10 Dec 2010

The Westboro Baptist hate cult that indoctrinates children with lullabies about people going to hell

ABC News 20/20 June 4, 2010

Raised to Hate: Kids of Westboro Baptist Church

Coached by His Dad, 7-Year-Old Says 'Gays, Fags, Hundreds ... of Jews' Are Bound for Hell


Boaz Drain, a seven-year-old from Topeka, Kan., and his six-year-old sister Faith are the picture of typical American children, chock full of energy, fun and imagination. They watch movies like "Shrek" and enjoy playing with the standards like "Star Wars" light sabers and ray guns.

Yet ABC News' Chris Cuomo was shocked to hear some of the things Bo told him when he visited the Drain family recently.

"I don't think you'll go to heaven, I think you'll go to hell," Bo told Cuomo, adding those who were destined for eternal damnation included "gays, fags, hundreds and hundreds of Jews," among a wide swath of other people that Bo has been taught since birth were hated by God and bound for Hell.

Bo's family belongs to the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, led by Pastor Fred Phelps. Members believe the Bible is the literal law of God, and the penalty for violating the rules and lessons put forth in the scriptures is eternal damnation.

Westboro, based out of Topeka, Kan., spreads the message that because the United States condones homosexuality, abortion and divorce, all Americans are going to hell. It's a message they hammer home to their children from birth.

"He [God] only loves his elect that obey and he doesn't love the people that don't obey," Bo told Cuomo.

While his father, Steve Drain, stood nearby and occasionally coached his son on the beliefs of the church, Bo went into the ideology he said he firmly believes in.

"You get destroyed and you get put in hell. Hell is like a burning place where it can never be stopped, burning, and it can burn millions of people every day," Bo said about homosexuals.

Bo also considers "enablers" of homosexuality, including all citizens of the United States, to be destined for hell.

Steve and Luci Drain have four children -- Bo, Faith, 19-year-old Taylor Drain and 24-year-old Lauren Drain. Steve Drain was filming a documentary on Fred Phelps and the church in 2000 and came to accept the church's beliefs, uprooting his family from Florida and moving them across the street from Westboro's compound in Topeka.

The Children of Westboro

Most of Westboro's 70 or so congregants are Phelps' family and relatives living in or near the church compound. Their children often can be found playing in the backyard together before joining the parents in their daily task of picketing the streets.

Westboro members made national headlines in 1998 when they arrived at the funeral of Matthew Shepard of Wyoming. Shepard was beaten to death by two men because he was gay and the church held signs proclaiming Shepard was in hell because of his sexuality.

Aside from daily pickets in Topeka, the children of Westboro accompany their parents across the country, arriving at funerals and other events holding signs against the country, gays, other religions and specific public figures -- damning them all to hell, proclaiming God hates anyone not in line and praising God for taking lives.

Church members insist they actually love everybody, and that is why they and their kids picket events. They say they are warning everyone of God's anger in hopes people will change their ways. However, that message often riles up crowds and can put the church's members and their young children in danger.

"We've had knives or guns waved at us, and lots of violent angry people," Lauren Drain told Cuomo.

A particular target of the church is fallen soldiers, according to Steve Drain, who said the church arrives at the funerals to let families know their loved ones are in hell because they fought for a supposedly damned country.

"Military people mostly do the nastiest stuff ... and they, like, let their kids be raped and stuff like that," Bo said when asked why he thought members of the military were going to hell.

His dad, however, clarified their beliefs off camera.

"Remember what we all say: No God fearing man or woman would lift a finger fighting for a country awashed in sin like this," Steve Drain said to his son.

Church Produces Music Videos to Propagate Beliefs

The message is reinforced to Bo and his sisters every night when they sit at home and go over Phelps' fire and brimstone-filled sermons. Steve Drain also has cast the children in the wide variety of music videos the church produces that lampoon popular music and ideas, with their own beliefs on every topic imaginable.

The children of the Westboro Baptist Church can be seen singing enthusiastically to the tune of songs like "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," saying instead, "Santa Claus will take you to hell," as well as the Beatles classic "Hey Jude" ("Hey, Evil Reprobate Jew").

One video features little Faith Drain, with bright blue eyes and blond hair, smiling brightly through a verse of "God Hates the World," that her parents are proud to say they taught her.

"How many people teach their daughter to gyrate and do some Britney Spears song?" Steve Drain said. "I'm teaching my daughter what the scripture says."

"And the scripture says if you don't obey the Lord, your God, you're going to hell," Luci Drain added.

Estranged Daughter: 'They Sing Lullabies About People Going to Hell'

According to their oldest daughter, Lauren Drain, the songs and the pickets and the constant lessons on Phelps' sermons are all part of the church's constant indoctrination.

"They sing lullabies about people going to hell," she told Chris Cuomo in an exclusive interview. "I remember I did that with Faith, and I was teaching her songs and stuff. I was trying to please my parents."

As Lauren Drain reached her 20s however, she said she began to question the gospel she was surrounded by, questions that quickly drew the ire of her follow congregants.

"I saw some hypocrisy, and I mentioned them and they hated it," she said. "You're not supposed to question anything."

Lauren Drain said her natural curiosity drew rebukes from Pastor Fred Phelps.

Eventually, she said, when she was 21 the members voted her out of the church and out of her home, including her own parents.

"My dad didn't cry, my sister didn't cry, my mom cried, she said. "I'm bawling and like out of my mind, you know, and they're laughing. I'm telling them I'm sorry. I'm telling them I'll do anything, what is it going to take, when can I come back."

But her pleas fell on deaf ears, and the same night she was voted out she said her family sent her to stay at a hotel and cut off all communication.

A week later, Lauren Drain returned home to pick up her belongings and said she found that her youngest sister Faith already had been taught to hate her.

"I was gone a week, came back to get my stuff, and my little 3-year-old sister told me, 'You don't live here anymore.' Mocking me," Lauren Drain said. "I raised her from the time she was born. I used to watch her every day. And a week later, she is happy I'm gone."

A Family Divided Over Message of God

Lauren Drain said it was very hard to come to terms with what had happened to her. She has tried to move on and start a new life, working as a nurse over a thousand miles away.

It's been three years, and she still greatly misses her family and yearns for contact. But she said she could never go back to her former life. After struggling with her beliefs, she now rejects the hate she was taught by the Westboro Baptist Church. She hopes her siblings one day can make the choice she did. If they do, they too likely would be cast out.

"The people who are spiritually bound to one another because of a shared fear of the Lord, that's really your family," Steve Drain said.

Drain said if Bo decided he wanted to stop believing, he'd simply say goodbye to him and be done with it.

So far, Bo and his sisters are keeping in line. Bo said he doesn't play with other children at school who are not in the church, although it can be hard. And he seems, at least at his young age, firmly planted in his church.

"I'm preaching and I'm going with this church, and that's what the church says. I'm going to go with that my entire life," Bo said.

As for the daughter they have lost, Steve and Luci Drain said they don't miss her and don't think they would ever allow her back.

"Why would I miss her?" Steve Drain asked.

"She chose a life that is contrary to the Scriptures. She chose that life," Luci Drain said.

The daughter they now say is bound for hell seems to be the only one still talking about love.

Lauren Drain said she wishes she could speak to her younger brother and sisters, to tell them she loves them and that the hate they spread is not the true message of God.

"I miss them and I love them and I really care about them, and God doesn't hate everyone. God has mercy on people, God forgives people," Lauren Drain said she'd tell her siblings.

As for her parents, she said that, no matter what, she still loves them.

"There are horrible things I went through, and I don't hate them," she said. "I forgive them. They're my parents. How can I not love them?"

This article was found at:



Westboro Baptist Church, the 'christian' family cult that physically, psychologically and spiritually terrorizes children

Running from hell: Growing up in America’s most hated family

Phelps Kin Charged With Child Abuse Over Anti-Gay Military Funeral Demo

Westboro Baptist Church member charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and negligent child abuse.

10-year-old preacher of hate indoctrinated by white pride parents is face of youth movement in U.S. KKK

Christian fundamentalist boot-camp for kids indoctrinates them to fight 'bloody' religious war

Radical Christian extremists aim to undermine public education by targeting high school kids for indoctrination into fundamentalist worldview


  1. Notorious pastor's atheist son speaks out at Reason Rally

    By Kim Geiger, Los Angeles Times March 24, 2012

    Reporting from Washington
    In what has been billed as “the largest secular event in world history,” athiests will gather in Washington D.C. today to rally in support of secularism.

    The event, known as the Reason Rally, also will feature a collision of estranged family members. Nate Phelps, the atheist son of Westboro Baptist Church Pastor Fred Phelps, will address the crowd as his father’s church pickets the event in protest.

    The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has become infamous for using military funerals as a backdrop to promote an anti-gay, anti-military message. The church believes that the United States is too tolerant of sin and that the death of American soldiers is God’s punishment.

    The church was sued by the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder – a Marine killed in Iraq – after it staged a protest at Snyder’s funeral with signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates fags.” In a controversial ruling last March, the Supreme Court said that the church’s speech was protected and therefore it could not be sued for the offensive protest.

    Nate Phelps is one of 13 children of Fred Phelps. A professed atheist, he is among four of Phelps’ children who have defected from the church. When Nate Phelps, who has not had contact with much of his family for decades, learned that the church planned to picket the Reason Rally, he decided to counter the protest by speaking out at the event.

    In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Phelps discussed his childhood, the day he left the church, and his views on religion and free speech.

    LAT: What was your religious training like growing up?

    Phelps: The actual theology is called Calvinism. And at the centerpiece of Calvinism is this idea of absolute predestination, that God is the one that picks the saved, as opposed to us making that decision for ourselves. And it was, you know, the environment was such that whatever our father defined as the doctrines of the Bible was what we were required to believe. So there really wasn’t any choice in the matter.

    I don’t know, I guess that’s probably it, in a thumbnail.

    Have you always been an atheist or was it a personal journey that led you to your beliefs?

    Well, no, I haven’t always been an atheist. You know, growing up in that environment, atheism was a frightening proposition. And, you know, everything pushed us in the direction of looking for – and I think at the age of 14 or 15, I actually declared myself saved, which was the necessary process for being in that church, and was baptized.

    I will say that I always had questions centered around the behavior of my father and the ideas that he espoused there. But it wasn’t until years after I left, and I would say probably only the last five or six years, that I have been willing to finally let go of the idea of a god. So it’s been a journey.

    How did you get along with your father as a child? And was he aware of your beliefs, or did you keep it to yourself?

    It was not an option to openly discuss any doubts which you might have. It wasn’t safe, physically or otherwise, to even consider such a thing.

    So I learned early on to keep my thoughts to myself. And, you know, plus there was a component, you know, we heard regularly that we were just dumb kids and didn’t have any idea what we were talking about. So that played a part in the amount of validity that I gave those thoughts.

    As far as the relationship with my father, the best way I could describe it was I was afraid of him from very early on. That never really changed, growing up. But it never got to the point where it was a sense of having a, you know, father like you might imagine that was an educator, a helper, you know, that kind of father figure. So he was always the disciplinarian and a threat in my mind.

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    When did you leave the church?

    I left on the night of my 18th birthday, literally at the stroke of midnight.

    I bought an old car, used car from one of the people that worked at the high school, and I packed all my stuff up without anybody knowing about it. And on that night, when everybody was asleep, I went out and got the car and put it in the driveway and loaded the trunk with my boxes and then went back in the house and waited at the bottom of the stairs, watched the clock go up to midnight, and I left.

    Where did you go?

    The first three nights, I had a friend who was the manager of a gas station near the high school I went to, and he gave me a key to the front door and I slept in the bathroom of the gas station for the first three nights.

    And then my brother’s girlfriend’s mother found out about it and she offered me a room in her house. So I went from there and then eventually getting a job and getting my own place.

    When did you end up in California?

    That was actually like five years later.

    I went to work for a law office in the Kansas City area and then I later went to St. Louis, went to work for a printing company there that my brother was working at. And we eventually came back to the Kansas City area and started a printing company that would eventually bring us out to Southern California, where we opened eight different stores out there.

    There are a couple of them (still around), but they’re owned by someone else now. I lived in California for 25 years.

    Was that an older brother, the brother who had already left?

    Yeah. That was Mark.

    And how many years did he leave before you left?

    I seem to recall – I think that I was 16 when he left, so he would have been 19 or 20. So it was a couple years before I left, that he left.

    He was – Mark was, he was kind of the, in everybody’s mind, he was the one who was going to follow in my father’s footsteps. As it turned out, he had just figured out that that was the way that he was going to survive that environment, was by being, you know, his father’s yes man.

    So he was still around when he was 19. I think he might have even been pushing 20. And his girlfriend, who had found favor with my father and was attending church regularly and was on the path to being accepted there, came to church one Sunday night and found my father upstairs beating my older sister. And everybody thought – some of the other church members were already there, and we were all just kind of standing around out in the auditorium while all of this screaming and yelling was going on upstairs. And Lueva (sp), who was Mark’s girlfriend, was – she was just freaked out by it. She was like, why isn’t anybody doing anything? And then they got upset at her for even suggesting such a thing.

    So she turned around and marched out and Mark chased her and she basically said I’m not going to raise a child in this kind of environment and forced him to choose between her or that situation.

    So that’s what drove Mark away.

    How do you feel you are treated, as an atheist?

    I mean, the general attitude amongst the Christian community is, as it has been for centuries now, that if you don’t believe in god, that you are the enemy and there’s something morally degenerate about you.

    And you know, that attitude’s been around for a long time. It’s not going to go away. But I think if we’re ever going to change it, just like some of the other misperceptions throughout our history, we have to be honest about it and try to have dialogue with people. And eventually, that perception will change because it’s not based in facts.

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    What is your family’s view of evolution?

    They are young Earthers. They believe the world is 6,000, 10,000 years old. And that evolution is nonsense. At least that’s what they believed when I was growing up there.

    I don’t know how it’s possible to hold to that belief after as much information that’s come out.

    Have you had any contact with the families of people whose funerals have been picketed by the church?

    I had some email conversations back and forth with – I can’t remember his first name now, but the gentleman who sued my family in Snyder vs. Phelps. He and I talked back and forth.

    I have had scores of emails from people who have had to deal with the presence in their town, not necessarily family members, but community members, talking about how upsetting it was for them to be there with the protests. But a lot of that, hundreds of emails, if not thousands, from young gay people who are trying to come to terms with the message that they’re hearing.

    And so I’ve gotten tons of that over the last couple years.

    What do you tell those people?

    I just, you know, apologize, for one. And I try to express to them that that attitude isn’t consistently out there, and that, in my opinion, it’s not accurate. What else can I say?

    Sometimes I get very specific questions asked about theology, and I’ll answer it as honestly as I can as far as what I believe today.

    What are your thoughts on the recent debate over birth control and abortion?

    I have changed my attitude about that a lot over the years. I started out in favor of abortion rights just because my father was against it. But that wasn’t a good reason.

    I guess the bottom line for me is while I couldn’t condone it for myself, I feel very strongly that that is a individual personal decision for each woman to make for themselves, and that the government has no business being involved in it. And it’s frightening to see how quickly and destructively we’ve moved back that direction.

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    Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Snyder vs. Phelps case?

    No. But I think I need to explain that a little bit.

    A lot of people out there believe that the Supreme Court ruled that they have a right to picket at funerals. And that simply isn’t true. In fact, Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, very specifically in that opinion said that they were not addressing that question because they didn’t need to, that they were only looking at the details of the Snyder case and that their First Amendment rights prevailed over that idea of intentional infliction of emotional distress. But they deliberately avoided challenging those forty-some state and federal laws that are on the books right now.

    So, that question hasn’t been answered yet by the Supreme Court. That’s one thing I would want to say.

    The other thing I would want to say is that I think that it is a false dichotomy for Americans to see this as an either-or question, that either they have the free speech rights or they don’t. I think that we can find – because, in my opinion, the right to bury our loved ones in peace is one that we have lived with as long as humans have been around, just because it doesn’t appear in the Constitution doesn’t mean that we don’t have that right or haven’t behaved with that right.

    So I see it as a question of competing rights. And I think that the idea that we could limit the place and time for people to express their free speech, in this instance, is legitimate.

    We can still have a robust, healthy right to free speech in America and give people the time and place and proper decorum for burying their loved ones.

    What do you think is the greatest misperception about atheists?

    Well, the most common misperception is that to deny God is to deny a system of morality or to abandon a system of morality. And the fact is the vast majority of atheists – first of all, atheism is … it’s simply a rejection of the idea of a god. But most atheists embrace a humanist ideology…. Square at the center of that ideology is the idea that we treat humans with kindness and respect.

    So there most definitely is a moral system inherent in the conclusions that atheists draw.


  5. TODDLER'S AIN'T NO HOMOS SONG Puts Church on Lockdown Pastor Gets Death Threats

    TMZ May 30, 2012

    Members of an Indiana church say they've been flooded with death threats since video of a 3-year-old proudly singing, "Ain't no homos gonna make it to heaven" ... was posted on the Internet.

    Multiple members of the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church in Greensburg, Indiana tell TMZ the church office has been getting harassing calls and the pastor has received death threats at his home. They also say a prayer meeting scheduled for this evening at church had to be moved to a secret location.

    We're told they are looking into increasing security, but for now the congregation is handling it ... taking turns watching over the church.

    One member says Pastor Jeff Sangl is extremely worried about his safety -- and this morning he and his wife left for vacation without telling anyone where they were going.

    Despite the threats, all the members we spoke to have no regrets about the song getting posted online -- in fact one said, "The people who are upset just don't read the word of God. If we don't teach the children the truth early they will never learn."

    As for the thunderous applause after the hate-filled song -- we're told, "Of course we applauded a child who is singing a song about God."


    see video at: http://www.tmz.com/2012/05/30/indiana-toddler-church-song-no-homos-heaven/

    This video is nuts -- an Indiana toddler took the mic at his church recently, and sang a hate-filled anti-gay song ... with the lyrics, "Ain't no homos gonna make it to heaven" ... and the crowd went WILD.

    The video was reportedly recorded at the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle in Greensburg, Indiana -- featuring a young boy on the altar, barely old enough to walk, singing a song he was obviously spoon fed.

    It's pretty hard to make out the words -- so here are the lyrics ...

    "The Bible’s right, somebody’s wrong.
    The Bible’s right, somebody’s wrong.
    Romans one, twenty six and twenty seven;
    Ain’t no homos gonna make it to Heaven."

    The congregation erupts in thunderous applause after the song.

    FYI, here's Romans 1:26-27 -- "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error."

    It's the latest video to hit the web showing rampant homophobia in America's churches -- starting with a North Carolina pastor advocating beating the gay out of your child ... and another NC pastor talking about fencing up gay people and letting them die out.

    see: Pastor Sean Harris -- Beat the Gay Out of Your Kid! http://www.tmz.com/videos/0_xf12hm61

    N.C. Pastor Charles Worley: "Put Gays And Lesbians In Electrified Pen To Kill Them Off" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2839yEazcs

  6. Westboro Baptist Church Member Libby Alvarez Escapes, Lives Life of Freedom

    By Ashley Davis, Opposing Views, January 28, 2013

    One member of the "hate cult" Westboro Baptist Church has successfully escaped. She insists her life has completely changed for the better since leaving.

    Libby Phelps Alvarez, 29, is the granddaughter of Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr., the founder and pastor of WBC. The group is known for their extreme ideologies, especially against gay and Jewish people.

    It was only four years ago that Alvarez was protesting at Obama's inauguration, taking part in anti-gay and anti-semitic protests, trapped in the US, and unable to get a haircut or wear a bikini.

    Now, Alvarez has found freedom. But it was difficult to leave her family behind, especially her cousin.

    "That first year, there would be days it would hit me really hard," she said.

    She decided to leave when the church confronted her about a bikini she wore during a family vacation. Instead of apologizing and asking for forgiveness from the church members, which is what she was "supposed" to do, she fled.

    Her brother, Josh, also left the church two years before she did.

    Alvarez only had a car and a little bit of money when she left. Thanks to her boss, she was able to save up money to get her own apartment as she stayed in her house for four months.

    Though she lives a completely different life now, she is only 30 minutes away from where she was raised in Kansas. She lives with her husband, Logan, in Lawrence.

    She has traveled the world with him and done all of the things she's always wanted to do but couldn't because of the strict church.

    She had her first haircut in 25 years, got her ears pierced, and went outside the US, all things that are forbidden by WBC.

    Alvarez met Logan when she ran into him while shopping. He was a former physical therapy patient and also a member of the church. Logan bought her flowers and took her on a date. She told him that if he wanted, she would run away with him.

    After four months, he proposed and they started living their life of freedom.

    "No one is allowed to leave the country while at WBC," Alvarez wrote on her Facebook. The two have been to England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France since leaving the church.

    Once she escaped a radio host in Kansas interviewed her about her time at WBC. She said the craziest thing they made her do was "pray for people to die."

    Westboro Baptist Church is known for its funeral protests and picketing at public events which are likely to get them media attention.

    They also protest Judaism. Their website states: "The only true Jews are Christians. The rest of the people who claim to be Jews aren't, and they are nothing more than typical, impenitent sinners…the vast majority of Jews support fags."

    Alvarez said leaving her cousin was the hardest, who was her best friend and confidante. She will never see her again unless she leaves the church.

    "I would take her to Covent Garden in England for ice cream and tea in London," Alvarez imagined. "And there was a place in Germany, the Hofbrauhaus, it's really famous, thre's a brass band. And I know that Megan would love going on The Tube in England."


  7. Westboro Baptist Church Members Escape Cult & Their Insider Confessions Will Shock You! (VIDEO)

    by Jeanne Sager The Stir February 7, 2013

    Ever wondered what goes through the heads of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church? You know, the Kansas-based group that regularly threatens to picket the funerals of soldiers and innocent children, most recently those of the precious babies killed inside Sandy Hook Elementary School? You're about to find out!

    Two granddaughters of Westboro's most vocal hatemonger, Fred Phelps, have escaped the cult. Now Megan Phelps-Roper and sister Grace Phelps-Roper are speaking out, along with Libby Phelps Alvarez, another of Phelps' granddaughters who escaped the clutches of the hate group several years ago. So what do we know now about this crazy group?

    Thanks to the Today show and reporter Jeff Chu (who broke the story of the Phelps-Roper girls' escape), here are some of their biggest revelations:

    1. They pray for people to die. Pretty much the opposite of what you'd expect from a "church," Alvarez says she did not join in but was around while members actively prayed for death.

    2. They hate soldiers because of gays. The protests of military funerals happen because the WBC claims that American soldiers are "fighting for a nation that supports homosexuality," Alvarez told Today.

    3. WBC followers aren't allowed to trust their own feelings. As Megan Phelps-Roper told Chu, "All that’s trustworthy is the Bible. And if you have a feeling or a thought that’s against the church’s interpretations of the Bible, then it’s a feeling or a thought against God himself.”

    4. Women are forbidden to get haircuts or pierce their ears, and their heads must remain covered in church.

    5. They are obsessed with pop culture. In a statement released by Megan and Grace about their decision to leave the church, they quote Batman, and then explain that's common at WBC because the "sentiments they express are readily identifiable by the masses -- and shifting their meaning is as easy as giving them new context."

    Are you surprised by any of these revelations?

    Take a look at how Libby Phelps Alvarez has tried to move on since escaping the Westboro Baptist Church:


  8. Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church

    by Jeff Chu, medium.com February 6, 2013

    Just after 11 last Sunday morning at Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter is starting the Sunday service as he always does. He runs through the opening salutation and the collect for the day, and then he welcomes everyone to church as he always does, introducing Old First “as a community of Jesus in Park Slope where we welcome people of every race, ethnicity and orientation to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.”

    The congregation—some eighty strong on this sunny but cold February morning—is the usual mix of Park Slope churchgoing types: a smattering of journalists, a few artists, a handful of old ladies, some rambunctious children. But in the back row of the tin-ceilinged, wood-floored hall, there’s a visitor. It is Megan Phelps-Roper’s first time not only at Old First but also at any church not called Westboro Baptist. Yes, that Westboro Baptist, the Topeka, Kansas, congregation that has become famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) for its strident views on sin (and the abundance of it in modern America), salvation (and the prospective lack of it), and sexuality (we’re bad, in far more colorful terms).

    For nearly all of her twenty-seven years, Megan believed it: believed what her grandfather Fred Phelps preached from the pulpit; believed what her dad Brent and her mom Shirley taught during the family’s daily Bible studies; believed (mostly) what it said on those signs that have made Westboro disproportionately influential in American life—“God hates fags”; “God hates your idols”; “God hates America.”

    Megan was the one who pioneered the use of social media at Westboro, becoming the first in her family to go on Twitter. Effervescent and effusive, she gave hundreds of interviews, charming journalists from all over the world. Organized and proactive, she, for a time, even had responsibility for keeping track of the congregation’s protest schedule. She was such a Westboro fixture that the Kansas City Star touted her—improbably, as it turns out, because a woman could never have such a role at the church—as a future leader of the congregation.

    Then, in November, she left.


    I first met Megan in the summer of 2011, when I went to Topeka to spend a few days with the Westboro folks for my book project. During that visit, we talked about faith, we talked about church, we talked about marriage (and Megan’s feeling that, given the prospects, it would require no small amount of divine intervention in her case), and we talked about Harry Potter (for the record, she’s a fan). She seemed so sure in her beliefs, that I could not have imagined that some fifteen months later, we’d be having a conversation in which she tearfully told me that she was no longer with her family or with the church.

    Mostly, the tears have subsided—“in public, anyway,” she says one afternoon, as we sit in a Tribeca café. “I still cry a lot.” Forget what you know of the church. Just imagine what it is like to walk away from everything you have ever known. Consider how traumatic it would be to know that your family is never supposed to speak to you again. Think of how hard it would be to have a fortress of faith built around you, and to have to dismantle it yourself, brick by brick, examining each one and deciding whether there’s something worth keeping or whether it’s not as solid as you thought it was.

    As we talk, Megan repeatedly emphasizes how much she loves those she has left behind. “I don’t want to hurt them,” she says. “I don’t want to hurt them.”

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  9. Her departure has hurt them already—she knew it would—yet there was no way she could stay. “My doubts started with a conversation I had with David Abitbol,” she says. Megan met David, an Israeli web developer who’s part of the team behind the blog Jewlicious, on Twitter. “I would ask him questions about Judaism, and he would ask me questions about church doctrine. One day, he asked a specific question about one of our signs—‘Death Penalty for Fags’—and I was arguing for the church’s position, that it was a Levitical punishment and as completely appropriate now as it was then. He said, ‘But Jesus said’—and I thought it was funny he was quoting Jesus—‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ And then he connected it to another member of the church who had done something that, according to the Old Testament, was also punishable by death. I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.”

    To some, this story might seem simple—even overly so. But we all have moments of epiphany, when things that are plate-glass clear to others but opaque to us suddenly become apparent. This was, for Megan, one of those moments, and this window led to another and another and another. Over the subsequent weeks and months, “I tried to put it aside. I decided I wasn’t going to hold that sign, ‘Death Penalty for Fags.’” (She had, for the most part, preferred the gentler, much less offensive “Mourn for Your Sins” or “God Hates Your Idols” anyway.)

    What “seemed like a small thing at the time,” she says, snowballed. She started to question another Westboro sign, “Fags can’t repent.” “It seemed misleading and dishonest. Anybody can repent if God gives them repentance, according to the church. But this one thing—it gives the impression that homosexuality is an unforgivable sin,” she says. “It didn’t make sense. It seemed a wrong message for us to be sending. It’s like saying, ‘You’re doomed! Bye!’ and gives no hope for salvation.”

    She kept trying to conquer the doubts. Westboro teaches that one cannot trust his or her feelings. They’re unreliable. Human nature “is inherently sinful and inherently completely sinful,” Megan explains. “All that’s trustworthy is the Bible. And if you have a feeling or a thought that’s against the church’s interpretations of the Bible, then it’s a feeling or a thought against God himself.”

    This, of course, assumes that the church’s teachings and God’s feelings are one and the same. And this, of course, assumes that the church’s interpretation of the Bible is infallible, that this much-debated document handed down over the centuries has, in 2013, been processed and understood correctly only by a small band of believers in Topeka. “Now?” Megan says. “That sounds crazy to me.”

    In December, she went to a public library in Lawrence, Kansas. She was looking through books on philosophy and religion, and it struck her that people had devoted their entire lives to studying these questions of how to live and what is right and wrong. “The idea that only WBC had the right answer seemed crazy,” she says. “It just seemed impossible.”


    The act of leaving Westboro is as weird as the church itself. Sometimes it’s described as a shunning process, but that’s not entirely apt. It is, in the eyes of the remaining members, a sort of death, but it’s a gentle one, because the carcass isn’t just dumped or ignored. One church member, who has lost two of his kids to the outside world, told me that he still loved them and that he set them up as best they could with what they’d need to start their new lives—some money, some household goods, even a car.

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  10. Megan didn’t leave alone; her sister Grace decided to go with her. They stayed just one night in Topeka. Then, after returning to their family home to retrieve some things they’d not packed the night before—“it was so weird and horrible to ring the doorbell,” Megan says—they left town.

    They decided to disappear for a while, and found rooms in a house in a tiny Midwestern town. They needed space—to think, to read, to imagine what had previously been unimaginable. Their lives had largely been scripted, and “now that we’re writing our own script, everything seems a lot more tenuous,” Megan says. “We needed to think about what we believe. We need to figure out what we want to do next. I never imagined leaving, ever, so I never thought about doing anything different. I have no idea what kind of work I want to do, or where to live. How do people decide these things?”

    Once a constant Tweeter, she hasn’t posted anything online since October. “I don’t know what I believe, so I don’t know what to say,” she explains. “I haven’t been ready to talk about any of this.” She’s only doing so now, and briefly, because, she says, “I was so proactive before and vocal about the church. My name means something now to others that it doesn’t mean to me. I want people to know that it’s not now how it was.”

    But how is it going to be? She’s still not sure. They’ve been trying new things; one of their housemates made sushi one night, the first time Megan tasted raw fish (“yum!”). They read a lot—“I liked ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ There was a quote that was perfect for where we were: ‘Wonderful how one loses track of the days up here in the mountains.’ And you know what else I loved about it? I could be completely mistaken about what the book means, but where the book began and where it ended was the same. It makes your problems seem like small things. It gives you perspective—well, it gave me perspective, that my problems in the grand scheme of things are not as horrible or monstrous as they seem.” They talk to each other for hours each day, about religion, about God, about the Bible, about the future, about how to treat people, about “what’s right and what’s wrong—capital R and capital W.”

    That raises the question of regrets and amends, for things they’ve said and signs they’ve held and judgments they’ve passed. “I definitely regret hurting people,” she says. “That was never our intention. We thought we were doing good. We thought it was the only way to do good. And that’s what I’ve always wanted.”

    That’s not how the message was received. “I think I’ve known that for a long time, and I would talk to people about how I knew the message was hurtful,” Megan says. “But I believed it couldn’t matter what people felt. It mattered that this was what God wanted.”


    In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus resuscitates a girl who is believed to be dead, commanding her, according to the King James Version that is favored at Westboro, “Damsel, arise.” The verse has long been a favorite of Megan’s, and it has taken on new and special meaning since her departure from the church.

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  11. Now that she has arisen, what does Megan Phelps-Roper think God wants her to do? She smiles and puts her hands on her cheeks as I ask the question. She laughs, but it’s a weird laugh—hollow, a little nervous.

    “I have no idea,” she says. “I mean, I have almost no idea. I know I want to do good for people. And I want to treat people well. And it’s nice that I can do that now in a way that they see as good too. How exactly do you accomplish that? I’m not sure.”

    Over lunch, we had talked about so many big questions: Predestination. Hell. The Bible. Sin. Big things and small about how “church” is done at Old First versus what she grew up with at Westboro. The Bible verses were the same—there were readings on Sunday from Jeremiah, from I Corinthians (on love), and from the Gospel of Luke. She knew one of the hymns, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and during the singing, “that was when I felt most at home.” But she was struck that the congregation had a role beyond singing hymns, and noted that she’d never before been in a church where women’s heads were not covered. “It just felt really different. I didn’t think it was bad,” she says with a shrug. “It’s literally so very different that it is hard to compare them.”

    At times, there’s something about the way she unpacks these observations and answers my questions that makes her seem much younger than her twenty-seven years. There’s an innocence, almost a naivete. But how else would it be? How else could it be, given the boundaries that have always marked the hours of her life?

    Now that those boundaries are gone, “I’m trying to figure out which ones were good and smart, and which ones shouldn’t be there anymore,” she says. “I don’t feel confident at all in my beliefs about God. That’s definitely scary. But I don’t believe anymore that God hates almost all of mankind. I don’t think that, if you do everything else in your life right and you happen to be gay, you’re automatically going to hell. I don’t believe anymore that WBC has a monopoly on truth.”

    She hopes to emerge from this season “with a better understanding of the world and how I fit into it,” she says, “and how I can be an influence for good.” This all sounds lovely and rainbows and unicorns, but really? You may believe it or you may not, but Megan won’t budge on this—and a trace of the characteristic Westboro stubbornness that I experienced in Topeka resurfaces. She is emphatic: “It’s true! I wanted to do good! I thought I was. And that wish hasn’t changed.”

    When I push her to articulate what she wants for herself, she reminisces about an interview, in her Westboro days, in which a journalist asked her what she wanted her legacy to be. “I had only a few seconds to think while my mom answered the same question,” Megan says. “And then I said: ‘That I treated people right.’ That’s still true.”

    Thank God for second chances.


    Read a statement from Megan and Grace https://medium.com/reporters-notebook/d63ecca43e35

    I first met Megan and Grace in the summer of 2011, when I visited Westboro Baptist Church. Read more about that visit here. https://medium.com/reporters-notebook/d63ecca43e35

  12. Banished: Lauren Drain on Growing Up in the Westboro Baptist Church

    Lauren Drain spent her teenage years in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church before being kicked out and disowned by her family. Now she’s writing about it.

    by David Sessions, The Daily Beast March 5, 2013

    When 21-year-old Lauren Drain found herself in a shabby apartment in a rough part of Topeka, abandoned by her family, her mind couldn’t accept what had happened. “I truly thought my banishment would only last for a month or so,” she writes. Only when she happened upon her father in public and he refused to acknowledge her did she begin to understand that she has been completely and permanently disowned for running afoul of her church's whims.

    Seven years earlier, Drain’s family had moved across the country to join the Westboro Baptist Church, the Topeka-based cult known for its “God Hates Fags” signs and picketing the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers. Until then, Drain had a more ordinary teenage experience: excelling in school sports, more excited by boys than religion. She was skeptical, even hostile to her father’s growing obsession with Westboro, especially when it drove him to pull her out of high school and place her under “house arrest” when he discovered her budding relationship with a classmate. But eager to make peace, she attended her first protest, where she was impressed by the confidence, passion, and encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs exhibited by the Westboro girls her age. “There was something to it,” she writes. “We moved people to ask us lots of questions, even if they screamed those questions at us. This meant we had some access to knowledge that they didn’t.”

    Drain quickly become friends with Megan Phelps-Roper, a few years older and then the evident heir to the small, independent church founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, in 1955. The church has about 40 members, most of them also members of his extended family. The 83-year-old patriarch preaches a mutant, virulently homophobic fire-and-brimstone breed of hyper-Calvinism that insists God has chosen only a few elect Christians (mostly Phelpses) and hates the rest of the world with a burning passion. Members see it as their duty to inform the rest of us of our impending damnation, not to convert the damned but to ensure their own salvation. To effectively spread that warning, they show up at sensitive events like the funerals of U.S. soldiers and victims of the Sandy Hook massacre, and 9/11 memorials to attract media attention with outrageously offensive signs and slogans.

    As Drain went through high school, the church’s behavior-policing regime felt increasingly oppressive and bizarre to her, and she saw herself being singled out despite her best efforts to please the Phelps family. Finally, after her own family discovered she’d been chatting online with a young man from Connecticut and informed the church, she was formally banished. “There is no hope,” her father said at a church meeting to decide her fate. “I am done with her!”

    Every fundamentalist movement has deserters, but Drain found herself in a less common position: that of the young believer thrown out into the world against her will. Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church co-authored with writer Lisa Pulitzer, is her account of her years growing up with “America’s most hated family,” as one British filmmaker labeled them. The book offers a straightforward retelling of the facts, but it provides important insights into how fundamentalist movements attract and reprogram eager seekers, and the psychological effort required for survivors to adapt to life outside their reality-distortion field.

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  13. The book is, in a way, a story about her father, an outspokenly atheist rebel who married a Catholic girl and pulled her away from her religious family. Steve Drain was energetic and intellectual, but careened between passions, sometimes putting his family in difficult situations. He stayed in graduate school long past the end of his funding, racking up debt that would crush the Drains for decades. After briefly coming under the influence of a local fundamentalist, he reverted to his rebel ways, playing rock music and drinking with his buddies at the Drains’ home. After he finally graduated with his MFA and moved his family back to Florida for a job at the Home Shopping Network, he began work on an investigative documentary of Westboro he called Hatemongers.

    Drain’s description of her father fits a common profile of potential fundamentalist: a “lost soul” in search of a grand explanation, with a thirst for life and a bottomless appetite for higher learning. “I don’t know if he had a clue what he wanted to do, but he told me he was seeking some type of truth,” Drain writes. “He took some philosophy, some civilization, and some religions courses—all of the subjects he chose had a spiritual or metaphysical bent.” Like many fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., his path to religious extremism began with a searching intellect and a sense that America’s consumer society didn’t have satisfying answers to the deepest questions about how one should live.

    But despite what Drain describes as her father’s winning charm and his earnest searching, he had a chilling dark side: obsessive and controlling, he hit her, shoved her, and called her a “whore” for talking to a boy she liked. The violence preceded his involvement with Westboro, and seemed to have more to do with his panic about controlling his family than his religious ideology. He was so abusive that one day, terrified, Drain called Child Protective Services on the family’s cordless phone from the front yard. “I just needed my father to know I was serious about defending myself from his physical bullying, and I was reaching my breaking point,” she writes. When her father found out, he forced her to call back and tell CPS she had been lying, and no one from the agency followed up. Drain was pulled out of high school and forbidden from leaving the family’s house in Florida. Though her mother occasionally pleaded with her father to stop berating her, she almost always kept quiet or accused Drain of bringing on the abuse with her rebellion.

    The Phelps family, too, manifested a paradoxical blend of intellectual curiosity and abusive behavior-policing. In many ways, they cut against the common understanding of fundamentalists as Bible-reading bumpkins who’ve never seen the inside of a secular classroom. Fred Phelps and several of his children have law degrees and run the successful Phelps-Chartered law firm in Topeka. In Drain’s account, Phelps’s daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, who has become the de facto leader of Westboro, comes off as a veritable superwoman who somehow works at the firm, manages virtually all the church’s accounting and media relations, micromanages members’ lives, parents 11 children, and always made time to counsel Drain when her own parents were too distant to notice her. Phelps-Roper’s children, including Drain’s close friend, Megan, made the highest grades at their public high school in Topeka, and were generally acknowledged to be more literate in history and politics than most adults.

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  14. But these impressive achievements serve a sinister purpose. Phelps-Roper uses her energy as an administrator and parent to keep tight control over Westboro members, especially her children, who follow her example in loudly denouncing “fags” and “fag enablers” like Tyra Banks. Though Drain seems grateful for the genuine concern and guidance Phelps-Roper extended to her, it’s difficult to take even a glance at her Phelps-Roper’s Twitter feeds without getting nauseous.

    While Drain doesn’t exactly provide a satisfying reason why Westboro’s extremism appealed to her formerly atheist father, it’s clear that he was enamored with Phelps-Roper and driven by an overwhelming desire to impress her. Almost immediately after making contact, his critical documentary began to transform into pro-Westboro propaganda, described on YouTube as “showing the lighter, more funny side of this very unusual cult.” In many right-wing Christian movements, the energy and confidence of people like Phelps-Roper provide a powerful sense of identity, of self-definition against the surrounding culture that can be intoxicating. Inside Westboro, Phelps-Roper’s seeming omnipresence in church members’ lives helps create a bond that is both communal and intellectual: members forge intense relationships debating doctrine, admonishing one another on how to live, and building up each other’s defenses against the outside world.

    Unlike in many other cults, young Westboro members aren’t isolated from the world. They all attend public schools and have nearly uncensored access to television. They’re all on Twitter. Westboro adults use every profanity in the book in everyday conversation. Somehow, even amid the rush of hormones and social pressures of high school, most of their teens don’t break away. But Drain’s book hints at a sociological crisis that could be breaking the church apart: the lack of church-approved partners for Westboro’s upcoming young adults, most of whom are too closely related to marry one another. (Drain’s family is one of very few in the church not related to the Phelpses.) Sensing the younger generation’s alarm, Westboro leaders have spun out increasingly bizarre edicts on relationships, including, Drain writes, a blanket condemnation of marriage.

    It may be sex, as well as growing doubts about the harsh regime inside Westboro, that’s motivating young members closer and closer to the center to defect. Four of Fred Phelps's 13 children had previously left the church, as did Shirley’s son, Josh, who met a girl at his job at Sears. On February 6, just before the release of Drain’s book, Megan Phelps-Roper, now 27, and her 19-year-old sister Grace, announced that they, too, had made their escape. Like Drain, who is now engaged and works as a nurse in Connecticut, they expressed regret and sorrow for having been a part of Westboro’s hate. But they face the overwhelming task of building a new identity, entirely cut off from the world they’ve known.


  15. Lauren Drain, Former Westboro Baptist Member, Says Group 'Brainwashed' And 'Manipulated' Her

    Huffington Post March 6, 2013

    Brainwashed. Manipulated. Controlled.

    Those are the words former Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) member Lauren Drain used to describe her time as part of the controversial organization during an interview Monday on "Piers Morgan Tonight."
    Drain, now 27, was thrown out of the WBC at the age of 22. She has recently written a memoir about her experiences.
    On Monday, Drain told Morgan about the control WBC members wield, especially over children in the group.

    "They control what you believe, what you say, what you do, what friends you have," Drain said. "They say everyone on the outside's evil. And they don't allow any outside influence at all."

    WBC members claim to speak for God, Drain said, which is how they dismiss outsiders who criticize the group for its virulently hateful rhetoric.
    "It's unfortunate and it's atrocity, the things that they do and say -- horrible things they do and say," Drain told Morgan. "But yeah, they claim that they're speaking for God."

    In her book, Drain writes that she ultimately began to question some of the group's core teachings, which she believed contradicted God's message. That's when the group, as well as her entire family, cast her out forever.

    But Drain still has three siblings "still stuck" inside the church, and that's what still scares and saddens her.

    "They have no opportunity to see any type of outside influence, any type of other perspective on God, any other type of knowledge of a good life or good people," Drain told Morgan. "They have no idea there is happiness, and life and forgiveness on the outside."

    Since leaving the WBC, Drain has worked to distance herself from the group's stigma. She's appeared in a NOH8 campaign ad and participated in candid Reddit Ask Me Anything.
    Perhaps spurred on by Drain's example, two other former members, Megan Phelps-Roper and her younger sister, Grace, publicly announced in February that they had fled the church. They also apologized for their actions.

    see video at: http://cnn.com/video/?/video/us/2013/03/05/pmt-drain-ex-member-westboro-baptist-church.cnn


  16. Former Westboro Cult Member Raising Funds to Help Other Escapees

    by GINA MEEKS, Charisma News July 11, 2013

    An escapee of the Kansas-based group Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has started a campaign to help ex-members of the cult start over after leaving.

    Lauren Drain escaped WBC five years ago, leaving behind her family—who disowned her—and everyone she knew to start over in an unfamiliar world.

    Now 27, Drain launched a GoFundMe campaign called “Help ex-WBS members start a new life” on Sunday. On the campaign’s webpage, she shares about the hardships she faced when she was 22. http://www.gofundme.com/Support-WBC-Escapees

    “When I was ostracized I was given a few hours to pack my life into a few suitcases, dropped off by my father at a motel and told to never return, never contact my siblings and that I was now disowned,” she writes. “Anyone that leaves or is kicked out is banished for life and all ties to your family, friends, community, life are severed and you are truly on your own.”

    Drain says only about 19 members of the cult have been able to escape in the past 10 years, and “many have struggled to find their way and start from near scratch. Often times the 'church' or family leaves the defector with little to no personal possessions and those who are able to plan an escape usually leave quickly with the bare minimums.”

    With more and more young WBC members leaving the group, Drain wants to set up a “safety net” for defectors to be able to get back on their feet. She is aiming to raise $20,000.

    “This is an opportunity for others to lend a hand and show your support for those willing to change,” she explains. “Together we can help ensure that those willing to escape but are too afraid to do so, know that there are countless people out there willing to help them, accept them, forgive them, guide them and offer up some sort of safety net for starting a new life outside of the cult.”

    Her three siblings—Taylor, 22; Bo, 11; and Faith, 9—remain “stranded” in WBC, “born into the cult or otherwise indoctrinated as children by their parents and their new community,” she writes.

    Drain has been a vocal critic of the group for last several years. She published a memoir, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, in March, and in February posed for a NOH8 campaign ad.


  17. My Weekend With the Westboro Baptist Church

    By NICK WATT, ABC Nightline June 19, 2013

    My weekend with the Westboro Baptist Church will never leave me. And I wish it would.

    I can't stop thinking about them. I'm still trying to understand why they behave the way they do, and I'm still thinking up counter arguments that I wish I had had at my fingertips during my many "discussions" with Steve Drain, who was our host for the weekend. Steve, and the church, believe the increasing acceptance of gay marriage is a harbinger of the End Times. I do not.

    The decision to spend a weekend with Westboro was a difficult one. My ABC News bosses and I had cooked up an idea that I should spend weekends with slivers of American society that, as a recent immigrant, I found puzzling and perhaps even bizarre. Westboro was my first choice.

    But the arguments against the assignment were voiced by many friends and colleagues. "Why give them the publicity?" was the regular question. And my answer was always along the lines of, "Well, I just want to understand what makes them tick. And see how they go about their daily lives."

    Steve Drain didn't buy that argument either. During our first disagreement he said, "When you say, 'I want to understand.' What you're really saying is, 'I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!'"

    Steve made me uncomfortable for a number of reasons. First of all, I just can't believe in his interpretation of The Bible no matter how much he hit me over the head with it (I'm speaking metaphorically, of course).

    Steve also used to be a documentary film maker, who said he came to Topeka to make a nasty film about the church, was seduced by its message and stayed. There was, of course, the tickle of a fear in me that I might also find myself agreeing with the church's teachings. Unlikely. I have a gay sister, who I love and respect, and I have absolutely no issue with homosexuality.

    Steve also made me uncomfortable because he is a smart, sometimes funny, and sometimes likeable guy. I suppose he just seems so normal. Well, apart from the beliefs, and the signs, and the pickets, and the online sermons, and the fact that he said he no longer speaks to his elder daughter, Lauren, since she was thrown out of the church for chatting to a boy on the Internet and some other related infractions.

    When we arrived at Steve's house on the Topeka block where most of the congregation lives, his littlest kids -- Faith and Boaz -- were watching "The Waltons" and eating pizza. Could have been my house. He was very welcoming, open and friendly. Well, until I refused to believe that he doesn't miss Lauren at all.

    The weekend was a strange mix of Bible and banality. One minute we were arguing over God's hatred of the U.S. court system, and the next discussing Eddie Van Halen's love life.

    Of course we attended a few pickets with the church members. The first at the University of Kansas, where they were mocked by kids on campus, another outside a Bon Jovi concert in Kansas City, where they were shouted at by some very angry men, and finally a round of pickets outside the churches of other denominations on Sunday morning.

    When the Westboro Baptist Church isn't making headlines picketing soldiers' funerals or fighting First Amendment law suits (which they pretty much always win) this is what they do every single day: They picket on sidewalks across the land. And I found the spectacle a little bit sad.

    I was not swayed in my beliefs by my weekend with Westboro and I will not be joining the church. But as Steve told me, "It doesn't matter what you think. God still hates fags."


  18. I never thought I would see them again: The moment woman who escaped Westboro Baptist Church was walked down the aisle by fellow escapees after her own family refused to attend wedding

    By Jessica Jerreat, Daily Mail (UK), September 1, 2013

    27-year-old has not heard from parents since leaving in 2008; Husband's family have welcomed and accepted former hate picketer

    For years she had been taught to hate by the Westboro Baptist Church, but 27-year-old Lauren Drain has now found love - and security - away from the cult that had dominated her life for so long.

    Ms Drain, a cardiac nurse, was walked down the aisle at her wedding to David Kagan by two other former members of the anti-gay and anti-Semitic cult after her family refused to attend the ceremony.

    Megan and Grace Phelps-Rope, the granddaughters of the church's founding pastor Fred Phelps, left the cult earlier this year and were able to fill part of the hole left by Ms Drain's family.

    'It was amazing having them by my side. Just a year ago I never thought I would see them again and here they were, during one of the most impotent days of my life,' she told Mail Online.

    'They stepped in to make it even more special for me. We are extremely close now, and see each other as often as we can.'

    The former member of the church, which is known for picketing the funerals of U.S. servicemen, has also been supported during her marriage and wedding preparations by her husband's family.

    'They have accepted me as one of their own,' she said. 'At our wedding they presented me with a "Welcome to the Family certificate" signed by all 31 members of the family, including the two pets.'

    She added: 'David's sister, mother and father treat me amazingly and were there for me during every part of the wedding planning process.'

    'They have read my book and know all the details and have never judged me for my past.'

    At a surprise bridal shower, her future mother-in-law also gave her a locket containing pictures of the three siblings she was forced to leave behind when she left the cult in 2008.

    Ms Drain posted a picture of the locket on her Facebook page, and said: 'I realized that even if my family does not attend, I will still have these three close to my heart on my wedding day.'

    The cult forces those who leave to sever all contact with their family. Ms Drain hasn't seen or heard from her parents and siblings since the day she left.

    'They were invited [to the wedding], they did not respond or attend,' she said, adding that while she is positive her parents are aware she married, it could have been hidden from her two younger siblings by her father.

    continued below

  19. After the church forced her out for questioning its teachings, it was her own father who drove her to a motel and left her there, alone.

    'I was given a few hours to pack my life into a few suitcases, dropped off by my father at a motel and told to never return, never contact my siblings and that I was now disowned,' she said on GoFundMe, the web page she set up to help other cult members who want to leave.

    'Anyone that leaves or is kicked out is banished for life and all ties to your family, friends, community, life are severed and you are truly on your own,' she said.

    Fortunately, Ms Drain has managed to adapt to life on the outside. After leaving the church she moved to Connecticut and wrote a book, BANISHED: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, about her experiences.

    Although she rejected the Westboro teachings, Ms Drain has kept her Christian faith.

    She met her future husband about three years ago, and said while 'David is not religious [he] is extremely supportive and accepting of all faiths, including my own.'

    The couple were married on August 4, in a beautiful ceremony captured by Annandale Photography.

    About 19 people have managed to leave the church in the past ten years. Many struggle to adjust to life on the outside after years of brainwashing, Ms Drain added.

    She explained the powerful hold the church has other its members and said she joined the controversial picketing to try to make her parents, and the church, happy.

    'I was trying to be a good Christian, and make my family proud and other church members proud' she said at a Chicago

    Ideas Week appearance.

    Ms Drain hadn't come from a religious background. Her family first became involved with the church when her father was filming a documentary to expose them - and ended up joining, with his family, in 2001.

    For years Ms Drain went along with the cult's teachings but as she got older and started noticing the impact her church was having on the people they targeted, she started to question the hate agenda.

    'It was pretty much after we started picketing after 9/11 ... that's not who I wanted to be,' she said

    Since her own escape, she has started a safety net fund to provide financial and emotional support to those wanting to leave and hopes that one day her family will also have the courage to move away from the church.

    'I'm now doing all that I can to reconnect with my 3 trapped siblings. They are forbidden from speaking to me and all my efforts thus far have been shut down,' she said on Reddit.

    'However, I hope they too escape by any means one day.'


  20. Granddaughters of an infamous homophobic U.S. pastor find grace in Montreal

    by MATTHEW HAYS Special to The Globe and Mail October 28, 2013

    MONTREAL — Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper sound like two ordinary young people expressing their enthusiasm in discovering Montreal. “This city is beautiful,” says Megan, 27. “I’ve never been to a place like it before.” Grace, 20, chimes in: “It’s so diverse.”

    But there isn’t anything remotely ordinary about these two sisters and their journey here. Until last November, they were members of the Westboro Baptist Church, the group, based in Topeka, Kan., widely regarded as one of the most virulently homophobic organizations in the United States. The group, founded by Fred Phelps – Megan and Grace’s grandfather – has become infamous for its “God Hates Fags” campaign, one that includes picketing the funerals of gay and lesbian people, and has also picketed synagogues and other Jewish institutions, shouting slogans about Jews burning in Hell.

    Megan and Grace began to question the tenets of the church four years ago, and finally decided to leave last November. Breaking with their family, they have driven across North America, arriving in Montreal in early October for a one-month stay, sponsored by members of the Jewish community. They have spoken in some religious studies classes at Concordia University, and will be speaking at Le Mood, a one-day Jewish cultural festival on Nov. 3.

    “At the church, so many aspects of your life are controlled,” Grace says. “Having this new freedom, this ability to do things as we want to, when we want to, making all our own decisions – we’ve learned so much this way.”

    In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, the sisters mapped the road to that freedom. In 2005, the WBC stepped up its picketing campaign, loudly protesting at the funerals of military personnel who had been killed while in service. Mr. Phelps argued that any fatalities endured by American forces were God’s punishment for the nation’s increasing tolerance of homosexuality. This led one grieving family to sue the WBC for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. By 2011, the case had wound its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the WBC’s right to protest on First Amendment grounds.

    In 2009, Megan recalls, “We started protesting all things Jewish.” Megan was already in charge of the WBC’s social media campaign, including its Twitter feed. It was there that she began receiving challenges to the church’s doctrine by a blogger at the website Jewlicious, L.A.-based Canadian David Abitbol, who pointed to the absurdity of much of the WBC’s official line on Judaism and homosexuality.

    Megan and Grace started asking themselves what they were up to, and what their church and extended family really believed in. There were, Megan confirms, “a lot of conversations” between them, “not about leaving, but about aspects of the church, the theology and its application. Over time, we started to see things that made us think, ‘Wait a second, there’s something wrong here. This doesn’t fit together.’ ”

    But that questioning proved difficult, due to the strict interpretation of scripture that Mr. Phelps – “Gramps” to Megan and Grace – insists WBC members adhere to. “It was always very much all-or-nothing,” Megan explains. “The way the church presents it is, there’s the WBC and the rest of the world. And the rest of the world is evil. The WBC is the only place in the world in our generation that is telling the truth of God. Over time, those little things built up, and there were so many of them. Once you step out of it for a second, and you’re out of that vacuum, things change.”

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  21. That led to a decision to leave the square two-block section of Topeka where Megan and Grace say most followers of the WBC live. In what Grace describes as “the hardest day of our lives,” the two told their parents and their nine brothers and sisters that they needed to leave the church and their home.

    “Hurting my mom was the worst thing of all,” Megan says. The discussion led to a number of members of the church stopping in – almost all of them extended family members – to try to convince Megan and Grace to stay. Their family made it clear: If they left, it would be a clean break. “They believe that they cannot care about anything but what God thinks,” Megan says. “And they are so sure about what God thinks that there can be no other option.”

    Since leaving, they have hop-scotched across the continent, with stops including New York, Los Angeles, Des Moines, Iowa, Kansas City, Mo., and now Montreal.

    “We were both terrified after leaving,” Megan says. “I was afraid we were going to hell. Many times when we were driving, I thought God was going to kill us.”

    Now, Megan says, “We don’t have a set home.” They feel a responsibility to help out the Jewish and gay communities, given how much picketing they did aimed at both groups. When they were with the WBC, “You feel like you know everything,” Megan says. “You know what’s right and wrong.” But now, Grace says, “We can be sure of nothing.”

    Their stay in Montreal was devised by Mike Savatovsky, the director of Le Mood Festival. “David Abitbol introduced us, and we had some Skype conversations,” Mr. Savatovsky says. “I thought they had some very interesting things to say, and I liked the idea of having them present their story as an inter-faith connection.”

    Gay Christian activist Jeff Chu is the author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?, a book about reconciling being gay with the Christian faith. In 2011, he spent several days at the WBC to interview church members about their beliefs for a chapter in his book. “I was surprised a year later to get a call from Megan, who told me she had left the church,” he says. “Megan was really one of the strongest voices in the third generation of the Phelps family. They were both junior, but key members of the WBC. They visited and my husband and I went to church with them – something I never thought would happen.”

    Megan and Grace are uncertain of precisely what they want to pursue now. Grace wants a university education, perhaps in Montreal: “I want to work on a blueberry farm, I want to be an actress, there’s so much I want to do.” Megan confesses, “I’m at a complete loss. But I do know that I want to do good, to have empathy. Even though we intended to do good [with the picketing], we hurt a lot of people.” Despite book offers and even a proposed reality TV show, Megan insists, “We do not want to use our past as a way to make money. We abhor the idea.”

    The sisters say they think of their family every day. “I won’t get to hear my brothers playing piano again or see my parents’ hair go grey,” Grace says, wiping back a tear.

    “The thing is, they are trying to do what they believe is right,” Megan says. “We were taught that everyone outside the church wasn’t trying to do good. We know that they hurt so many people, and we see that now, but the majority of them are doing it from good intentions.”


  22. Fourth Phelps-Roper sibling leaves Westboro Baptist Church

    23-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper now sending message of empathy, unconditional love

    By Aly Van Dyke, Topeka Capital Journal May 5, 2014

    After 20 years of hate-filled preaching and picketing, 23-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper moved out of the WBC compound on Feb. 20. In the past nearly three months, he has developed a whole new message.

    Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.

    “I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”

    The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.

    His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

    Phelps-Roper said he has been driven to help, he said, because of the treatment he has received since he left: Doctors have treated the back pain his parents wrote off as an attempt for attention.

    Homosexuals have offered to buy him meals, drinks and shown him empathy and love.

    At least 20 family members he was banned from speaking with for half a decade — including two sisters and a brother — have surrounded him with warmth and support.

    Strangers from the Internet turn to him for advice for their problems and offer new perspectives to his.

    He has fallen in love and had his heart broken, only to rise up more determined and confident than ever.

    Everyone, he said, has met him with an open mind, valued his feelings and exposed him to many different perspectives that has turned his belief system on its head. All things, he realized, were missing from his home at the WBC compound.

    “I’m telling everybody I feel happier today than I did the day before, because I’m so happy to be alive,” Phelps-Roper said. “I see the world from so many different perspectives now.”

    His mother, reached by telephone Monday, said she has spoken with her son since he left.

    “His never-dying soul is what hangs in the balance,” Shirley Phelps-Roper said. “Of course I’m concerned. Why else would we spend our lives on the streets warning our fellow man to flee the wrath that is coming?”

    However, she said, the church doesn’t own salvation or repentance. Each person will fulfill their lot, she said, and repentance has to come from God. Repentance, she said, is the one requirement to come back into the church’s fold.

    In the meantime, Shirley Phelps-Roper said, the family and church will move on and stay on task.

    Zach Phelps-Roper is the fourth of his 10 siblings to leave.

    His family outside the church is anxious for him as well. He has had made some rash decisions and acted irrationally, he readily admits, including quitting his job as a nurse. But, he said, he is working toward understanding who he is and reaching his new goals.

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  23. Departure

    Nearly 11 weeks ago, on Feb. 20, Zach Phelps-Roper left the only life he has known. He has been picketing, he guessed, since he was 3 or 4 years old — as soon as he was strong enough to hold up a sign.

    Since then, he has had limited contact with his parents. If he wants to get in touch with someone inside, he said, he has been directed to contact another member of the family, though he wouldn’t disclose who.

    Phelps-Roper said he harbors no ill will toward his family, understanding they are acting out of the same unshakeable beliefs in the Bible to which he once subscribed.

    The care for his family in the compound is still there. Frequently throughout the interview, Phelps-Roper paused to choose his words so he didn’t offend anyone. He became upset at different times, whether it was remembering a fond experience or how much he misses his grandmother and parents.

    “I miss my grandma a lot,” Zach Phelps-Roper said, his voice cracking. “But I want to be respectful to my parents’ wishes.”

    He said his doubts started about age 18, when he started to examine his faith from the creature’s perspective, rather than just the creator.

    He was upset the God his church taught about punished sinners, despite being the one to cause them to sin.

    “I viewed my creator as sadistic,” Phelps-Roper said. “He sent them to hell because they sinned, but he compelled them to sin. I felt it was an injustice.”

    All the while, tensions with his parents and others in the church were building. No one listened to him, he said. Several times he attempted to communicate physical pain he was in, only to be met with ridicule and disbelief. They frequently dismissed his chronic lower back pain as a ploy for attention, he said.

    Some in the family, including his parents, also scoffed at his dream of becoming a doctor, without, to Phelps-Roper’s outrage, providing a reason why. His grandmother — the most empathetic person he has ever known, second only to his grandfather — finally helped him understand. Becoming a doctor would interfere with the preaching and picketing work, she explained.

    “I was understanding of that,” he said.

    Five times he was angry enough to leave the church but was convinced by family to stay. He tried to leave earlier this year but was met with love and concern, particularly from his grandmother.

    Two weeks before he left, he started feeling like he didn’t need the “righteousness of Jesus Christ,” that he was a hypocrite, at times, that he was the anti-Christ.

    “I didn’t want to be there, but at the same time, I did,” he said. “Something just didn’t feel right.”

    The day after he decided to leave, three cousins came back to help him move.

    “I felt so sad and so guilty that I couldn’t move anything,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave them. I love my family. But they are not willing, at this point in time, to listen to other perspectives.”

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  24. New faith

    Phelps-Roper no longer has unshakable confidence in the Bible, instead devoting his time to soaking up all the perspectives he can on faith, humanity and everything in between.

    When he first left the church, he said, he had accepted that he was going to die and go to hell.

    “I knew I was a wicked person and idolatrous,” he said.

    He doesn’t believe that anymore.

    “If I have greater peace now than in the church, how can I be a wicked person?” he said.

    Phelps-Roper said he feels as though he is being called to a new mission, one to lead a charge of love, understanding and empathy to bring people happiness. He said he had particular compassion for those suffering from neuroticisms and suicidal thoughts because he experiences the same. Now that he understands how to help, he said, he “has no choice but to speak up,” in an effort to save as many as he can.

    “I still believe I’m being led by my creator here,” Phelps-Roper said. “I’m just not sure what his name is. I am sure he is one who has unconditional love for his creatures.”

    That belief, he said, is a hybrid of his childhood faith and his experiences outside the church.

    Phelps-Roper still believes man was created in God’s image, for example. However, in a break from his upbringing, he doesn’t think man lost that quality through original sin. Instead, he honed in on man’s innate capacity for empathy, which, being made in God’s image, shows God is an empathetic being as well, he said.

    In his time outside the compound, he has grown to learn and appreciate different perspectives. He has identified his own “mind traps” — assumptions, beliefs, comparisons, desires, expectations and ideals that “keep you from being empathetic” — and debunked each one of them.

    “I see so many problems, from economical to emotional,” he said. “Now that my mind is free from these mind traps, I can see clearly what needs to be done. I believe that empathy and unconditional love are what is absolutely necessary for us to free ourselves and each other from mind traps and from the many problems that are plaguing our society.”

    For example, Phelps-Roper said he no longer operates under the assumption all homosexuals are violent. In fact, they have been among the most loving and supportive people he has met in the past several weeks.

    He has overcome strongly entrenched beliefs that previously closed his mind to other ways of life and how his actions affected others.

    He has been reunited with about 20 family and former church members he hasn’t seen in six or seven years, including his older brother and a favorite cousin.

    He has learned to forgive himself for not being by his grandfather’s side as he lay on his deathbed, convinced by other members of the church Fred Phelps Sr. had become manipulative and abusive. His lesson, his penance, Phelps-Roper said, is never leaving someone in need alone again.

    “I feel like I can never pass by someone who is hurting in any way,” he said. “If someone needs help, I will respond. I don’t feel like I could ever walk away from someone in trouble.”


  25. Reason for Fred Phelps' excommunication from Westboro revealed by grandson

    Fred Phelps, former leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, was known for leading the church in their hateful teachings against gays and lesbians.

    By Aileen Graef | UPI May 23, 2014

    TOPEKA, Kan., May 23 (UPI) --Zacharias Phelps-Roper said in a Facebook post that his grandfather, Fred Phelps, was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church before he died because he allegedly expressed his support for a group promoting LGBT equality.

    The post was written on the Equality House Facebook page and the administrator of the page confirmed it was legitimate. Equality House is a non-profit organization supporting equality for the LGBT community, anti-suicide, and anti-bullying programs. They are located in a rainbow painted building right across the street from the church in Topeka, Kansas.

    "Fred W. Phelps, my grandfather, came out in support of the Equality House before he was voted out of WBC.

    Specifically, on the day that he was excommunicated, he stood outside of the front door of the church (but not within anyone's earshot but a few members of WBC who happened to be in the immediate vicinity)... I say, he spoke words to this effect to the Equality House: 'You are good people.'

    I feel like he had a change of heart after my grandmother nearly passed away, and he felt the pangs of loss ... he waited for news of her every day and night while she was in intensive care. I think this triggered a chain reaction whereby he developed great empathy for others... which would explain why he would support Planting Peace's anti-suicide and anti-bullying platforms, and their charities across the world... I love my grandfather! And I believe people DO change, if they are inspired enough!"

    Phelps-Roper left the church in February and said his grandfather never said anything to him directly, but that he did believe that he had a change of heart while in hospice.

    "I think that he got over that [homophobia]," he told HuffPost Live. "I don't think he hated homosexuals by that point. Planting Peace, you know, the fact that it's a rainbow house kind of implies that maybe there is a homosexual connection there. So, yeah, I figured that he was supporting them, too. The day that he was excommunicated my family took great notice of that and they called it rank blasphemy that he was coming out in support of the homosexuals."

    Phelps-Roper's father, Nathan Phelps, who left the church in 1980, said in a comment on the post that he had not heard of this incident but hopes it to be true.

    "I have heard some remarkable testimony from my niece about his kindness to her near the end," wrote Nathan, "It's hard to know what to believe. Let's hope it's true and the man eventually saw the error of his ways and that the rest of his rapidly decreasing number of followers will soon follow his lead."

    Many of the comments on the Facebook post are ones of doubt, with people saying they do not believe that the infamous church leader changed. Some said, even if it is true, it is not enough to forgive his past.

    Fred Phelps died at the age of 84 in March.


  26. Exiled from Westboro Leaving America's most hated church

    Zach Phelps-Roper is the latest in a long line of defectors from Westboro Baptist Church. Now he's working to save the reviled anti-gay group — and himself.

    By Mike Spies, Vocativ | The Week Magazine December 11, 2014

    This summer, Zach Phelps-Roper could be seen on the streets of Topeka, Kansas, holding a sign above his head bearing the words, "You are beautiful." He was picketing the Westboro Baptist Church, arguably the most reviled religious organization in the country. "Please forgive them," he could be heard shouting, "for they know not what they do!"

    Not long ago, Zach, 23, was holding an entirely different kind of picket sign. He is the grandson of the late Fred Phelps, Westboro's founder and spiritual leader. Phelps shaped the church's extreme zealotry and brazenly offensive anti-gay pickets, especially those staged at military funerals, where congregants of the church hold signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "Pray for More Dead Soldiers." The Southern Poverty Law Center has branded the church "the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America." The media often refers to it as a cult.

    This February, Zach, who was born and raised in the church, left Westboro, having suffered for weeks with a back injury his parents believed could be cured with prayer. After begging them to no avail to take him to the emergency room, he decided he was done being a martyr. "I don't love this religion anymore," he said.

    In the eyes of the church, that declaration was an unforgivable offense worse than blasphemy. And it meant that Zach would be excommunicated. He knew he would never be able to talk to his parents again, and all traces of him would be scrubbed from his family's home and their place of worship. The congregation would classify him as an apostate who would spend eternity in hell.

    Zach spent the night away from his house, and in the morning received a call from his father, who instructed him to come home and pick up his things. He arrived to find all his possessions dumped on the front porch: his bed, his clothes, his PlayStation and his prized movie collection, which was filled with boyish blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But what stood out most was a photo album with snapshots of Zach, taken by his father over the course of 23 years. It was their single parting gesture. "I wanted to say goodbye to my parents," Zach recalls, "but they were gone."

    Over the last decade, some 20 members have left the Westboro Baptist Church, Zach being the latest. The exodus suggests that the hate coalition created by Fred Phelps might finally, and permanently, be fracturing. There are now roughly 45 members, nearly all of them related by blood or marriage to Fred. They live near the church on a compound of some 20 houses that takes up an entire residential block. Every Sunday they congregate in the chapel for a late-morning service. The sermon is delivered by one of eight male pastors and generally amounts to a furious denunciation of homosexuality and all who tolerate it.

    The church's obsession with homosexuality derives from Leviticus 18:22: "Thou shall not lie with mankind as womankind; it is an abomination." However, it is a common misconception that Westboro believes homosexuality is a worse sin than any other — murder, for instance, is just as bad. The difference is a matter of tolerance. Murder is outlawed, whereas homosexuality is not. Westboro focuses on the latter because of the belief that God compels them to do it.

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  27. Much of what the world perceives as anti-gay propaganda — the signs ("Fags Doom Nations"), the website (GodHatesFags.com) — Westboro considers an act of love. Members say they are following the Bible's orders by warning against sin. To be tolerant of homosexuality, or to even passively condemn it, is to defy God. And Westboro members, who believe the Bible is the literal word of a vengeful higher power, acutely fear the wrath of God.

    Almost every day, church members picket around Topeka. Chief among their targets are religious institutions with leaders who are deemed false prophets or who have been critical of Westboro. Local government officials and activists who openly disagree with the church are also singled out. Then, of course, there are the pickets at funerals. In addition to showing up at the burials of American soldiers killed in combat (punishment for the U.S. government defending homosexuality, according to the church), Westboro likes to crash high-profile services that members link to America's tolerance of gays. In late 2012, for instance, Westboro planned to picket a funeral in Newtown, Connecticut, blaming the mass shooting there on the state's same-sex marriage law. Dozens of people, including a local biker gang, formed a human blockade to stop the protesters.

    That such actions reap intense derision only reinforces Westboro's way of thinking. Unlike Christian evangelicals, Westboro's goal is not to convert the masses. In the church's view, the masses are already beyond saving. Members, most of whom were born into the church, are taught that they are the "elect," the tiny sliver of humankind going to heaven. Everyone else is going to hell.

    This insularity­ reinforces the members' belief that they are distinct from the rest of mankind and must protect themselves. Steven Hassan, an author who has extensively researched the subject of cults, refers to it as "phobia indoctrination." "It implies that if you leave, you'll be harmed," says Hassan. "What happens in people's minds is they can't imagine a positive experience [outside of the church]."

    Yet the recent departures of church members suggests that life inside Westboro has become increasingly untenable, especially for young people. In 2011, the British documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux shot a movie called America's Most Hated Family in Crisis, a follow-up to his 2007 film about the Phelpses, The Most Hated Family in America. Zach's mother, Shirley, emerged as the obvious star of the series. Fiery and fanatical, with a high forehead and ecstatic blue eyes, she, of Fred Phelps' 13 children, best channeled her father's raging spirit. During pickets, her voice was the loudest. She could be heard screaming, "You love fags, you hate God, so just shut up."

    Theroux interviewed several recent defectors, all young members in their 20s. None were Shirley's kids, but of her 11 children, her second oldest, a boy named Josh, had left more than five years earlier, never to be heard from again. During the film's last scene, Theroux pressed Shirley on the topic of excommunication. Perhaps the policy was too harsh?

    "I always keep my eyes open and watch my children," she said. "And sometimes I see something in them that disturbs me. But…I have to stay on task. I have to be sure they know what their duty is, and they obey."

    Two years later, in 2013, two of Shirley's daughters, Megan and Grace, decided to defect. Megan was 27, and Grace just 19. The former was Shirley's closest confidante. Zach says his mother was despondent. "She would go sit somewhere and cry. I can just remember seeing her in tears." He defected a year later.

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  28. One day in mid-November, I meet Zach in Topeka. He's been out of Westboro for nine months and is staying with another pair of ex-members who live near the compound. It's snowing, and a frigid wind whips off the prairies outside the city. He picks me up in his turquoise Pontiac; in the backseat is a mask from the movie Scream. "This was my first Halloween," he explains. "Westboro would say it's idolatry and very evil." He shrugs. "I discovered I love making jack-o'-lanterns."

    Zach wears a black fleece, a winter hat and gray cargo pants. He is tall, with watery blue eyes, a pointy nose and a big frame that belies a childlike naïveté. When he sends text messages, he often includes smiling emoticons and hearts. He prefers to go to sleep by 9 in the evening so he can wake up early and play video games. Recently he began collecting glass animal figurines.

    He steers the car toward Westboro and parks across the street. The church, which sits in a tidy residential neighborhood of one-story homes, is a small, rickety A-frame structure. An American flag hangs upside down from a post, signaling a country in extreme distress. A sign out front reads: "Fag Marriage Dooms Nations."

    Next to the church is a vast yard protected by a high wooden fence. The yard, complete with a basketball court, swimming pool and tennis court, is the centerpiece of the compound, shared between roughly 20 households. Zach stares out the window silently for a few minutes. I ask him if he's OK. "I'm not tearing up," he says.

    Zach grew up in an environment that was in some ways less isolated and strange than one might think. Like his siblings and cousins, he attended Topeka's public schools and was free to play video games and poke around the Internet. He listened to Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance and watched the Cartoon Network and Seinfeld (which his parents thought was funny, too). His mother affectionately called him "Zachy-pac."
    Though friends weren't a part of Westboro children's lives, Zach never felt lonely. Fred Phelps alone had 54 grandchildren, and many of them lived within a block of one another. The kids had sleepovers, played sports and swam together. There were big family vacations to places like Hawaii and the Florida Keys, though all travel was under the pretense of church business: First you picket, then you go to the beach. "I definitely had a happy childhood," Zach says.

    Much of it was spent in the service of the church. Zach spent at least an hour studying the Bible every day and regularly memorized scripture. He designed his own picket signs with phrases like "Planes Crash God Laughs" and "Fags Eat Poop," and attended pickets every day after school and before church on Sundays. Sometimes things got scary. "People would get really pissed," Zach recalls, noting how angry drivers would occasionally pelt them them with eggs and soft drinks. "One time a guy broke my placard in half with a skateboard."

    Every Sunday, Zach would listen to his grandfather Fred Phelps preach the word of God. His style recalled the backwoods pastors of an earlier era, all hellfire and brimstone. Pulling from the most brutal passages of the Bible, Fred laid out his argument that God was ruthless, not loving. For as long as Zach had known him, Fred's primary focus was homosexuality. "The United States is a fag nation," he would often say during services. His warnings of impending destruction were often bizarre and accidentally comical. "You're going eat your babies!" he once said.

    Fred died this March at the age of 84. His presence still lingers, and he left behind an incredibly complicated legacy.

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  29. Fred was born in Meridian, Mississippi, about 90 miles east of Jackson. He bore a slight resemblance to Clint Eastwood and liked to wear cowboy hats. When he was just 21, in 1951, he got his first taste of fame. He created a stir at John Muir College in Pasadena, California, by preaching to students against "promiscuous petting." Time magazine profiled him, and Fred kept a framed copy of that article on his office wall throughout his life.

    In 1954, Fred and his wife, Margie, moved to Topeka, where he was hired as an associate pastor at the Eastside Baptist Church. Over the next two years, he gained a reputation as a thrilling preacher who conjured an atmosphere of controlled chaos. Eastside opened a second church in 1965 across town, in Westboro, and installed Fred as its leader. In a matter of weeks, he turned the church upside down.

    Fred introduced his "hateful God" theory and showed himself to be harsh, mean-spirited and possibly unhinged. Fred's son Mark, who was the first of his children to defect, tells me that when a male congregant came to Fred for marital counseling, the pastor recommended he beat his wife, using the Bible as justification. Before long, Fred had chased away most of Westboro's members, leaving his family as his only audience.

    At the same time, Fred, who'd put himself through Washburn University Law School, made a name for himself as a civil rights attorney, honored by the NAACP. Mark describes his work as sheer opportunism. "He used the N-word all the time," Mark says. "Many of his jokes were related to blacks. He defended them for the same reason he protested in public — he wanted the fame." (Fred was later disbarred for brutalizing a court clerk.)

    One day in 1991, Fred was taking a walk with his grandsons in a local park when a man allegedly propositioned one of them. This turned Fred's focus to homosexuality, which became his singular obsession for the rest of his life. Claiming the park had been "taken over by sodomites," he arranged the church's first picket, which attracted enough attention to beget more. By the end of the 1990s, Fred's notoriety peaked when he showed up with his family at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay 21-year-old who'd been tortured to death in a hate crime. But in 2005, his protesting of military funerals raised him to a new level of infamy. He called American soldiers "fag enablers."

    Fred's son Mark, who is now 60 and lives in Orange County, California, left Westboro in the early '70s. Over the following years, three of his siblings would also leave, branded by the congregation as villains and heretics. Unlike Zach, they had to sneak away under the threat of extreme violence. Fred apparently had a habit of going after his children and physically returning them to his home.

    This July, several months after his father's death, Mark began a blog called My Journey of Healing. In his telling — as well as those of his siblings who also defected — Fred was a mad sadist and a serial abuser. He flew into unpredictable rages and smashed up the kitchen. He beat his daughters with a leather shaving strap, and his sons with a mattock handle "about the weight of a baseball bat." "My father swung it with both hands like a baseball batter, with a full swing," Mark writes. Fred's wife faired no better. Once, "he threw her down the stairs, and as she was falling, she reached for something to catch herself and pulled her right arm out of the socket."

    Fred's grandchildren, even the ones who have left Westboro, hold a very different view of their grandfather. "Gramps," as they lovingly called him, would sing to them on their birthdays. In an interview with the New York Post, Zach's cousin, Libby Phelps-Alvarez, characterized Fred as "a Southern gentleman." She said, "You just want to be in his orbit."

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  30. Mark is fully aware of this discrepancy. "It took me about 10 years until I was broken," he says. His younger brother Nate, also a defector, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

    This March, just before Fred's death, his son Nate made a shocking public announcement: In September 2013, Fred had been excommunicated from his own church. Zach had leaked the news to Nate, and now says his grandfather "had a change of heart" near the end of his life. Supposedly one of the elders caught him outside the church, calling to a band of activists who had moved in across the street. "You are good people!" he said, before being whisked back inside.

    Zach says he knows the episode is true because he was present for the excommunication meeting, which took place in his parents' basement. After hearing the story, the members voted unanimously to kick out Westboro's spiritual leader and founder. For the last year of his life, Fred was barred from all church activities.

    Zach holds up his grandfather as an example of how the church can rethink its views. In a Facebook post this May, Zach exclaimed, "I love my grandfather! And I believe people DO change, if they are inspired enough!"


    After leaving the church, Zach went through long bouts of depression. He had difficulty sleeping and briefly contemplated suicide. "I felt like my life had no purpose," he says. He waited several months before publicly announcing his departure from Westboro, and through Facebook and Twitter he started to receive occasional messages of support from strangers, including a mental health nurse in her 40s. She encouraged him to rethink his interpretation of the Bible, but Zach was initially resistant, still fearing for the fate of his soul. The nurse, however, was a patient teacher, and pushed him to challenge his fixed ideas. "I remembered the quote, 'No peace for the wicked,'" he tells me. "I realized I was actually starting to find peace, even though Westboro would say I was wicked. I realized, OK, Westboro was literally wrong."

    In May, as Zach told the world about his grandfather's "change of heart," he underwent his own spiritual transformation. "I had an epiphany," he recalls. In an interview with the Topeka Capital-Journal, he described his new perspective. "I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world," he said. "I feel like I have found the Holy Grail, the overarching solution to solving all of society's problems."

    On his Twitter and Facebook pages, he offered his phone number to his followers, who are multiplying by the hundreds. "Call me if you're feeling bad," he instructed them. And in a Reddit AMA, he repeatedly implored participants to "treat the members of the WBC with LOVE!" He added, "Saying 'Fuck you' can easily be forgotten and it doesn't change their beliefs but only makes them feel validated."

    During one of our conversations, I asked Zach what difference it would make if people treated Westboro "with love." He says, "Since they believe they're supposed to be hated, loving them would prove them wrong." And once the church realized they were wrong, he says, their entire belief system would collapse, and they would be forced to renounce their religious convictions; the policy of excommunication would fall by the wayside. They would, in other words, be "saved."

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  31. Compared with what it once was Zach's life can seem lonely. He's close with his younger sister Grace, an arts student at Washburn, and he stays in touch with his sister Megan, a lawyer who now lives in South Dakota. His older brother Josh, who left the church a decade ago, lives an hour away, but after not speaking for years, they're only starting to get to know each other again. Zach maintains sporadic contact with other church defectors, like his uncles Mark and Nate. However, most of his time is spent with a tiny network of ex-members in Topeka, including two he currently stays with.

    But mainly Zach is trying to adapt to the outside world. He's working as a nurse at a women's correctional facility, and he has joined a Unitarian church — he still believes in God, he says, but not in hell. He's also, for the first time in his life, developing friendships. Most of them take place over social media. He regularly communicates with people who've been following him online since he left the church. While we were together, a troubled gay teenager from New Mexico sent him a text message. "I haven't been well and just feel unappreciated," he said. Zach responded, "I see man," then asked how he could help.

    As for real-life friends, so far he has one: a former high school classmate named Theo English, who happens to be gay. The three of us meet one day at a Topeka coffee shop. English, who wears a knitted dreadlock cap and a flannel shirt, flashes a bright smile. In some ways, he's taken on the role of mentor. When the two of them chat, Zach mostly nods and smiles, as if attempting to learn a new language. ("Theo taught me the word 'vanilla' as it pertains to sex," Zach tells me at one point. "It means you're not into kinky stuff.")

    English works at a sex shop and likes to stay out late. "I was at a party last night, dressed as a sexy zebra," he says. "I got so drunk."

    Zach looks at English sympathetically, and I ask him if he's ever been to a party before. He shakes his head vigorously and laughs. "Not ones he's been to," he says. "I'm usually asleep."

    "I'm throwing one tonight," English mentions. "You should come, baby."

    Zach's face turns red, and English asks him about the girl he's been talking to online. A few months ago, he drove 12 hours to meet her in her hometown in Alabama. "She held my hand," says Zach. "She gave me a hug. I said I didn't have any expectations." He texts her kissy emoticons and professes his love multiple times a day.

    Zach isn't one for irony, so he doesn't have much to say when I press him about his friendship with English, a member of the group he was raised to hate. "What's done is done," he says. "I can't change the past — the person I was feels like a complete stranger to me now." The two connected earlier this summer, when English waited on Zach at a restaurant. Now Zach buys him lunch.

    "I gave him my number and we started hanging out," English says, adding that it wasn't weird at all. "Religion doesn't make you who you are."

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  32. ***

    The next morning Sunday I attend a service at Westboro Baptist Church. Steve Drain, one of the pastors, ushers me inside. Thickset, with a mountain-man beard, Drain came to Westboro a decade ago to film a documentary about the church and wound up staying. As a pastor, he's one of the spiritual heirs to Fred Phelps.

    I sit in the back of the chapel, which is about the size of a suburban basement, adorned with the sort of wood paneling that was popular in the '70s. When the service gets under way, there is an opening prayer and Fred Phelps Jr., the founder's first child, steps up to the lectern to deliver the day's sermon. Bespectacled and bald, he doesn't channel the rage of his father. He points out that while the world may change, and same-sex marriage may even come to Kansas, Christ will remain the same. And those who sin will ultimately face his judgment. "Don't you ever forget it, my sodomite friends," he concludes.

    Afterward, I meet with Steve Drain in a small office off the chapel. Family photos cover the walls; none of them show Zach or his three siblings who defected. I ask Drain if it's true: Was Fred Phelps really excommunicated from the church? Had he really renounced his beliefs?

    "I'm never going to confirm or deny anything about excommunication," he says. "But as far as the other thing goes? That's a bald-faced lie on Zach's part." He shakes his head. "He's trying to make sense of what he's done. He has to adapt to a cruel world now. Of course, I came from that world, and I know how cruel and dark it is."

    Later Zach picks me up at a McDonald's around the corner. He doesn't ask about the service; instead we discuss his future. "Besides marrying my girlfriend," he says, "my only other dream is being reunited with my family."

    I'd spoken with his mother, Shirley, the day before, to arrange my visit to Westboro. Like many in the Phelps family, Shirley is an attorney. In 2011, she was a lead plaintiff in Snyder v. Phelps, in which Westboro argued, successfully, for the right to express members' views on the sidewalk — they'd been sued by the father of a dead Marine whose funeral they protested.

    When we speak, I ask Shirley about Zach. "There's only one thing to say about that heartbreaking situation," she says. "He has blasphemed. I only care that he repent. If not, he will surely be destroyed with the rest of this nation."

    "He wanted me to tell you he missed you."

    "I'm absolutely certain he does miss me," she says. "He knew we loved him. But you have to decide: Do you serve God or the child?"

    "Do you miss him?" I ask.

    "It's irrelevant," she says. "God or the child?"

    As we get closer to the airport, Zach asks, "Hey, did you ever speak to my mom?"

    Before I can answer, he says, "I know she definitely misses me."

    This article originally appeared at Vocativ.com: Exiled from Westboro: Leaving America's most hated church


  33. Westboro Baptist Church continues ‘hater’ tradition

    The Daily Star-Journal, April 2, 2015

    When the Rev. Fred Phelps died a year ago, on March 19, he left a legacy of acting with extreme prejudice against anyone who did not share his brimstone biblical interpretations.

    Many hoped his death would end the activities of his congregation at Westboro Baptist Church, Topeka, Kansas. But Phelps raised his children to believe as he believed. As the Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The trouble is, to train up a child in the wrong way to go works just as well as training the child in the right way to go.

    The Phelps children continue in his footsteps. Their church keeps a busy schedule.

    The web page, for Sunday alone, named three places where church members would protest – two churches and a seminary – for reasons including gay tolerance, tolerance of adultery and failing to preach about God’s wrath.

    The Westboro web page, under a slur against gay people, contains a variety of “press releases” that appear to maximize outrage. Those familiar with the church and the message know what to expect from the site. Others would be surprised to learn that, in the eyes of the church, those in uniform who defend this nation are equated, irrationally, with supporting gay rights, which the church considers an abomination worthy of hell.

    Anti-Semitism is more than a “whisper” on the site, which states, “An open letter to the elect Jews. The Jews killed Christ! They have never repented.”
    The hate extends to more familiar themes shared by those outside the church: “The Antichrist Bloody BeastObama is going to become king of the world. Obama-the-Muslim is a monstrous sinner before God, promoting abortion, sodomy, proud sin and blasphemy.” Obama, who has a hard time being president, has less than two years left to claim his kingship.

    Yes, Fred Phelps is gone, but his spirit hates on.


  34. Unfollow

    How a prized daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs.



    On December 1, 2009, to commemorate World AIDS Day, Twitter announced a promotion: if users employed the hashtag #red, their tweets would appear highlighted in red. Megan Phelps-Roper, a twenty-three-year-old legal assistant, seized the opportunity. “Thank God forAIDS!” she tweeted that morning. “You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought His wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse! #red.”

    As a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, Phelps-Roper believed that AIDS was a curse sent by God. She believed that all manner of other tragedies—war, natural disaster, mass shootings—were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members held signs with slogans like “GOD HATES FAGS” and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hatred.

    Westboro had long used the Internet to spread its message. In 1994, the church launched a Web site, www.godhatesfags.com, and early on it had a chat room where visitors could interact with members of Westboro. As a child, Phelps-Roper spent hours there, sparring with strangers. She learned about Twitter in 2008, after reading an article about an American graduate student in Egypt who had used it to notify his friends that he had been arrested while photographing riots. She opened an account but quickly lost interest—at the time, Twitter was still used mostly by early-adopting techies—until someone e-mailed Westboro’s Web site, in the summer of 2009, and asked if the church used the service. Phelps-Roper, who is tall, with voluminous curly hair and pointed features, volunteered to tweet for the congregation. Her posts could be easily monitored, since she worked at Phelps Chartered, the family law firm, beside her mother, Shirley, an attorney. Moreover, Megan was known for her mastery of the Bible and for her ability to spread Westboro’s doctrine. “She had a well-sharpened tongue, so to speak,” Josh Phelps, one of Megan’s cousins and a former member of Westboro, told me.

    In August, 2009, Phelps-Roper, under the handle @meganphelps, posted a celebratory tweet when Ted Kennedy died (“He defied God at every turn, teaching rebellion against His laws. Ted’s in hell!”) and a description of a picket that the church held at an American Idol concert in Kansas City (“TotallyAWESOME! Tons going in & taking pics—even tho others tried to block our signs”). On September 1st, her sister Bekah e-mailed church members to explain the utility of Twitter: “Now Megan has 87 followers and more are trickling in all the time. So every time we find something else to picket, or have some new video or picture we want to post (or just something that we see on the news and want to comment about)—87 people get first-hand, gospel commentary from Megan Marie.”

    A couple of hours after Phelps-Roper posted her tweet on World AIDS Day, she checked her e-mail and discovered numerous automated messages notifying her of new Twitter followers. Her tweet had been discovered by the comedian Michael Ian Black, who had more than a million followers. He was surprised that a member of the Westboro Baptist Church was on Twitter at all. “I sort of thought they would be this fire-and-brimstone sort of Pentecostal anti-technology clan that would be removed from the world,” he told me.

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  35. He tweeted, “Sort of obsessed w/ @meganphelps. Sample tweet: ‘AIDS is God’s curse on you.’ Let her feel your love.” The director Kevin Smith and “The Office” star Rainn Wilson mocked her, as did many of their followers.

    Phelps-Roper was exhilarated by the response. Since elementary school, she had given hundreds of interviews about Westboro, but the reaction on Twitter seemed more real than a quote in a newspaper. “It’s not just like ‘Yes, all these people are seeing it,’ ” she told me. “It’s proof that people are seeing it and reacting to it.” Phelps-Roper spent much of the morning responding to angry tweets, citing Bible passages. “I think your plan is back-firing,” she taunted Black. “Your followers are just nasty haters of God! You should do something about that . . . like tell them some truth every once in a while. Like this: God hates America.” That afternoon, as Phelps-Roper picketed a small business in Topeka with other Westboro members, she was still glued to her iPhone. “I did not want to be the one to let it die,” she said.

    By the end of the day, Phelps-Roper had more than a thousand followers. She took the incident as an encouraging sign that Westboro’s message was well suited to social media. She loved that Twitter let her talk to large numbers of people without the filter of a journalist. During the next few months, Phelps-Roper spearheaded Westboro’s push into the social-media age, using Twitter to offer a window into life in the church and giving it an air of accessibility.

    It was easy for Phelps-Roper to write things on Twitter that made other people cringe. She had been taught the church’s vision of God’s truth since birth. Her grandfather Fred Phelps established the church, in 1955. Megan’s mother was the fifth of Phelps’s thirteen children. Megan’s father, Brent Roper, had joined the church as a teen-ager. Every Sunday, Megan and her ten siblings sat in Westboro’s small wood-panelled church as her grandfather delivered the sermon. Fred Phelps preached a harsh Calvinist doctrine in a resounding Southern drawl. He believed that all people were born depraved, and that only a tiny elect who repented would be saved from Hell. A literalist, Phelps believed that contemporary Christianity, with its emphasis on God’s love, preached a perverted version of the Bible. Phelps denounced other Christians so vehemently that when Phelps-Roper was young she thought “Christian” was another word for evil. Phelps believed that God hated unrepentant sinners. God hated the politicians who were allowing the United States to descend into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. He hated the celebrities who glorified fornication.

    Phelps also believed that fighting the increasing tolerance of homosexuality was the key moral issue of our time. To illustrate gay sin, he described exotic sex acts in lurid detail. “He would say things like ‘These guys are slobbering around on each other and sucking on each other,’ ” Megan said. In awe of his conviction and deep knowledge of Scripture, she developed a revulsion to homosexuality. “We thought of him as a star in the right hand of God,” she said. Westboro had started as an offshoot of Topeka’s East Side Baptist Church, but by the time Phelps-Roper was born its congregation was composed mostly of Fred Phelps’s adult children and their families.

    Nevertheless, Phelps-Roper didn’t grow up in isolation. Westboro believed that its members could best preach to the wicked by living among them. The children of Westboro attended Topeka public schools, and Phelps-Roper ran track, listened to Sublime CDs, and read Stephen King novels. If you knew the truth in your heart, Westboro believed, even the filthiest products of pop culture couldn’t defile you.

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  36. She was friendly with her classmates and her teachers, but viewed them with extreme suspicion—she knew that they were either intentionally evil or deluded by God. “We would always say, They have nothing to offer us,” Phelps-Roper said. She never went to dances. Dating was out of the question. The Westboro students had a reputation for being diligent and polite in class, but at lunch they would picket the school, dodging food hurled at them by incensed classmates.

    Phelps-Roper was constantly around family. Nine of Fred Phelps’s children were still in the church, and most of them had large families of their own. Many of them worked as lawyers at Phelps Chartered. The church was in a residential neighborhood in southwest Topeka, and its members had bought most of the houses on the block around it. Their back yards were surrounded by a tall fence, creating a huge courtyard that was home to a trampoline, an in-ground pool, a playground, and a running track. They called the Westboro compound the Block, and considered it a sanctuary in a world full of evil. “We did lots of fun normal-kids stuff,” Megan said.

    The Phelps-Roper home was the biggest on the Block, and a room in the basement acted as a kind of community center for Westboro. An alcove in the kitchen had cubbies for the signs that were used in pickets. On summer afternoons, Shirley led Bible readings for young members. She had a central role in nearly every aspect of Westboro’s operations: she was its media coördinator, planned the pickets, and managed Phelps Chartered. A parade of journalists and Westboro members sought meetings with her. Louis Theroux, a British filmmaker who made two documentaries about Westboro, said, “My feeling was that there was a pecking order and there was an unacknowledged hierarchy, and at the top of it was Shirley’s family.” Starting in middle school, Megan worked side by side with Shirley; among her siblings, she had a uniquely strong bond with her mother. “I felt like I could ask her anything about anything,” Megan told me.

    Other young Westboro members regarded Shirley with a mixture of fear and respect. “Shirley had a very abrasive personality,” Josh Phelps said. But, he added, she could be remarkably tender when dispensing advice or compliments. Megan lacked Shirley’s hard edge. “She was just happy in general,” her cousin Libby Phelps, one of Megan’s close friends, told me.

    Shirley, as Westboro’s de-facto spokeswoman, granted interviews to almost any outlet, no matter how obscure or adversarial. “She was smart and funny, and would answer impertinent questions and not be offended about it,” Megan said. When reporters wanted the perspective of a young person, Shirley let them speak to Megan. In sixth grade, Megan gave her first live interview when she answered a call from a couple of radio d.j.s who wanted to speak to her mother. Megan recalls, “They thought it was hilarious, this eleven-year-old talking about hating Jews.”

    Obedience was one of the most important values that Shirley instilled in Megan. She would sum up the Bible in three words: “Obey. Obey. Obey.” The smallest hint of dissent was seen as an intolerable act of rebellion against God. Megan was taught that there would always be a tension between what she felt and thought as a human and what the Bible required of her. But giving place to rebellious thoughts was the first step down the path toward Hell. “The tone of your voice or the look on your face—you could get into so much trouble for these things, because they betray what’s in your heart,” she said. Her parents took to heart the proverb “He that spareth his rod hateth his son.” Her uncle gave them a novelty wooden paddle inscribed with the tongue-in-cheek direction “May be used on any child from 5 to 75,” and her father hung it on the wall next to the family photos.

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  37. The joke hit close to home for Phelps-Roper, who was spanked well into her teens. Sometimes, she told me, “it went too far, for sure.” But, she added, “I also always knew that they were just trying to do what God required of them.”

    As she grew older, she came to find comfort, and even joy, in submitting her will to the word of God. Children in Westboro must make a profession of faith before they are baptized and become full members of the church. One day in June, when she was thirteen, her grandfather baptized her in the shallow end of the Block’s pool. “I wanted to do everything right,” she said. “I wanted to be good, and I wanted to be obedient, and I wanted to be the object of my parents’ pride. I wanted to go to Heaven.”

    Westboro started picketing in June, 1991, when Phelps-Roper was five years old. Fred Phelps believed that Gage Park, less than a mile from the Block, had become overrun with gay men cruising for sex. Phelps claimed that he was inspired to launch the Great Gage Park Decency Drive, as he called it, after one of his young grandsons was propositioned while biking through the park. The church sought redress from city officials, to no avail, so throughout the summer church members, including Megan, protested every day, walking in a circle while holding signs with messages written in permanent marker such as “WARNING! GAYS IN THE BUSHES! WATCH YOUR CHILDREN!” and “AND GOD OVER-THREW SODOM.”

    The pickets were met with an immediate backlash from the community, but Phelps was not deterred. He had been a committed civil-rights attorney in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, one of the few lawyers to represent black Kansans in discrimination suits, before the state disbarred him, in 1979, for harassing a court reporter who failed to have a transcript ready in time. Now Westboro targeted local churches, politicians, businesses, journalists, and anyone else who criticized Phelps’s crusade. Throughout the nineties, Westboro members crisscrossed the country, protesting the funerals of AIDS victims and gay-pride parades. They picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay man whose murder, in what was widely believed to be a hate crime, became a rallying cry for gay-rights activists. They picketed high schools, concerts, conferences, and film festivals, no matter how tenuous the connection to homosexuality or other sins. “Eventually, the targets broadened such that everyone was a target,” Phelps-Roper said.

    Phelps-Roper enjoyed picketing. When the targets were within driving distance, the group packed into a minivan and her grandfather saw them off from his driveway. “At five in the morning, he’d come out and give us all hugs,” she said. When they flew, she and Libby recounted “Saturday Night Live” skits. Amazing things happened on the trips. In New Orleans, they ran into Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister, and serenaded him with an anti-Semitic parody of Israel’s national anthem. Phelps-Roper learned to hold two signs in each hand, a technique that Westboro members called the Butterfly. Her favorite slogans were “GOD IS YOUR ENEMY,” “NO PEACE FOR THE WICKED,” “GOD HATES YOUR IDOLS,” and “MOURN FOR YOUR SINS.” She laughed and sang and smiled in the face of angry crowds. “If you were ever upset or even scared, you do not show it, because this is not the time or the place,” she said. Phelps-Roper believed that she was engaged in a profound act of love. Leviticus 19:17 commands, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.” “When you see someone is backing into traffic, you yell at them,” Phelps-Roper said. “You don’t mope around and say it’s such a good idea.”

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  38. One of the most common questions she was asked on the picket line was why she hated gay people so much. She didn’t hate gay people, she would reply, God hated gay people. And the rest of the world hated them, too, by cheering them on as they doomed themselves to Hell. “We love these fags more than anyone,” she would say.

    In the summer of 2005, Westboro began protesting the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, holding signs like “THANK GOD FOR IEDS.” “They turned the country over to the fags—they’re coming home in body bags!” Fred Phelps would say. He believed that 9/11 was God’s punishment for America’s embrace of homosexuality, but that, instead of repenting, Americans had drowned this warning in a flood of patriotism. Phelps believed that God had killed the soldiers to warn a doomed America, and that it was the church’s job to make this fact explicit for the mourners. The scale of the picketing increased dramatically. One of Phelps-Roper’s aunts checked the Department of Defense Web site every day for notifications of casualties. The outrage sparked by the soldier-funeral protests dwarfed anything that Phelps-Roper had experienced previously. Crowds of rowdy, sometimes violent counterprotesters tried to block their signs with huge American flags. A group of motorcyclists called the Patriot Guard Riders eventually began to follow Westboro members around the country, revving their engines to drown out their singing.

    Phelps-Roper picketed her first military funeral in July, 2005, in Omaha. She was nineteen years old and a sophomore at Washburn University, a secular public college in Topeka, where many Westboro children went. The Westboro members stood across the street from the church, in a quiet neighborhood in South Omaha, as the mourners filed in. “Everybody’s in close quarters, and marines in dress blues are just staring at us with—the word that comes to mind is hateful ‘disgust.’ Like ‘How could you possibly do this?’ ” Phelps-Roper said. But, before the picket, she asked her mother to walk her through the Bible passages that justified their actions. “I’m, like, O.K., it’s there,” she said. “This is right.” She added, “This was the only hope for mankind, and I was so grateful to be part of this ministry.”

    In September, 2009, when Phelps-Roper began to use Twitter in earnest, Westboro was preparing for the end of the world. Fred Phelps had preached for years that the end was near, but his sermons grew more dire after Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Phelps believed that Obama was the Antichrist, and that his Presidency signalled the beginning of the Apocalypse. The sense of looming calamity was heightened by a multimillion-dollar judgment against the church that had been awarded, in 2007, to Albert Snyder, who sued Westboro after it picketed the funeral of his son Matt, a U.S. marine killed in Iraq. Westboro members drew prophecies from the Book of Revelation about how the end might unfold. First, the Supreme Court would overturn the Snyder verdict. The country would be so enraged by Westboro’s victory that its members would be forced to flee to Israel. Obama would be crowned king of the world, then lead every nation in war against Israel. Israel would be destroyed, and only a hundred and forty-four thousand Jews who repented for killing Jesus would be spared. (Revelation says that a hundred and forty-four thousand “children of Israel” are “redeemed from among men.”) Westboro members would lead these converted Jews through the wilderness until Christ returned and ushered them into Heaven. Phelps-Roper and her family members all got passports, so that they could travel to Israel. One day, she was in the grocery store and picked up a container of yogurt with Oreo pieces. She stared at it, thinking, We won’t have modern conveniences like this in the wilderness. Is it better to learn to live without them, or to enjoy them while we can?

  39. Still, she had a hard time believing in aspects of the future foretold by some church members, like the idea that they would soon be living in pink caves in Jordan. “We were making specific predictions about things without having, in my mind, sufficient scriptural support,” she said. Many other members shared her bewilderment, she found, and so she turned to Twitter for answers. Most of the prophecies centered on Jews, so she found a list, published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a syndicated news service, of the hundred most influential Jewish Twitter users. She created an account under the pseudonym Marissa Cohen and followed many of the people on the list, hoping to learn if Westboro’s prophecies were coming true.

    As the prophecies were developed, Westboro expanded the focus of its preaching to include the Jewish community. Members hoped to find the hundred and forty-four thousand repentant Jews. They picketed synagogues and sent anti-Semitic DVDs to Jewish organizations. Westboro called the protests the Fateful Fig Find, after a parable in the Book of Jeremiah that compares Jews who had been captured by the Babylonians to two baskets of figs, one good and one “naughty.” Phelps-Roper thought that this initiative was more explicitly supported by the Bible than other parts of the prophecies were, so she threw herself into the effort. She wrote the church’s press release: “WBC IS LOOKING FOR THE GOOD FIGS AMONG THE CHRIST-REJECTING HYPOCRITES!” She looked at the J.T.A. list of influential Jews and saw that No. 2 was David Abitbol, a Jerusalem-based Web developer and the founder of the Jewish-culture blog Jewlicious. With more than four thousand followers and a habit of engaging with those who tweeted at him, he would be a prime target for Westboro’s message of repentance, she figured.

    On September 9, 2009, Shirley gave an interview to an Atlanta radio station, and Phelps-Roper shared a quote on Twitter. Phelps-Roper tagged Abitbol in the post so that he would see it. She wrote, “Atlanta: radio guy says ‘Finish this sentence: the only good Jew is a . . .’ Ma says ‘REPENTANT Jew!’ The only answer that suffices @jewlicious.” “Thanks Megan!” he responded. “That’s handy what with Yom Kippur coming up!” Phelps-Roper posted another tweet, spelling it out more clearly. “Oh & @jewlicious? Your dead rote rituals == true repentance. We know the diff. Rev. 3:9 You keep promoting sin, which belies the ugly truth.” “Dead rote rituals?” he responded. “U mean like holding up God Hates Shrimp, err I mean Fag signs up? Your ‘ministry’ is a joke.”

    “Anybody’s initial response to being confronted with the sort of stuff Westboro Baptist Church says is to tell them to fuck off,” Abitbol told me. Abitbol is a large man in his early fifties who often has a shaggy Mohawk, which he typically covers with a Montreal Expos baseball cap. He was familiar with Westboro from its godhatesfags.com Web site. He had lived in Montreal in the nineties, and had become fascinated with the explosion of hate sites on the early Internet. “Most people, when they first get access to the Internet, the first thing they wanted to see was naked ladies,” he told me. “The first thing I wanted to see was something I didn’t have access to in Montreal: neo-Nazis and hate groups.” There were few widely available search engines at the time, so he spent hours tracking down the Web sites of Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, and racists of all types. He and a friend eventually created a directory called Net Hate, which listed the sites along with mocking descriptions. “We didn’t want to debate them, we just wanted to make fun of them,” he said. As for the Westboro members, “I just thought they were crazy.”

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  40. Phelps-Roper got into an extended debate with Abitbol on Twitter. “Arguing is fun when you think you have all the answers,” she said. But he was harder to get a bead on than other critics she had encountered. He had read the Old Testament in its original Hebrew, and was conversant in the New Testament as well. She was taken aback to see that he signed all his blog posts on Jewlicious with the handle “ck”—for “christ killer”—as if it were a badge of honor. Yet she found him funny and engaging. “I knew he was evil, but he was friendly, so I was especially wary, because you don’t want to be seduced away from the truth by a crafty deceiver,” Phelps-Roper said.

    Abitbol had learned while running Net Hate that relating to hateful people on a human level was the best way to deal with them. He saw that Phelps-Roper had a lot of followers and was an influential person in the church, so he wanted to counter her message. And he wanted to humanize Jews to Westboro. “I wanted to be like really nice so that they would have a hard time hating me,” he said. One day, he tweeted about the television show “Gossip Girl,” and Phelps-Roper responded jocularly about one of its characters. “You know, for an evil something something, you sure do crack me up,” Abitbol responded.

    On December 20, 2009, Phelps-Roper was in the basement of her house, for a church function, when she checked Twitter on her phone and saw that Brittany Murphy, the thirty-two-year-old actress, had died. When she read the tweet aloud, other church members reacted with glee, celebrating another righteous judgment from God. “Lots of people were talking about going to picket her funeral,” Phelps-Roper said. When Phelps-Roper was younger, news of terrible events had given her a visceral thrill. On 9/11, she was in the crowded hallway of her high school when she overheard someone talking about how an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. “Awesome!” she exclaimed, to the horror of a student next to her. She couldn’t wait to picket Ground Zero. (The following March, she and other Westboro members travelled to New York City to protest what they described in a press release as “FDNY fags and terrorists.”) But Phelps-Roper had loved Murphy in “Clueless,” and she felt an unexpected pang—not quite sadness, but something close—over her death. As she continued scrolling through Twitter, she saw that it was full of people mourning Murphy. The contrast between the grief on Twitter and the buoyant mood in the basement unsettled her. She couldn’t bring herself to post a tweet thanking God for Murphy’s death. “I felt like I would be such a jackass to go on and post something like that,” she said.

    Her hesitance reflected a growing concern for the feelings of people outside Westboro. Church members disdained human feelings as something that people worshipped instead of the Bible. They even had a sign: “GOD HATES YOUR FEELINGS.” They disregarded people’s feelings in order to break their idols. Just a few months earlier, the Westboro Web site had received an e-mail arguing that the church’s constant use of the word “fag” was needlessly offensive. “Get a grip, you presumptuous toad,” Phelps-Roper had replied. She signed off, “Have a lovely day. You’re going to Hell.”

    But on Twitter Phelps-Roper found that it was better to take a gentler tone. For one thing, Twitter’s hundred-and-forty-character limit made it hard to fit both a florid insult and a scriptural point. And if she made things personal the conversation was inevitably derailed by a flood of angry tweets. She still preached God’s hate, and still liberally deployed the word “fag,” but she also sprinkled her tweets with cheerful exclamations and emoticons.

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  41. She became adept at deflecting critics with a wry joke. “So, when do you drink the Kool-aid?” one user tweeted at her. “More of a Sunkist lemonade drinker, myself. =)” she replied. Phelps-Roper told me, “We weren’t supposed to care about what people thought about us, but I did.” As she developed her affable rhetorical style, she justified it with a proverb: “By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.”

    Other Twitter users were fascinated by the dissonance between Westboro’s loathsome reputation and the goofy, pop-culture-obsessed millennial who Phelps-Roper seemed to be on Twitter. “I remember just thinking, How can somebody who appreciates good music believe so many hateful things?” Graham Hughes said. In November, 2009, Hughes, then a college student in British Columbia, interviewed Phelps-Roper for a religious-studies class. Afterward, they corresponded frequently on Twitter. When Hughes was hospitalized with a brain infection, Phelps-Roper showed him more concern than many of his real-life friends. “I knew there was a genuine connection between us,” he said.

    As Phelps-Roper continued to tweet, she developed relationships with more people like Hughes. There was a Jewish marketing consultant in Brooklyn who abhorred Westboro’s tactics but supported the church’s right to express its views. There was a young Australian guy who tweeted political jokes that she and her younger sister Grace found hilarious. “It was like I was becoming part of a community,” Phelps-Roper said. By following her opponents’ feeds, she absorbed their thoughts on the world, learned what food they ate, and saw photographs of their babies. “I was beginning to see them as human,” she said. When she read about an earthquake that struck off Canada’s Pacific coast, she sent a concerned tweet to Graham Hughes: “Isn’t this close to you?”

    In February, 2010, Westboro protested a festival in Long Beach, California, that David Abitbol had organized through Jewlicious. Phelps-Roper’s conversations with Abitbol had continued through the winter, and she knew that debating him in person would be more challenging than on Twitter. The church set up its picket a block from the Jewish community center where the festival was taking place. Phelps-Roper held four signs, while an Israeli flag dragged on the ground from her leg. The church members were quickly mobbed by an angry crowd. “Each of us was really surrounded,” Phelps-Roper said. “Two really old women came up behind me and started whispering the filthiest stuff I’d ever heard.”

    She recognized Abitbol from his Twitter avatar. They made some small talk—Abitbol was amused by a sign, held by one of Phelps-Roper’s sisters, that said “YOUR RABBI IS A WHORE”—then began to debate her about Westboro’s doctrine. “Our in-person interaction resembled our Twitter interaction,” Phelps-Roper said. “Funny, friendly, but definitely on opposite sides and each sticking to our guns.” Abitbol asked why Westboro always denounced homosexuality but never mentioned the fact that Leviticus also forbade having sex with a woman who was menstruating. The question embarrassed Phelps-Roper—“I didn’t want to talk about it because, ugh”—but it did strike her as an interesting point. As far as she could remember, her grandfather had never addressed that issue from the pulpit. Still, Phelps-Roper enjoyed the exchange with Abitbol. Not long after, she told him that Westboro would be picketing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations, in New Orleans, that year. Abitbol said that he’d be there, too, and when they met again they exchanged gifts.

    Phelps-Roper and Abitbol continued their conversations via e-mail and Twitter’s direct-message function. In Phelps-Roper’s effort to better understand Westboro’s new prophecies, she had bought a copy of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism,” but she found it more profitable just to ask Abitbol her questions.

  42. Here was a real live Orthodox Jew who lived in Israel and was more than happy to enlighten her. During their debates over Scripture, Phelps-Roper sometimes quoted passages from the Old Testament; Abitbol often countered that their meaning differed in the original Hebrew, so Phelps-Roper bought some language-learning software. She figured that, since she would soon be living in Israel awaiting the end of the world, she should learn the language. Abitbol helped her with the vocabulary.

    Phelps-Roper still urged Abitbol to repent, but as someone who was concerned about a wayward friend. “I just wish you would obey God and use your considerable platform to warn your audience about the consequences of engaging in conduct that God calls abomination,” she e-mailed Abitbol in October, 2010.

    In response, Abitbol kept pressing Phelps-Roper on Westboro’s doctrine. One day, he asked about a Westboro sign that said “DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS,” referring to a commandment from Leviticus. Abitbol pointed out that Jesus had said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” Abitbol knew that at least one member of Westboro had committed a sin that Leviticus also deems a capital crime. Phelps-Roper’s oldest brother, Sam, was the product of a relationship that Shirley had had with a man she met while she was in law school, before she married Megan’s father.
    Shirley’s sin of fornication was often thrown in the church members’ faces by counterprotesters. Westboro always argued that the difference between Shirley and gay people was that Shirley had repented of her sin, whereas gays marched in pride parades. But Abitbol wrote that if gay people were killed they wouldn’t have the opportunity to repent.

    Phelps-Roper was struck by the double standard, and, as she did whenever she had a question about doctrine, she brought up the issue with her mother. Shirley responded that Romans said gays were “worthy of death,” and that if it was good enough for God it was good enough for Westboro. “It was such a settled point that they’ve been preaching for so long it’s almost like it didn’t mean anything to her,” Phelps-Roper said. Still, she concluded that Westboro was in the wrong. “That was the first time I came to a place where I disagreed, I knew I disagreed, and I didn’t accept the answer that they gave,” she said. Phelps-Roper knew that to press the issue would create problems for her in the church, so she quietly stopped holding the “DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS” sign. There were plenty of other signs whose message she still believed in wholeheartedly. She also put an end to the conversations with Abitbol.

    Phelps-Roper found it easy to ignore her doubt amid the greater publicity that Westboro was receiving, much of it tied to her Twitter activity. In February, 2011, the hacker collective Anonymous declared war against Westboro. On Twitter, Phelps-Roper taunted the group’s members as “crybaby hackers.” Anonymous retaliated by hacking godhatesfags.com, and blogs seized on the drama. “Thanks, Anonymous! Your efforts to shut up God’s word only serve to publish it further,” Phelps-Roper tweeted. In March, Westboro members walked out of a screening of the film “Red State,” which spoofed the church. They had been invited by the director, Kevin Smith, with whom Phelps-Roper had kept up a running feud on Twitter since World AIDSDay. Ten days earlier, the Supreme Court had overturned the judgment against Westboro in the Albert Snyder case. Phelps-Roper was inundated with tweets and new followers. That month, she tweeted more than two thousand times; by the end of the month, she had more than seven thousand followers. “That explosion of activity, it was insane,” she said.

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  43. But as other members of the church joined Twitter they began to question her friendly relations with outsiders. In April, 2011, the BBC aired one of Louis Theroux’s documentaries about Westboro. In one scene, Phelps-Roper explained how she used Twitter to keep up with a group of four Dutch filmmakers who had visited Westboro in 2010. She showed Theroux a picture of one of the filmmakers, Pepijn Borgwat, a smiling, handsome young man holding a package of chocolate truffles that she and her sister Grace had given to him.

    The day after the documentary aired, Sam Phelps-Roper sent an e-mail to church members urging more discretion in their tweets. “I understand the concept of showing the world our brotherly kindness, but we don’t have to let it all hang out,” he wrote. Megan’s father made her block the Dutch journalists from her private Twitter account. “It feels like we are opening ourselves up for entangling ourselves with the affairs or cares of this life,” he e-mailed Phelps-Roper and her siblings. Phelps-Roper said, “It made me scared for myself that I wanted that. And so I was, like, ‘O.K., you gotta step back.’ ”

    Another online relationship proved more threatening. In February, 2011, Phelps-Roper began to have conversations on Twitter with a user named @F_K_A. His avatar was Robert Redford in “The Great Gatsby.” He had learned of Westboro after reading an article about the Anonymous hack. “He sent me a tweet, and initially it was like this angry, nasty tweet,” Phelps-Roper said. But @F_K_A was disarmed by Phelps-Roper’s friendly demeanor. He began to ask her questions about life in Westboro, and, because he was curious instead of condemning, she kept answering them. One day, Phelps-Roper recalled, “I asked him some kind of pointed question about the Bible. He said something like, ‘I can’t answer that, but I have never been beaten in Words with Friends’ ”—the popular online Scrabble knockoff. Phelps-Roper replied, “I can’t boast the same. =)” She put her Words with Friends username at the end of the tweet.

    They began to talk about the church using the in-game chat function, free from Twitter’s character limit. @F_K_A told Phelps-Roper to call him C.G. But C.G. remained a mystery. She knew that he was an attorney, but she didn’t know where he lived or how old he was. “He was careful not to reveal anything about himself,” Phelps-Roper said.

    Like David Abitbol, C.G. argued against Westboro’s beliefs and practices, but while Abitbol’s arguments were doctrinal C.G. was most critical of Westboro’s cruelty. “We had the same discussion several times when someone would die,” Phelps-Roper said. C.G. urged Phelps-Roper to think of how much hurt it must cause the families of the deceased to see Phelps-Roper and her family rejoicing. Westboro divided people into good and evil, but, Phelps-Roper said, C.G. “always tried to advocate for a third group of people: people who were decent but not religious.” She had heard all these arguments before, but they had never affected her as they did when C.G. made them. “I just really liked him,” she said. “He seemed to genuinely like people and care about people, and that resonated with me.”

    Phelps-Roper increasingly found herself turning to Bible passages where tragedy is not met with joy. The Old Testament prophet Elisha, for example, weeps when he foresees disaster for Israel. 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. Her mother asked what was wrong, and Phelps-Roper showed her the gallery. Her mother quickly composed a triumphant blog post about the famine. “Thank God for famine in East Africa!” she wrote. “God is longsuffering and patient, but he repays the wicked TO THEIR FACE!”

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  44. When Brittany Murphy died, Phelps-Roper had seen the disparity between her reaction and that of the rest of the church as a sign that something was wrong with her. Now the contradiction of her mother’s glee and her own sadness made her wonder if something was wrong with the church.

    Phelps-Roper’s conversations with C.G. often drifted away from morality. C.G. liked indie rock and literary fiction. He introduced Phelps-Roper to bands like the Antlers, Blind Pilot, and Cults—“funnily enough,” she said—and to the novels of David Foster Wallace and Marilynne Robinson. “Hipster shit,” Phelps-Roper said. He turned her on to the Field Notes brand of notebooks. He poked fun at the inelegant fonts that Westboro used for its press releases. After C.G. complimented her on her grammar, she took pains to make sure that her tweets were free of clunky text-message abbreviations.

    As Phelps-Roper developed her relationship with C.G., her sister Grace grew suspicious. “Suddenly, her taste in music started changing,” Grace told me. “It annoyed me, because it wasn’t coming from Megan. It was coming from him, this question mark of a person that I don’t get to know about, but she has some kind of thing with.” As young children, Grace and Megan had squabbled constantly, but they had grown close. Grace was seven years younger than Megan, and still in high school at the time. Grace would scroll through Megan’s iPhone, asking about the various messages and e-mails. But soon after Megan started talking to C.G. she stopped letting Grace look at her phone. “I remember thinking, What the heck? What are you hiding?” Grace said.

    For young women in Westboro, having romantic interactions with someone outside the church was forbidden. When Phelps-Roper was growing up, one of her cousins had been pushed out of the church for, among other things, getting entangled with boys; other young women had been harshly punished. Phelps-Roper had long assumed that she would likely never get married, since she was related to almost every male in the church. “I was terrified of even thinking about guys,” she said. “It’s not just the physical stuff that can get you in trouble.” She did her best to displace her feelings for C.G. onto the music and books he recommended, which she fervently consumed. “I was in denial,” she said.

    Then, on September 30, 2011, she had a dream: It was a beautiful summer day, and she was standing on the driveway of the church. A black car with tinted windows pulled up, and a tall, blond man got out. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew it was C.G. She walked up to him, and they embraced. She knew her family could see them on the surveillance cameras that line the Block, but she didn’t care. “It was so real, that feeling of wanting to be with him,” Phelps-Roper told me. She woke up fighting back tears. “He was not a good person, according to the church,” she said. “And the fact that I dreamed about him, and the strong feeling of wanting that relationship, represented huge danger to me.” That day, she told C.G. that they couldn’t talk anymore. She deleted her Words with Friends account. C.G. deleted his Twitter account.

    Phelps-Roper tried to throw herself back into the Westboro community, but the atmosphere had changed while she was distracted by her relationship with C.G. It had started in April, 2011. Her mother seemed mysteriously troubled. After Phelps-Roper pressed her parents, they showed her an e-mail they’d received from her oldest brother, Sam, and Steve Drain, another church member. It accused her mother of lacking humility, saying that she was too zealous in correcting other members’ behavior and had overreached her authority on a number of occasions, Phelps-Roper told me. Reading the e-mail made her sick with fear.

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  45. When a Westboro member was singled out for bad behavior, it often triggered a harrowing period of discipline. The smallest transgression could spark another round of punishment, until the member either shaped up or was kicked out of the church.

    Shirley’s role in the church was reduced dramatically. “My mother was supposed to be primarily a mother and a caretaker,” Zach Phelps-Roper, Megan’s younger brother, told me. Megan took over picket planning, while Steve Drain became the church’s media manager. The Phelps-Roper house was now quiet, as the flow of church members and reporters stopped. “I watched her all my life work so hard and sacrifice so much, and just be so willing to do anything for anybody,” Phelps-Roper said. “She had to be put in her place, essentially, and that feeling—it just was really, really wrong to me.” (Drain insists that Megan’s description of the letter is inaccurate. He said that it was a “disciplinary message,” but wouldn’t reveal its contents. “We don’t air our dirty laundry,” he said.)

    An all-male group of nine elders took control of church affairs. Previously, decisions at Westboro had been hashed out in church meetings, where consensus was required before moving forward. But the elders met separately before bringing their decisions to the rest of the group. The church became more secretive, as members were reluctant to discuss important issues for fear of appearing to go behind the elders’ backs.

    Women like Shirley and her older sister Margie—an attorney who had argued the Snyder case in front of the Supreme Court—had always been among the most public and influential members of the church. Westboro members drew on stories of powerful women in the Bible, like Deborah, a prophet and judge of Israel. But now the emphasis shifted to passages about women submitting to their husbands. Fred Phelps encouraged church members to read the Evangelical writer John R. Rice’s book “Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers,” from 1941, which offered a view of gender roles that was regressive even when it was published. “It suddenly sucked to be a woman,” Phelps-Roper said. “It was, like, I would need to get permission from Dad to talk to anybody else.”

    Westboro women had long been forbidden to cut their hair, and had restrictions on other aspects of their appearance. But now the elders required more severe standards of modesty. Phelps-Roper had to wear high-necked shirts and dresses or shorts that covered her knees. After one shopping trip with her mother and her sisters, Phelps-Roper had to show her clothes to her father and her brother Sam, to make sure that they were appropriate. She was barred from wearing colorful nail polish and her favorite gold sandals to church. Phelps-Roper was upset to learn that some of her cousins lived under more liberal standards. How could God’s judgment differ from house to house?

    Phelps-Roper’s confusion soon turned to outrage. In 2012, she was twenty-six years old, but she was still being treated like a child. Once-minor indignities, like being accompanied by an adult chaperone while eating lunch at a restaurant with other young church members, now seemed unbearable. In April, she was shocked when Westboro expelled a cousin of hers without adhering to the process that the church had always followed, which was derived from the Book of Matthew. Typically, expulsion resulted only after a unanimous decision, but in the cousin’s case she was excluded over other members’ objections. (Drain recalls no objections, and said, “Everything was done decently and in accordance with Scripture.”) “It stopped feeling like this larger-than-life divine institution ordained and led by God, and more like the sniping and sordid activity of men who wanted to be in control,” Phelps-Roper said.

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  46. She resented the increasing authority wielded by Drain. One of the few Westboro members unrelated to Fred Phelps, Drain had visited Topeka in 2000 to film a skeptical documentary about the church, but he soon became convinced of its message. The next year, he and his family joined the church. He’d long pushed for a larger role in Westboro, and after the elders came to power his influence increased. In February, 2012, during the funeral of Whitney Houston, in New Jersey, Drain urged Phelps-Roper and other members to tweet poorly Photoshopped images that depicted them haranguing mourners. The media quickly unravelled the hoax. (Drain told me that the fake picket was never meant to be taken literally.)

    Phelps-Roper was embarrassed by the debacle. It undermined her own proud claims on Twitter to be spreading God’s truth—and lying violated Scripture. In addition, she now had to have all her media appearances approved by Drain. “It seems like he wants to be Pope Steve and for no one else to do anything without his permission,” she wrote in her journal. “I hate it so much.”

    Megan’s doubt engendered by the “DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS” sign grew. She started to complain to her mother, saying that the elders were not obeying the Bible. They treated her mother and other members with cruelty when the Bible required brotherly love, she said. The elders acted arrogantly and tolerated no dissent, when God demanded meekness and humility. Phelps-Roper was struck by the similarities between her arguments and what C.G. and David Abitbol had always said about the church. “It was like we were finally doing to ourselves what we had done to everyone else,” she said. “Seeing those parallels was really disorienting.”
    Drain disputed many of Phelps-Roper’s characterizations of the changes in the church. He acknowledged that an all-male group of elders assumed preaching duties, but not that this led to a less open atmosphere in the church. “There’s definitely more participation than when I first got here, in 2001, when you had one person doing all the sermons,” he said, referring to Fred Phelps.

    He also denied that women in the church had been significantly marginalized. “Women do a lot at Westboro now, as they always have,” he said. Shirley’s role was not reduced as a punishment for overstepping her bounds, he said. Instead, after the Snyder decision, other members had volunteered to help her deal with an overwhelming torrent of media. “We lifted her burden,” he said. He pointed out that Shirley had recently spoken at a picket protesting Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who had refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples—the church took issue with Davis’s remarriages after divorce. (Through Drain, Megan’s parents declined to comment.)

    Phelps-Roper first considered leaving the church on July 4, 2012. She and Grace were in the basement of another Westboro family’s house, painting the walls. The song “Just One,” by the indie folk group Blind Pilot—a band that C.G. had recommended—played on the stereo. The lyrics seemed to reflect her dilemma perfectly: “And will I break and will I bow / if I cannot let it go?” Then came the chorus: “I can’t believe we get just one.” She suddenly thought, What if Westboro had been wrong about everything? What if she was spending her one life hurting people, picking fights with the entire world, for nothing? “It was, like, just the fact that I thought about it, I had to leave right then,” she said. “I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin.”

    The next day, she mentioned the possibility of leaving to Grace. Grace was horrified. “It just sounded ridiculous to even suggest it,” Grace told me. “These were the points I brought up: we’re never going to see our families again, we’re going to go to Hell for eternity, and our life will be meaningless.” Megan, still uncertain, agreed.

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  47. But she plunged into a profound crisis of faith. “It was like flipping a switch,” she said. “So many other thoughts came in that I’d never pursued, and that’s every doubt that I’d ever had, everything that had ever seemed illogical or off.”

    When they were together, Megan engaged Grace in interminable theological conversations. When they were apart, Megan detailed her doubts in text messages. One day, she texted Grace, “What if the God of the Bible isn’t the God of creation? We don’t believe that the Koran has the truth about God. Is it just because we were told forever that this is How Things Are?” She added, “Does it really make you happy when you hear about people dying or starving or being maimed? Do you really want to ask God to hurt people? I ask myself these questions. I think the answer is no. When I’m not scared of the answer, I know the answer is no.” Two days later, she texted Grace about Hell: “Why do we think it’s real? It’s starting to seem made up to scare people into doing what they say.” Grace replied, “But what if?”

    That day, Grace wrote to Megan, “Our belief in God has always curbed everything. Like, pain & sorrow, I mean. Without that we’d only have our belief in each other. But we are human & humans die. What would we have if we didn’t have each other?” For Megan, the answer could be found in other people. “We know what it is to be kind & good to people,” she wrote. “We would just have to find somewhere else, other people to love and care about and help, too.” Grace wrote back, “I don’t want other people.” In truth, Megan didn’t want other people, either; she desperately wanted things in Westboro to go back to the way they had been. But the idea of living among outsiders was no longer unimaginable.

    Phelps-Roper spent the summer and the fall in an existential spiral. She would conclude that everything about Westboro’s doctrine was wrong, only to be seized with terror that these thoughts were a test from God, and she was failing. “You literally feel insane,” she said. Eventually, her doubts won out. “I just couldn’t keep up the charade,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to do the things we were doing and say the things we were saying.”

    She largely stopped tweeting and tried to avoid journalists on the picket line, for fear that she might say something that revealed her misgivings. At one protest, a journalism student cornered her and asked if she ever got tired of picketing. “I honestly replied no,” she wrote in her journal. “It’s not about being tired, it’s about not believing in it anymore. If I believed it, I could do it forever.” In October, Megan finally persuaded Grace to leave. At the end of October, the sisters started secretly moving their possessions to the house of one of their high-school teachers, who agreed to help them. Many of Megan and Grace’s young relatives who left the church had slipped away quietly, in order to avoid confronting their families. But the sisters wanted to explain to their parents the reasons behind their decision.

    As the sisters agonized over whether to leave, they befriended an older man in the church and his wife, eventually becoming allies in discontent. For a while, they all planned to leave together. Then the couple’s marriage began to deteriorate, and the husband told Megan and Grace that they were going to divorce. Grace became involved in a brief romantic relationship with the man. After the relationship ended, the wife learned about it, and sent a letter to Megan and Grace’s parents revealing both the relationship and the sisters’ plan to leave.

    On Sunday, November 11th, the family had just returned from church when Megan and Grace were called into their parents’ bedroom, where their father began to read the letter out loud. Megan told Grace quietly that they had to leave: “It was like the world was exploding and I didn’t want to be around to see it.”

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  48. Their mother tried to calm things down. Their parents wanted to talk things over—they seemed to think that the sisters could be persuaded to stay—but Megan and Grace had made up their minds. As Grace packed, their father came into her room and asked what she wanted the church to do differently. “I want you and everyone else to leave with me,” Grace replied. Their parents were stunned, but they didn’t try to force the sisters to stay.

    As the sisters packed, their younger brother Zach sat at the piano downstairs, crying and playing hymns, which he hoped might change their mind. Other church members stopped by to say goodbye and to warn the sisters of the consequences of their decision. “The fact that I’m coming face to face with the damage that I was doing to them was even worse than anything else that was happening to me,” Phelps-Roper said. Her parents told her to say goodbye to her grandfather. She walked over to the residence where her grandparents lived, above the church sanctuary. When Megan told them she was leaving, her grandfather looked at her grandmother and said, “Well, I thought we had a jewel this time.”

    Megan and Grace’s father drove them to a hotel in Topeka, where he had paid for a room, but they were too scared to spend the night alone, so they called the teacher who had agreed to store their boxes. That night, they cried themselves to sleep on couches in his basement. Megan and Grace returned to their house the next day with a U-Haul truck to pick up their remaining possessions. As they walked away for the last time, Shirley called after them, “You know you can always come back.”

    For the next few months, the sisters drifted. They lived in Lawrence for a month with their cousin Libby, who had also left the church, while Grace finished the first semester of her sophomore year at Washburn. They travelled to Deadwood, South Dakota, because Megan wanted to see the Black Hills. As she drove there, she kept imagining her car careering off the highway—she was so afraid of God’s wrath. “We were a mess, crying all the time,” she said. Phelps-Roper was tempted to hide in the Black Hills forever, but soon decided that, after spending so many years as the public face of Westboro, she wanted to go public with how she’d left the church, and to start making amends for the hurt she had caused. In February, 2013, she wrote a statement on the blogging platform Medium. “Until now, our names have been synonymous with ‘God Hates Fags,’ ” she wrote. “What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on.” She posted a link to the statement on Twitter. It was her first tweet in three months. “Hi,” she wrote. Tweets of encouragement and praise poured in. “I expected a lot more people to be unforgiving,” she said.

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  49. When David Abitbol learned that the sisters had left Westboro, he invited them to speak at the next Jewlicious festival in Long Beach. They agreed, hoping that the experience might help them to find their way, and to finally understand a community that they had vilified for so long. “It was like we were just reaching out and grabbing on to whatever was around,” Megan said. Abitbol said, “People, before they met them, were, like, ‘So, now they’re not batshit-crazy gay haters and we’re supposed to love them? Fuck that.’ ” He added, “And then they heard them speak, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” The sisters befriended their hosts, an Orthodox rabbi and his family. They went kosher-grocery shopping together, and Megan and Grace looked after the kids. Grace became especially close with the family, and ended up staying for more than a month. “They were amazing and super-kind,” Phelps-Roper said. Abitbol joked about the dramatic role reversal: “ ‘Your Rabbi Is a Whore’? Your rabbi is a host.”

    Megan tried to put herself in situations that challenged the intolerance she had been indoctrinated with. One evening, after speaking at a Jewish festival in Montreal, she and Grace passed a group of drag queens on the sidewalk outside a cabaret. She felt a surge of disgust, but when Grace asked if they could watch the show she agreed. “It felt illicit,” she said. “Like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I’m here.” She and Grace ended up dancing onstage during the intermission. Wherever Megan and Grace went, they met people who wanted to help them, despite all the hurt they had caused. The experience solidified Megan’s increasing conviction that no person or group could claim a monopoly on moral truth. Slowly, her fears about God’s judgment—the first terrifying understanding of her faith as a child, and its most stubborn remnant—faded. “As undeniable as they had seemed before, they seemed just as impossible now,” she said.

    One Sunday last February, I went with Megan and Grace to visit their old neighborhood. We parked a few blocks from the church and walked down a quiet street lined with ranch-style homes. It was sunny and warm for a winter day in Kansas. Phelps-Roper wore a green polka-dot dress and high leather boots, and her long curly hair—she still hadn’t cut it since leaving the church—fell down her back. Now twenty-nine, she lives in a small town in South Dakota, where she works at a title company. Six months after she left the church, she went on a date with C.G. They met in Omaha, in driving distance for both of them, and saw “The Great Gatsby,” the Baz Luhrmann movie. “It’s hard to even describe how weird it was,” she told me. It was her first date ever, and it was with someone who had become a symbol of the unattainable. “I was quite a bit like a teen-ager. He put his arm around my waist at one point, and I just stood up so straight.” She and C.G. connected as strongly in person as they had online, and they now live together.

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  50. When we reached the Block we walked along the privacy fence. In front of each house where Westboro members live, Megan pointed out colorful numbers on the curb; Grace had helped paint them when she was a teen-ager. We passed the Phelps-Roper house and came to an intersection. A group of men and boys came toward us. “I can’t tell yet, but it sure looks like a group of brothers and cousins,” Megan said. First came five of their young cousins, followed by two of their brothers, Sam and Noah. Steve Drain, a large bearded man, trailed behind. They carried tools. Megan later explained that they had probably just come from doing repairs on a Westboro member’s house. The group passed us without stopping. Grace called out, “Hi!” Sam nodded and gave a terse smile and a small wave. “Hi, how are you?” he said. Sam and Noah had recently had birthdays, and Megan wished them a belated happy birthday. The sisters said nothing to Drain. The crew quickly disappeared into a house.

    We reached the church, an unremarkable white and brown mock-Tudor building on the northeast corner of the Block. A banner advertised a Westboro Web site, godhatesamerica.com. Two American flags—one of them rainbow colored—flew upside down from a pole. The church sign read “ST. VALENTINE IS A CATHOLIC IDOL AND AN EXCUSE TO FORNICATE! JUDE 7.”
    Directly across the street stood a house painted in bright, horizontal rainbow stripes. The house had been bought, in 2012, by Planting Peace, a nonprofit group whose mission, according to its Web site, is “spreading peace in a hurting world.” The Equality House, as it’s known, is home to a group of young L.G.B.T. activists. Planting Peace has worked with former Westboro members to spread its message of tolerance. Megan first visited the house in 2013, after her cousin Libby encouraged her to visit. She sneaked in the back door, for fear of being spotted by her family.

    Today, Megan and Grace’s only connection to Westboro is virtual. Although Phelps-Roper no longer believes that the Bible is the word of God, she still reads it to try to find scriptural arguments that could encourage Westboro to take a more humane approach to the world. Sometimes she’ll tweet passages, knowing that church members will see them. After they left the church, Megan and Grace were blocked from Westboro’s Twitter accounts, but they created a secret account to follow them. Sometimes, when her mother appears in a video, Megan will loop it over and over, just to hear her voice.

    Fred Phelps died in March, 2014, at the age of eighty-four. Former members of the church told me that Fred had had a softening of heart at the end of his life and had been excommunicated. (The church denies these claims.) Zach Phelps-Roper, Megan’s younger brother, who left the church later that year, said that one of the precipitating events in Fred’s exclusion had been expressing kindness toward the Equality House. At a church meeting, Zach recalls, members discussed the episode: “He stepped out the front door of the church and looked at the Rainbow House, the Planting Peace organization, and looked over and said, ‘You’re good people.’ ” ♦