Megan Phelps-Roper wasn’t content to just walk away the Westboro Baptist Church — reviled across the globe for its inflammatory hate speech against gays and dead soldiers.
Now, seven years after leaving behind her family and the only world she knew for the first 26 years of her life, the 33-year-old mother is focused on demolishing the ideology behind the infamous Topeka, Kansas-based church that was started by her grandfather, Fred Phelps.
“As someone who had contributed to that harm for so long, I felt an obligation to those communities to work to dismantle it,” writes Megan, whose new memoir Unfollow is exclusively excerpted in this week’s PEOPLE.
“Loving someone whose ideas we find detestable can seem impossible, and empathizing with them isn’t much easier — but it’s so important to remember that listening is not agreeing. Empathy is not a betrayal of one’s cause. These are the tools of effective persuasion, and can bridge divides in a way that condemnation never could.”
Those would have once been blasphemous words for someone who literally grew up spreading hate by picketing alongside her relatives, carrying signs that read, “GOD HATES FAGS” and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS” at military funerals.
Megan left the church (and its 80-member congregation made up nearly entirely of family members) in 2012 after realizing that “we might not just be wrong about these few issues — that we might be fundamentally mistaken in how we viewed the world.”
She adds: “According to Gramps, what we were doing was ‘the definition of love thy neighbor.’ He would say that we weren’t hating other groups — we were warning them of God’s hatred, giving them an opportunity to repent.”
“Our duty was to declare God’s standards to the world: no adultery, no fornication, no gays, no idolatry.”
Megan, who now travels the country speaking out against the hatred and divisions she once championed, takes heart that in recent years, Westboro’s cultural influence — and the amount of outrage and media coverage that its continual protests attract — has begun to wane.
“They’ve gotten kind of lost in a culture that’s increasingly polarized and hostile,” she says.
“In that landscape, their message is less shocking and gets less attention. But that’s also partly because of how they’ve moderated their message in recent years, which I think is more in line with the Bible — but with the sting of their message being blunted, it just garners less attention these days.”
For more on Megan Phelps-Roper, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.