Fourth Phelps-Roper sibling leaves Westboro Baptist Church

23-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper now sending message of empathy, unconditional love

The Topeka Capital-Journal/May 5, 2014

 By Aly Van Dyke

A fourth Phelps-Roper sibling has left the Westboro Baptist Church.

After 20 years of hate-filled preaching and picketing, 23-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper moved out of the WBC compound on Feb. 20. In the past nearly three months, he has developed a whole new message.

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.

“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”

The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.

His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

Phelps-Roper said he has been driven to help, he said, because of the treatment he has received since he left: Doctors have treated the back pain his parents wrote off as an attempt for attention.

Homosexuals have offered to buy him meals, drinks and shown him empathy and love.

At least 20 family members he was banned from speaking with for half a decade — including two sisters and a brother — have surrounded him with warmth and support.

Strangers from the Internet turn to him for advice for their problems and offer new perspectives to his.

He has fallen in love and had his heart broken, only to rise up more determined and confident than ever.

Everyone, he said, has met him with an open mind, valued his feelings and exposed him to many different perspectives that has turned his belief system on its head. All things, he realized, were missing from his home at the WBC compound.

“I’m telling everybody I feel happier today than I did the day before, because I’m so happy to be alive,” Phelps-Roper said. “I see the world from so many different perspectives now.”

His mother, reached by telephone Monday, said she has spoken with her son since he left.

“His never-dying soul is what hangs in the balance,” Shirley Phelps-Roper said. “Of course I’m concerned. Why else would we spend our lives on the streets warning our fellow man to flee the wrath that is coming?”

However, she said, the church doesn’t own salvation or repentance. Each person will fulfill their lot, she said, and repentance has to come from God. Repentance, she said, is the one requirement to come back into the church’s fold.

In the meantime, Shirley Phelps-Roper said, the family and church will move on and stay on task.

Zach Phelps-Roper is the fourth of his 10 siblings to leave.

His family outside the church is anxious for him as well. He has had made some rash decisions and acted irrationally, he readily admits, including quitting his job as a nurse. But, he said, he is working toward understanding who he is and reaching his new goals.


Nearly 11 weeks ago, on Feb. 20, Zach Phelps-Roper left the only life he has known. He has been picketing, he guessed, since he was 3 or 4 years old — as soon as he was strong enough to hold up a sign.

Since then, he has had limited contact with his parents. If he wants to get in touch with someone inside, he said, he has been directed to contact another member of the family, though he wouldn’t disclose who.

Phelps-Roper said he harbors no ill will toward his family, understanding they are acting out of the same unshakeable beliefs in the Bible to which he once subscribed.

The care for his family in the compound is still there. Frequently throughout the interview, Phelps-Roper paused to choose his words so he didn’t offend anyone. He became upset at different times, whether it was remembering a fond experience or how much he misses his grandmother and parents.

“I miss my grandma a lot,” Zach Phelps-Roper said, his voice cracking. “But I want to be respectful to my parents’ wishes.”

He said his doubts started about age 18, when he started to examine his faith from the creature’s perspective, rather than just the creator.

He was upset the God his church taught about punished sinners, despite being the one to cause them to sin.

“I viewed my creator as sadistic,” Phelps-Roper said. “He sent them to hell because they sinned, but he compelled them to sin. I felt it was an injustice.”

All the while, tensions with his parents and others in the church were building. No one listened to him, he said. Several times he attempted to communicate physical pain he was in, only to be met with ridicule and disbelief. They frequently dismissed his chronic lower back pain as a ploy for attention, he said.

Some in the family, including his parents, also scoffed at his dream of becoming a doctor, without, to Phelps-Roper’s outrage, providing a reason why. His grandmother — the most empathetic person he has ever known, second only to his grandfather — finally helped him understand. Becoming a doctor would interfere with the preaching and picketing work, she explained.

“I was understanding of that,” he said.

Five times he was angry enough to leave the church but was convinced by family to stay. He tried to leave earlier this year but was met with love and concern, particularly from his grandmother.

Two weeks before he left, he started feeling like he didn’t need the “righteousness of Jesus Christ,” that he was a hypocrite, at times, that he was the anti-Christ.

“I didn’t want to be there, but at the same time, I did,” he said. “Something just didn’t feel right.”

The day after he decided to leave, three cousins came back to help him move.

“I felt so sad and so guilty that I couldn’t move anything,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave them. I love my family. But they are not willing, at this point in time, to listen to other perspectives.”

New faith

Phelps-Roper no longer has unshakable confidence in the Bible, instead devoting his time to soaking up all the perspectives he can on faith, humanity and everything in between.

When he first left the church, he said, he had accepted that he was going to die and go to hell.

“I knew I was a wicked person and idolatrous,” he said.

He doesn’t believe that anymore.

“If I have greater peace now than in the church, how can I be a wicked person?” he said.

Phelps-Roper said he feels as though he is being called to a new mission, one to lead a charge of love, understanding and empathy to bring people happiness. He said he had particular compassion for those suffering from neuroticisms and suicidal thoughts because he experiences the same. Now that he understands how to help, he said, he “has no choice but to speak up,” in an effort to save as many as he can.

“I still believe I’m being led by my creator here,” Phelps-Roper said. “I’m just not sure what his name is. I am sure he is one who has unconditional love for his creatures.”

That belief, he said, is a hybrid of his childhood faith and his experiences outside the church.

Phelps-Roper still believes man was created in God’s image, for example. However, in a break from his upbringing, he doesn’t think man lost that quality through original sin. Instead, he honed in on man’s innate capacity for empathy, which, being made in God’s image, shows God is an empathetic being as well, he said.

In his time outside the compound, he has grown to learn and appreciate different perspectives. He has identified his own “mind traps” — assumptions, beliefs, comparisons, desires, expectations and ideals that “keep you from being empathetic” — and debunked each one of them.

“I see so many problems, from economical to emotional,” he said. “Now that my mind is free from these mind traps, I can see clearly what needs to be done. I believe that empathy and unconditional love are what is absolutely necessary for us to free ourselves and each other from mind traps and from the many problems that are plaguing our society.”

For example, Phelps-Roper said he no longer operates under the assumption all homosexuals are violent. In fact, they have been among the most loving and supportive people he has met in the past several weeks.

He has overcome strongly entrenched beliefs that previously closed his mind to other ways of life and how his actions affected others.

He has been reunited with about 20 family and former church members he hasn’t seen in six or seven years, including his older brother and a favorite cousin.

He has learned to forgive himself for not being by his grandfather’s side as he lay on his deathbed, convinced by other members of the church Fred Phelps Sr. had become manipulative and abusive. His lesson, his penance, Phelps-Roper said, is never leaving someone in need alone again.

“I feel like I can never pass by someone who is hurting in any way,” he said. “If someone needs help, I will respond. I don’t feel like I could ever walk away from someone in trouble.”

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