There’s not much more important to me than Christ and the Church.
And so there’s not much that frustrates or angers me more than when those who identify as Christians, like I do, cast an unflattering light on our faith. Every time I tell my story, it feels like there are three other stories directly contradicting what I’m claiming to believe and represent. Every stiffed waitress, scammed congregation and abused child breaks my heart.
Perhaps no one exemplifies this more than Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Even writing those names elicits ugly emotions in me—anger, hate, frustration and confusion. Between slanderous signs and outlandish interviews, this small band of loners has managed to influence the perception of an entire generation toward Jesus. And while I doubt the average person thinks that I “hate fags,” there’s no denying that their brand of hate has made an impression on our society.
So it was with great interest that I recently read about Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps, and her bold decision to leave Westboro Baptist last November. She’s kept under the radar until now and is just starting to write about her experiences. She writes with the caution of someone newly adjusting to a world outside her former walls and confronting the lifetime’s worth of lies she was raised with.
She writes, “I don’t feel confident at all in my beliefs about God. That’s definitely scary.”
I may not have grown up in the stringent rules of Westboro, but I can relate to this feeling. When I began contemplating “converting” to Christianity, I might have said something similar. I wasn’t raised behind walls or subjected to manipulative lies, but I was confronting and challenging a worldview I’d held for 24 years, and it was scary. I think that thought, more than anything else, helps me extend the forgiveness to Megan that my heart already knows I must give. Otherwise, forgiveness doesn’t come as easily.
Westboro is, after all, the devil within. They’re not a foreign enemy across the sea but one engaging in friendly fire. They call themselves a church but use Jesus’ name in heinous ways and steal the conversation away from those making a genuine difference. In a way, it feels like betrayal. And betrayal is the hardest injury to forgive.
And yet, Megan is not alone. Over 20 others have also left the church since 2004, including her sister, as the two of them are now trying to make a new life together. And while our reaction to Westboro has often been to simply distance ourselves, you have to wonder about all those people left behind. Are we writing them off, as so many doubtlessly did Megan and her fellow brave defectors?
We have a serious problem with people like those of Westboro Baptist. We don’t know what to do with them. They aren’t looking for inclusion or even debate, and yet they aren’t content to keep their ideas to themselves. So as we ignore them, we drive their members further into isolation and further away from forgiveness. Meanwhile, they only get louder, and by trying so hard to refute their beliefs and distance ourselves from them, we end up yielding more power to their views. It’s a vicious cycle.
Overcoming the problem starts with accepting that no one within a group like Westboro is a lost cause. The Bible is full of examples of unlikely people being changed and used for good, from Moses to Matthew to Paul. We must give up betrayal as the unforgivable sin and always leave the lines open for redemption. We need prayer for those we consider lost—even those lost to a distorted vision of God.
We also need strategies for engagement, not containment. Maybe that looks like bringing coffee to protesters on a cold morning. Or maybe it looks like more articles like this, letting people know we believe in them and still have hope for their legacy. Simply ignoring groups like this or trying to shut them down ignores their humanity—and thus ignores the common needs for grace and forgiveness they share with all of us.
Megan’s story shows us that no one is a lost cause, that no one is beyond a second chance. And this needs to change our entire perspective. In fact, we need to change the very way that we hope. It’s not enough to hope that those who misrepresent Christ will be tuned out and made voiceless. We need to hope for their restoration, for the love and truth of God to meet them where they are.
If our perspective doesn’t change, then neither does the status quo. And I don’t know about you, but I’m never satisfied with the status quo. However we reach people for God, we can always be doing better.
Megan faces a tough road ahead—not just from those she’s left behind in the church but from the masses she’s hurt. But she is well aware that this is a change in identity—from the old to the new. She has stated that her name “means something now to others that it doesn’t mean to me,” and she knows that there’s the potential for her to carry around that old name forever.
But as recipients of grace and forgiveness ourselves, we all know something about shedding our old names. Megan, welcome home.