October marked ten years since I left the fundamentalist church I grew up in. In a strange coincidence of timing, the November 23 issue of the New Yorker (one month to the day since the tenth anniversary of my leaving) ran an interview with Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist founding pastor Fred Phelps.
Phelps-Roper is the daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper, who for a time was the church’s public face which also meant that Megan was often given a prominent role to play in the cult’s life and work, particularly on social media. In a video interview accompanying the series, Phelps-Roper spoke beautifully about what may be the most difficult part about leaving a difficult church situation or cult, both before you actually leave and after.
The rest of the world knew Phelps-Roper’s family for their shockingly offensive “evangelism” tactics, such as picketing funerals where they would proclaim that the deceased died as part of God’s judgment on a wicked and unrighteous America.
Phelps-Roper knew this side of her family, of course. She attended protests and was the church’s mouthpiece on social media for several years. Yet the church was far more than that to her. They were her family and the only people she had been close to for her entire life.
While some would read this insularity as a further symptom of the church’s sickness, I think charity also would have us recognize that there is a genuine human love that exists between these people and that the loss of this love is a terrifying thing, which explains why it took Phelps-Roper and her sister so long to leave.
This is something that anyone coming out of an insular, closed off church will understand. It’s certainly something I get. To most people in my town if you say the name of the church I grew up in the response is a much less extreme version of the response I imagine people in Topeka have to Westboro. But that’s not the only thing that I think of when I hear that church’s name. When I drive past the campus, which I still do semi-often since my company’s office is nearby, I don’t just think of the awful things I can remember, although those memories are there.
But I also remember the year my parents organized a birthday party for me in the church’s youth ministry house, which is located on the street corner, about a 200 yard walk from the main church building. I was in middle school for that birthday and I remember late at night, after my dad (the lone adult present) had fallen asleep, that we convinced one of my friends to strip down to his boxers, run down to the church building, and back up to the youth house.
My birthday is December 28.
We live in Lincoln, NE.
The average temperature in Lincoln in December is 16 degrees Fahrenheit and at night the temperature creeps toward zero.
We swore we’d let him back in when he got back up to the building. And we did. Eventually. (Don’t worry. He was fine.)
I can also remember spending many Saturdays at a local skating rink our church rented out to use for the church-sponsored roller hockey league that I played in with nearly all of my friends. I remember being dogpiled after our team won the league title one year.
One of the things that people with no experience of these insular churches consistently miss about them is how close the community actually is for people who are in. I’ve never been in another church whose members take care of each other the way they do at my childhood church. And while most people my age who grew up outside that church either grew up in a broken home or with friends from broken homes, my friends and I in our church grew up in something that can almost seem like the Buttercream Gang when I remember it.
I did not have a single close friend whose parents were divorced. Though none of my friends were particularly wealthy we all had stable homes, plenty of food to eat, a couple fun parties every year, and ample space in our houses and in our yards to play all sorts of games. A couple friends lived on acreages at the edge of town which, once we were older, became the site of many memorable late night games of Ghost in the Graveyard and Ghosty Ghosty. In many ways, it was an idyllic childhood.
But, of course, at the same moment you think about those memories that feel like scenes out of a TV movie, you remember all the other things that existed alongside it. We had two kids in our youth ministry, one of whom was subjected to some awful bullying, commit suicide during their teen years. There were multiple cases of major sexual sin involving people in leadership roles. In one case, the sin actually became a legal matter and the guilty party is now serving a fully deserved prison sentence. “Financial irregularities” were not unheard of. There were also multiple splits in the church over issues ranging from the way a pastor led his family to financial issues to questions of dispensational theology.
But when I remember my childhood there, I don’t remember any of that. Those things all came along later as I got older, started thinking for myself, asking questions, and fell out with most of the people there. But before adolescence my memories of the church exist in an almost golden haze of friendship and safety.
And this is why leaving these sorts of churches is complicated: If you lived in it—and especially if you grew up in it—you have tons of memories that are almost laughably romantic. Looking back on my childhood there are many times where it seems like something out of the most exaggerated caricatures of the 1950s. It was a real-life Pleasantville. And I don’t really want to feel badly about that or dismiss everything about it because of how jacked up the community actually was. The same people who I remember being so cruel in high school are often at the center of unambiguously happy childhood memories.
For all I knew there was nothing unusual about being in a church that, due to its lack of ties to literally any other local church, ran all of its own ministries. To me all that meant was that we ran our own Sunday night boys ministry and organized our own summer camps that included archery, riflery, obstacle courses, water games, and nightly trips to the canteen to buy obscene amounts of candy.
We even did a leader’s hide where dad’s would hide and kids would have to go out and find them. Each dad had a certain point value for being caught which went to the week-long competition between the different teams we were split up into upon arriving at camp. For all I knew, this was how everyone lived. Everyone did this sort of fun stuff. That’s just what you did if you were a little boy living in Lincoln, NE. And I don’t want to think that the sheltering I received as a result of growing up in a church like mine is something that I should just be ashamed of or feel badly about. I hope my kids have as much fun with their friends as I did with mine, even if I also hope they never experience the awful things that I and many others would experience later in life at the hands of our local church.
This is what makes it so incredibly painful to leave these kind of churches. To everyone outside the church, all you’re being asked to do is leave this completely toxic, dysfunctional place rife with mistrust, dishonesty, and gossip. But that’s not your experience. At its most painful, as in Phelps-Roper’s case, leaving will mean leaving behind family members who you adore and with whom you have lived your whole life. I was more fortunate in that my parents are some of the loveliest people I’ve ever known and so I never had to sacrifice my relationship with them in order to escape from an unhealthy church. But even then I did have to give up nearly every relationship I had as a child.
My point in this isn’t to defend churches like the one I grew up in or that Phelps-Roper grew up in. Rather, it’s to say that dragons don’t always look like dragons. Cartoonishly depraved folks like Fred Phelps do exist, of course, but they are never as simple as their public profiles make them out to be. But the only people who know that are the ones who are in their churches. And yes, of course, they should leave. But it’s rare indeed that someone inside that world will see that. And rarer still that they’re willing to do it.