‘Unfollow’ follows story of controversial Phelps family

“Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church,” by Megan Phelps-Roper (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019, 286 pages, $27.00)

By Ted Ayres

In this time of global calamity and concern, I feel compelled to remind us all that books can be a source of hope, diversion, information, encouragement, courage and companionship. What an important time to pick up a book and read.

With that message, I turn to “Unfollow” by Megan Phelps-Roper, a book with a direct and unique connection to Kansas. Subtitled “A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church,” the book is a candid look at the Phelps family of Topeka, infamous for their inflammatory protests targeting the LGBT community, members of other religions, politicians and U.S. soldiers. It is a story of family dynamics and dysfunction, and discovery.

Phelps-Roper was born in 1986, one of eleven children of Brent Roper and Shirley Phelps-Roper. Shirley Phelps-Roper was a daughter of the family scion and patriarch, Fred Phelps Sr., and for many years, along with her sister Margie, a principal part of the leadership of the Westboro Baptist Church. She was also a talented lawyer in the Phelps Chartered Law Firm. As Megan Phelps-Roper explains, “…my mom had always had a special position at the firm. She was dearly beloved by her father, and they had a unique relationship from the time she was young.”

Megan Phelps-Roper explains why and how her “Gramps” began the practice of protest and public demonstration in 1991, when she was five years old and a willing (if not fully understanding) participant along with siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. As she got older, her role with the church’s efforts and messaging expanded. However, interactions with people outside Westboro led her to understand the hurt caused by her family’s church. She also provides insight and information about how the church changed and, in doing so, diminished the leadership roles of her mother and grandfather.

In November of 2012, at age 26, Megan Phelps-Roper and her sister Grace left the Westboro Baptist Church and moved to South Dakota, where she now lives with her husband, Chad, and daughter, Solvi Lynne. She is a writer and activist.

The Phelps family, the Phelps law firm and the Westboro Baptist Church were a visible and volatile part of the Topeka community; ultimately, they achieved national notoriety. Megan Phelps-Roper is a talented writer who opens her life up for examination and exploration. It is clear that Ms. Phelps-Roper is knowledgeable about the Bible and that she continues to value and love her family deeply. Her writing also demonstrates the value and importance of love and understanding in considering other perspectives, feelings and opinions.

Ted Ayres is vice president and general counsel emeritus at Wichita State University. He can be reached at
tedayres47@gmail.com. 

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