How a Westboro Baptist Church Refugee Became the Embodiment of #ResistHate

Melody Curtiss

If you haven’t seen Megan Phelps-Roper’s Ted-talk yet, you should watch it. It’s linked on our Editorial Board review page.

She describes how the way her detractors engaged her, encouraged her to think, then changed her perspective, changed her mind, and finally changed her life. Megan’s best opposition was opposed to her dogma, but open to her humanity – they participated in dialogue with her that allowed each to examine the other’s perspective in a frank and nonviolent manner. That is exactly what it means to #ResistHate.

Megan would probably dislike being called a WBC refugee. She would tell you that she wasn’t oppressed by her family; she was loved. I believe that whole-heartedly.

Like Megan, I grew up in Kansas. I went to high school, college and law school in Topeka, like Megan’s mother and most of her family.

You can’t be from Topeka and not know the Phelps family – they are legendary and internationally famous, but at home in Topeka, they are also neighbors. In my youth, Fred Phelps Sr. was the family patriarch, a civil rights attorney and a Primitive Baptist preacher with a congregation made up of essentially his family and one other, the Hockenbargers.

Carl Hockenbarger was my best friend’s boyfriend’s best friend and college roommate. We were all on the high school debate squad together and, yes, I went on a double date once with Carl. I knew Carl was a Baptist, but not that he was a second generation member of the WBC church. Topekans in the 70’s and 80’s used to refer to the second generation of the WBC Phelps family (Megan belongs to the third) as the “how many MORE delicious boxes of candy would you like to buy today” kids, because they helped to support the church by peddling candy door-to-door. This clannish Primitive Baptist family was semi-cultish. I suspect most Primitive Baptist congregations are, in that there’s only a few of them, they all insist that they have the corner on the true religion and none of them recognize each other, let alone other Christian denominations or religions.

Carl wasn’t my only WBC connection. I am of the same generation as Megan Phelps’s parents and eleven of the thirteen Phelps children were attorneys. I was a law school classmate of several of Megan’s aunts and uncles, and then a colleague of her mother, father, aunts and uncles in the legal and political communities.

I practiced employment rights law, like they did, and we had mutual clients and cases. I was an active Democrat, like they were, and we traveled across the state and country together to attend Democratic Party events. I spent family-oriented squeeze-in-the-back-seat-of-the-car-and-road-trip while singing at the top of our lungs quality time with these folks. I shared hotel rooms, deep conversation and laughter. It might surprise people to know that the Phelps law firm was once a cvil rights firm that defended minorities from injustice, and that at one point in time, that was how they saw themselves. Fred Sr. was even involved with one of the Brown v Board of Education appeals.

This, of course, was prior to the “God Hates…” madness that overtook the family and brought them to the forefront of the national discourse on hatred. I do recall fondly, even as the madness developed, how Fred, Sr. would greet me jovially on the courthouse steps, offensive sign in hand, “Good morning, Mel, you ol’ whore of Babylon. Nice day for protesting, isn’t it?” I, of course, would grin, wave back, and agree, “It’s always a good day for a protest, Fred.”

Megan is the person I envision when I think of my former friends. Not because I knew or remember her as a baby. I don’t. I think of her because I’ve watched her from afar, seen the interviews and documentaries while she was still a WBC devotee, and those that followed when she left the church. I have recognized in her mannerism, the sharp wit and intelligence of her mother, Shirley Phelps-Roper, the unshakable confidence of her many courageous aunts (some in and some out of the church), her grandfather Fred Sr’s talent for speaking, the entire amazing family’s talent for music and her Uncle Tim’s talent for what would be classified as dance in most cultures, but not at WBC where dance isn’t permitted. I also see a reflection of her father Brent’s quiet, calm kindness. I suspect these family qualities empowered Megan to grow into the confident but humble person who embodies the spirit of the resistance.

I think of her, and of them, because it reminds me that people are complicated, there is more than one way to perceive the world, and that even those who seem despicable and irredeemable to you at a moment in time, like you, are in a state of constant change and evolution.

Whether or not they believe it.

#ResistHate, y’all.

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