Recently, the running joke in my family is that my mother-in-law and I have secret boyfriends. Hers is Stephen Colbert and mine is Jian Ghomeshi. Admittedly, we do seem to talk about their respective shows a fair amount. Despite a rather clever opening essay in support of Library and Archives Canada that nearly stole my heart a few weeks ago, it really isn’t Jian himself that I’m stuck on as much as his guests. I find myself feeling very fascinated by them of late: Emily and Amy, Jason Russell, Chris Hadfield, and many others. But nothing could have prepared me for the interview Jian did with Grace and Megan Phelps-Roper on 19 March of this year. I was in the car, returning from some errand, when the interview began. I madly dashed into the house, hoping not to miss too much of the interview in the intervening space and time between the car and the house. And then I sat there, at my dining room table, just listening, transfixed. For those who aren’t familiar with these women, the extended Phelps family provides the backbone of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Infamous for the picketing of funerals and festivals and parades with their signs declaring that “God hates fags” and “The Jews Killed Jesus”, the church was started by Fred Phelps in the 1950s as an off-shoot of the East Side Baptist Church of Topeka. The story of these two women, Grace and Megan (granddaughters of Fred Phelps), goes something like this. Both Megan and Grace grew up in the church. They picketed and protested along with other church members from the time they were born. As children and young women they both studied the Bible and the church’s doctrines extensively. Megan, in particular, was considered one of the up and coming leaders of the WBC, very active in the planning and execution of their picketing schedule. In 2009, when Twitter was just a newborn of the social media world, Megan joined to figure out how she could use the medium to spread the messages of the WBC. As part of her research, she found a listing of the 100 most influential Jewish voices on Twitter. Listed as number 2 was David Abitbol of Jewlicious. Through some unbelievable force in the universe, the two began a conversation on Twitter. The result of that conversation, and the many that followed on email, was that Megan and her sister Grace chose to leave WBC. Those who have dared to do so in the past have been shunned and removed from both the congregation and the families that comprised that group, including their own immediate families.
I was so enraptured by the way these two women spoke that I impatiently waited all afternoon for the podcast to be made available for a second listening. It’s not every day that I re-listen to radio programmes. But this one has drawn me back several times since. Maybe it’s because in some way their story reminds me of my own journey, though just a shadow of theirs. For those who have read some of my previous posts (such as The Bridge), it will not come as a surprise that in many ways I felt a kinship with these women. We tend to be intrigued by stories like our own, I think.
But it was more than that. Their story reminds me that women are strong. It reminds me that when women are backed into a corner, they can find a way out. It reminds me that sisterhood creates a bond that is not easily built elsewhere.
It reminds me of the power of dialogue. Genuine dialogue. Where both sides are listening and where both sides are engaging sincerely in the conversation. Perhaps what worked in this situation is that neither side seemed to believe that they could actually convince the other of their point of view. And maybe that relieved the pressure to perform. And so they just spoke with each other. Their dialogue was powerful. Our dialogues can be powerful.
It reminds me that if we look, we will find people in all walks of life who are good people, who are seeking God and truth, as Grace so eloquently said.
It reminds me that change is possible and that we need to provide room for people to walk out their own journeys. Even when those journeys involve hairpin turns and backtracking and dead ends. When we equate change of mind with being unreliable or flighty or insincere, we build shame around people who have had to walk away from core beliefs and practices – something that is never easy, no matter which direction you are turning. Changing jobs, houses, friends, hobbies, habits – this can be hard. But a million times harder than this is changing what we believe because what we believe is so core to who we are. And changing that takes hard work, deep conviction and great strength of character.
Most of all, this interview reminds me that love and grace will always win. When Jian asked the women what they would say to their families if they were afforded the opportunity to speak with them again, I was blown away by their humility and grace and steadfastness. Even though they have journeyed far away from the beliefs of the WBC, even though the world would understand if they struck out in anger and vengeance, they chose words of love and grace. Rather than passing judgement on the members of the WBC, Megan chose to explain to Jian and the rest of us how complicated and entrenched is the worldview of its members, reminding us that empathy is stronger than bitterness. And Grace personified her name: “I’d of course love to talk to them. But it’s not my intention to try to get anyone to leave. If they think that that is right and that that’s the only way to be good than I don’t want to convince them otherwise.”
Grace. Love. Hope. Courage.
Each time I’ve listened to this interview over the past month, I come away feeling imbued with hope. And I insist, it has had little to do with my Jian Ghomeshi crush.