Libby Phelps Alvarez, 34, is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. — the most notorious anti-gay hate group in America. Libby fled the church and her family eight years ago, and in her new memoir “Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church,” she tells her story with the help of The Post’s Sara Stewart. Libby has a radically different life now, teaching her kids tolerance and respect for all, but, as she reveals here, her love for “Gramps” endures.
I have a 3-year-old son, Paxton, who is very opinionated. No fear. He’s a lot like me: independent. I take after my late grandfather, who taught me to stand up for my beliefs.
But Gramps also told me that gay people were sending America straight to hell. Given that I now believe that people should be able to love whomever they want, I have some very complicated feelings about our relationship.
Growing up, I thought Gramps had all the answers: His was the unambiguous word of God. Gramps came out of the old school, the teachings of 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards and Calvinism. He taught his followers that we were the only ones going to heaven; everybody else was going to hell. That put pressure on us. I felt like someone was constantly watching, like I had to be perfect.
I know most of the world saw my grandfather as a hatemonger. I can’t argue with that, but that wasn’t his entire personality.
There were two sides to Gramps: the preacher I feared, and the grandfather I adored. He’d be loving and silly, and then at the flip of a switch he’d be an anti-gay zealot.
Gramps was the smartest person I knew — and the most fun. He was goofy with us kids. In the summers, we would play Marco Polo in the pool.
When I was applying to grad schools, he helped me study for the GRE, quizzing me on vocabulary words. I was terrified he’d yell at me for getting a word wrong — turn all fire-and-brimstone. But he would laugh it off: “That word’s in the Bible, girl!”
But then on Sundays he’d be a whole different person, leaning over the pulpit, banging it with his fist, yelling at us — the 70 or so Westboro Baptist Church members, most of them my family — to “wake up!” Telling us gay people are on the bottom rung of the ladder of depravity. He also railed against adultery, remarriage, abortion and laziness, but homosexuality was his favorite topic.
From age 8, I regularly wore church T-shirts that said “God Hates F - gs” and went with my family to picket funerals and big events such as concerts. Instead of having normal family events like holidays (which we never celebrated; even Christmas was deemed a modern bastardization of our faith), my cousins and I would recall events in relation to when a picket was.
At 26, I left the church, and my whole world. The pivotal incident was my family holding an intervention for me (like the ones they have for addicts) after I was photographed wearing a bikini. The insanity of that day helped me realize I didn’t believe in the doctrine.
In the years leading up to my leaving, church members had started to turn on Gramps. They said he was losing faith. They stopped letting him preach. One of his biggest fears was being sent away — he’d always half-joke, “You guys better not put me in a home!” That happened after I left. It made me sad when I heard about it.
Once you leave, you’re cut off from speaking to or seeing members. I never saw my grandfather again, which broke my heart. He died in 2014, shortly after Paxton was born. I found out on my way to my baby’s two-week checkup, and I just sat in the doctor’s office and cried.
In a pointed move, a gay-rights group took up residence across the street from the church in a rainbow-painted house. I heard that, before he was sent away, Gramps said in private, “Those people are good people.” I had a hard time believing this happened — but maybe he did have a change of heart.
Westboro founder Fred Phelps Sr. dies at 84
Gramps taught me to stand up for what’s right. But my view of what’s right is so different from his. My life is so different.
I have many gay and transgender friends. My son goes to a progressive preschool where one of his teachers is trans and prefers nonbinary pronouns.
I teach my kids to treat everyone with kindness and respect — and that hearts can change.
If I could tell Gramps anything today, I would simply say, “I love you. And I hope you had a change of heart.”