In an ordinary town, in a quiet neighborhood, in a beige two-story house, a girl named Megan lives with her parents and eight siblings.
She is 25, with a cheeky smile. Tall and tan and athletic, she has long, curly hair that tumbles down her shoulders in thick locks. Her voice is bubbly, with a pinch of country twang, and when she is talking about something she likes, she leans forward in her seat and says “Ohmygosh!” before unleashing a stream of syllables that come pouring out on top of each other. She is polite. If you were to stop by the house some afternoon, she would probably ask if you wanted to stay for pizza that night.
She loves her iPhone and the band Mumford & Sons and the Showtime series “Dexter,” which is about a blood-splatter specialist for the Miami Metro Police Department who also happens to be a serial killer — a complex character both good and evil. She went to high school at Topeka West and got straight A’s. She went to college at Washburn University and got straight A’s. She thought about going to law school, sat down to write her admissions essay and decided she wasn’t all that keen on becoming a lawyer. So she joined the family business.
She is peppy, goofy and, by all accounts, happy.
Oh, and one other thing about Megan: She wants to make it perfectly clear that you and the rest of this filthy, perverted nation will be spending a long, fiery eternity burning in hell.
For much of the past two decades, in the shadow of the state Capitol, the family-run Westboro Baptist Church has served as a training ground for hate.
From the age of 3, children are handed anti-gay, anti-Semitic picket signs and programmed to serve as soldiers in the Westboro Baptist Church’s army. They are taught the specifics of the group’s message — that America’s natural disasters are the direct result of a nationwide acceptance of homosexuality, that God is not the all-loving, all-forgiving being contemporary religion has made him out to be, that the church’s interpretation of the Bible is the only legitimate one. They are also taught to pray for the death of those with the audacity to try and silence the message.
None of this is evident on a sun-drenched Sunday as Megan Phelps-Roper, the blue-eyed granddaughter of longtime Westboro pastor Fred Phelps, stands on a porch not far from the large wooden privacy fence that serves as a barrier between the church and the outside world, smiling as she braids a little girl’s hair. Nor is it evident that she finds herself in the middle of what might most accurately be described as a spiritual family feud.
One of the most reviled families in America is gathered in the backyard, enjoying an afternoon picnic. There are kids scurrying past in every direction and adults sitting on patio chairs, holding cold drinks and talking about work and the weather and upcoming vacations. A half dozen or so little girls cluster around Megan, clamoring for braids.
Megan loves braiding hair. On occasions when she is not picketing the funerals of dead U.S. soldiers or mocking the victims of natural disasters, she can often be found stationed behind one of her sisters or cousins, hair in hand, twisting away.
Often these days, Megan is finding herself at the center of the church’s culture and day-to-day operations. She is both big sister and the voice that speaks to the millennial generation, a media-savvy spokesperson who has emerged as an heir apparent.
She has taken the church’s cause mainstream, kick-starting its social media presence (she has more than 7,000 Twitter followers) and appearing as a regular guest on “Afentra’s Big Fat Morning Buzz,” one of Kansas City’s edgiest and most popular morning radio shows. Her online musings have attracted the ire of celebrities, including actors Rainn Wilson and Michael Ian Black. As part of a group that measures success largely in the amount of publicity it is able to generate, she has helped propel the 40-member church to what might be the most visible stretch in its 56-year history.
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