Friday, February 8, 2013

Women in Flight From Fanatical Churches


I always marvel at the human spirit when I hear about people who have fled oppressive fanatical churches. Imagine that moment when they finally realize that a spiritual leader they have trusted all their lives has betrayed them by creating a false world that has nothing to do with spirituality or knowledge, and everything to do with power and control. The most oppressed people are always the women and children who lead an existence of drudgery and powerlessness, sexual abuse or dysfunction. Their experiences bear little resemblance to normal family life in the outside world, which they usually realize only after leaving. Those who grow up in such churches are brainwashed into thinking everyone else in society is evil, so for years they may accept the justification that keeps them physically isolated, and become willing captives who might even view their jailors as saviors. For the more rebellious in the congregation, the church leaders intentionally block information and play emotional mind games to shame people into staying, or resort to blackmail with threats to withhold contact with loved ones, including children. To overcome such tactics you really need guts and a strong will, so to take flight from such a church is an inspiration. I wish all these women the best of luck.

Ruby Jessup grew up in the recently received custody of her ten children in Colorado City, Arizona, and escaped with them in January, helped by local law enforcement and a sister on the outside.
CNN Transcript
GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The 26- year-old Ruby Jessop has accomplished something very few women in Warren Jeffs' fundamentalist polygamist church have done. Late last week, she escaped.
(on camera): How old were you when you got married?
TUCHMAN: How old were you when you had your first baby?
JESSOP: I was 16.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): And Ruby escaped with those babies, six of them. Babies she had with a husband that is still in the church. The children are now 10, 8, 7, 6, 4 and 2.

(on camera): Do you still believe that Warren Jeffs is the prophet?

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Warren Jeffs, the self-professed prophet of the FLDA since 2002 is now serving a life sentence in prison, but he continues to rule the religion with an iron fist from his cell. He made many of the laws here and forced countless young girls like Ruby Jessop into marriage.
Most never leave, but Ruby said she always dreamed of leaving. Hoping to get out of the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hillsdale, Utah, where most FLDS members live.
But taking children away from a husband who is obedient to the church and Warren Jeffs is extraordinarily difficult. Just days ago, this was the emotional scene, Ruby receiving temporary custody of the children from a county court judge, these pictures showing Ruby being reunited with her children after this man, her husband, Haven Barlow, had allegedly kept them away from her for weeks.
JESSOP: Arizona law is very clear that one parent cannot keep another apparent from their children regardless of their religion.

TUCHMAN: Ruby then took her children and escaped into the outside world. Author and private investigator Sam Brower shot the photographs.
SAM BROWER, AUTHOR, "PROPHET'S PREY": The children were ecstatic to see their mother. They were all smiles. It was wonderful to see the looks on their faces when they saw their mom.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Ruby Jessop was raised by her father, mother, and two sister wives. She has 30 brothers and sisters. The man she was forced to marry is her second cousin. The man who presided over the wedding is Warren Jeffs. When she went to the altar, Ruby was in ninth grade. She never went back to school.
(voice-over): Ruby is filing for divorced from Haven Barlow, a man she said she never loved. We went to the house they shared to try to get her husband's response to all this.
. . . TUCHMAN (voice-over): Ruby and her children are currently living in her sister's house in Phoenix. She has no job, no high school diploma, and little knowledge of the outside world, but she said there's no turning back.

JESSOP: I want to raise my kids. I want to be free. Be able to make my own choices, to be happy.
TUCHMAN (on camera): Are you happy today?
JESSOP: I am. I am very happy.


Jenna Miscavige Hill, whose Uncle is a Leader of the Church of Scientology has written a book called Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape Her parents were part of "Sea Org" which she described on ABC's The View as "the clergy of the church who sign billion-year contracts, sort of like a paramilitary organization." However, Jenna was separated from her parents for most of her young life, instead living in various communal camp situations where she worked at hard labor for the church for hours every day. According to Ms. Miscavige, Scientologists have no real god that they worship, which begs the question of whether the church should get tax-exempt status as a church, and why they display a big cross on top of their churches. When asked whether celebrities are treated differently than regular members, she gave an emphatic yes, saying the elite members such as Tom Cruise or Kirstie Alley wouldn't be harassed for money or favors the way ordinary members are, and their children wouldn't be expected to work at one of the camps the way she was raised. As she described it to Piers Morgan, celebraties have "willful ignorance" about what is really going on, and because they attend the fancier churches they just don't see how other members are treated. But Jenna does blame them for failing to check the internet about the realities of Scientology and Dianetics.

Jenna's parents eventually left Sea Org, but Jenna chose to stay behind, which she told Piers Morgan was due to years of brainwashing. On The View, she explained that in 2005 she could "no longer look away from the abuse, the mental, the physical, the verbal" and "realized I just wasn't helping anyone." If she had stayed with Sea Org, she wouldn't have been allowed to have children, but happily, she and her husband escaped together and they now have two children away from the world of Scientology. And to help others with the same background Jenna started a website called Ex-Scientology Kids


Photobucket And last but certainly not least, two high-profile women have fled the notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, which is famous for loudly picketing any gathering they view as connected to homosexuality or gay life, even military funerals. Here are some of their craziest protests. They even threatened to come to Newtown and protest at the funerals of the dead children, but thankfully stayed away. It's really hard to understand what they hope to achieve by picketing all over the country holding signs that say "God Hates You." Nothing is more disturbing than seeing the innocent children of Westboro waving signs in the air with the word "F*g" on them as their parents have instructed them, but Leader Fred Phelps believes in all hands on deck when trying to shame the rest of the world. So Pastor Phelps must be in total shock that two of his granddaughters left the Westboro fold this week: Megan Phelps-Roper and her sister Grace Phelps.

From Washington Post
The Westboro Baptist Church may be the most controversial religious group in the country. By some accounts, it’s not a religious group at all -- the Southern Poverty Law Center has called it “the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” and a White House petition urging the government to label it as such earned more than 330,000 signatures in January.
For several years, Phelps-Roper was one of the WBC’s loudest and most believable defenders. By age 25, she led social media efforts for the church, gave hundreds of media interviews and tweeted regular Bible verses and inspirational quotes to an audience of more than 10,000. She briefly coordinated WBC protests at funerals and disaster sites, the church’s most reviled activity.
But something changed, Phelps-Roper told journalist Jeff Chu, when a Jewish friend she met online challenged the WBC’s teaching on homosexuality. Didn’t Jesus say to “let he who is without sin cast the first stone?,” he asked.
And so Phelps-Roper -- who once told the Kansas City Star the church was the only place she’d seen “people who serve God in truth” -- finally began to doubt.

To see just how confused the Phelps sisters may be as they move into the real world, watch the video below. There are several displays of pure cognitive dissonance in which the girls express both hate and love of the the people targeted by their church's hatred. While picketing the funeral of a Muslim and burning a Koran (which was 'doing the right thing,' according to Megan), the younger sister, Grace, also took a photograph of "an adorable Muslim boy," but she sees no contradiction because as Grace tells an incredulous journalist: "I didn't set the bounds of his habitation. I can't change that. And saying 'that's a cute picture' doesn't change that." You have to admire the complicated, yet innocent, use of church-speak. Megan rails about how horrible "those little Muslims" are while spewing one offensive epithet after another. She also seems to have no idea that the god of the Muslims was the same god of the Jews and Christians, and she speaks of her own "jealous and vengeful God" as if Jesus had never said "turn the other cheek." So much for her religious education, which up till now centered around targeting homosexuals and yelling at them from the side of the road.

Clearly these girls will have to relearn many things in order to function in society.

David Chu, a writer on gay issues for, got to know Megan while interviewing her about Westboro, and now he's written the definitive article about her sudden change, her light on the Road to Damascus, so to speak.

To some, this story might seem simple—even overly so. But we all have moments of epiphany, when things that are plate-glass clear to others but opaque to us suddenly become apparent. This was, for Megan, one of those moments, and this window led to another and another and another. Over the subsequent weeks and months, “I tried to put it aside. I decided I wasn’t going to hold that sign, ‘Death Penalty for F*gs.’” (She had, for the most part, preferred the gentler, much less offensive “Mourn for Your Sins” or “God Hates Your Idols” anyway.)

What “seemed like a small thing at the time,” she says, snowballed. She started to question another Westboro sign, “F*gs can’t repent.” “It seemed misleading and dishonest. Anybody can repent if God gives them repentance, according to the church. But this one thing—it gives the impression that homosexuality is an unforgivable sin,” she says. “It didn’t make sense. It seemed a wrong message for us to be sending. It’s like saying, ‘You’re doomed! Bye!’ and gives no hope for salvation.”

. . . Once a constant Tweeter, she hasn’t posted anything online since October. “I don’t know what I believe, so I don’t know what to say,” she explains. “I haven’t been ready to talk about any of this.” She’s only doing so now, and briefly, because, she says, “I was so proactive before and vocal about the church. My name means something now to others that it doesn’t mean to me. I want people to know that it’s not now how it was.”

It's a huge turnaround for the young woman who was called the "Heir to Hate" by the Kansas City Star. But she is not the first family member to leave the fold, nor will she be the last.
Fred Phelps . . . at 82 has grown increasingly removed from the church’s everyday business. His daughter, fire-and-brimstone figurehead Shirley Phelps-Roper, handles operations. But even she’s begun delegating more to others, with much of the work falling to Megan, her oldest daughter and the one who, more than any of her brothers, sisters or cousins, has been entrusted with the most responsibility.
As Shirley puts it, “She was always kind of my right-hand man.”
Megan’s importance to the movement stems also from the fact that for the past decade, the church’s future has been walking away at an alarming rate.

Since 2004, 20 members have left the Westboro Baptist Church, three-fourths of them in their teens or 20s. The defections have left a sizable dent in the group’s third generation, which, for a church that has relied almost exclusively upon family to populate its congregation, is not an insignificant development. There are those on both sides of the family who would like to guide Megan’s future.
“There’s still an element of hope,” says Megan’s uncle, Nate Phelps, who left the church in 1976 at the age of 18 and now travels the country speaking out against its practices, “that someone can get through to her.”

Megan has watched with unease as some of those closest to her have defected and then been cut off completely from the family. The older brother who left in the middle of the night the day before her high school graduation. The cousin and best friend who decided three years ago that the church’s practices had grown too extreme. Each departure forcing her to confront the same frightening possibility: That she, too, could succumb to the same temptations.
NBC's The Today Show did an interview with a cousin of the Phelps sisters, Libby Phelps Alvarez, who said that while she misses her family, leaving the church has brought her new joy in life, such as her recent marriage. She wishes that others in the church would realize that the world is not full of evil people.

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In a Press Release Phelps-Roper states:
Until very recently, this is what I lived, breathed, studied, believed, preached – loudly, daily, and for nearly 27 years.
I never thought it would change. I never wanted it to.
Then suddenly: it did.
And I left.
Where do you go from there?
I don't know, exactly. My sister Grace is with me, though. We’re trying to figure it out together.
There are some things we do know.
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 that hurt.
We know that we dearly love our family. They now consider us betrayers, and we are cut off from their lives, but we know they are well-intentioned. We will never not love them.
We know that we can’t undo our whole lives. We can’t even say we’d want to if we could; we are who we are because of all the experiences that brought us to this point. What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.
Up until now, our names have been synonymous with “God Hates F*gs.” Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what we did. We hope Ms. Kyle was right about the other part, too, though – that everything sticks – and that the changes we make in our lives will speak for themselves.
Megan and Grace

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