A little over a week ago, I wrote a column about the Westboro Baptist Church’s (WBC) choice to protest here in the Pikes Peak region (“How to handle hate when it comes to town”). As luck would have it, as the ink went dry on that essay, I met Megan Phelps-Roper at the South Dakota Festival of Books — a former member of the WBC who has written a fantastic behind-the-scenes memoir about her life in the WBC and then leaving it seven years ago.
We were assigned to the same book-signing table, and when we were done, I told her about our community’s problem. I explained that local law enforcement had received notification the WBC planned three protests at places of worship in Colorado Springs on Sunday, October 13, and the next day at Manitou Springs High School, at 7:35 a.m.
After some initial back-and-forth, during which she reiterated that the WBC has no official relationship with the Baptist faith, and she affirmed that her former church truly does publicly condemn nearly everybody that doesn’t conform to their very narrow fundamentalist perversion of faith, I asked several questions about the WBC’s trip to our towns.
Mrs. Phelps-Roper is all of 33-years-old, and seems very much a kind, presentable person. She now lives in rural South Dakota with her husband and one-year-old daughter. It’s hard to fathom that she was once part of arguably the world’s worst hate factory right next door in Topeka, Kansas, but, having since read her book “Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church,” I now have an appreciation of her immense transformation. When we talked, she opened up, precisely because she wants to help and make amends for her former life in the WBC.
So when she tells me what she knows of WBC’s target selection, I believe every word. She was once a key part in the operation, and so she has a lot to tell us about why and how.
First, as to “why” the specific targets in the Pikes Peak region. Phelps-Roper said when the WBC plans a protest trip, they start with a primary target. In this case, she believes that it’s the Environmental Journalism Awards in Fort Collins on Saturday, October 12. Then, everything after the primary is a target of opportunity on the theory that it would be a waste of resources to drive hundreds of miles and only protest (“preach”) in a single location.
That’s why, after Fort Collins, Phelps-Roper thinks they selected three of the larger churches in Colorado Springs. Now, when she assessed the leap from Colorado Springs to Manitou Springs on Monday, October 14, you almost wouldn’t believe this—but she thinks their selection of Manitou is entirely based on the fact that they’d have looked online at the largest Colorado Springs school districts (i.e. District 11) and would have seen that school was out on Columbus Day — and so they picked the nearest-by city (Manitou Springs) and checked if they had school that day, which District 14 does.
And so … bingo, Manitou Springs High School becomes a target. Since the WBC members on this protest trip likely have Columbus Day off of work and school, the mere fact that Manitou Springs will hold classes that day gives them one last protest before driving home.
Now, as to “how” to handle them. Phelps-Roper said when the WBC goes to protest, they literally refer to it as “going to battle” (i.e. for their version of faith), and counter protests feed them with energy, their sense of persecution, and ultimately it’s their way of proving how righteous they really are. She said, from experience, that as a protester there’s nothing more deflating or defusing than to throw a protest that nobody shows up to. That nobody watches, nobody cares about. So she naturally suggested avoiding direct engagement.
But that doesn’t mean acquiescence. When I told her that a Manitou Springs parent had reached out to me and asked about showing up with a sign that says “LOVE,” Phelps-Roper said that if there’s some way, physically, to separate the planned WBC protest, and simultaneously conduct some coordinated community response nearby, she felt like that was important. Because the First Amendment may guarantee that the WBC gets to have their say, but the community should have its own voice, and we can make sure that word is the last, and loudest.