At just five-years-old she joined the picket lines at military funerals and various anti-gay demonstrations as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps.
Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church continue to crusade against homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, Catholics and others.
In her teens and early 20’s, Megan Phelps-Roper became one of the most prominent voices of the organization through social media, spreading Westboro’s doctrine of fear and intolerance.
Then seven years ago Phelps-Roper left that world behind in a miraculous change of heart, from hate to love.
And it was love that brought her to South Dakota, which she now calls home.
Westboro Baptist church members are best known for their anti-gay and military funeral protests; even picketing the funerals of the victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre.
“I was a blue-eyed chubby cheeked five year old when I joined my family on the picket line for the first time, with a tiny sign that I couldn’t read yet, Gays are worthy of death,” Phelps-Roper said in her 2017 TED Talk.
Megan Phelps-Roper told her story in a TED Talk in 2017, which has more than 13 million views.
Now, she’s put it all down in a book: Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church.
Phelps-Roper: All these people, when I left, I would have expected to hate me forever, and that has not been what I experienced at all. And I’m so grateful for that.
Angela Kennecke: What have you learned about people from these different groups that you were taught to hate?
Phelps-Roper: They’re just not at all what I was led to believe.
Phelps-Roper was once an online zealot of Westboro beliefs, beginning at age 13 on the church’s website. Then she became the church’s official voice on Twitter with hateful posts. However, it was through Twitter where everything began to change.
“I wasn’t expecting to hear anything useful, anything that would change my mind about anything. Westboro always had an answer to explain why we’re doing what we were doing,” Phelps-Roper said.
Instead, a conversation she struck up with a Jewish man named David, made her begin to doubt her conviction in Westboro’s teachings. He even met her on the picket line.
“The fact that there was this group of people who were willing to befriend me, in spite of the terrible things I was doing and saying, that helped me see outside of Westboro’s doctrines. And one of them ended up being right here in South Dakota,” Phelps-Roper said.
That online conversation was with Clark County State’s Attorney, Chad Fjelland.
“After seven-and-a-half months of these conversations — these very intense conversations — I had a dream about meeting him and I woke up from that dream realizing I am in love with this random stranger on the Internet,” Phelps-Roper said.
It was another year before the two would finally meet in person in Deadwood, where Phelps-Roper, along with her younger sister, first went to escape Westboro.
“I realized when I got there, I didn’t want to go back to Kansas,” Phelps-Roper said.
Phelps-Roper and Fjelland were married in 2016 and now have a one-year-old daughter. Fjelland prefers to stay out of the spotlight, leaving the attention on his wife and her story.
Angela Kennecke: It strikes me while you have gained so much; you have also lost quite a bit in the process.
Phelps Roper: Absolutely. The magnitude of the loss is almost unimaginable. So it was terrifying to leave, but no matter what happened, I couldn’t keep going along with what Westboro was doing. Even while I was there, I knew I would never go protest another funeral again. I was never going to pray for someone to die again.
Angela Kennecke: I think what really struck a nerve with the American people were the funeral protests. Do you remember as a kid being at the protests and what was going through your mind?
Phelps-Roper: Well I grew up in a culture that celebrated death and tragedy as judgments of God; righteous judgments of God. So when some celebrity would die, I was surrounded by people who celebrated that and said, ‘Okay, now we are going to go to this person’s funeral and we are going to use this as a preaching opportunity.’
That’s exactly what Phelps-Roper’s mother Shirley was doing on the picket line just last year.
“We’re here to warn the living. If you don’t repent and put away your proud sin, you’re going to go to hell with all those who perished in Katrina,” Shirley Phelps Roper said in New Orleans in 2018.
Phelps-Roper has dedicated her memoir to her parents, in hopes that her family will read her book, leading to a change of heart. She believes this country is in crucial need of her message right now.
“The divisiveness in this country — it reminds me so much of the “us-versus-them” mentality that I was raised with. Somebody I saw called it the ‘Westboroization of politics.’ And I think that’s absolutely true, “Phelps-Roper said.
Phelps-Roper no longer considers herself a religious person, but rather someone who seeks to understand others’ convictions and beliefs. She’s just wrapped up a month-long book tour of the U.S. and will be off to Europe next to promote her book. Her story is also being turned into a Hollywood movie.
“As amazing as all those things are, I just feel filled with gratitude when I’m just sitting at home at my kitchen table in Clark, looking out the window with the snow falling and just thinking how am I here with a husband that I love so much and a one-year-old daughter. How am I here and not at a picket line in Topeka, Kansas surrounded by people who hate me? Any opportunity I can use to take these experiences that were so hurtful to so many people and to turn them into; to be able to do good with them, that’s what has motivated me for the last, almost seven years now, since I left Westboro.”