Two former members from the heart of one of the nation's most notorious cult-like organizations provided a view into their mindset at a talk in Philadelphia Thursday.
“Our upbringing was an epic battle between good and evil,” was how Megan Phelps-Roper, 29, speaking at the National Constitution Center, described growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps.
Megan and her younger sister, Grace Phelps-Roper, were guest speakers at a private conference on hate and hate speech sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI.
The Phelps-Roper sisters' grandfather, Fred Phelps, is pastor of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church that is known for its often homophobic demonstrations of hate speech across America, which are often infamously staged at the funerals of American soldiers. The sisters left the church in November 2012.
“We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people," Grace said.
The two women were selected as keynote speakers for the “Raised & Recruited” section of the conference.
Megan spoke candidly about her experiences after a video was shown of their participation in the church's activities.
“I was afraid I was going to go to hell — I didn’t want God to kill us,” she said. “Leaving the church at first made us terrified."
“I think that if they can change their heart, it’s possible for anyone,” said Jim M., an employee of the U.S. Attorney's Office who declined to give his full name for security reasons. “I’m really here to understand what can make someone so hateful and commit such violations.”
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A women sitting next to him in the audience, Sally P., a mother of two, was more concerned about the parenting aspect of the conversation.
“The girls said they were brainwashed and I believe them,” she said. “It’s clear that for those raised in environments where religion is used as a law and not an option — people can be more susceptible to committing a hate crime.”
This event is one of several that the sisters have participated in to speak out against hate speech, including a recent talk at UPenn.
Megan told the crowd that her goal now is “to do good…to have empathy.”