Megan Phelps-Roper remembers the first time she protested as a chubby five-year-old, too young to read the hateful sign she was holding.
For over 20 years, Phelps-Roper joined her Westboro Baptist Church family in anti-gay picketing, travelling around the US to events such as military funerals and baseball games to spread their message of hate.
“This was the focus of our whole lives, this was the only way for me to do good in a world that sits in Satan’s lap. And like the rest of my ten siblings, I believed what I was taught with all my heart and I pursued Westboro’s agenda with a special sort of zeal,” says Phelps Roper in a powerful new TED Talk.
Phelps-Roper describes how her engagement with opponents of the notorious church on social media sites such as Twitter opened a dialogue that helped her leave the hate group.
“Initially, the people I encountered on the platform were just as hostile as I expected… but in the midst of that digital brawl, a strange pattern developed,” she says.
“Someone would arrive at my profile with the usual rage and scorn, and I would respond with a custom mix of Bible verses, pop culture references and smiley faces.
“They would be understandably confused and caught off guard, but then a conversation would ensue. And it was civil — full of genuine curiosity on both sides. How had the other come to such outrageous conclusions about the world?”
Phelps-Roper’s online discussions slowly helped her to realise the glaring inconsistencies in the Church’s hateful doctrine.
“The truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe.
“These realisations were life-altering. Once I saw that we were not the ultimate arbiters of divine truth but flawed human beings, I couldn’t pretend otherwise.
“I couldn’t justify our actions — especially our cruel practice of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy. These shifts in my perspective contributed to a larger erosion of trust in my church, and eventually it made it impossible for me to stay.”
You can watch the full TED Talk here: