Megan Phelps-Roper talks civil discourse

Charles Rankin

For her first speaking appearance in Topeka since leaving the Westboro Baptist Church in 2012, Megan Phelps-Roper decided that Washburn University, her alma mater, was the right place to go.

In an event hosted by the Washburn Center for Teaching Excellence and Learning, Phelps-Roper talked about her experience of leaving WBC and her life since. She is an activist who uses social media to help create dialogue and civil discourse on tough topics in society.

Phelps-Roper had mixed feelings coming to Topeka and coming to Washburn.

“I had two sentiments,” Phelps-Roper said. “First I was really excited because in spite of all of the long history of animosity between my family and this university, I loved my time here. I loved coming to school here. I loved the experiences I had with my professors. So I was really excited, but I also sort of filled with dread because I have not had a public conversation in this city before. Far more than any other place I’ve been or any group I’ve spoken to, this community has faced and been changed and impacted by Westboro.”

Phelps-Roper was supposed to begin speaking after a video highlighting some of the activities of the church to give some context as to what she left behind when leaving WBC. After some technological difficulties however, Phelps-Roper started without the video.

“We don’t actually need to show this video,” Phelps-Roper said, understanding the local Topeka crowd she was speaking to. “If there’s any group that doesn’t need context, it’s this one.”

Phelps-Roper then began to talk about her journey to tolerance and understanding, beginning after she graduated high school, becoming the social media person for WBC beginning in 2009 and her eventual departure from the church in 2012.

Phelps-Roper finished speaking and then opened up for a time of question and answer.

One audience member asked Phelps-Roper about the church’s actions toward the Topeka community and what she could do to help the city heal from some of that damage.

“The short answer is I don’t know exactly,” Phelps-Roper said. “I’ve spent the last five years trying to figure this out… I am one person, but I’m one person with a set of experiences that I hope can be useful. This conversation for me was part of really trying to start that healing process, I hope by talking about it and bringing some level of understanding.”

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This familiarity of WBC and some of the harm that it caused did draw some of the crowd to the event, hoping to hear and understand a little better what was going on in the church. One such person was Shelby Herring, who grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas and saw the church protest military funerals at nearby Fort Leavenworth.

“I was just really curious as to what went on inside, what their purpose was and why they did what they did,” said Herring, a sophomore English education major. “I wanted to see from her perspective what happened while she was in there and her perspective now from the outside.”

Other people were there because of similar upbringings including Katie Wade, December 2017 graduate.

“I’ve followed Megan Phelps-Roper on Twitter for a couple years now,” Wade said. “I was really interested in coming because of my own background, hearing what someone else did when they got out of it and what they learned from it.”

Wade was one of those who was able to talk during the question and answer portion.

“The thing that most impacted me tonight is the answer she gave to my question,” Wade said. “Whenever you think you have all the answers or whenever you think you’re absolutely certain about what you believe in, that’s a red flag and you should start questioning yourself again.”