Megan Phelps-Roper spent a big part of her life doing pretty hateful things. Like telling Jews that they’re destined for hell. And warning homosexuals that they deserved death. And then there was all that picketing at soldiers’ funerals.
As a scion of the Westboro Baptist Church - once profiled in a BBC documentary called “The Most Hated Family In America” - Megan was no stranger to delivering confrontational messages of damnation and judgment. But thanks to the kindness of strangers who engaged her on Twitter, and then in real life, Megan began to re-evaluate her belief system. In the fall of 2012, she left the church with her sister, Grace - abandoning her family and everything she knew in the process.
Last month, Megan told her story from the TED stage in New York City. (You can find her talk on the TED website here, or you can play the video at the bottom of this page.) She told the audience that she was able to challenge her extremist views because certain people decided to talk with her constructively, as one human being to another. And now, in a society where we’re increasingly polarized, it’s more important than ever to find ways to engage with one another and share ideas. We can’t resort to apathy, or censorship, or violence to combat what seems like bad speech or bad ideas.
I was incredibly fortunate to be in the audience in New York that night, because I’m incredibly fortunate to be a friend of Megan’s. Many of us here at tdg are. In the weeks after Megan and Grace left the Westboro Baptist Church, they sought a quiet place away from their childhood home in Kansas where they could think and process and ponder. They ended up here in Deadwood at a bed-and-breakfast I own with my wife Laura. A four-week stay turned into four months, and Megan and Grace made places for themselves in the community. They even acted in a local theater production.
And Megan came to work with us at tdg for a couple of months, collaborating with Dan on media relations and social media projects. We didn’t make a big announcement out of it (Megan was looking for quiet, after all), and to my knowledge, none of our clients knew that the former social media maven of the Westboro Baptist Church - a Twitter star with more than 25,000 followers - was now running their Facebook contests and social promos. But on one occasion a local reporter recognized Megan while she was helping Dan wrangle a press conference. The journalist asked Megan if she’d be interested in a local profile piece, but she declined - and the reporter was gracious enough to respect her privacy.
Although Megan left Deadwood to travel, advocate, and get married, she settled in South Dakota, and she continues to visit the Black Hills once every few months. She almost always stops in at the tdg office to catch up. Since Megan is one of the kindest, friendliest, and most enthusiastic souls you’ll ever meet, those conversations can go for hours. (Especially with Jack.)
We all feel wildly blessed to be friends with Megan, and we’re in awe of her TED talk. Her message of understanding and humanity and engagement is particularly significant now, as our society continues to polarize. Each of us can play a part in becoming better communicators and in ending cycles of frustration, alienation, and hatred. One of Megan’s recent Facebook posts had the best call to action I’ve seen in a long time: #StartWithMe.