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Monday, April 21, 2014

Megan Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church: an heir to hate

By DUGAN ARNETT
Kansas City Star

In an ordinary town, in a quiet neighborhood, in a beige two-story house, a woman named Megan lives with her parents and eight siblings.

She is 25, with a cheeky smile. Tall and tan and athletic, she has long, curly hair that tumbles down her shoulders in thick locks. Her voice is bubbly, with a pinch of country twang, and when she is talking about something she likes, she leans forward in her seat and says “Ohmygosh!” before unleashing a stream of syllables that come pouring out on top of each other. She is polite. If you were to stop by the house some afternoon, she would probably ask if you wanted to stay for pizza that night.

She loves her iPhone and the band Mumford & Sons and the Showtime series “Dexter,” which is about a blood-splatter specialist for the Miami Metro Police Department who also happens to be a serial killer — a complex character both good and evil. She went to high school at Topeka West and got straight A’s. She went to college at Washburn University and got straight A’s. She thought about going to law school, sat down to write her admissions essay and decided she wasn’t all that keen on becoming a lawyer. So she joined the family business.

She is peppy, goofy and, by all accounts, happy.

Oh, and one other thing about Megan: She wants to make it perfectly clear that you and the rest of this filthy, perverted nation will be spending a long, fiery eternity burning in hell.

•  •  

For much of the past two decades, in the shadow of the state Capitol, the family-run Westboro Baptist Church has served as a training ground for hate.

From the age of 3, children are handed anti-gay, anti-Semitic picket signs and programmed to serve as soldiers in the Westboro Baptist Church’s army. They are taught the specifics of the group’s message — that America’s natural disasters are the direct result of a nationwide acceptance of homosexuality, that God is not the all-loving, all-forgiving being contemporary religion has made him out to be, that the church’s interpretation of the Bible is the only legitimate one. They are also taught to pray for the death of those with the audacity to try and silence the message.

None of this is evident on a sun-drenched Sunday as Megan Phelps-Roper, the blue-eyed granddaughter of longtime Westboro pastor Fred Phelps, stands on a porch not far from the large wooden privacy fence that serves as a barrier between the church and the outside world, smiling as she braids a little girl’s hair. Nor is it evident that she finds herself in the middle of what might most accurately be described as a spiritual family feud.

One of the most reviled families in America is gathered in the backyard, enjoying an afternoon picnic. There are kids scurrying past in every direction and adults sitting on patio chairs, holding cold drinks and talking about work and the weather and upcoming vacations. A half dozen or so little girls cluster around Megan, clamoring for braids.

Megan loves braiding hair. On occasions when she is not picketing the funerals of dead U.S. soldiers or mocking the victims of natural disasters, she can often be found stationed behind one of her sisters or cousins, hair in hand, twisting away.

Often these days, Megan is finding herself at the center of the church’s culture and day-to-day operations. She is both big sister and the voice that speaks to the millennial generation, a media-savvy spokesperson who has emerged as an heir apparent.

She has taken the church’s cause mainstream, kick-starting its social media presence (she has more than 7,000 Twitter followers) and appearing as a regular guest on “Afentra’s Big Fat Morning Buzz,” one of Kansas City’s edgiest and most popular morning radio shows. Her online musings have attracted the ire of celebrities, including actors Rainn Wilson and Michael Ian Black. As part of a group that measures success largely in the amount of publicity it is able to generate, she has helped propel the 40-member church to what might be the most visible stretch in its 56-year history.

In the past year, the church has appeared in front of the Supreme Court, arguing successfully that the group’s practice of picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers was protected under the Constitution. It has been the subject of an hourlong BBC documentary that aired in April, and it served as the inspiration for the new Kevin Smith film “Red State,” released on DVD last month.

But while the church’s profile has never been higher — in the last few weeks alone, the group has picketed a memorial for Apple founder Steve Jobs and the funeral for one of six men killed in an Atchison, Kan., grain elevator explosion — there exists a lingering uncertainty about its future.

Noticeably absent from the picnic is Fred Phelps, who at 82 has grown increasingly removed from the church’s everyday business. His daughter, fire-and-brimstone figurehead Shirley Phelps-Roper, handles operations. But even she’s begun delegating more to others, with much of the work falling to Megan, her oldest daughter and the one who, more than any of her brothers, sisters or cousins, has been entrusted with the most responsibility.

As Shirley puts it, “She was always kind of my right-hand man.”

Megan’s importance to the movement stems also from the fact that for the past decade, the church’s future has been walking away at an alarming rate.

Since 2004, 20 members have left the Westboro Baptist Church, three-fourths of them in their teens or 20s. The defections have left a sizable dent in the group’s third generation, which, for a church that has relied almost exclusively upon family to populate its congregation, is not an insignificant development. There are those on both sides of the family who would like to guide Megan’s future.

“There’s still an element of hope,” says Megan’s uncle, Nate Phelps, who left the church in 1976 at the age of 18 and now travels the country speaking out against its practices, “that someone can get through to her.”

Megan has watched with unease as some of those closest to her have defected and then been cut off completely from the family. The older brother who left in the middle of the night the day before her high school graduation. The cousin and best friend who decided three years ago that the church’s practices had grown too extreme. Each departure forcing her to confront the same frightening possibility: That she, too, could succumb to the same temptations.

That she, too, could fall away.

“That there would be something or some person that would draw me away from this church, this place that (is) the only place that I’ve ever seen, in all my travels and all the places I’ve been and picketed, that I see people who serve God in truth.”

“I don’t want to be led astray,” she says. “... Yikes. Yeah, that’s what it is.”

•  •  • 

Here is what you’ll find on an average day inside the Westboro control center, which is actually the Phelps-Roper home: Ringing phones and incessant chatter and a lot of people coming and going. Snacks in the refrigerator and “Call of Duty” on the Xbox and Bibles of all shapes and sizes. Next to a computer where the church’s website is bookmarked and regularly updated, a couple of Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons are tacked to a bulletin board.

What you’ll also find, on a weekday morning, is Megan, wearing jeans and calf-high boots, fiddling with her iPhone and looking a little fatigued.

She had just returned from a two-day trip to New York City where she had picketed a college media convention in Times Square and was preparing for an upcoming trip to the FBI field office in Manassas, Va., where members of the church were invited for a session with the bureau’s trainees on communicating with activist groups. Shirley was in the den, doing a phone interview with a radio station from the United Kingdom, and three student filmmakers from Chicago roamed the house, gathering footage for a film on the church’s Supreme Court victory.

“Sometimes,” Megan said, setting her phone down next to her, “it can get kind of hectic.”

While many church members have jobs outside the family — Megan’s older brother, Sam, works in IT in Kansas City, and her cousin, Jael, is a nurse in Topeka — Megan took a full-time job with the family-run Phelps-Chartered law firm following college in part so she could remain entrenched within the church. The job allows her to work from home, at a desk not far from her mother’s, splitting her time between duties as a business administrator for the firm and helping push the church’s message.

Her cellphone, which she uses to dole out as many as 150 church-related tweets a day, is never far from reach. She has a hand in creating the faxes and music videos littered with homophobic rhetoric and other propaganda the church constantly churns out, and she is a tireless picketer. Since the church’s first protest, a rather low-key affair held in 1991 at Topeka’s Gage Park, Megan has picketed in 44 states and in roughly 240 cities.

In May, a week after an EF-5 tornado tore through Joplin, Mo., killing 161 people, Megan trekked down there with her family to let the townspeople know that they had it coming.

In the eyes of the church, this work is their version of “love thy neighbor.”

To just about everyone else, it is one of the most abhorrent examples of hate in modern America.

“What they do is they run around blaming all of these folks at the most tragic moments of their lives,” says Heidi Beirich, a director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center who considers Westboro the country’s most obnoxious hate group. “…I mean, they’re a real nasty bunch of folks.”

“Look, neo-Nazis are some nasty folks, and they say hurtful things. But this is like insulting every person in the United States.”

Yet, in a family built upon don’t-give-an-inch bullheadedness, Megan stands out as a softer voice.

By Westboro standards, her favorite picket signs are relatively tame: “Mourn for Your Sins.” “No Peace for the Wicked.” “God Hates Your Idols.” Although her mother once stated during a nationally televised interview that five young Amish girls who had recently been shot to death outside a school house in Lancaster County, Pa., deserved to die, Megan is willing to occasionally poke fun at the church’s loathsome reputation. Last winter, she initially agreed to serve as a guest host on Afentra’s show, with the stipulation that each time she quoted the Bible or pushed an anti-gay message the show’s co-hosts would be allowed to burn one of the church’s picket signs.

Says Afentra, who has known her for nearly a decade, “She’s playful with her craziness.”

Megan has little problem handling the criticism that pours in on a daily basis. Not long ago, she brushed off a Facebook message in which someone told her he planned to travel to Topeka and rape her. But when asked whether she has considered the possibility that the countless people who consider her deranged, insane, nuts and “bat-s--- crazy” might be on to something, she smiles and says, “You can’t listen to the whole world tell you you’re crazy, without wondering, ‘Am I crazy?’ ”

When not stationed at her desk, forging her path to heaven one tweet at a time, she can often be found in her bedroom, with the flower-print-bordered walls, photo collages and a doll on the dresser holding a miniature “Thank God for IEDs” picket sign.

There are times she will let her mind drift to simpler things, like the prospect of a personal vacation. She is well-traveled, having picketed on street corners from Los Angeles to Times Square, but you would not describe her as worldly. She’d love to visit Scotland, she says, launching excitedly into a discussion about the country’s beautiful landscapes and how great it would be to visit the place from which her ancestors hail.

But just as quickly, she cuts herself off, changes the subject, explains that you can’t dwell on things like that. You can’t sit around worrying about what you can’t do, what you don’t have.

“Whatever state you find yourself in,” she says, “you’re supposed to be content there.”

• •  • 

Since she could walk, Megan was taught that the world beyond the family’s backyard was an inherently evil place.

The family sets the parameters of the world their children inhabit, and in many ways, those boundaries make a typical childhood impossible.

Like all the Phelps children, Megan attended public school, partly because home-schooling so many children would be too daunting a task for the family’s elder members and partly because the children are meant to serve as walking billboards. But being a Phelps kid was not exactly the key to grade-school social success.

Megan was invited to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s once, she thinks. A couple of times, kids from school came over to play. But it didn’t really stick. Many times, the Phelps girls would take their lunches to the locker room and eat by themselves.

On weekends, Megan joined her family on pickets. Even though she wasn’t quite sure what the church was protesting, she learned quickly.

She learned that her neighbors and teachers and classmates were hell-bound deviates, and that the path to heaven runs directly and solely through the Westboro Baptist Church. Not least of all, she learned that walking away from the church meant walking away from God, and that anyone who did so would be relegated to the harshest corners of hell.

For the most part, Megan embraced the teachings, spending her afternoons breaking down scripture in the park with Shirley and her evenings at the house with family, discussing the meaning of this doctrine and that verse. Always asking questions. Always trying to make sense of the information.

But Megan sometimes found herself wondering about a future outside. It was more of an abstract thought than anything, she says now, but there was a point in middle school when she was doing a lot of extracurricular activities, like volleyball and the school musical, and spending more time with kids from school when it began to occur to her that maybe these kids who liked the same music and watched the same movies weren’t so bad, after all.

Maybe the things they did weren’t so terrible.

Maybe a life without the church wouldn’t be so bad.

Maybe…

“That’s the thing,” Megan says. “When I would feel like, well, maybe these people aren’t — maybe the stuff they do isn’t that bad, well, at the same time, as you start to go there in your mind, you have these people (at home) that are constantly asking you questions and forcing you to go back and look at what the standards are.”

When she was 13, the same age psychologists identify as the time adolescents are attempting to branch out from their immediate family, Megan approached her parents to let them know she wanted to spend the rest of her life as a member of the church.

Her baptism was held a couple of weeks later, at the backyard pool. Family members gathered before a Sunday morning sermon and Fred Phelps said a few words and then dunked Megan’s head under water.

Out, then in.

Twelve years later, the grip on Megan remains firm. Though she’s in her mid-20s, she can oftentimes seem much younger, still checking with her mother occasionally to make sure what she’s wearing is appropriate.

She doesn’t drink. Doesn’t smoke. Doesn’t go to concerts. If you ask her whether she attended her high school prom, she will chuckle in that are-you-out-of-your-mind kind of way before telling you that, no, she did not, in fact, attend her high school prom.

She has no real friends. Few acquaintances. The majority of her outside interactions comes with the people — journalists, mostly — who stop by to profile the family. Two years ago, after a group of student filmmakers from Holland spent a week in Topeka documenting the church, Megan cried when they finally had to go. She still keeps a voice recording of one of them, a handsome, 20-something guy named Pepijn, saved in her phone.

Because any potential spouse would have to be a member of the church — and because young, single guys aren’t exactly lining up to join — she is resigned to the fact that she will almost certainly never get married or have children. She says this with a kind of shrugging indifference. That she will not be experiencing this part of life does not seem to leave her particularly dismayed.

“What’s important to me is how the Lord looks at me, more than anything else,” she explains. “It’s not a sad thing for me to sacrifice these things. It’s a great blessing and privilege.”

Besides, she shrugs, trying to plot out your future “just brings heartache and disappointment and discontentment.”

•   • 

Libby Phelps Alvarez lives in Lawrence, not far from Massachusetts Street and the University of Kansas campus, with her newlywed husband, Logan.

On the bookshelf in the living room of her tidy home are some photos of the family that disowned her.

Libby is Megan’s cousin, and before she left Westboro in March 2009, was her best friend, too.

They grew up together, just three years apart. They used to spend their afternoons concocting their own “Saturday Night Live” skits and their weekends convulsing into giggles on pickets. By the time they’d reached their late teens, both had a certain profile within the church, with the older Libby handling many of the radio engagements now carried out by Megan .

“Libby,” says Afentra, “(was) the original Megan.”

Then one day 21/2 years ago, Libby says, she was confronted by church members who were displeased that she’d worn a bikini during a family vacation to Puerto Rico. She knew from experience how she was supposed to react. Apologize. Ask forgiveness. Assure the rest of the group that nothing like this would ever happen again. For some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Not long after, at the age of 25, she left.

According to Steve Hassan, a Massachusetts-based counselor who has written extensively about cults and religious fundamentalist groups, human brains continue to mature until right around the age of 25. People have left cult-like situations at all ages, he says, but when asked the ages most likely to prompt a departure, the first thing he says is “17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25...”

“A woman’s biological clock,” says Hassan, “can be a very powerful (thing).”

Walking away from everything she’d ever known, Libby says, wasn’t easy, and the early days were particularly excruciating. When she left, she had a car, a little money and not much else. If not for her boss, who let her move in for four months while she saved up enough to get her own place, she’s not sure how she would have gotten by. For a long time after leaving, she would lie in bed at night, think about the fact that she’ll never again be able to speak to her mother, and mourn.

“That first year,” she says, “there would be days it would hit me really hard.”

Things slowly began to get easier. Without the constraints of the church, she began to branch out, experiencing things she was never able to before. She went out for drinks in Kansas City’s Power & Light District. And to a Tech N9ne concert. For the first time in her life, she got a haircut. It was weird, she says.

One day, she was shopping at Urban Outfitters in Lawrence and ran into a guy who had been her physical therapy patient. They chatted for a few minutes, and not long after, he bought her flowers.

“Do you think he likes me?” Libby asked her boss.

He did, it turned out, even after she told him on their second date who she was and who her family was and that here was an out, if he wanted it, a chance to cut and run.

Within four months, he told her he planned to marry her. In July, he made good on that promise.

And although there are still rough patches, still times she wants to pick up the phone and call her mom, still times she thinks about heaven and hell, she seems at peace with her new life.

Every once in a while, she thinks about Megan. She knows it’s very possible she’ll never reconnect with her cousin, knows that the only way it would happen is if Megan were to one day decide to leave the church. But she knows what they’d do if she did.

They’d go shopping on the Plaza. And play volleyball. Libby would take her to a sports bar in Lawrence, the Burger Stand, because the food there is amazing. They’d board a plane to Europe and spend a couple of weeks traveling through Belgium and the Netherlands and Italy and Switzerland, like Libby did shortly after leaving.

“I would take her to Covent Garden in England and for ice cream and tea in London,” Libby says. “And there was a place in Germany, the Hofbrauhaus, it’s really famous, there’s a brass band. And I know that Megan would love going on The Tube in England….”

She goes on for a minute.

“I wish that she could experience the same things,” Libby says. “Or that she would have the opportunity or the choice to experience the same things.”

 •  • 

A phone rings inside the Westboro Baptist Church on a recent weekday morning, and Megan answers cheerfully.

It’s been six months since she traveled with her family to the scene of the deadliest American tornado in the past 60 years. An act that, even for a group built upon shock and awe, was so heinous, so over-the-top, that, for one of the first times in the church’s history, members were run out of town before raising a single sign.

As always, her tone is gentle, unassuming. And as always, the message attached to it is dark and deeply disturbing.

She believes that Joplin was God’s work — that, as a result, the destruction, the heartache, the dead infants were “just and perfect and right” — and so no, she is saying now, she does not feel bad about picketing such things. Doesn’t struggle with the fact that, in many instances, she is serving to amplify the grief of complete strangers.

She tells you that she doesn’t waste time worrying about the future. If God’s plan is for her to one day take over for her mother, she has said before, to lead Westboro’s next generation, then she’ll be content in that role and carry it out to the best of her ability. But she doesn’t dwell on it.

As for Libby? No, Megan never wonders what her cousin is up to, never thinks about calling her up and getting together over coffee and laughing the way they used to all those years ago.

“Everything has been said,” Megan affirms.

She finds it humorous that there are those who would like to “save” her. People like her cousin and uncle and even Kevin Smith, who earlier this year launched a “Save Megan” campaign over Twitter.

“I remember being, like, 17 or 18 and hearing that, and now I’m 25 and hearing the same kinds of things,” she says. “It’s so funny. You could still get out! You could still get out!

“The idea that people feel that they have to be sympathetic to me? It’s a funny concept.”

She believes, too, that there’s more work to be done, more signs to be hoisted, more neighbors to be loved. Later that day, she will grab her “Keep God’s Law” sign and head over to a picket at Topeka’s City Hall.

Before she does, however, there’s one more point to make, crystal clear this time.

“I’m here because I want to be here,” she says. “Because I believe these things. Because I love these words.

“I’m all in.”

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan@inkkc.com or 816-234-4039.

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