“Can two walk together, even if they disagree? Of course we could. Not exactly revolutionary, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was.”
That is a line from Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps, leader of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Westboro is well-known for its cruel and hateful protests of military funerals, the LGBTQ community, and many other groups. They are known for forming picket lines claiming they do God’s work, but are rooted in deep hatred of anyone different from them.
Unfollow, published in 2019, is Phelps-Roper’s account of her upbringing in Westboro and her decision to leave the church. She writes accounts of picketing as a young child, holding signs with offensive language meant to belittle whichever group Westboro was pointing its finger at on any given day.
While leaving Westboro was a straightforward decision in theory, it also meant leaving the world she knew. It was a world in which she felt loved. Her grandfather, however evil he could be to the outside world, was often just a regular, loving grandfather to Phelps-Roper herself. Because of Westboro’s strict rules, leaving meant she wouldn’t see these people again. She would no longer see her parents or many of her siblings.
Unfollow is also the One Book South Dakota for 2020. You can visit One Book South Dakota for more information on hosting a virtual discussion of the book. Phelps-Roper lives in South Dakota now with her husband and young daughter.
Although I was rooting for Phelps-Roper as she mustered the courage to leave such a hateful environment, I found it a bit sad that, in the end, she found herself faithless and still missing the people she loved. She writes that she no longer prays.
She does, however, dedicate her time to promoting meaningful dialogue between people from different walks of life. After leaving Westboro, Phelps-Roper has built deep friendships with many of the very people she picketed as a teenager and young adult. She now believes if we are open to learning and understanding one another, we can cause real and positive change. That is a message of love, acceptance, and respect that we all can use right now.