Fred Phelps, of course, was the notorious homophobic preacher at the Westboro Baptist Church. Throughout the 1980s, ’90s and into the 2000s, Phelps became a fixture of protest, blaming the ills of the world on homosexuality. He and his followers often showed up at the funerals of AIDS patients, or, in the case of Matthew Shepard, that of a hate crime victim, to shame the dead, claiming they were in Hell.
For Megan, attending these kinds of protests with her granddad became a part of everyday life. “We thought it was our duty to go and warn people of the consequences of their sins, and I understood that to be the definition of loving our neighbor,” she tells KMBC News. “We would always say the sign doesn’t say anything about our personal hatred – it’s talking about the hatred of God.”
As one of 11 children and with an enormous extended family–Fred Phelps sired 13 kids of his own–Megan had a twisted upbringing. She began attending Phelps’ protests at age 5 and struggled with the family’s rigid, even violent, religiosity. “It was abusive – there’s no question in my mind it was. Gramp’s policy was to beat first, ask questions later.”
As she matured, and with the advent of social media, Megan began to question the beliefs of her family. “The way that it came into my mind was, ‘Oh my God, what if we’re just people, what if this isn’t the place led by God himself?’ And that realization was staggering and completely destabilizing.” She eventually left the church with her sister in 2012 to begin a new life. Fred Phelps died in 2014, and Megan still has limited contact with her family.
Perhaps Phelps Roper’s most startling revelation shows the full effect of her grandfather’s bigotry and abuse. “I don’t really believe in God anymore,” she confesses. “I don’t like to say I’m not a believer, because I’m a believer in a lot of things, primarily hope, and grace and the power of human connection. But God? No.”