Caleb Phelps reflects on leaving the Westboro Baptist Church


photo courtesy of Caleb Phelps

Caleb Phelps and his girlfriend, Mercedes Elias, pose for a picture at graduation.

Many people recognize the name “Westboro Baptist Church” as the group of radical Christians who hold vulgar signs on the street corners of Topeka or as the group of people who disrupt veterans’ funeral services. People think a lot of different things about the Westboro Baptist Church, but people might all too easily forget that the members of this church are a family.
Many people think of the Westboro Baptist Church as something like a cult, but Caleb Phelps shares that it wasn’t as abnormal as people like to believe.
“It was pretty normal for the most part. We got to do what most other families do,” Caleb Phelps said. He describes his childhood as being fun and active. As a family, they would help neighbors around the block and keep everything focused on God. Caleb Phelps explains that Timothy and Lee Ann Phelps were more strict on what exactly their children could do, but it wasn’t much worse than other parents.
Throughout high school, Caleb Phelps had contemplated leaving the church, but it wasn’t until he came to Washburn University that he took charge and made it a reality. Freshman year of college, he started a relationship with Mercedes Elias. Caleb Phelps started to spend time with her after his shifts at Texas Roadhouse, telling his parents that he was working the closing shift, which meant he would be home late; he did this several nights a week.
“One night, I met my brother who had already left [the church] at this point. Because I did that, I was late getting to Mercedes’, so I stayed longer, so I got home at like 4:35 in the morning. I got home, and my dad was awake in the office. I opened the door, and I can see the light and I’m like, ‘fuck, alright’, so I went upstairs. Obviously he heard me, but he didn’t move or say anything, so I went upstairs. I sat there for like 30 minutes, and I was giving myself a pep talk saying ‘you can do this, you can do this, you gotta do this.’ So I went downstairs and I just talked to him,” Caleb Phelps said.
Caleb told his dad that he saw his life heading in a different direction than the one that the church was in. Surprisingly, Caleb said that his dad took it well, and it ended better than other encounters.
“From what I’ve heard, other experiences of people leaving are kind of like a fight. My dad was just like ‘just be careful and if you ever need help just reach out,” Caleb Phelps said.
Caleb Phelps said that before he packed up to move out, his dad told him that if he ever wants to come back, they will be waiting.
Caleb Phelps said his departure was easier than a lot of his family members’. He recalled a time when his cousin once stayed three nights in a gas station bathroom because he had nowhere else to stay. Now that more family members have left and been gone for a while, they are established and willing to help other family members who leave the church.
He said that having family helped keep him focused on school and accomplishing his goals. Caleb said that once he left the church and after meeting Mercedes and his friends, it was easy to see who he wanted in his life and what he wanted to do with it.
He still has some contact with his mother, Lee Ann, mainly just for legal purposes and mostly stays in contact with the family that has left the church.
Caleb Phelps describes life in the church as very cookie-cutter. They have certain degrees you can get and jobs already lined up for you in Topeka so you can stay close.
“A lot of people there just don’t seem happy,” Caleb Phelps said.
He realized that he needed to make his happiness and future a priority and that his decision to leave is not one that he regrets.
“If at some time in life my path meets back up with theirs then it’ll happen, but that’s not how it’s looking now,” Caleb Phelps said.