The Westboro Baptist Church has long intrigued me. The church, based in Topeka, Kan., is infamous for protesting everything from soldiers’ funerals to other churches. Lauren Drain’s memoir, “Banished: Surviving my Years in the Westboro Baptist Church,” provides a peek into the inner workings of the church and its effect on the people involved.
Drain’s family joined the Westboro Baptist Church when she was 14 at her father’s insistence. Adjusting to life in a very tight-knit community in which most people were related was understandably hard for Drain. She struggled to understand the reasoning put forth by the Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of the church, as justification for his positions. Initially, her questions were tolerated and even answered. Afterward, she was expected to listen and obey blindly.
As Drain matured, her genuine desire to learn was interpreted as defiance of the church’s doctrine. She was shamed, shunned and warned that her eternal salvation was at stake. Gradually, she became involved in picketing and other church activities.
The church encouraged the public while at protests to contact them in order to raise the church’s profile. Each member was assigned people to correspond with, including Drain. She was assigned to exchange emails with a man named Scott. They started chatting online via instant messenger. At 21, Drain was told to stop communicating with him for no specific reason and she obeyed. She gave in when Scott called, begging her to resume contact. Her father, Steve, found emails from Scott on her computer. One night she came home from work and her father said she’d been kicked out of the church and also her family. She packed that night and left her family and home, not knowing it would be forever.
Despite her attempts to reconcile, she was never allowed to rejoin the church. She struggled with her former beliefs about God and began studying the Bible in depth with Scott’s mother. She retained her belief in God despite the pain inflicted on his behalf by her family. Throughout her memoir, Drain conveys the events of her life without bitterness. We all have opportunities to choose to move on and forgive as exemplified by Drain.
As I read Drain’s account of her teen years, I remembered how my own intellectual curiosity as a Christian has been met with defensiveness on occasion. Questioning my parents’ beliefs was an important aspect of me working out what I believe. As a teenager, I know I was less than tactful. I hope we can learn to listen for the hearts behind others’ questions without overreacting and promote honest dialogue.
By portraying the members of the Westboro Baptist Church as multidimensional, Drain refrains from simplifying the situation. Her memoir provides a poignant warning to temper our zeal for truth with compassion and acknowledge that we can’t see all aspects of an issue. “Banished: Surviving my Years in the Westboro Baptist Church” describes what must have been deeply painful experiences for Drain while simultaneously portraying other members of the church as complex human beings.
• “Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church” by Lauren Drain with Lisa Pulitzer was published this month by Grand Central Publishing. It retails for $25.99.
• Amy Stoothoff works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space each week.