A Westboro Baptist Church Defector Describes Life After Leaving The Infamous 'Cult'

The Westboro Baptist Church and its members have publicly condemned gays, Catholics, orthodox Christians, Jewish people, Muslims, celebrities, American soldiers, politicians and a range of other groups, organisations and individuals.

The church has been around for more than 60 years, but started to gain infamy in the US in the 1990s and early 2000s, when members began picketing certain events, which were unaligned with their world view. They became the subject of several documentaries, with one of the most popular being Louis Theroux's America's Most Hated Family, which was released ten years ago.

These investigations raised the the church's profile, and soon people from outside the US knew what they stood for. In Theroux's documentary, some members appeared almost robotic, revealing how years of indoctrination allowed them to recite virtually any Bible chapter on command.

Credit: BBC

But when Louis conducted a follow-up investigation in 2011, titled America's Most Hated Family in Crisis, the Westboro Baptist Church's stoic image started to show cracks. This time, the documentarian revealed how some members had defected to start lives of their own, outside the physical, mental and spiritual walls of the church.

One of those people is Zach Phelps-Roper.

He told LADbible what life was like growing up in the infamous church and why he decided to leave. While he officially left on 20 February 2014, he had tried to leave two times before. But on both occasions, he returned after a week because he couldn't face a lifetime of separation from his family and faith.

He says over the years leading up to 2014, his relationships with his family and with the church began to strain: "I sometimes felt like I wasn't being listened to, or being treated fairly, by other members."

Zach Phelps-Roper
Zach Phelps-Roper

Credit: Zach Phelps-Roper

That was only exacerbated when he injured himself on his first day at a new nursing job. Zach was struggling with constant, moderate-to-severe pain, coupled with mental exhaustion as he attempted to cure his muscular ills.

His parents thought he was over-exaggerating his symptoms to get sympathy and attention from others, viewing it as an act of self-centered manipulation in a group characterised by self-sacrifice. His dad told him that he should be 'praying' to get rid of his pain instead of seeking the aid of the Internet. "You don't know shit [about fixing your back and shoulder pain]," his father had told him. This made little sense to Zach, as a recent graduate who held a bachelor's degree in science in nursing.

It culminated in Zach asking to be taken to A&E because his symptoms were reaching their limit, but his father refused and yelled at him. That's when Zach decided he'd had enough. He ran about 10 blocks to his cousin's place, who had left the church a few years earlier, and stayed the night.

Zach was told by his parents to come home the next morning to pick up his things, which were sitting on the front porch. His mum and dad didn't want him to come inside to pack, because they wanted to avoid his younger siblings seeing him and engaging him in conversation.

And that was it.

Shirley Phelps-Roper
Shirley Phelps-Roper

Former WBC spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper. Credit: PA

He was excommunicated from the church and cut out of his family, virtually immediately. "I can tell you that nobody there who sincerely believes their doctrine, would want to talk to me," he says. "Nor would they be allowed to even if they desired to, without getting possibly excommunicated as well.

"I was branded a heretic and a traitor to the faith and church the moment I told them I was leaving, and that I hated their religion."

But, instead of making his life better, his departure from the church made it much, much worse.

Zach struggled to deal with being suddenly separated from everything he'd been brought up with. He became depressed, even trying to kill himself on several occasions. But after a period of adjustment, he eventually began to see the brighter side of life: "I learned that others were very forgiving, understanding, and accepting of me after departing the cult," he continues.

"I have made over a hundred friends, including long-lost relatives and friends from across the country. It's pretty nice.

Zach Phelps-Roper
Zach Phelps-Roper

Credit: Zach Phelps-Rope

"It's kind of amazing to see how helpful your friends can be, when you have a lot of them to talk to."

But Zach admits it was awkward at first trying to make friends: "I made a lot of mistakes that can be attributed to a lack of social development. I didn't even understand the depths of my own psychology; how could I understand others as easily?

"Dating was very hard for me because I never had many interactions with girls growing up, nor was I an open-minded person at Westboro Baptist Church."

While he didn't get to experience a lot of things growing up, like dating or parties, Zach doesn't think he missed out on anything special. He grew up with 10 siblings, because church members 'pop babies out like confetti at a party', so there were always plenty of people to hang out with. They spent a lot of their time together through picketing, church meetings and sermons, as well as helping remodel other member's houses.

"It was enjoyable to be close to so many people - or at least, it felt close at the time," says Zach.

The Westboro Baptist Church was founded in 1955 by 25-year-old Fred Phelps Senior, initially as a branch of the East Side Baptist Church, when he was promoted to pastor in Topeka, Kansas. Ties between the two churches were broken soon afterwards.

Fred Phelps Senior
Fred Phelps Senior

Credit: Westboro Baptist Church

In his late teenage years, Fred had rebelled against his father's beloved Methodist faith and was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister. But according to the Topeka Capital Journal, when Phelps' father remarried, he cut all ties with his family and never spoke to them again.

His preaching revolved around teaching a very literal version of the bible, and was so extreme, that virtually the whole congregation and church leaders left. The only remaining members were his own family and a few close friends, according to The Gospel Coalition.

The Westboro Baptist Church believes that every tragedy around the world is a result of global acceptance - and promotion - of sin against the God of the bible, with LGBT issues considered a front-burner issue. This is why the main website of the church is called godhatesfags.com, and it has a pretty astounding 'numbers' section.

Numbers on WBC website
Numbers on WBC website

Credit: Westboro Baptist Church

But it wasn't until 1991 that the pickets began.

The first was in Gage Park in Topeka, because Fred Phelps Sr believed it was a 'den of anonymous homosexual activity'. Three years later the church was protesting across the country. In 1996, the impact of their protests became clear as two men set off a pipe bomb outside the house of Fred's daughter's house.

No one was injured; the perpetrators had mistakenly thought they were targeting the pastor's house, and wanted to show their condemnation of their anti-gay pickets.

But the Westboro Baptist Church really rose to infamy in 1998 when they were seen demonstrating at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old man whose death sparked the birth of a play called The Laramie Project.

Since then they've picketed the funerals of soldiers, terror attack victims and pop stars like Michael Jackson. It's believed they fork out around $250,000 (£192,000) a year to travel the country for their daily protests, a figure which Zach claims is accurate.

WBC pickets
WBC pickets

Credit: PA

WBC pickets
WBC pickets

Credit: PA

Zach can't remember his first demonstration because he believes he would've been only two or three years old. But even when he was attached to the church, he admits he was never excited to go.

He told LADbible: "Although I believed at that time that what I was preaching was truth and something worth fighting for, I never liked to risk my life.

"People at those pickets have been beaten bloody, or had bricks thrown at them, but more often [it's] food, drink or trash [being thrown] from passing drivers. I always carried a video-recording device at the ready, to try to discourage people from hurting me."

Members of the church these days will protest at six locations every day, while Sundays feature pickets at 15 different churches.

While some of the pickets are controversial, others appear to be prompted by more spurious causes - for example, Louis Theroux's documentary showed church members protesting a local appliance store which sold Swedish vacuum cleaners, because Swedish authorities prosecuted a pastor who was critical of homosexuality.

Credit: BBC

Despite virtually everyone condemning the pickets for being disrespectful, distasteful, derogatory and downright cruel, Zach says: "Westboro Baptist Church has no official interest in causing people emotional distress. They legitimately think that what they are doing is what God commands them to do, and so they seem to have no compassion for others."

While it might seem obvious to the outside world, it wasn't until exiting from the church that Zach labelled it as a cult.

He says members 'seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment', adding that: "Questioning, doubt and dissent are discouraged or even punished, and if what you say sounds contrary to their teachings, they will attack your ideas quickly and without hesitation." Zach says everyone is even told what to think, act and feel.

Since leaving, Zach has held pickets against the Westboro Baptist Church on three separate occasions: "I thought that maybe if we countered them with signs showing kindness and love, and if I reminded them that I still loved them, maybe it might turn some of their hearts.

Zach protesting against WBC
Zach protesting against WBC

Zach picketing against WBC with 'Free Hugs' sign. Credit: Zach Phelps-Roper

"According to their biblical-based beliefs, the world of unbelievers could never show them kindness or compassion or understanding in a word 'love'. I tried to disprove their belief by encouraging others to counter-demonstrate with signs that read 'I love you', or 'you are good people'."

Zach didn't appear in Louis Theroux's documentary, but he has watched them. He feels that the documentary filmmaker overstated the number of people who are leaving the church: "[The] number of people within the cult has always remained around 70 people for as long as I have lived these last 26 years.

"Louis made it sound like the cult was going to die off eventually because there would be no young people. He is mistaken, sadly enough."

Zach is a 'hard agnostic' now and despite him experiencing a lot of inner turmoil when he left the church, he's found peace and started his own family.

Featured Image Credit: LADbible

Stewart Perrie

Stewart Perrie is a Trending Journalist at LADbible. His first job was as a newsreader and journalist at the award winning Sydney radio station, Macquarie Radio. He was solely responsible for the content broadcast on multiple stations across Australia when the MH17, Germanwings and AirAsia disasters unfolded. Stewart has covered the conflict in Syria for LADbible, interviewing a doctor on the front line, and has contributed to the hugely successful UOKM8 campaign.

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