I’m always interested in how to change the world—especially how to assist people who are consumed with hate to convert to a spirituality based in love. And since hate-filled people rarely go to spiritual direction, and all my friends are of the loving variety, it took the resurfacing of a 2015 article in the New Yorker to show me the way. If you have not already seen this piece, I highly recommend you take a break today from the contentious news scene and reflect on Adrian Chen’s article about a significant conversion: “Unfollow: How a prized daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs.”
This article is the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, founder of the Topeka-based Westboro group that is best known for screaming “God hates fags” and picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers. Westboro is perhaps the most vitriolic and outspoken religious hate groups in the U.S. Megan grew up in that church and stayed with it until her late 20’s. Prior to her slow but steady conversion, she was in the forefront of the public displays, but more importantly she had an active twitter presence.
Two relationships Megan developed on twitter, one with a patient and caring Jewish man and another with a progressive young lawyer, were the catalyst for her change of heart.
What did these two men do that caused Megan to finally break with her family and allow her heart to warm to people who were different from her?
- They listened. They didn’t dismiss her outright when she posted tweets that would make most of us unfollow her.
- They asked challenging questions. The one friend, David Abitbol, a Jerusalem-based Web developer and the creator of a directory called Net Hate, knew the Hebrew scriptures well enough to pose questions that caused Megan to think. “Abitbol had learned while running Net Hate that relating to hateful people on a human level was the best way to deal with them,” writes Chen. The other influential friend Megan made online was a guy she played Words with Friends with, an attorney who asked her to call him C.G. His tactic was to challenge Westboro’s cruelty rather than its religious beliefs.
- They kept the lines of communication open. Megan had a fun-loving side to her personality. She loved popular music and enjoyed humorous banter with people online. Although she broke off communication with both men for a time, both were open to resuming a relationship when she reconnected. She joined Abitbol at a Jewish event to talk about her change of heart and began a romantic relationship with C.G after leaving her family.
We are experiencing a great divide in this country now between hardline conservatives and unbending liberals. Voices of reason are begging us to listen to one another, ask challenging questions and keep the lines of communication open. I’ll admit it’s been hard for me to do what those two men did for Megan. I don’t want to engage with hatred.
But Megan’s story makes it clear to me that we must if we ever want conversion to take place.
Want to try spiritual direction? I have openings in my schedule for new directees—regardless of where you live. I can work by phone, Skype or if you live in the Phoenix metro area we can meet in person. Contact me at email@example.com or visit www.teresablythe.net. Also visit my website for the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction.
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