A former member of Westboro Baptist Church has revealed how radically her life has changed since leaving the extremist ‘hate cult’.
Four years ago, Libby Phelps Alvarez was picketing Obama’s inauguration, taking part in anti-gay and anti-Semitic protests, had never had a haircut, and unable to travel, was confined to the borders of the U.S.
Now age 29, after fleeing the church, she is finding peace with her new life. But walking away from everything she’d ever known, including praying for homosexual, Jewish and Chinese people to die, wasn’t easy, she told the Kansas City Star: ‘That first year, there would be days it would hit me really hard.’
Before and after: Four years ago, Libby Phelps Alvarez ran away from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas (left); she was disowned by her family, a small price to pay for her freedom and newlywed husband (right), she says
Mrs Phelps Alvarez is the granddaughter of Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr., the founder and pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church – an American independent Baptist church known for its extreme ideologies, especially those against gay people.
Her brother, Josh, escaped the church – which is described as a cult and hate group, and is monitored by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center – two years before she did, at age 25.
It was after church members confronted her about a bikini she had worn during a family vacation that she decided to follow his lead.
She knew how she was supposed to reply to their complaints, she said, ‘Apologize, ask forgiveness, and assure the members she would never wear a bikini again’. But unable to repent for something she didn’t believe to be wrong, she said she fled.
First hair cut: After 25 years of uncut hair, Mrs Phelps Alvarez visited a hairdresser for the first time
Ear piercing: Having pierced ears was is forbidden in the church, so Mrs Phelps Alvarez took the plunge
When she left, she had a car, a small amount of money and nothing else. She was able to save up for her own apartment lease thanks to her boss, who let her stay with her for four months.
Estranged from her family, Mrs Phelps Alvarez now lives in Lawrence not far from the University of Kansas campus with her newlywed husband, Logan.
From protests to support: She wrote on Facebook: ‘Strange to think that 4 years ago I was picketing Obama’s first inauguration…’
Although it is just 30 minutes from where she grew up, she is unable to speak to her cousin, Megan, or mother, and she says she still lies in bed sometimes thinking about, and mourning the fact that she will never again be able to speak to them.
But without the constraints of the church, she quickly began to branch out, experiencing things that had been forbidden to her for 25 years.
She went out with her boss to a bar for the first time, to a music concert, to the hairdresser, and she even got her ears pierced – ‘another big no no in the church,’ she said.
It was when she was shopping at Urban Outfitters in Lawrence that she bumped into a former physical therapy patient, Logan – also a member of the church.
He bought her flowers, which turned into a date – and it didn’t take long for her to tell him who her family was and that if he wanted, she would offer him an out; a chance to cut and run.
Within four months, Logan proposed, and the newlyweds have since traveled the wordtogether.
‘No one is allowed to leave the country while at WBC,’ she writes on her Facebook. But together, the couple have been to England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France.
Fun in Florida: Without the constraints of the church, Mrs Phelps Alvarez quickly began to branch out, experiencing things that had been forbidden to her for 25 years
Hope for others: She says she often thinks about her cousin Megan, who was her best friend and confidante, who she knows she will never see again, unless she too leaves the church
Bikini freedom: It was after church members confronted her about a bikini she had worn during a family vacation that she decided to flee the church, now is free to wear what she likes (pictured)
After she escaped, she accepted an interview request by 96.5 The Buzz in Kansas. The radio host delicately asked her what the craziest thing that church members had ever made her do. She replied: ‘To pray for people to die.’
The church is actively involved in actions against gay people, and in addition to conducting anti-gay protests at military funerals, the organization pickets other celebrity funerals and public events that are likely to get it media attention.
Protests against Judaism are also prevalent, and the church’s website states: ‘The only true Jews are Christians. The rest of the people who claim to be Jews aren’t, and they are nothing more than typical, impenitent sinners… the vast majority of Jews support fags.’
Young members: Jacob Phelps (L) and Daniel Phelps, members of Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas, stand in front of the US Supreme Court holding banners in 2010
Spreading ‘god hate’: Members of the Westboro Baptist Church of stage a protest outside a non-denominational prayer and fasting event, entitled The Response, in Houston, Texas
Inaugural parade: Demonstrators from the Westboro Baptist Church hold up signs as President Barack Obama’s motorcade travels from the White House to the U.S. Captiol on January 21, 2013
Mrs Phelps Alvarez says she often thinks about her cousin Megan, who was her best friend and confidante, who she knows she will never see again unless she also leaves the church.
‘I would take her to Covent Garden in England and for ice cream and tea in London,’ Mrs Phelps Alvarez said.
‘And there was a place in Germany, the Hofbrauhaus, it’s really famous, there’s a brass band. And I know that Megan would love going on The Tube in England…’
‘I wish that she could experience the same things. Or that she would have the opportunity or the choice to experience the same things.’
WHAT IS WESTBORO BAPIST CHURCH?
Founder: Fred Phelps, Libby Phelps Alvarez’s grandfather, founded the Westboro Baptist Church in 1956
Founded in 1956 by Libby Phelps Alvarez’s grandfather, Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is known for its extreme ideologies, especially its anti-gay and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
It runs numerous web sites such as GodHatesFags.com, GodHatesAmerica.com and others expressing condemnation of homosexuality and Judaism. The group maintains that God hates gays above all other kinds of ‘sinners,’ and believes homosexuality should be a capital crime.
Located in Kansas, the church consists primarily of members of Mr Phelps large family; with a recorded 40 members in 2011.
In 1998, CNN brought the church to the public’s after members picketed the funeral of 22-year-old Matthew Shepard, from Wyoming, who was beaten to death by two men because of his homosexuality.
On January 15, 2006, Westboro members protested a memorial for the Sago Mine disaster victims, claiming the accident was God’s revenge against America for its tolerance of homosexuality.
Later that year, the church picketed the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a U.S. Marine who was also killed in Iraq, with banners that read ‘God hates fags’ and ‘Thank God for dead soldiers’.
Mr Snyder’s father, Albert Snyder, filed a lawsuit, however the U.S. Supreme Court decided, 8–1, that Westboro’s actions constituted protected free speech.
Two days after the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the church issued a press release thanking God for the heavy loss of life in China, while praying ‘for many more earthquakes to kill many more thousands of impudent and ungrateful Chinese’.
And in 2009, members of the church protested at three Jewish sites in Washington, D.C., including the Anti-Defamation League offices, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the city’s largest synagogue.
Mrs Phelps Alvarez’s mother, Margie, led the protest holding signs stating that ‘God Hates Israel’, ‘Jews Killed Jesus’, ‘America Is Doomed’, ‘Israel Is Doomed’.
The Westboro Baptist Church also believes that Barack Obama is the Antichrist.
Margie, who acts as the church’s attorney said in an interview with Fox News that Obama is ‘absolutely’ going to hell, and that he is ‘most likely the Beast spoken of in the Revelation’. She also said Obama’s presidency is a sign of the Apocalypse.
In 2011, Arizona held an emergency legislative session to pass a bill barring protests within 300 feet of a funeral, within an hour from its beginning or end. The bill was swiftly signed into law ahead of the January 12 funeral of those killed in the 2011 Tucson shooting, which the church threatened to protest.
In August, 2012, President Obama signed the bill into law ensuring nationwide restrictions on demonstrators at military funerals.
The bill stipulates that for two hours before and until two hours after the funeral service demonstrators must stay at least 300 feet away from the boundary of the funeral location and away from the residence of grieving family members.