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.”
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.
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.
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.