Radical Empathy With Megan Phelps-Roper
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Lori Walsh and Megan Phelps-Roper at the South Dakota Festival of Book
Steve Munsen

Megan Phelps-Roper's book "Unfollow: Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church" is scheduled for release on Tuesday, October 8. She joined In the Moment host Lori Walsh for an emotional conversation at the South Dakota Festival of Books. Listen to the conversation here or at the embed below.


Lori Walsh: Welcome back to in the moment. I'm Lori Walsh. We're broadcasting live today from the Deadwood Mountain Grand in Deadwood for the South Dakota Festival of Books. We have a wonderful audience here, standing room only in our little corner of the world and sitting with me at the table is Megan Phelps Roper. She has a new book coming out called "Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church" Maybe that's all we have to say to introduce that book. So thank you for being here with us. This is one of your first radio interviews about this book, but it will not be the last. Do you have a lot planned coming up? Tell me a little bit about the response to the release of this book and some of the anticipation that you're feeling as an author.

Megan Phelps-Roper: Wow. The, the response so far has been really positive. I think people have an image of Westboro, which is largely almost entirely my family, my extended family started by my grandfather. I think people have this image of them as these crazed doomsayers and as sort of monstrous people who are, you know, deliberately doing things that they know are wrong. And I think my book shows other sides of them that are largely hidden from outsiders.

LW: This is a book largely about empathy in the sense that this is your own journey toward learning empathy for the people that you're speaking out with hatred toward. And also for people who don't know this family, seeing them as, you know, parent mothers, fathers, people who read stories to you, people who kiss you when you fall down. I was partway into it and I had to flip back to the cover and I was like, Oh, "Loving and Leaving." And I paused for a minute because I was wondering if that empathy is misplaced and if people will have said to you, is that the best place for your empathy to fall at this time?

MPR: Yes. So yes, people have absolutely made that argument that you know, that maybe we should be focusing exclusively on the victims and targets of groups lke Westboro. And I completely understand that and I absolutely do believe that those people deserve our empathy and attention and anything that we can do to help those groups. The, the parou know, I was changed by people who had empathy for me even though, you know, you could absolutely argue that I didn't deserve anything. I didn't deserve anything but the hostility and provocation that was directed my way. Um, but that, that never changed me. The shaming and the yelling and the screaming and, you know, people driving their cars at us, that confirmed the narrative that I was taught from the time I was a child, that outsiders were evil and going to hell. 

MPR: The people who changed my mind and turned me from somebody who was actively doing harm to other people, to now an advocate for grace and for equality and compassion, they were people who had compassion on me, who took into account the fact that I had been indoctrinated into this belief system from the time I was old enough to understand words. And their willingness to reach out to me is what changed things. So now not only am I doing the work to try to help people, these people that Westboro targets and groups like them, but I'm not now actively doing those things. So it's like, it's that there is a lot of good that can come out of reaching out to people in these groups.

LW: And as we talk about this book, we should let listeners know there's some tough language in here because of the nature of what Westboro Baptist church still does. We're gonna use some of that language here in this conversation. Tell me the first time people start bringing signs, um, to, you know, you're like five years old when you're on the picket line and you have your favorite signs. Tell me, what were some of your favorite signs as a child? You're five years old now.

MPR: Yeah. I mean the, some of the earliest signs we were using were "Gays are worthy of death." Um, and then, you know, eventually we got to what becomes their most famous message, which is "God hates fags." That's their website. There's a lot of really terrible language that I was taught, you know, from the time I was a kid that this is, this is how you should be talking about people who are abominable in the sight of God.
So, we were taught that this was not our hatred. This was the hatred of God. And that in fact it was a loving thing for us to go out and warn people that they were doing wrong.

LW: To rebuke.

MPR: Yes, exactly.

LW: The word fag is used because it specifically talks about something that is fuel for Hell, right? So this is a stick that burns and therefore they literally, are saying that this needs to happen to you. This is what's happening to those who have died, right?

MPR: Yeah. Yeah. The literal faggot is used to fuel the fires of nature. It's used for kindling. And so we used that. We use that word as, you know, saying that, you know, there are passages in the New Testament that talk about gays, how they burn in their lust one toward another and then fuel the fires of God's wrath and all the fires of hell. 
So using that language even was considered essential by the church because they said gay was a misnomer.

LW: You go to school, you read books, you go to the library, you watch television. You're in this school. There's a teacher who is Jewish. You have things to say about that, but you also have friends. A lot of people think that in order for this to develop, there's some compound somewhere where there's nothing as let in or let out, but it's, this culture is permeable. You move freely between the two cultures.

MPR: Yes, absolutely. And that's something that I think people have a hard time understanding. Like how could you be exposed to these ideas and not be changed by them? And the only way I can answer that is by explaining, you know, the experience of being at home with people that I loved. We were reading the Bible together, talking about current events and things that were happening in the world in light of the church's understanding of scripture and being constantly told about outsiders, how these people hate each other. They hate God, you know? So even as we are being exposed to them, we have already been ... you know, the analogy that I use is that it's like being inoculated against those ideas in any reaching out by those people because they are evil. The mindset is so black and white. It is so us versus them that I could not see outside of it. I, you know, until I got on Twitter.

LW: Let's talk about Twitter and let's talk about social media because the New Yorker did a column about world AIDS day and your tweet is (and everything's highlighted in red on world AIDS day) and yours is "Thank God for AIDS." So how do you kind of come into the world of social media and Twitter and see at first the power to spread the Westboro message even further? And then let's transition into how other people see it as an opportunity to invite you into a different mindset.

MPR: Um, Westboro is extremely active. It's actually only a group of about 70 to 80 people, but people have this image of them as being kind of larger than life because they're all over the place. We were actively going, you know, traveling across the country. We picket every single day for a couple of hours in my hometown, Topeka, Kansas, because again, we thought this was loving our neighbor. So it was this all consuming desire to spread this message. 

MPR: So when I read an article about Twitter, I thought, okay, well this is something else that I can do. And at that point I was like 20, 22, 23, um, this is something, some place we can go to spread this message. And because of the nature of Twitter, you know, you get on and you know, it doesn't take very long. You're limited to at that point it was 140 characters and Westboro messages are tailored for something like Twitter. We used three to five words on a picket sign, you know, that was them. So 140 characters actually quite a bit more. So I got on there, you know, spreading that message and it immediately got a lot of attention. And a lot of hostility, which is exactly the kind of response that I had expected because it was their same response that I'd gotten on the picket line all my life. 

MPR: And then almost immediately, like it shocks me now looking back because yes, you mentioned world AIDS day. So that's December 1st. I got on Twitter in 2009. So that's December 1st, 2009. It was a few months after I started tweeting for the church. And even at that point, I had already started having these conversations that would eventually change my heart and mind and help me see outside of this paradigm that I had been taught was unquestionable, the literal and infallible word of God that, that that could not be doubted. And so I started having these conversations and initially it is universally, you know, full of that kind of hostility and provocation. But almost immediately people started to see that I was sincere, that I really believed, you know, I would be constantly quoting the Bible and saying, you know, this, this, this is the truth of God. We have no standing to question this.

MPR: And so then they started asking questions. And over time, you know, it's the fact that there are several things about Twitter that made it different from anything that I'd encountered before. It allowed me to develop rapport with people over time, even though it was 140 characters at a time, you know, I felt safe and, and I was, I sort of,  I could be vulnerable in a way that I could never be in physical space with other people because I'd had all these experiences with people I knew to keep them at arms length and interacting with them online. You know, again, it made me feel safe. That distance made me feel like there was some still kind of a buffer zone kind of.

MPR: The fact that it was 140 characters meant that the insults that my family constantly and casually tossed around all the time on the picket line in email, there wasn't space for it. And so that's one, one part of it, like there wasn't space for it, so I just had to stop, stop using them. And then, but there was another aspect to it, which was that when I did include those insults, there was this immediate feedback loop where I could see the conversation immediately go off the rails because now we're no longer talking about this theological point that I think is so important. Now this is a playground quarrel. And you know, people are saying, you don't know me and you know, getting really defensive and, and so that was frustrating to me because again, I thought this was so important. 

MPR: It was so valuable. They needed to hear the truth of God. And so all of these things changed the dynamic of the conversation. And that was instrumental in outsiders being able to understand Westboro's ideology with enough nuance to find these internal inconsistencies and contradictions in our theology. My family is full of lawyers. You know, my grandfather was a civil rights pioneer in the state of Kansas and he required his children and their spouses to go to law school to support him in that work. He got an award from the NAACP and other black civil rights groups and was kind of the go-to lawyer in those situations. They are not stupid and they are not deliberately doing what they know is wrong. They are just convinced by these, by these arguments. So I had never growing up, you know, there was always an answer for everything that we, you know, all the positions that we took. 

MPR: There was always a verse, a Bible verse that we would, you know, memorize and you know, having these arguments on, you know, in on the picket line. I never had the sense of, you know, there was always an answer for everything. So I was just certain that we were, we were right. So when these people on Twitter were able to find these contradictions, it was mind blowing to me. It was the first time in my life that I realized that we could be wrong about something. And it's sort of, you know, the image of Westboro as having a monopoly on truth, this divine unquestionable truth. When I came to doubt that in my mind, that was the beginning of the end for me at Westboro.

LW: I want to talk about courage because as you leave and form a life, and a lot of that happens right here in South Dakota, right here in the community of Deadwood, you have choices now. You can change your name and be someone else and leave all this behind. You could oppose your family, you could be a counter-protester or you could help people infiltrate and bring the church down. Instead you choose to do what you're doing. And in doing that, you're going to have to face to face people who still believe the old message and who are angry with you and want to argue with you. You will have to face people whose lives you have damaged. So I don't think it's any secret for people who listen to the show that I'm a veteran. Westboro protests veterans funerals pretty ardently. When I'm five years old, people are calling my older brother a faggot, throwing things at his head. You and I have to sit down together and I have to say, your words hurt my family. They have affected my family's lives in ways that you'll never understand. And you're brave enough to talk with not just me, but anybody else who finds you and asks you those questions. One, what do you say to those people, and two, where do you find the courage to not just say, I'm done. I'm out. This is my new life. I'm young. I go out. So I've got lots of life ahead of me. Talk about courage first. 

MPR: So there, there was a moment a few months after I left Westboro and I was in, you know, there was one of the, one of the gentlemen that I met on Twitter who became a friend. He was an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem and he invited me to this Jewish cultural festival. I'm in California a few months after I left. He, he was the one who found the first contradiction in the churches ideology and sitting at, you know, and having these conversations, we were sitting at the Shabbat table of a rabbi, you know, him and his family. My sister had held a sign that said "Your Rabbi is a Whore," three years earlier at this exact festival. And you know, I was sitting there weeping with my sister and talking to David about everything that we had lost our family. You know, the only life we'd ever known our lifelong home. It felt like we had betrayed everything and every one that we'd ever left. And we were just terrified.

MPR: And he said, in a lot of ways, leaving Westboro Baptist church was the most Westboro Baptist church thing you could have done. You said they were the ones, he said, you are your parents' children. They were the ones who taught you to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what it costs you. They just never imagined you'd be standing up to them. I did know about your being a veteran and I understand the pain that we have caused so many people. The idea of walking away from that and, and of, of trying to pretend like it didn't happen. All the things that I did as a member of Westboro and of not trying to make amends and make it right, um, it never occurred to me because of that, that upbringing. 

MPR: I can only say that I feel like anything in me that's good is a reflection or courageous or whatever or that you want to use is also a reflection of the family. That, and I think in a hope that, you know, you can see both sides of that, but when you read this book or you know, it's complicated because humans are complicated. I don't believe that my family are bad people. I think they do incredibly destructive, and in some cases, even evil things. I do believe that the funeral protests especially, um, I do believe those things, those were, that that was and is evil. But I know that they do it because they were just like me. They were indoctrinated from the time they were, the vast majority of them grew up in the church. 

MPR: And in a lot of ways, their upbringing was even more extreme than mine was. Even though the picketing didn't start until I was five, they were taught that those ideas were unquestionable. And now the hope that I have for them is that it's not that, you know, I understand why people demonize them. I just understand that the things that changed me were compassion and empathy and grace even when I seemed most not to deserve it. And I hope that that will change them too.

LW: Would you say that the courage that you have came from your family, but you decided how to use it?

MPR: Exactly. Yes.

LW: Tell me a little bit about your life now because it's pretty heavy right there. Tell me about your family, your kids, What do you enjoy about living right now? 

LW: Because it's important for us to be in this space and so many people are in this space with us. But now let's exhale and say, Hey, you know, we're also a couple of moms having a conversation about our kids.

MPR: Well today is my daughter's first birthday and she is just the joy of my life. Everything. I mean, I can't believe I grew up at the church. You know, since the church is mostly my family, I, I came to believe that I would never get married or have children. And so now to have this wonderful husband who you also read about in the book, he was one of the people that I met, met on Twitter who helped changed my mind. 

MPR: And so to have him and our daughter is just a wonderful, wonderful thing that I'm so grateful for. I feel like I, I don't deserve, you know, any, any good thing. I mean, I deeply have that feeling. 

LW: I disagree with that.

MPR: Thank you.

LW: I totally believe that you deserve every good thing. I believe that you're worthy.

MPR: Thank you.

LW: Maybe you need to hear that a bunch of times from a bunch of different people.

MPR: It just makes me feel so much gratitude for ior every good thing that, that is in my life and every good person.

LW: What kind of mother are you to her? Because your mother is incredibly affectionate and loving and yet sometimes not the person that you want to stand up and defy. Tell me what kind of mom you are and want to be as your child grows. 

MPR: There is a lot about my mother that I, that I want to be for, for my daughter. You know, when I got pregnant there was definitely a part of me that felt like I could just kind of go very inward and, and, you know, slow down, you know, and, and not try not to do too much and things like that. And, and then I thought about my mom, my mom, you know, I'm the third of 11 children. And so, you know, my mom was constantly pregnant when I was growing up and, uh, she would, you know, she got morning sickness and had all the problems that, you know, any, you know, pregnant woman has. Um, you know, she would, she would be giving me my walking orders going around the house, telling me all the things that I needed to get done, pause one second, go and vomit and they come back. 

MPR: And, uh, I mean, and she just, nothing slowed her down. And I absolutely want to, you know, be that same kind of example for my daughter. One thing that I have to like have, you know, in my own mind all the time is, is that, um, you know, I'm not raising her to be my daughter or a member of a church. I'm raising her to be her own person and and she's going to have to grow up and live her own life.

LW: The book is called "Unfollow, a Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist church. My guest has been the very brave and talented Megan Phelps-Roper. I love you. Thank you for being here with us today. We appreciate your time.

MPR: Thank you so much.