Wednesday, 13 February 2013

God's amazing grace ...

I've been reading up today on some interesting developments with Westboro Baptist Church (of 'God Hates Fags' picketing fame) and it's been quite reassuring that God can bring change to even the hardest hearts.

Over the years, Westboro Baptist has become more synonymous with speaking hatred than with any positive message of the Gospel, and they've gained much publicity from picketing outside the funerals of soldiers, stating that they've gone to hell, and also issuing statements claiming that natural disasters have been God's judgement on anyone and everyone that doesn't hold the same views as them.

In the early days, when I first became aware of them, I was incensed by how blatantly they could get away with causing so much hurt, with such disregard for the pain of the surviving families that were exposed to their picketing.  On one or two occasions, I even emailed and entered into a bit of email to-ing & fro-ing with one of the women in the Phelps' family, trying to reason with them about God's grace.  Eventually, I realised that all I and others were doing was feeding their need for attention and exacerbating matters, rather than calming them.  So I lost interest and only heard about them very occasionally.

Today, I spotted an article on the Huffington Post website, about Lauren Drain (@LaurenDrain on twitter), who left the cult and has recently been photographed for the NoH8 campaign. Lauren now speaks out against bullying and has written a book, titled "Banished", about how she was cast out of the church and cut off from her family when she began questioning their teaching.

In her statement on the NoH8 website, Lauren says:
"The main reason I posed for the NOH8 Campaign was in direct response to the judgements of the WBC. I wanted to show people that despite having grown up within the cult and having spent a good portion of my life on the picket line, holding signs condemning our deceased soldiers, revelling in any and all forms of tragedy and simply striving to be hurtful in the name of God; that the WBC is wrong and what I did at the time was wrong!"
In the HuffPost article, it mentions a few other defectors, so I read up a bit more about them.
  • Nate Phelps, Fred Phelps' son, now 56, defected at age 18, is now executive director of the Center for Inquiry Canada and is on the board of directors of the group Recovering from Religion. He is also an activist for gay rights and often speaks out against WBC.
  • One article states that, since 2004, 20 members have left the Westboro Baptist Church, three-fourths of them in their teens or 20s.
  • Libby Phelps Alvarez left WBC in March 2009, according to this HuffPost article, and approximately 4 years later "gave an emotional interview to NBC's "Today Show," in which she described the controlling life of hatred and intolerance that she's left behind."
  • Most recently, Megan (@MeganPhelps on twitter) and Grace Phelps-Roper (), two of Fred Phelps' granddaughters, left together in November 2012.  The family had placed a lot of hope for the future of the church squarely on Megan's shoulders.  She was the one who pioneered the use of social media at Westboro, becoming the first in her family to go on Twitter, and even had responsibility for the congregation's protest schedule.
    In November of 2012, Megan and her sister Grace left the church (ref. HuffPost article).  In this blog post (from 6 February 2013), Megan shares about their recent journey from judgement to inclusivity, and says:
    We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes. We wish it weren’t so, and regret that hurt.
    We know that we dearly love our family. They now consider us betrayers, and we are cut off from their lives, but we know they are well-intentioned. We will never not love them.
    We know that we can’t undo our whole lives. We can’t even say we’d want to if we could; we are who we are because of all the experiences that brought us to this point. What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.
    Megan also recently had an interview with Jeff Chu (@JeffChu on twitter), and shared with emotion how difficult the journey has been for her and Grace.
I know that, for many, this will feel like 'too little, too late', but this has been a very encouraging evening's reading for me. It's a blessed reminder that hearts of stone can be changed, and that there is hope in engaging with people who are anti-gay.  It comes at a great cost to the LGBT community and their allies, who have to face name-calling, physical & emotional abuse, heartache, anger and hatred for nothing other than being themselves.

However, I know this change comes at a great cost to Megan & Grace, too, and they have had to leave behind their loved ones, and their understanding of the world and their taught interpretation of the Bible.  Although my circumstances were different (I was on the receiving end of homophobia), I had to leave my home & my community too ... I was in an evangelical congregation in South Africa, and tried desperately - through prayer, counselling & attendance at ex-gay ministry group meetings - to change into a straight person, but I was still kicked out of my community & congregation when they discovered I was gay. As a result, I ended up having to leave my home & the country, but - thankfully I didn't lose my family.  Although the counselling & ministry I was subjected to had made me sever ties with my family - thankfully I was able to reunite with them.

So, although the circumstances are entirely different, I know something of the desolation and the gaping hole that being suddenly uprooted from your community, your life, your friends and support structures leaves behind. They have made a brave decision, but this is, no doubt, an emotional, lonely and insecure time for them, and I hope that they find comfort from the inclusive communities around them, and I thank them for taking the courage to make this step.  Welcome, & bless you all.

Who knows ... during my Sabbatical leave later this year, if I pass through their neck of the woods, I may even try and meet up with them for a meal or a coffee.  That's not something I thought I would ever say.

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