Libby Phelps-Alvarez, the granddaughter of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, recently appeared on Anderson Cooper's "Anderson Live" program to talk about her experience growing up in the church and what it's been like since she left over four years ago. She also apologized for the hurt she had caused others.
The Topeka, Kan.-based church is known for its anti-homosexual stance and commitment to picketing social, cultural, educational, private, and public institutions with which it deems are violating its interpretation of scripture. Its Website, www.godhatesfags.com, quotes Lev. 20:23 "therefore I abhorred them" and states that in 1991 it began to conduct "peaceful demonstrations opposing the fag lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth."
Members picketed funerals of dead service men and women, holding signs that read, "Not Blessed, Just Cursed," and "God Hates Dead Soldiers."
Phelps-Alvarez explained that she started picketing when she was eight years old. She was raised to picket service men's and women's funerals because they were "fighting for a country that supports homosexuality … and to warn the family members of the fallen service men that if they don't repent they are going to go to hell."
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"I thought the only way to love my neighbor was to tell them that their sins were taking them to hell," she told Cooper. "I honestly thought I was doing the right thing."
Confronted by a family whose son's funeral Westboro members picketed, Phelps-Alvarez started to cry. The mother of a fallen U.S. soldier, Sherry Wyatt, stated that she first thought, "how could they?" of the protesting of her son's funeral. "Our son died to ensure freedom of assembly, to ensure freedom of speech, to ensure freedoms for those who are white, black, gay, straight, rich, poor."
Phelps-Alvarez apologized for the actions of the church and for the people whom she hurt.
In 1999, she felt the church was becoming too extreme and the fact that many in the church were praying for others to die became one of the deciding factors for her to leave.
The first thing she did after she left was to cut her hair. Westboro teaches the literal interpretation of 1 Cor. 11:14 ("If a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given her for a covering.") Phelps-Alvarez explains that she was taught to not cut her hair "because you're cutting your glory off" if you do.
Phelps-Alvarez now supports Planting Peace, an anti-bullying nonprofit organization located directly across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church and hopes to become more involved in fighting for "gay equality."
"I want my cousins and my nieces and nephews to see that the world isn't mean and hateful and evil and full of vicious people," she said.
Her sister and three cousins have also left the church. In a February 6 statement they gave to The Kansas City Star, they said, "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 the hurt."
According to its online picket schedule, the Westboro plans to picket outside of Graceland, in Memphis, the former home of Elvis Presley, and outside of a graduation ceremony at the Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan., on May 17. Additional picketing dates are also advertised on the Website.
"I knew I would never be able to talk to my family again," she said. "I was pretty much leaving everything." Her parents and other parishioners have not spoken to her since she left the church.