Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper were once the golden children of Westboro Baptist Church, that great banner-waving bastion of hatred, racism, homophobia, and misogyny. They are grandchildren of the founder, Fred Phelps. Megan, now 27 years old, was a vocal spokesperson for the church, and was considered a potential next leader for the church.
Yesterday, Megan announced that she and Grace left the organization and its message of hate. She and her sister started disengaging with the church and her family in the fall.
Last week, she went to church in the liberal stronghold of Park Slope, Brooklyn, with Jeff Chu, an editor from Fast Company. It was her first time at any church other than Westboro Baptist, and the beginning of what one hopes is a complete transformation in her beliefs.
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.”
It’s a long road to a new beginning. I hope for their sakes that she and her sister make it.