Twitter encounters convinced Megan Phelps-Roper to quit the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. Now the founder's granddaughter has written a book and is coming to Auckland to speak.
The banner was black and white and very big. It still gives Megan Phelps-Roper chills.
In block letters: "Sorry for your loss."
Across the street, different banners. "God is America's Terror."
Westboro Baptist Church has picketed thousands of events. Award ceremonies, sports games, concerts and funerals. Church members believe that when an American soldier dies, it is punishment for the country's tolerance of homosexuality. "God Hates Fags" is the slogan most associated with Westboro. You have to type the phrase to get on to the church's official website. It's so pervasive it spawned the "God Hates Fangs" parody on the opening credits of television show, True Blood .
So when Westboro announced it was going to picket a Lorde concert, nobody was surprised. It claimed the New Zealand singer "spends her time, energy and talent serving herself and teaching other young people how to be indolent rebels". Church founder Fred Phelps had died just two days earlier but Westboro's work was never done.
The response from those indolent rebels? That banner. That compassion.
"Whenever people would speculate about the death of my grandfather it was always this very retributive thing," Megan Phelps-Roper tells Canvas .
"That they were going to picket his funeral after all the things that he had done to so many other people. That vindictiveness is obviously completely understandable. It would make perfect sense.
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"The fact that they chose to pay for this banner to be made and to be very deliberate about choosing a better path - even for this man who had caused so much misery to so many other people - to look at his family and recognise them as a family in mourning and to respond that way? That is absolutely incredible. I literally have chills standing here thinking about it."
Phelps-Roper is speaking from South Dakota, where she lives with her baby daughter and the husband she first met via Twitter. Once, she was the social media voice of Westboro; a granddaughter of the church's founder, an integral member of what documentary-maker Louis Theroux has called "the most hated family in America".
From birth to age 26, Phelps-Roper toed the Westboro line. To "love thy neighbour" was to steer him from a perceived path of sin - anything less was to have the blood of the wicked on her own hands. Sin was (in the beginning) homosexuals and (by the end) virtually anyone. The internet? Just another instrument of God.
As she writes in her new book: "He had put a megaphone in the mouth of our tiny church. I used Twitter to bait celebrities with anti-gay messages, to publically celebrate Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster ..."
Current estimates put Westboro's membership at less than 100, many of them related to Phelps-Roper. It is a tiny church that pulls big headlines, most recently and profoundly when the Supreme Court ruled that Westboro's picketing of a soldier's funeral was entitled to special protection under America's First Amendment rights. "Speech is powerful," wrote the Chief Justice. At Westboro, they have always known that.
Westboro Baptist Church was founded in 1955 by Fred Phelps - a former civil rights lawyer with an increasingly fraught career. In 1979, he was disbarred from practising law in his home state of Kansas. In 1989, he agreed to stop practising in Federal court. In 1991, his parishioners began their first regular pickets, demanding local authorities take action at a park they said was frequented by gay men looking for casual sex. His granddaughter, Megan, was 5 years old. As a child, her favourite sign had a skull and crossbones and read "FAG = AIDS".
"My family thought - and thinks - very seriously about words," she says. "About language and what it means and how it shapes us and how it should shape us and change us."
When Phelps died in 2014, he didn't (as had been speculated) take the church down with him. Reportedly ex-communicated in his final weeks, Westboro's leadership structure had, according to Phelps-Roper, been undergoing a shift for some years prior. The women she had seen in leadership positions (including her mother, Shirley - a qualified lawyer) had been subjugated and an all-male council of "elders" was calling the shots.
Women, recalls Phelps-Roper, had always been required to cover the "four Bs" ("breasts, back, butt and belly"), however enforcement was never draconian. Suddenly, at age 25, she was being sent to the mall to buy longer shorts - and then being told to model them for her eldest brother's approval.
It's this kind of detail that makes her new book, Unfollow , such a fascinating read. Westboro Baptist Church women wear shorts? They shop at a mall? The assumption that this is a closed religious community is blown early on, when Phelps-Roper explains the congregation's tactic of rewriting pop songs - including Elton John's Candle in the Wind , following the death of Princess Diana. Sample lyrics: "Goodbye, royal whore ... it seems to me you lived your life like a harlot full of sin."
Phelps-Roper played with Barbie dolls. She watched Clueless and chomped bubblegum. She went to a regular high school (picketing her graduation before going inside to graduate). She travelled with her aunt and mother when the FBI invited them to be guest speakers at the National Academy at Quantico ("an attempt to understand the perspectives of extremists") and she made her media debut, aged 11, telling a radio host that Ellen DeGeneres was a "filthy dyke, and she's going to hell for eternity". Pause. "Plus, she's not funny AT ALL."
is the story of a woman who changes her mind. Seven years ago, Phelps-Roper and her sister Grace left Westboro. An older brother had walked out when she was in her teens; a younger brother has since joined them - but seven brothers and sisters and her parents remain with the Topeka, Kansas church.
This month, Phelps-Roper is getting almost as much press as her estranged family. There's the book. The announcement of the tour with Theroux. Reese Witherspoon has just renewed the movie rights to her story. There is a long line of media interview requests, but Phelps-Roper still answers her own emails. She texts when she realises we've been calling and her phone was switched to "Do Not Disturb".
"Please feel free to call again!" she texts. She's excited about her upcoming visit to New Zealand and Australia. Her world is so wide now. She could be anywhere, do anything. Why, I wonder, has she kept her maiden name?
"It is one of the last direct connections I have to my family. But it's also MY name. That name, for a very long time, meant one thing. It means 'God hates gays' and I don't want it to mean that. I felt like I wanted to take it back and change the legacy of it."
For the next 45 minutes, Phelps-Roper will talk about love, hate, free speech - and forgiveness. In her own words, she was a monster. How do you come back from that?
"I think a big part of it has to do with the idea of grace, which my mum would always define as 'unmerited favour'. The epigraph of the book is this line from The Great Gatsby : 'Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.' I think about that in terms of seeing people as being on a journey. We understand that who we were last year or five years ago - we have done things that are wrong, that have hurt other people - and we recognise that we grow and we get better as time goes on. That's the hope."
Phelps-Roper was, to the outside world at least, a grown adult when she left Westboro.
"I was almost 27. My mum still knew where I was and what I was doing basically all the time, she was largely the one repsonsible for directing my days. She was very much a micro-manager. So now, to be in charge of my own time?
"It just felt like a huge responsibility that I was not prepared for. I was terrified of making any decisions ... I had not exercised that muscle, even though again I was at an age where I absolutely should have."
Phelps-Roper and her sister travelled to Deadwood (isolated, beautiful and one of their brothers had been a fan of the HBO show). They put literal distance between themselves and the church. They lugged boxes of books to an attic room at an Airbnb and started reading. Philosophy. Religion. Fiction. Books were not a new experience - The Handmaid's Tale , for example, was a high school text - but, until now, everything had been moderated through the Westboro lens.
"It doesn't penetrate because you already have an answer to all of it. You dismiss any criticism or any parallels that would seem to fit, they just don't compute," says Phelps-Roper.
She was, she says, totally unprepared for standing on her own two feet.
"In Deadwood, literally all we were doing was walking down the street and it felt criminal. We didn't have a specific purpose. We hadn't been sent on an errand, it wasn't strictly useful to the church. At first it felt very overwhelming and scary but also the liberation was potent and heady. Like, 'Wow, I could get used to this.' Although I will say I haven't. It's amazing to me still. I always joke about how I get excited to go to the grocery store without permission."
Phelps-Roper is scheduled to visit Auckland in January, appearing alongside Theroux who has made three documentaries about Westboro and the Phelps whānau.
"I have known Megan for well over 10 years," Theroux notes. "When I first met her she was a committed member of a fire-and-brimstone homophobic hate group. Now she is leading an entirely new life as a thinker and writer of great sensitivity and insight, bringing a message of empathy and intelligent engagement with those we disagree with."
In 2017, Phelps-Roper recorded a TED talk in which she explains why she left Westboro. It has been viewed more than 8.5 million times.
"I didn't think about this for a long time," she says. "But Louis Theroux, his documentaries, they've had an amazing impact. At Westboro, of course, we were very happy because he was taking our message to people all over the world.
"What he's done is really show what people are capable of, when they believe, when they are trapped in a system of ideology. The things they are willing to do and the things they are willing to give up - including their own children."
New Zealand is a reasonably secular country. A rising number of Kiwis claim no religion at all - 48.6 per cent in the 2018 Census, compared to 29.6 per cent in 2001 (and just 8.2 per cent in America). Christianity is our most common religion. Denominations like Anglican and Catholicism are in decline but descriptors like "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" are gaining slightly more survey ticks than previously recorded. In 2017, when Canvas sought to understand why these conservative churches were attracting young, female converts, one academic suggested it might have been a reaction to contemporary, post-feminist culture. One recent convert told us: "I no longer long for this deep sense of who I am or where my truth is coming from."
Phelps-Roper understands that attraction.
"This sense of certainty that you get. You don't really have existential fears or worries because you know exactly what the truth is and exactly what you should be doing with your life."
Yes, she says, at Westboro "the world hated us ... but that has the effect of drawing you even closer together. As long as you're a committed member of the team, there's a real power in that."
The power to tweet (as she did) "thank God for Aids". To believe that when four hijacked planes cause almost 3000 deaths on September 11, "God himself has issued that command, sending those planes like missiles through time and space, casting down these symbols of American strength and vitality in punishment for her great sins: homosexuality, fornication, idolatory, rebellion."
And then, one day, you realise you're not exactly on the team. Phelps-Roper's book outlines many small moments when she felt uncomfortable with the truth according to Westboro. But, "I'd been taught to distrust myself and my judgment." What gave her the courage of her growing conviction was, she recounts, the community she met on Twitter.
"For these people to use that space to ask questions and to respectfully challenge me ..."
An anthropologist would later explain to Phelps-Roper that "shame was the feeling we get when we have violated the norms of our community". Her only community had been Westboro, now she had a new one. Its members were Jewish or Australian or gay or the guy who said he was good at the online Scrabble game Words with Friends, who she finally met, months after her defection - and subsequently married.
"Twitter became a new source of community for me ... for the first time in my life, I started to feel ashamed of what we were doing. I had come to care about them enough to feel like they were part of my people, even though we only had this very narrow outlet to reach one another."
What that tells you, says Phelps-Roper, "is it matters how we talk to people".
In her book, she writes, "An open marketplace of ideas is the best defence against groupthink". Free speech at all costs? I briefly outline the "Christchurch call" and its pledge to eliminate violent extremist content online, following the deaths of 50 people after two Christchurch mosque shootings in March this year.
Phelps-Roper says that in the United States, inciting violence is and should be against the law. "I'm not advocating at all for a completely open internet or social media."
But, also: "For instance, like white supremacists - yes, it is absolutely a toxic ideology but people don't change their minds because they've been banned from Twitter. We want to be able to reach those people. This new push to just isolate people, I think all that tends to do is push them deeper into their communities. It reinforces their sense they are persecuted. It doesn't change anyone's mind."
She cites the example of Derek Black, the son of a prominent extremist, "a very committed white nationalist" who would come to renounce his views when he was befriended by Jewish students at university "and is now an advocate for social justice and anti-racism".
Such cases (and she counts herself here) are, she says, sometimes seen as anomalies.
"And I don't think it is anomalous. I think this way of engaging people, this is how we make a better society. We give people the language to make better arguments, to persuade people away from these groups. That's how we win. It's not by isolating these people and hoping it all goes away. Because it's not going to go away."
Towards the end of her TED talk, Phelps-Roper offers a four-pronged approach to change. She is a young woman in skinny jeans and ballet flats practising what she preaches: Don't assume bad intent. Ask questions. Stay calm. Make the argument.
In the week leading up to this interview, Westboro announced plans to picket the White House, Melissa Etheridge and Hugh Jackman. Scheduled targets the following week included the Society of Environmental Journalists. Press releases, sermons and an appalling lack of attention to proofreading detail are routinely posted on the website with the address so problematic that the Herald 's IT department had to provide special access.
What does Westboro make of its defectors? In a section titled "departed unbelievers" it states: "The WBC does not control salvation, nor do we apologise for the ungodly that go out from us (Jude 15)."
Phelps-Roper remembers the moment she knew Westboro was wrong. She recounts it, painfully and poignantly, midway through her book. She's painting a basement with her sister, a purple wall that all the white paint in the world can't seem to cover up. "Horrifying clarity," she writes. "You don't belong." Her physical departure was not immediate, but, "whether we stayed or left, our prospects were bleak".
Phelps-Roper knew there was an outside - she was working, travelling and corresponding with it on social media - but in the beginning, she feared her transition.
"I thought I would go one way or the other. I could completely romanticise my past and only see the good things and forget the destructiveness and maybe if things were hard, I would be tempted to return. Or I could go the other way and remember all those bad things and totally demonise my family in my mind ...
"I felt like I could go to either one of those extremes and I didn't want to. I wanted to hold the whole messy truth of it to myself."
It can, she says, "be uncomfortable in moments".
Her Westboro family do not speak to her directly. She sends birthday cards and presents, hoping that, one day, they will join her; that they might also hear a voice that challenges their understanding of the phrase "love thy neighbour".
"I'm not absolving myself of responsibility. I'm trying to be deliberate about using that energy for better things ... and I have been actually pretty shocked at how understanding the vast majority of people have been. The grace that they have shown me is incredible. That they are able to look back at my history ..."
Phelps-Roper no longer believes she will go to heaven when she dies - but she won't go to hell, either.
"I think I'm just going to die. My mother would always say, 'This life is a vapour - how short and unsatisfying this life is.' And that is such a dim view of life, you know? Now I appreciate every day. Every moment. Life is amazing. The fact that we exist at all is incredible. At the church, we dismissed it, we thought it wasn't worth anything. Now it feels like the only thing we will have."
The publicist has scheduled one hour for this interview but we wrap up early. "I hear my baby crying," says Phelps-Roper.
Unfollow: A journey from hatred to hope , by Megan Phelps-Roper