Ex-member says Twitter helped her break from Westboro Baptist Church

Granddaughter of founders tells students not to fear engaging people with extreme views


BP Photo by Elinore Kerendian

Megan Phelps, the granddaughter of founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, spoke at Shalhevet in an all-school assembly June 7. Since leaving, she has discovered the power of effective disagreement and now lectures on the subject and is working on an autobiography.

When Megan Phelps heard the news about the 9/11 terrorist attack from a friend in 2001, she said “awesome.” The 3,000 who died that day were a sign of “God’s vengeance against the rebellious people,” she then believed.

An ex-member of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) — the fringe, self-described Christian group that picketed Shalhevet with anti-semitic and homophobic slogans on Feb. 27 — Ms. Phelps has since denounced all of the convictions she held so deeply during her two decades as a member of the church. On June 7, she came to Shalhevet and described her transition from picketer to peacemaker.

Positive experiences with people she’s met since leaving the church, she said, have given her hope for others like her who have been indoctrinated with hate, whatever the particulars of their beliefs. Contrary to popular belief, she said, the best thing to do when encountering extremists is to engage with them and share your own viewpoints.

“When we view things very deeply, it’s easy to assume that your values and beliefs are good and self-evident,” she said in response to a question at a morning assembly in the gym.  “And that you don’t have to make the argument, to show the other side the goodness of your position.”
That’s a misconception, she said.  On the contrary, “You have to be willing to try to reach across and help them understand.”

All students and faculty gathered in the same arrangement as for Town Hall, but no phones were out and few were talking during the special morning assembly. If students were talking, it was probably a discussion that stemmed from something Ms. Phelps said. Bringing her to the school took months of planning and preparation, officials said while introducing her.

Her questioning of the church and its practices started on Twitter in 2009, the year she created a Twitter account for WBC. She started tweeting back and forth with David Abitbol, a Jerusalem-based web developer and creator of the Jewish-culture blog “Jewlicious.” At first, the 140-character-and-under remarks were vicious and crude.

One of her first tweets to him was, “Jews need to repent for their sin of killing Jesus.” Over the course of a few months, their tone gradually changed. He asked her questions about WBC’s picket signs and she asked him questions about Jewish theology. Both of them were genuinely curious about how they came to completely different conclusions about the same Bible and its verses, she said.

However, Mr. Abitol’s friendliness worried her. She had been warned about being “seduced away” from the truth by a “crafty deceiver.”

“I felt I liked David,” Ms. Phelps said in her talk. “So of course, I thought it was time to picket him.”

The two met for the first time when she picketed at the Jewlicious festival in Long Beach in February, 2010, and again at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations in New Orleans. Both times she and David chatted. He brought her challah, and she brought him kosher chocolate and held a “God hates Jews” sign.

But her faith was most consequentially challenged when David asked about a picket sign that read “Death penalty for fags.” Noting that the church bases its views on Leviticus 20:13, which states that homosexuality is an abomination and is punishable by death, he asked about the member of the Westboro Baptist Church that had a child out of wedlock — Ms. Phelps’s own mother, Shirley Phelps. Isn’t that punishable by the death penalty, too, he asked?

Church members had always defended Shirley.

“Everyone sins we would say, the question is whether or not you repent,” Ms. Phelps told Mr. Abitol;  Shirley Phelps didn’t deserve punishment because she had repented.

“We had been calling for the death penalty for gays since the 90s,” she said at Shalhevet. “But this was the first time I thought the fact that instituting the death penalty completely cuts off the opportunity to repent and be forgiven, which is a major foundation of Christian theology.

“Why were we trying to destroy others before they had the opportunity to repent?”

When she approached church elders with this question, she was shut down.

“It was the first time that I could believe the church was wrong and I was right,” she said.

After that, when other ideas came up that she disagreed with, she felt she could challenge them, and not avoid them because she herself was “insufficiently spiritual.” This new willingness to question things was strong enough to overcome decades of indoctrination.

“It became less terrifying to leave, and more terrifying to stay,” she recalled.

So in late 2012, at the age of 26, she left. Ms. Phelps had first considered leaving on July 4, 2012. She confided in her sister Grace, who eventually left with her that same year. During the first few months after their departure, they were paranoid about God’s wrath taking form as a horrible disease or early death for them. The two initially drove to the Black Hills in South Dakota, shaking in fear that their car would veer off the highway. But it didn’t.

A few months later, Mr. Abitbol invited them to the 2013 Jewlicious festival — this time without their picket signs. The sisters’ hosts there were Rabbi Yonatan and Rachel Bookstein, the founders of the Jewlicious festival and co-founders of the Pico Shul, located on Pico Boulevard near Shalhevet.

Just a year after picketing shuls with signs that read “God hates Jews” and “Jews killed Jesus,” the two were living with an Orthodox Jewish family, surrounded by many others in Pico-Robertson. Megan Phelps stayed for a few weeks and then left to take care of some other things, but Grace stayed for months. Megan Phelps was staying there while visiting Shalhevet.

“We’ve been given this opportunity to host someone who is in a tremendous amount of spiritual and emotional pain,” Ms. Bookstein said in an interview. “I didn’t know if I was equipped to be able to help her, but I was going to give it my best shot.”

The time Grace and Megan Phelps spent at the Booksteins in 2013 (and for Grace until 2014) was a major turning point for them. For the next few weeks, hours were spent having theological discussions in the kitchen or during Friday night dinner. One of the major things they discussed was the idea of rebuke, expressing disapproval or criticism.

“I shared the idea that if someone isn’t going to hear your rebuke in Jewish thought, you really can’t give them rebuke,” Ms. Bookstein said. “If it’s not going to go into their heart, not only is it not a good thing to do, because they’re not going to hear it, it’s also going to build them up against your ideas. So it’s destructive.”

Ms, Bookstein added that she considered it an aveira — a sin — to rebuke someone in a destructive way.

“You’re not helping change their minds or their hearts,” she said, “and you’re only creating divisiveness.”

In these discussions, jaws were dropping “every other minute,” Ms. Bookstein recalled. At the time, Ms. Phelps’s understanding of rebuke, through the lens of the Westboro Baptist Church, was to do it as loud and often as possible, even if the other person doesn’t hear them, because it is their spiritual requirement.

Courtesy of www.ted.com

Ms. Phelps herself has now formulated a combination of the two theories toward rebuke that she learned at the church and at the Booksteins as a recipe for engaging with the “other.” Her philosophy for having open discussion is based on four principles, which she shared with the Shalhevet audience. This ideology is also the focus of her Ted Talk, which has accumulated over 1.5 million views on Youtube.

The four points are to not assume bad intent, ask questions, stay calm and “make the argument.” Assuming bad intentions on the side other causes you to dismiss it, and this prevents civilized discussion.

“By asking questions, you’re signaling to the person that you’re hearing them, that you’re listening,” Ms. Phelps advised.

Staying calm is difficult, but that is why social media is actually a perfect platform for hard conversations, she says.

“The great thing about Twitter is that there is a buffer of time and space between the person you’re talking to,” she said. “So if you’re getting worked up and upset, you can pause the conversation and walk away.”

Lastly, one must always argue their point of view. The “marketplace of ideas” fails if people do not actually engage, she said, so people must express their ideas to one another, just as she and Mr. Abitbol did in 2009.

This is why Phelps still believes in the first amendment’s protection of the Westboro Baptist Church, in its messages both on social media and in protests and picketings.

“You can try to censor these ideas as much as you can,” Ms. Phelps said. “But you can’t stop people from having bad logic. People come to bad ideas organically, not always from hearing it from other people. So you need to be able to engage those ideas and counter them and contradict them as much as possible.”

Her ability to publicly share her thoughts, no matter how bigoted, is what enabled others to challenge her, she said, which in turn led her to leave the group and turn against its hateful attitudes.

But she garnered the most applause from the audience when she said that if she could pick one religion today, it would be Judaism.

“Because of the way you approach the text and the way you understand all the interpretations,” Ms. Phelps said. “And all the different ways there are to understand the text. It’s never ‘I’m right, you’re wrong and you’re all doomed.’”

Courtesy of www.youtube.com

Ms. Phelps spoke with calm and eloquence, in great contrast to the usual screaming of obscenities at protests, as seen online and in news reports as seen online and in news reports. It came as a surprise to students whose only experience with the Westboro Baptist Church was a bizarre picketing that derailed an entire day of school.

Today, Megan Phelps is not in communication with most of her family. She has a brother who left eight-and-a-half years before she did and another brother who left after she and Grace did. She does speak now to her dad’s parents and brother, who were never a part of the WBC.

Sometimes she reaches out to her family that are still there.

“As much as I can bring myself to do it, I’ll send them messages on Twitter and letters and post cards trying to convince them that there are so many things we were wrong about,” she said.