaj and will.i.am, and she has a line that said that says something like, “haters, you can kill yourself,” and so I said, “better off to kill yourself than to try to oppose Westboro’s message,” basically. And I had at that point, you know, obviously growing up in this culture of celebrating death and tragedy and never having experienced death myself— nobody close to me had ever died. I had never been to a funeral of someone I cared about. I had no experience with somebody who was, you know, suicidal or had thoughts of self-harm or anything. And I think part of the reason this still is painful to me is that after I left Westboro I had a brother leave and we found out after he left that he suffers from bipolar disorder, and he tried to kill himself three times. And it’s a miracle that he survived. It’s hard for me to think back and remember the things that I said and did when I was there. I think just because it symbolizes the mindset that I was coming from this utter disdain for the real experiences of other people.
NBW: One thing I wonder about is, because you were transformed by compassion and curiosity of others, I just I guess I wonder, our country is so just fucked right now, [laughs] everybody just hates each other’s guts and people hate each other who are just different versions of liberals and I don’t know enough about conservatives to know if if different versions of conservatives hate each other as much as different versions of liberals do. [laughs] But I don’t see much grace for people or compassion, or even curiosity in our public life, and especially online right now, and I just I wonder what do you think about that?
MPR: It feels so much like Westboro to me. And not in the sense of, you know, nobody’s out, that I know of, protesting the funerals of people who voted differently from them. But that sense of antipathy, the sense that we have nothing to learn from these people, there is nothing valid or valuable in their perspective. I can just say, my mind was not changed by people who tried to shame me. In fact, when people tried to shame me, it made me even more certain that I was doing the right thing. Because, if those people think that I’m doing wrong, well, I think those people are wrong, so of course, I’m happy. I’m happy when they say terrible things about me because they’re not my team.
NBW: I just think, we as humans do so much more harm to each other when we’re convinced we’re acting out of our virtue than we ever do when we are definitely acting out of our vices. And it feels like, you know, we focus on vice when we think of, well, what it means to be good as you avoid vice, even in police stations, there’s a vice squad. Right? I’m like, where’s the virtue squad? [laughs] That feels like so much more dangerous to everybody. We’re convinced we’re in the right.
NBW: Also, how powerful the drive is within us to be good and feel like we’re right. Because, when being good is characterized by shaming people who you think are wrong, then you can’t afford to have any generosity towards people who you’re opposed to. It’s like if you speak well of the other side, it’s considered treason.
MPR: Yeah, it’s a betrayal of your own side to see nuance in an argument or to see nuance in a person—even if you completely reject the argument, if you’re willing to say well, yeah.
NBW: Even Ellen Degeneres, I feel like that’s a perfect example.
NBW: She has a friendly interaction with George W. Bush, and people lost their fucking minds. Like, they really acted as if Ellen is the problem. There are so many problems, I don’t think Ellen’s one of them!
MPR: She was the cause of the entire Iraq war and is responsible now for all of the deaths that have resulted from that.
NBW: I mean it was it’s just…
NBW: The lack of nuance, the fact that… look and, okay, I’m sorry. True confession from the woman who has the confessional podcast. Back in 2018, I was speaking at the same event as George W. Bush, and I did not go to his talk because I was like, fuck that guy, he’s a war criminal. So I wouldn’t even go to his talk. [laughs] So, I’m just saying I can have these thoughts about generosity, but I struggle with living it out, you know, like I did not want to be charmed by somebody who I see as a war criminal. And I did not go.
MPR: I mean, it’s not incumbent upon you in every moment, every time it happens, you know, to reach out, sometimes we just don’t have it in us. We don’t have the time or the energy, or the life, you know, to do it in any given moment. But the idea is that we should try. Empathy is not agreeing and listening is not a betrayal of your cause. You’re not endorsing the idea just because you’re hearing it. And in fact, if the other person understands that they’re being heard, they’re gonna be more willing to listen to your perspective and to hear and to be curious about what you have to say. So from a very practical perspective, engagement is valuable.
NBW: If those people early on in Twitter whose friendship changed your life, imagine if they were so concerned with maintaining their own ideological purity on Twitter so much that they’re like, oh, am I going to be seen as endorsing the ideas of Westboro Baptist if I showed this person compassion? If they had done that, your life story might be very different.
MPR: Yeah, I have every reason to believe that I would still be at Westboro in the absence of Twitter and those conversations. I absolutely believe I would still be there if those people hadn’t reached out.
NBW: Look at that. Look at the power of that. That’s incredible and it’s like our last go to move.
NBW: You know, we were at this event together and we kind of hung out with each other the whole weekend. And then, you know, on that last day, there was a woman who was speaking who had a child who was killed in Newtown. And she was on stage and I think I was talking to someone else and I feel this hand on my shoulder and you were like teary and just said, “look, people ask me if I’m going to try to make amends to the people who were hurt by my family’s actions.” And, you were so teary and you said, you know, that your family had caused pain by threatening to protest the funerals from those babies who were killed in Newtown. And you asked me if you thought if I thought maybe this woman would be willing to talk to you, and would it be ok?
MPR: Yeah. And I didn’t want to make it about, yeah, like make them relive things because of my need for forgiveness.
NBW: Yeah. Yeah. And then and then I said, “well do you want me to find out?”
MPR: Yeah, she was really, I had no idea that she was speaking there, and I was sitting at the back with baby Solvieg, my little girl who wasn’t even a year old at the time, and she’s asleep on my chest. And, you know, she started talking and I realized pretty quickly who she was, that she had a child who was murdered. I just immediately started weeping. I’m sitting here with this baby on my chest, and I could not imagine.
NBW: Your own baby.
MPR: My own baby.
NBW: Your own child. Yeah, shit.
MPR: Like what. And especially after to have had the thought of something happening to her at that moment, like it was just, you know, the idea of and then, of course, I can’t, I’m listening to her talk and then knowing that in the immediate aftermath of this happening to her child, my family was out saying, this is the work of God, pray for more dead kids and all those things, and I just was completely overcome. And she was so kind. She acknowledged, she said that she understood that this was what I had grown up with. And, it’s a kind of generosity that I had never expected from anybody after I left Westboro and people have shown it to me again and again. It’s something that is a thing that makes me want to do as much good as I can now. It’s something that I think helps focus and motivate me and to remind me again what I’m capable of and that it was people who showed me compassion and kindness who changed me from being that kind of a person who is willing to say and do you know those kinds of things to the person that I am now. And how can I be that for other people? That’s partly why I talk about all this so much. I don’t believe that I’m special in any way. I think I responded in a very human way to people who treated me like a human being.
NBW: Well, I think you are a special human being, I think you’re extraordinary. And I just have such a strong respect and affection for you. And I’m so grateful that you were willing to come on and reflect on things that you did and said in the past in light of like having your own child now. And to think you had participated in celebrating something that brought so much pain to so many people. And I feel like you’re a kind of a hero, really, to me, so thank you.
MPR: Thank you so much. Nadia, you’ve been so kind to me. And I just, I love you.
NBW: I love you, too.
NBW: A blessing for Megan,
You were told by those who loved you to pray for more dead children.
But then, faced with a picture of a baby, malnourished and ill, you did not pray for more. You wept.
Because babies do magical things to human hearts.
And in the Bible your own mama read to you your whole life, there is an important history of having a different reaction to a baby than a parent wanted you to have.
There was a Pharaoh whose own daughter found a baby, hidden in a basket—a Hebrew child her father told her to see as the problem—but she heard this baby cry, and saw his small hands, and smelled his sweet breath, her heart said to her, this is not a problem, this is a baby.
And later Pharaoh’s daughter would name this same baby Moses.
So, I picture you, Megan, with your own baby girl laying on your chest, the perfect weight of her pressing on your heart as it broke open for another mother, who was hurt by the actions of people you love.
Because it’s true. Babies can do magical things to human hearts.
So, Megan, as you continue to mother your baby, and love your husband, may your brave, beautiful heart, a heart that has done so much hard work already, be cared for. May it be seen, may it be full, may it be well-tended to. And may magical things keep happening to that heart, as many times as possible, for as long as it takes to heal it.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional I speak with someone who got arrested, hurt everyone they loved, and failed to be the parent they wanted to be:
Lenny Duncan: “And I was like, hell, yeah. And I do some speed and I just fall off the map. And, um, I didn’t… I didn’t see my daughter for 13 years after that.”
NBW: Until then, enjoy this short confession from a fellow listener, who called into my confessional hotline, it’s a segment I call Shit I’m Not Proud Of.
Ellen: Hi, this is Ellen, a longtime fan. I confess that when I was in high school I was in a play opposite one of the popular girls in the high school, and I had a scene where I was supposed to fake slap her. And the night of the performance, I actually cracked her cheek so that she got a red mark on it. I wasn’t proud of it, but it sure felt good at the time.
NBW: Do you have Some Shit You’re Not Proud Of? Call 618-CONFESS and leave me a message about an embarrassing moment, and I might play it on my show. That’s 618-266-3377
NBW: The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our original music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.