A lot of us may identify with the term “formerly fundie”, but let’s be real: it doesn’t get more “formerly fundie” than leaving Westboro Baptist Church.
However, that’s exactly what Zach Phelps-Roper did on February 20th of this year. Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with him about his experience growing up as a member of the church, and his reasons for recently leaving.
What led to Zach leaving was a potent mix of realizing the human need for empathy from others, and the radical power of enemy love– something in the end, that offers lessons for all of us. As a member of a church famous for a seeming lack of empathy for others, Zach found himself on the other side of that lonely coin. He told me that things had been brewing inside for several years:
“Over the last five years or so, I guess I got to the point where I felt like I wasn’t being listened to and wasn’t being empathized enough with– with my family, and especially my parents… I got angry several times with my parents and when I did, I kinda exploded so to speak, but then, every time except for this very last time I would feel horrible afterwards and would try to repair things with my family. That process just kept going over and over again where I’d get really upset with them, but then my heart would ache because I really love my family, so I would say whatever I had to in order to stay with them.”
The last time, however, resulted in Zach leaving the church entirely. The final straw that led to his departure was his battle with chronic pain and the feeling that his very real pain wasn’t being taken seriously by the others. Zach describes how the pain seemed to heighten emotions, and became the issue that ultimately sparked his departure:
“I was having lower back pain… it got to the point where I wasn’t able to do construction work that my family does a lot of. That was kind of a frustration for my parents because we were pushed to remodel someone’s house recently and a bunch of other projects of late. That, and the fact that I got injured on my very first day as a nurse resulted in developing around twenty trigger points around my rotator cuff. I made several attempts to resolve my pain, but my dad was very upset because he felt like I was obsessing about trying to find a cure instead of seeking the Lord. The pain was so intense that I was asking my brothers three and four times a day to put ice on my shoulders and on my back… it was just horrible. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t take care of anything else in life. There were all these things going on, and then the night that left I approached my dad and said ‘I’m having so much shoulder pain I think I need to go to the emergency room’. He thought that I was perhaps exaggerating at this point because I was asking three or four times a day about doing something more aggressive because the pain was getting worse… I was experiencing emotions very intensely at the time.”
The physical pain, lack of empathy, and stressful lifestyle had reached a breaking point for this Westboro member. Zach finally came to accept that the religion of Westboro, was no religion for him:
“They all live very stressful lives at that church. It is a very stressful way of living because they have so many things to do and so many deadlines and it’s just chaotic. But a lot of them are passionate about it so it is not a problem for them. For me, I was in so much pain that I just couldn’t deal with it. So, in the heat of the moment I told my father that I was leaving. A couple of minutes later he approached me and said ‘Zach, are you just upset because of this matter here?’ I said ‘let me just make this easy for you. The thing is, I don’t love this religion anymore.’ This was more than a family matter that could be resolved, it was the belief system.”
As we talked further, Zach discussed more of his internal process that led up to him realizing he “didn’t love the religion anymore” and how certain aspects of their theology began to make him uneasy. It seems for Zach, one of the key sticking points became a common outcome of some extreme forms of Calvinism– a view of God that makes him seem evil and unjust to have predestined most of humanity for hell with no chance at redemption. Zach said this view of God was actually something that enraged him:
“The thing was, I viewed God as being a sadistic bully and someone who hated his creatures. I was very bitter against the notion that God would send people to hell for doing things that they had absolutely no control over. I believed in eternal predestination. So basically, God says ‘you will do these things’ and ‘I will punish you for doing these things’. In other words, you have no control over the outcome, and yet you’re going to be punished for it– and that just made me furious.”
Zach went onto explain that it wasn’t simply shifting theology that made him decide to leave but was the juxtaposition of how he felt inside the church versus outside the church. While inside the church he was feeling like he was not being heard, in his experiences outside the church– especially through his job as a nurse– he was beginning to experience an unconditional love and respect that really began to change him. As he described it to me, things just weren’t “sitting right” with him the more he experienced this unconditional love:
“I realized people outside of the church showed me unconditional love, like when I worked at the hospital. When I started working there they told me that they expected me to show respect for every other person, and that they would respect me in return… and the thing was, it was actually easy. The people at the hospital were very empathetic… they showed respect for each other and treated each other as equals, and I didn’t feel that way when I was at the church. Experiencing love on the outside definitely warmed me over.”
Since Zach has only been gone from Westboro for a few months, the dust is still settling with him. He’s still living in the Topeka area, and spoke of the radical love and generosity he’s experienced from other family members who had previously left the church and who are helping him start a new life, outside the walls of the WBC. He’s been able to reestablish relationships with his two sisters, both who had previously fled the church, as well as cousins and other ex-church members. All of whom are excited that he’s left and have been both supportive and encouraging in Zach’s new beginning.
Surprisingly, Zach speaks very warmly about his entire family, and seems to have no lingering bitterness at all. In talking with Zach, it’s easy to see how peaceful and happy he is, even in spite of having experienced a significant loss. Such a peaceful spirit, I believe, is a testimony to the fact he’s embraced the principle of forgiveness and has refused to let bitterness rule his life:
“I’ve learned to forgive them, because I believe that they’re in a mind trap. That mind trap is their belief that the Bible is infallible and that their interpretation of it is infallible… I have absolutely no hard feelings toward them anymore. I don’t think I need to hold them to some form of public ridicule because of that– it’s just their belief that they will go to hell if they don’t say the things they say, and if they don’t show that seeming lack of empathy and tell them they’re going to hell, because they think this is what loving your neighbor looks like… They don’t mean to hurt people, so to speak, they think that they’re obeying the commands of God and they’re scared that if they don’t do the things that they are doing, that they’ll go to hell.”
As I look back on our discussion, the two words that were spoken more than any other were “empathy” and “unconditional love”. As we wrapped things up, I asked Zach for an insider’s view on how we might respond to those still inside Westboro– how we might encourage others to have the same transformation he had. His response was exactly what I secretly hoped the answer would be: enemy love.
“The only way I see us being able to get them to stop doing the protesting and stuff is if we show them absolute and unconditional love… if we show them unconditional love it will call into question what they’re doing. Maybe they’d start having a little empathy for other people… if you went out there and just smiled at them and held signs that said ‘we love you’ and “we want you to be happy” and if we just smother them with love, and absolutely don’t show them any violence or anything of that sort, then I think that would reach their hearts and minds quicker than anything else because that love would be such a shock to their system.”
I hope that Zach’s experience will remind us of the power of love and empathy towards our perceived enemies. It seems that all the counter protesting (responding to an enemy in-kind) made little impact on him– but the feeling of being respected, empathized with, and loved unconditionally? That was an experience that completely flipped his paradigm, and sent the cards tumbling.
Want to change an enemy?
Because for some people, love will be a “shock to their system”.