Peru, Nebraska– On Tuesday, April 2, 2019, Megan Phelps-Roper presented “Empathy for the Other Side: Dialogue that Overcomes Hate, Makes Connections and Changes Minds” as part of Peru State College’s 2018-2019 Distinguished Speaker Series. The presentation was held in the newly renovated Performing Arts Center.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas. Her grandfather, Fred Phelps, founded the Church in 1955, and her mother acted as the Church’s spokesperson. Phelps-Roper started running the WBC’s Twitter account in 2009.
WBC is known for its hateful and discriminatory rhetoric toward the LGBT+ community, the Jewish community and other minority groups. However, it was on Twitter where Phelps-Roper began having conversations with the types of people that the WBC vehemently protests against. She spoke with a Jewish man who asked her questions about WBC beliefs and, in return, answered questions that she had about Judaism. Phelps-Roper started to question the WBC beliefs that had been ingrained in her for her entire life.
Phelps-Roper shared with students that she often spoke with her sister, Grace, about her doubts with the WBC. When Phelps-Roper realized that she needed to leave the WBC, because she no longer fully believed in its teachings, she shared her thoughts with Grace, and they decided to leave together. Despite knowing they would be entirely cut off from the life and family they had always known, Phelps-Roper recalled, “It became less terrifying to leave and more terrifying to stay.”
During her presentation, Phelps-Roper detailed how she overcame the bigoted way of thinking that she had always been taught. Her experiences on Twitter taught her to have empathy toward those who disagree with your point of view.
“Listening is not agreeing. Empathy is not betrayal,” she advised. “We need to start disagreeing without demonizing.”
After the presentation, the audience asked many questions about Phelps-Roper’s experience, how she connected with groups of people who she used to discriminate against with the WBC, and what it has been like for her to speak about her experience.
In response to a question, Phelps-Roper shared that after she and her sister posted to Twitter a letter about leaving WBC, their first response was from someone they had targeted on Twitter. She continued that it was the “kindest, gentlest response,” letting them know this person had never hated them and had empathy for their situation.
“It was incredible that [he and others] were willing to forgive us – that they were willing to let us change. I am so, so grateful for that kindness.”
When asked about her continuing relationship with family, Phelps-Roper shared, “They will not have anything to do with people that leave. There is still one side of our relationship: I send them messages in hope of change.”
Phelps-Roper also advised students on how to start a dialogue with someone who has an opposing view. She listed five key points: do not assume bad intent, ask questions, stay calm, make the argument, and be patient. Phelps-Roper describes how to achieve these steps in her TED Talk from 2017, “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left.”
Phelps-Roper has appeared on Sara Silverman’s Hulu series, I Love You, America, and National Geographic’s series, The Story of Us. Phelps-Roper will release a memoir entitled, Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, and Reese Witherspoon will produce a film adaptation of the memoir.
Peru State established the Distinguished Speaker Series in 2010 as part of a commitment to student engagement and success. The intent of the Series is to bring diverse, nationally and internationally-recognized speakers to southeast Nebraska to enrich the educational experience of students while also providing regional communities more opportunities to engage in interesting and relevant topics.
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