Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, the sisters, who are granddaughters of Fred Phelps, the founder of the hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church, spoke at the Anti-Defamation League’s ninth annual Youth Leadership Conference on Oct. 20.
It was a cold night in the winter of 2012 when Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper left everything in their lives behind. The sisters, who are granddaughters of Fred Phelps, the founder of the hate group known by its deceptively benign moniker, the Westboro Baptist Church, spoke at the Anti-Defamation League’s ninth annual Youth Leadership Conference on Oct. 20. At the event, aptly named “Exploring Diversity, Challenging Hate,” the sisters told the story behind their decision to leave the church — and their family — and their attempts to rebuild their lives.
More than 450 students and educators from 47 high schools in Eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey attended the conference at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium, including Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Cherry Hill High School East and Kutztown Area High School.
The Topeka, Kan.-based church is notorious for its public protests against Jews, gays, the military and other groups. According to the organization’s website, “it engages in daily peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth. It perceives the modern militant homosexual movement to pose a clear and present danger to the survival of America, which exposes the nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah. WBC has conducted 56,043 demonstrations since June 1991, at homosexual parades and other events, including more than 400 military funerals of troops who died in Iraq/Afghanistan.”
“We weren’t losing just a church, but our family, home and foundation of life,” Megan said while talking to the students. “The moment I considered leaving, I was overwhelmed by panic, guilt and shame. As soon as somebody leaves, it’s like a switch is flipped and they’re evil. I would never have left if I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do.”
Growing up, the sisters’ social lives were very limited; they had very few friends outside of the church and their lives revolved around picketing.
“Our time was not ours at all,” Grace said.
Megan told the audience that she never questioned the church until 2009, when she had a Twitter interaction with David Abitbol, the founder of Jewlicious.com. She made disparaging comments about Jews and they struck up a conversation, which eventually led to her beginning to doubt everything she believed in. She then confronted her parents, who ignored her.
“It was the first time I realized that, oh my God, we could be wrong about something,” Megan said.
Grace had never thought about it because she thought her life wouldn’t feel right without the church. But, after four months of debating and family members urging them to stay, their minds were made up.
“I finally figured, unless something changes, I’m going to have to leave,” Megan said. “We were almost more scared of our family members than the rest of the world.”
Now, Megan, 26, and Grace, 19, are moving forward, learning about other cultures and telling their story.
“It’s impossible to explain how much our lives have changed,” Megan said. “We still struggle to process everything that happened. We’re not standing here today to say that we have the answers to all of the problems. We just have to keep searching for meaningful ways to engage each other.”
Once people leave the church, they are not allowed to have contact with its members. Not being able to talk to their family has been very hard, but they are not completely alone: They have two brothers who also left the church and who live in Florida near Grace. The girls attempt to communicate with their family on Twitter, even though they know no one will reply.
“We really want to get through to them,” Megan said.
Grace said they don’t identify as Christians, but believe in “inclusion and treating people right.”
A few months after they left, the girls spoke at the Jewlicious Festival in Long Beach, Calif., which they had once picketed with signs saying, “Your rabbi is a whore.” Grace even stayed with a rabbi for a few weeks, where she learned Jewish customs and observed Passover.
“It was a really an amazing experience,” Grace said.
Randi Boyette, ADL associate regional director, said the goal of the conference was for the children to understand diversity and tolerance.
“We thought that hearing Megan and Grace talk about how they made the very difficult choice to leave their family and church when they came to believe that it was wrong to be a part of a group that preached such a hateful and intolerant message, would inspire students,” Boyette said.
Noah Glickman and Mattan Ben Abou, students from Barrack, both agreed the conference taught them a lot. Glickman, 15, of Merion Station, said that prior to hearing the girls speak, he thought the WBC was similar to the Catholic Church, protesting gay rights and abortions, but just more vocally. He was not aware that the group hated Jews.
“I was shocked to find out that not just the homosexual community was doomed to hell in their eyes, but also the Jewish community, Catholic community, and everyone else who
wasn’t an explicit member of the WBC,” Glickman said. “These two sisters were a true testament to how logic and reality can infiltrate even the heaviest of mob mentalities and hateful ideologies.”
Ben Abou, a junior from the Northeast, said he did not know much about the WBC and found their story “fascinating.”
“The conference taught me a lot about acceptance and how so many people are discriminated against, which leads them to depression and sometimes thoughts of suicide,” Abou said. “So many kids are hated and are put down because of their differences, and this conference brings kids together so that they can realize how this affects kids there age in a negative way. The conference taught me to actually stand up for those who get discriminated against.”
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