Losing my religion: life after extreme belief

Apr 10, 2016

Photo credit: Katy Grannan for the Observer

By Shahesta Shaitly

Megan Phelps-Roper, 30, a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church

My first memories are of picketing ex-servicemen’s funerals and telling their families they were going to burn in hell. For us, it was a celebration. My gramps was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, so it wasn’t just our religion – it was our whole life. I don’t remember much before the picketing. I was allowed to mix with other kids early on, but over time my world shrank.

We believed it was a Good vs Evil situation: that the WBC was right and everybody else was wrong, so there was no questioning. It was a very public war we were waging against the “sinners”. I asked a lot of questions as I got older, but there’s a big difference in asking for clarification and actually questioning the beliefs you’re taught. I spent so much time reading the Bible, trying to see the world through this very particular framework, that to have truly considered [it was wrong] was inconceivable. I’d seen members leave in the past, including my brother, and the thought of ever leaving the church was my worst nightmare.

The WBC loves and thrives on publicity, so I joined Twitter in 2009 to run the church’s account. I was very zealous and adamant that my beliefs were the truth, but I began to realise that the 140-word limit meant I had to drop the throwaway insults or conversations would die. Over time, I found I was actually beginning to like people: to see them as human beings rather than people to condemn. For the first time, I started to care about what people outside the WBC thought of me. As my feelings towards my faith wavered I’d boomerang between thinking “none of this makes sense” to “God is testing me and I am failing”, but it was only in the four months before I left in 2012 that I actually started to make a plan. I cornered my sister in our room one evening and told her I was going to leave and asked her to come with me. She initially said no and told me I was being silly, but over time we’d have stolen conversations about it and she came round to the idea.

Leaving was unbearably sad. Having dinner with my grandparents or bouncing on a trampoline with my brother for the last time; asking my parents about their history in detail because I knew I’d never be able to ask them about it again: I was consciously saying goodbye to my family while they had no idea. I was trying to keep as much of it as I could. On the day, my younger sister and I sat down with my parents after they’d heard that we had planned to leave. They were really upset and my mom was so broken by the news – I’d never seen her face like that before. We told them we didn’t believe anymore, then went to pack. The adrenaline pumping through me made my hands shake as I stuffed my things into bags. Word spread among the family and several of my aunts and uncles turned up to talk us out of it. It started with: “You know better than this” and spiralled into shouting as we left. I went back the next day to pick up the rest of my stuff and knocked on the front door of the house I grew up in for the first time. The cold was immediate. I knew straight-away that I was not a part of the church any more. I was out. I miss my family every single day.

I still momentarily flinch when I come across someone or something the WBC would disapprove of. Two men kissing on the street, a drag queen – anything that takes me back to what I believed for so long. I still encounter those old feelings and then I have to process it: “That’s what the old me would have felt” – it’s an ongoing process of deep deprogramming.

I see the world in split screen now. I remember feeling like we at WBC were a persecuted minority, triumphant in the face of evil people “worshipping the dead” as we picketed funerals or rejoiced at the destruction of the Twin Towers. But beside that memory is the one where I weep thinking about how callous and unmerciful I was to so many people who’d just lost a son or a daughter. I’m ashamed of that now, and it’s still really difficult to think about the harm I caused. It’s overwhelming sometimes.

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