Lauren Drain‘s father visited Westboro Baptist Church over a decade ago while making a documentary film (which was tentatively titled Hatemongers). It was a perfect title to describe the people who held up “God Hates Fags” signs at the funerals of soldiers. When he returned home a month later, though, he was a different man. He had internalized what they were preaching and eventually moved his entire family, including 14-year-old Lauren, to Kansas to become members of Fred Phelps‘ church.
Lauren spent the next several years as one of “them.” She had sleepovers with the Phelps girls, protested with them, and lived under the strict rules of the church leaders.
She was eventually kicked out of the church at the age of 22 for not adhering to all of those rules. It has been years since she last spoke with her parents and she now works as a registered nurse in Connecticut, a far cry (in so many ways) from her previous life in Topeka.
While Lauren is still religious, her faith isn’t steeped in hatred. In fact, she made news a few weeks ago when she posed for photographer Adam Bouska‘s NOH8 campaign:
Now, Lauren has written a memoir called Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church (Grand Central Publishing, 2013).
Lauren was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. (The interview was conducted via email and has been edited a bit.)
What is your relationship with your parents like now? Is there one?
I haven’t spoken with my parents in years. I will always love my parents; how couldn’t I? That’s a special relationship that can never really be replaced; as young adults we all hope to have a loving, functional family. I had a great relationship with them at one time before the WBC, and I always hold out hope I will again. I fear that they’ve become too hardened and cold and I pray it’s not too late for them to escape. All I can do is keep the lines of communication open, show them my side of the story, and hold out hope that one day I will be able to see [siblings] Taylor, Boaz, Faith, and my mom. I love them [all] dearly. I know some people in church think they have good intentions but I wish I had the opportunity to show them there’s more to God then what what they think and more to life than what they do.
What do you make of the recent revelation that Megan Phelps-Roper is leaving the church with her sister? Is that surprising to you?
I was beyond ecstatic at Meg and Grace’s departure! We have since reconnected when I flew out to visit them for a long weekend. I always hoped more and more members would see some of the injustices done to members both inside and outside the church. I felt so alone in my thinking for so long, I had almost lost hope that anyone inside could be reached or influenced. Meg and I both agree, the longer you stay, the more your heart becomes hardened against questioning of the doctrine and the more the church excludes you from all outside influences, even your extended family or family [members who have] left the church!
I am very comforted by Megan and Grace’s revelations in the church’s cruel mistreatments of members and those [who] picket; the obscene, unscriptural amount of control over the members; and having no hope to reason with your own family. We think a lot alike on many things and continue to support one another. Coming to the realization that even as little kids the church taught us to be extremely judgmental of the world and one another has opened our eyes to the mistakes we’ve made and how to make amends. We’ve missed each other greatly as we were once good friends inside the church and we hope to further re-establish and grow our friendship outside the influence of the WBC.
When did you first begin to notice inconsistencies in the Bible? What happened when you began asking these questions out loud?
… I was about 20 when I first started to see inconsistencies. I first voiced them to my father and mother but began to be labeled as a divisive, contentious person. I asked Shirley [Phelps-Roper] a few things about Revelation during a summer we were doing bible studies on it and she seemed very interested in investigating further, not castigating me at first. I felt like she was sincere in finding the answers… Revelation is very important to understand, especially in the end times and when we’re professing to know things so accurately. The pastor said, “He did not have light on it. He will preach on it when he’s ready.” Christ said, “Ask and ye shall find.” But the pastor does not support that sentiment. They are too busy judging and accusing people.
Why do you still believe in God after all of this?
I prayed for a continued belief in God. WBC doesn’t own God or what He says. They are presumptuous in saying so. They just misrepresent Him. God is not the author of confusion or accusations. That’s actually Satan’s job. I prayed that I wouldn’t lose faith or hope in God despite their efforts. If I had lost my family to the WBC forever, I pray that there is hope for them in another life; there has to be! In the end, I feel extremely blessed and happy with how my life turned out.
Will the church ultimately crumble after Fred Phelps dies?
I do not believe the church only stands because of the pastor. The members are die-hard in their doctrine so I think it will continue until more and more members leave. My hope is that more members will see God is not only a God of hating sins, but also of forgiving. They have become far too arrogant and sanctimonious, unfortunately. It’s sad to see families ripped apart.
You have to believe that if someone like Lauren (and Megan and Grace and Nate) can leave the church, there’s hope for the others in there, too.
Today marks the release of Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church. You can order it online or find it in bookstores everywhere.