Updated: Jan 5
My heart felt full and my eyes were far from dry as I finished reading the last page of Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper. Her writing is not only brave and powerful, but can teach us a lot about what it is to be open and kind, even to those who don't share the same views.
After watching the BBC documentaries on the Westboro Baptist Church, naming them the 'Most Hated Family in America', I was instantly intrigued by what I saw as a community of indoctrination and possible abuse. When I saw that a previous die-hard believer from the church had left and released a book, I knew I had to read it. Unfortunately, it confirmed all beliefs I had on this cult-like church based in Topeka, Kansas.
I was both impressed and heartbroken at the author's openness about the relentless violence her and her siblings faced from their parents in order to 'beat them into submission'. As someone who's come from a similar background of abuse and indoctrination (although far less organised and public) I understand how hard it is to challenge the beliefs that the abuser has worked so hard to ingrain into your mind. Not only that, but to accept that it's not your fault and you don't deserve it. Among the countless victims of this church - LGBT+ members, Christians, people of other religions and beliefs, and those who have lost loved ones to war and had to face Westboro's protests at their funerals - possibly the biggest victims of this church are the Westboro children. This book is an important reminder that they didn't choose this life, they were simply unlucky enough to be born into it and have their brains pumped full of hatred from the moment they were born.
"In a way, leaving the Westboro Baptist Church was the most Westboro Baptist Church thing you could have done. They're the ones who taught you to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what it cost you. They taught you that. They just never imagined you'd be standing up to them."
This is an important book in the era of social media, where anyone and everyone can share their opinions. Where both hateful and loving ideas are spread. Often, we seek to silence those with opposing views (even if we feel it is the right thing if said views are extremely harmful) instead of challenging them with calm and thoughtful conversations... the very conversations that helped Phelps-Roper see the light and eventually leave Westboro. We throw anger-filled, hurtful names at those who disagree with us - we've all been guilty of it at one point or another. I'm ashamed to say that I too have fallen into this toxic way of thinking and communicating.
But it's our divisions that weaken us as a society. The idea that "We have nothing to learn from these people". We are doomed to keep repeating history unless we learn from our mistakes, from books such as Unfollow, from those who are suffering and from those who are angry for whatever reason.
"In this environment, there is a growing insistence that opposing views must be silenced, whether by the powers of government, the self-regulation of social media companies, or the self-censorship of individuals. At the heart of this insistence lie several false assumptions, including a sentiment that Westboro members would readily recognize: We have nothing to learn from these people."
Megan Phelps-Roper has proved that there is love even in the most hate-filled corners of the world and in the hearts of those who spend their time spreading animosity. I applaud her for sharing her story, knowing how hard it is to speak up against abuse and against something you had believed to be true for your whole life. I sympathise with the pain she must feel from having to leave her family, who she clearly still loves so dearly. And I hope people can learn and take on board her powerful message of hope.
We can all learn from each other: no matter if you're black or white, rich or poor, religious or atheist, gay or straight. We all have the ability to show compassion for those who share this floating rock called Earth with us, and to talk politely to those who hold different views to us. The moment we put these abilities into action is the moment this world becomes a better place. Take it from the woman who left one of the most hate-filled churches in our society.