Alumni Essay: Breaking Empathic Boundaries

By Sofia Vlahakos (Miami University ’20)

When an institution finds itself on the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing schedule, its community often does not know how to respond or prepare for the church’s impending demonstration. When adherents of the church arrived at USC in February 2020, over 50 students and faculty gathered to peacefully counter-protest the group. While this is certainly a better approach than, say, throwing hot coffee at them— what if we tried something different? 

What if we actually engaged the Westboro Baptist Church in conversation? 
I spent winter break of 2020 in Topeka, Kansas, doing just that. I was conducting fieldwork as a student research assistant participating in the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” project, conceptualized and led by Hillel Gray, an assistant professor of teaching in the Comparative Religion department at Miami University, where I was a senior at the time. Every day for almost a week we interviewed members of the Westboro Baptist Church. As part of the project’s now decade-long, and ongoing, research, our goal was to learn everything we could about their lives outside of their religious beliefs. Core to our research approach was listening to what they told us without judgment. 

Before I became part of this research team and before meeting Dr. Gray, my perception of Westboro, like most, was largely shaped by the media. I can remember being a high schooler watching WBC adherents on the news and being baffled by what I perceived as their insensitivity. I wondered how anyone could bring themselves to do the things Westboro was doing. 

In 2018, as a newcomer to the project, I didn’t really know what to expect on my first trip to Topeka. Despite my mental and emotional preparation, I felt very anxious when the time finally came to sit down face-to-face with Jonathan Phelps, one of the church’s eight pastors. 

However, the minute our interview began, Jonathan’s genuine openness and humor made my uneasiness quickly subside. 

Sitting in front of me was a man who society told me—even encouraged me—to hate, and here he was choking up trying to tell us about how he felt knowing his young client may never live out the future she had envisioned. Jonathan was responding emotionally to his work as a juvenile criminal defense attorney. It was clear he truly cares about his work and the impact it has on the people affected. 

I felt for Jonathan, and I felt for his client, as he grew tearful recalling a particularly devastating case. This clear emotional investment in his advocacy efforts struck me because it flies in the face of the widely accepted perception of the Westboro Baptist Church—that its adherents are completely devoid of empathy. 

This perceived contradiction in Jonathan interests me as both a researcher and a fellow human, especially given my own career aspirations in the area of family law. This contradiction has also created some conflict within me as I continuously struggle to integrate my personal understanding of Jonathan and of his emotions with the very real emotional harm the Westboro Baptist Church causes others. 

My involvement in Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” has afforded me this unique, and often challenging, opportunity to investigate empathy in the context of controversial religious groups. With three trips to Topeka now under my belt and hours spent analyzing the interview data collected, I feel confident in the ability of this research approach to understand the humanity and the lived experiences of these “enemies” of society. 

The project defines empathy as emotion-centered understanding, not sympathy or approval of another’s beliefs or actions. Through this process, and in accordance with one of the goals of our project, I have developed an understanding of the importance of nonjudgmental, empathic listening. 

Interestingly enough, these very concepts of understanding and empathic listening were clearly reflected in Jonathan’s own approach to the practice of law. Jonathan has maintained his discipline to these concepts in what is arguably one of the more emotionally taxing environments and areas of law to work in day to day. 

Even a cursory analysis of the project’s research interviews with Jonathan over the past few years reveals his emotional attachment to his clients and their cases. Like a concerned father, he was focused on meeting their immediate needs while keeping an eye on their ability to move forward and have future success. Jonathan is keenly aware of the position of trust he occupies with these minors and the importance of listening to them without imparting judgment. Through empathy, he is able to understand—and takes very seriously—the role he plays in their lives. 

For many of his clients, this may be the first time that someone is actually listening to what they have to say and what they may want for their future.

The way he describes his client interactions reveals that Jonathan possesses the emotional capacity necessary to be an effective advocate; he has the ability to see his clients as people, defined by far more than their case number and alleged offense. This is a critical quality that all juvenile defense attorneys should have and might not—either because they do not possess the ability to empathize sufficiently or this ability has dissipated over the course of time. 

Based on the manner in which Westboro chooses to picket and who/what they speak out against, it might be supposed that they don’t care about people they disagree with and never gave regard for their feelings. From my experience speaking with Jonathan and many of his siblings, who also handle troubling domestic cases, this could not be further from the truth. Regardless of a client’s background or offense or religious affiliation, Jonathan is able to separate himself from his personal beliefs and be an effective advocate. We found this professionalism and consideration for others in the workplace to be true of the other church members we spoke to as well.  

Empathy is a surprising thing to find in a place where most people don’t believe it exists. 

Gaining this understanding of Jonathan not only changed my perception of him as a person, but deepened the personal significance I place on our research project as a whole. Had I not been able to listen to Jonathan with empathy, unable to set aside my own biases and feelings, then it is quite possible I may have only ever been able to achieve a surface-level understanding of him. 

Likewise, Jonathan’s receptiveness through the course of our interviews, even when the topic of discussion made him step out of his comfort zone, has given me much to work with in my effort to deepen my understanding of rapport-building, which is instrumental to this research — and any broader attempt to understand others with whom one might not immediately see eye to eye or find consensus.

Though engaging with empathy is not always easy, it remains essential to our interactions both personally and professionally. The value of understanding where someone is coming from through relationship-building cannot be stressed enough, especially in light of the divisiveness which characterizes the climate of our nation today. It is my hope that by listening to each other and learning how our experiences shape us, we can begin to diminish these divides and solidify the foundation upon which productive, meaningful interactions can occur.


Sofia Vlahakos (Miami University ’20) is in her final year of law school at the University of Houston Law Center in her hometown of Houston, Texas and plans to become a family lawyer when she graduates.  Sofia is a Miami alum who was involved with the Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” Project for three years as a Miami student which included multiple trips to the Westboro Baptist Church. Her experience as a research assistant on the project has played a major role in her decision to pursue a legal career and provide legal services to people of all religious backgrounds and beliefs.

Student Essay: A Tool for Humanization

In these essays, students reflect upon the study of radical religious groups, including qualitative data analysis of video interviews, through an upper level course at Miami University.

Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” — A Tool for Humanization

Coming into the first day of class, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of “Empathy and the Religious ‘Enemy’” except a large amount of work and the stress that was bound to follow.  In walked Dr. Hillel Gray, and I don’t think I had ever had a professor be so enthusiastic about a class. Though, I soon asked myself, “what have you gotten yourself into?” 

 I had no real experience in coding videos or analyzing those videos in any sort of significant way, and this was a hefty part of the requirements for our final paper and most of the class was based around this.  I was already in too deep to back out now, so I began going through the hours of interviews from Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian group that is often thought of as hateful and intolerant by mainstream society and is a part of Dr. Gray’s ongoing research project based around the idea of empathizing with those who may have radically different opinions and perspectives.  

As I was studying one of the elders of the church, Jonathan Phelps, I began to realize that there was more to these people than what is seen in the media.  This is precisely the goal of the project, not to create change of any kind in the subjects of the research, but rather to change the researcher’s, and by extension larger society’s, understanding and ability to relate to an “oppositional Other.”  

Jonathan Phelps is the son of Fred Phelps Sr., the original head and founder of Westboro Baptist Church. Through my own research, I had the opportunity to analyze the ways in which he conceptualizes empathy, and if this is the way that he puts it into practice. This analysis uncovered the connection between his religious ideology and how he is conceptualizing empathy, as well as the ways empathy may look different when “put into action,” so to speak.  

In conceptualizing empathy, Jonathan expressed a view that members of the church should not feel empathy fully toward outsiders of the church because of the possibility that it might cause them to accept the sins of that person, which is based largely on the doctrinal teachings of the church. Yet, when he was speaking about outsiders, and especially clients that he works with as a juvenile defender, he was able to express deep feelings of empathy and compassion, sometimes being brought to tears as he was discussing specific client’s cases.  This potentially was the cause of some tension I observed, when in some instances he would try to change the topic of conversation when he was beginning to get emotional.  

Viewing Jonathan through this analytical lens of conceptual and practical empathy has helped me to expand my understanding of what empathy means, as well as practicing critical distance when analyzing interview footage.  Of course, there were moments where he would express theological or moral viewpoints, but I was able to work on suspending judgement and approaching the research in an unbiased way.

Despite these findings and reflections, some may still wonder why we are doing this research.  Why would we give voice to a group that is widely thought to have hateful rhetoric? Why might we subject our researchers to this potentially harmful viewpoint (considering they often express anti-LGBTQ and anti-military opinions)?  It is a vast misconception of this project that we are sympathizing with any of these groups, or giving voice to their theological opinion. Empathy requires no moral requirement for action, and it doesn’t involve feeling pity, compassion, or sorrow for the situation that a person is in.  On the contrary, our empathic approach is about creating a cognitive and affective understanding of how they are feeling, with the goal of simply understanding their humanity and lived experiences. This could contribute to a process of humanization, which is one of the most relevant implications of this sort of methodology in our modern society.  There is often a tendency to dehumanize and villainize anyone who may be thought of as an “enemy” in any context. This can cause us to take them down to a lower status, thus making it easier to take a position of apathy or even opposition to their general welfare. Non-judgmental empathic listening has the potential to humanize those who are vilified and seen as the “enemy”, as well as giving the opportunity to forge relationships with these people allowing for enhancement of the research.  

The broader results of the project also have the potential to dispel prejudices and stereotypes through the nature of its relationship-building methodology.  By getting to know individual participants of groups which are often deemed hateful, it’s easier to see that they aren’t all of the stereotypes that are put on the whole group.  Creating familiarity and cognitive understanding of the empathy and emotions of people provides a greater ability to see them not as those stereotypes, but as who they are, and as more fully as human.  Practically, this sort of research and methodology can be helpful in having civil conversations with those who may have a different opinion. It is no shock that we live in an increasingly divisive and politically and socially polarized society, so a critical empathic approach has the potential to change the ways in which different political parties have civil discourse around issues that they differ on.  Despite being somewhat controversial research, it could be really helpful to see how those whom we see as “other” are treated as lesser, and make efforts to show that they are just people, too.  

Student Essay: Reflecting on Difference

In these essays, students reflect upon the study of radical religious groups, including qualitative data analysis of video interviews, through an upper level course at Miami University.

As children grow older, they often begin to differ from how parents expect them to be. Whether they choose to differ politically, religiously, or make an uncanny career path for themselves, it can be hard to believe that a person we have cared for and known for so long can choose against what they have been taught, but it is a common occurrence. Ideologies and beliefs change as people gain more experience in the world and are exposed to different people and cultures. Almost everybody can think of someone who has changed drastically from the way they were brought up. In fact, a 2015 study of American religious identification, the Pew Research Center found that 42% of Americans identify in a religious group that is different from what they practiced in childhood. In situations represented by this data, it can be hard to understand why a loved one would leave what was once agreed upon by the family. This affects many American families, including those of the Westboro Baptist Church. 

Known for their anti-homosexual picketing and protesting of veteran funerals, the Westboro Baptist Church is a small congregation consisting of just a few families. The tight-knit group that is the Westboro Baptist Church places faith as priority over family.  Here, changing one’s religious beliefs does not simply lead to awkward thanksgiving meals like others, rather it means a complete separation from the familial community they have been with their whole life. Them having beliefs and rituals considered oppositional to the larger American population, it is easy for outsiders to imagine a desire to distance oneself from this group, and there have been some notable cases of this happening among their community. For example, you might have heard names like Sharon Phelps and Lauren Drain in the past, as they have gained some press writing personal memoirs after leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. 

I drew my attention of Westboro through the project named “Empathy and the Religious Enemy,” headed by Miami University assistant professor Dr. Hillel Gray aims to study the emotions and empathy of members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas in a critically empathic, non-judgmental way. By this, the project aims not to change a person’s religious beliefs or condemn their behavior, but to understand their personhood in a way that allows ourselves to be more empathic. This study conducts interviews of various members of the Church with emphasis on the empathic capabilities they employ. Through a university class with Dr. Gray, I have been able to access the interviews and produce a qualitative analysis of the emotions of grief and loss felt by church members in response to family members leaving the church.

Looking over the interviews produced through the project, I came across a section of a 2010 interview with Tim, Lee Ann, and Victoria Phelps. Victoria, who was seventeen years old at the time, gives her thoughts on the departure of her brother from the church, which occurred just weeks before the interview took place. Victoria expresses her inability to understand why her brother would leave the Westboro community considering their shared upbringing. She states that “you have everything here, what more do you want,” and continues to wonder at how her brother could leave after taking the teachings of the church to be true. This was interesting to me because it is her upbringing in the church and her allegiance to the religious doctrine that prevents her from comprehending possible motivations for leaving. There is an urgency to her words as she details the consequences she perceives of her brother’s actions, that he will be sent to hell for eternity. This is something, I think, which is present in all of us to an extent. Religions, political opinions, and other ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that it becomes hard, and sometimes impossible to comprehend otherwise. Like Victoria, many of us respond with confusion and in some cases, anger when faced with a loved one’s dramatic change. 

In a way, I think one of the goals of Dr. Gray’s project is to reflect on these things. Encountering these materials has caused me to question how I privilege my own thinking and impulses. It is much easier for me to see the blockages that an ideology can place on one’s mind when seeing it in an oppositional group like Westboro, but further self-reflection reveals that I am the same way. As someone who has seen a loved one struggle with religious identity, I find myself in the same position as Victoria was. Though I do not conclude that one or another person is necessarily destined for hell, it is important to understand that people grow and find new ways of being in the world, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. With our initial emotions being somewhat beyond our control, we can supplement that with critical reflection and questioning ourselves, such as “why do I feel the way I do” or “am I angry at this person and how can I be more accepting.” Victoria shows her own way of doing this as she attributes all things to a divine plan. I do not mean to say that Victoria or anyone else is wrong for her reactions and feelings, but that her expression is something we all take part in, and awareness of those emotions is something valuable. 

Student Essay: Religious beliefs enable judgmental attitudes

In these essays, students reflect upon the study of radical religious groups, including qualitative data analysis of video interviews, through an upper level course at Miami University.

In today’s world we are often exposed to extreme intolerance towards others views shown through immediate backlash, often seen on the internet and throughout the media against all differentiating opinions and outlooks. This vitriolic backlash could be speculated to be a product of mob mentality as well as the anonymity afforded from the internet. The project this class is engaged in is about achieving an empathic understanding of groups that have commonly been labeled and portrayed by society and the media as extremists. The groups in question are the Westboro Baptist Church and Neturei Karta. This project is not about changing the minds of the groups in question, or even analyzing the theological nature or structure of their beliefs, but is instead about changing our own perspective in order to better understand and empathize with these groups. In my opinion, this project is of great importance in providing a more civil alternate outcome to the intolerance that has become so common in our society. 

For this project we used a program called MaxQDA to analyze hours of interviews with various members of these religious groups. We then drew on various academic sources to analyze these interviews and form academic conclusions.  My personal QDA analysis had to do with analyzing the cognitive processes behind the judgmental attitudes within the WBC and its relationship with their religious beliefs. My project sought to differentiate between religious justification and religious enablement using the context and structure of dialogue in the WBC participants. My research results in evidence supporting the hypothesis that their religious beliefs enable their judgmental attitudes, as opposed to a religious justification. This implies that the judgmental attitudes commonly portrayed by the church and the point of focus in many media portrayals is not a result of an internal prejudice masked by biblical reactions but a reaction to beliefs and norms established by external biblical sources. Although this work is far from conclusive, I believe it provides a good first step in exploring the potential for this type of analytical research and the depth of understanding that can be derived from this process. 

A useful method in understanding this project is by examining its effects on my own personal disposition. In the beginning of this project in the early fall semester of 2019-2020 school year, my view of the Westboro Baptist Church was probably comparable to the average perspective, I viewed them as sort of inhuman monsters whose fervent religious beliefs out shadowed any relatability. However, after in depth research into the interviews between the members of the church and Dr. Gray, as well as complementary readings on empathy, my perspective on the church has altogether changed, and although I still recognize the differences in our beliefs and perspectives, and I continue to disagree with their message and methods, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the ultimate relatable humanity that exists within the members of the church. Furthermore, I’ve learned to recognize that the way the media has treated these individuals has reflected our societies own prejudices and lack of civility. Ultimately, I’ve learned that there are two outcomes that can be sought out after coming into contact with a perspective that is radically different from your own. You can shut them out, with vitriolic language and spiteful attitudes, or you can seek understanding, and grow as a person.    

A further dimension of this project I’d like to explore would be the effect the research process in respect to my personal project has had on my own understanding of this group. In order to obtain the relevant data needed for my project, I had to analyze several hours of dialogue between various church members. As a result, I was able to see sides of these members that are not readily available to the public. Watching these members tell jokes, personal stories, discuss past traumas, watching them laugh, cry, and express frustration gave me a perspective beyond the media interpretation. I was able to see these people for what they really are; human. 

Altogether, this project stands out in relation to the other projects, as the purpose of this project is not simply to practice research and analytical skills, but to cultivate an empathic perspective when it comes to the varying positions and opinions of others. Based on my own personal introspection, I have shown within myself the completion of the ultimate goal of this project. The real value in this research is that its priority is in making the world a better place, not by changing others, but by changing ourselves.

January 2020 trip to Topeka, KS

They’re back! On January 9-13, Dr. Hillel Gray and a team of seven student research assistants will conduct field work in Topeka. The team will meet with a few Topeka residents from the LGBT and Jewish communities, while focusing primarily on interviews and observations at the controversial Westboro Baptist Church.

We anticipate interviewing two daughters of founder Fred Phelps, Sr., as well as members of three churchgoing families. Students will also observe a home Bible reading, the WBC’s emblematic street preaching, an evening get-together for singing hymns, and a Sunday worship service.

The schedule is organized thanks to Steve Drain, one of eight Elders who rotate preaching responsibilities at Westboro Baptist Church.

During the spring semester, several student researchers will be doing follow-up research on Westboro Baptists.

Introducing a Class-Workshop Model

REL 402. Empathy and the Religious “Enemy,” Fall 2019

In this course, students will investigate the religious beliefs and practices of radical, oppositional religious groups in the U.S., including but not limited to Westboro Baptist Church and anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews. Course modules will address their histories, approach to outsiders, social dynamics, as well as their reception in American society as an “enemy.” Students will improve and examine group datasets through qualitative data analysis (QDA). You will build the critical-empathetic skills needed to study such groups, interact with them, and engage thoughtfully in public discourse about them.

Bobbie Hall published in “Odyssey”

Be sure to check out Bobbie’s article, “I Interviewed The Westboro Baptist Church For 4 Days And Came Out A Changed Woman,” excerpted below, in which she discusses her personal experiences as an interviewer with the project, engaged in field work in Topeka, KS.

“I hope to be a psychiatrist after school, and a crucial part of that will be having the skills to listen to a person with no judgment and to truly understand them. This was my first step in gaining those skills.”

For more student content, see the “student paper” tag in the right-hand toolbar!

Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” Participants Featured in the Miami Student

The Miami Student has run a piece on our project, focusing on sophomore Alexa Lawhorn and senior Sofia Vlahakos. The article features their field work experiences through interview, and provides background on the project. To read all about it, click here!

Final Thoughts On Westboro Baptist Church 2018 – Bobbie

A few days after this trip, as I’ve finally had time to reflect, I’m mentally going back to a paper that I wrote for Dr. Gray’s religion 101 course. Without posting the entire paper, my thesis was that the WBC’s marginalization isn’t only due to the way that they practice their religion, but also strongly due to how they react to others when confronted. In the paper, I cover many topics, including totalism, social exclusion, and reactions to social exclusion (prosocial and antisocial).

Previously, I made assumptions that they are constantly practicing totalism. It seems to me, that it is something they do struggle within day to day life. Jonathan mentioned that he enjoyed running but there were times that he felt he had to pull away because he was devoting so much of his life to it. Maybe totalism isn’t something they are doing, but rather something the WBC members aspire to do.

So, what about my assertion that a reason they are so marginalized is that the group reacts in an antisocial way when confronted? This would be like when in past interviews, a member of the church would yell at someone who is confronting their values and beliefs.

When discussing outsiders counter-protesting, it seems that they feel like it’s almost laughable. At the same time, though, they mentioned that they really respect the first amendment and therefore also respect these people sharing their opinions and using their freedom of speech. So, I wouldn’t say that they respond in an antisocial way, as I had previously assumed. Their response to this social exclusion is not antisocial or prosocial but maybe, nonsocial. A nonsocial response can be characterized as pulling back into your “comfort zone” when faced with exclusion. Usually associated with cowardice, this might just be a result of exhaustion. The church members seem to just be tired of fighting back. They don’t engage in the discourse as much anymore, possibly.

I was also curious why they believed that they are so marginalized. In an interview with Abby, she mentioned that she believes that one of the strongest reasons why the Westboro Baptist Church is so strongly marginalized can be attributed to the media. A term the media uses a lot when describing the WBC is “hate group”. She mentioned that this tends to then cause people to shift to the word terrorism. It was shocking to her that a term such as terrorist could be attributed to this group, considering they don’t partake in any physical aggression.

But does the group even care that they are incredibly marginalized? And are they really? In an interview with around 6 girls ranging from their teen years to their 30s, I found some answers to this question. While it can be seen from previous interviews with older adults that they were incredibly bullied for being in the church when younger, these girls say that usually, people let them keep their church life and home life separate. They also mentioned that they don’t care much to hang out with people their own age outside of the church. So, they do seem to be socially excluded or marginalized but that seems to be due to their own preferences, like a separation strategy. I don’t think this means that they want to be separate in all situations or seen as bad people, but it’s almost what comes with their choice to stay separate in most ways from the general population.

Overall, I feel that my previous assessment of the church doesn’t represent who they are as a group. It might have in the past, but it seems that the church has changed in their mannerisms. Many people have tried to explain this to us, but can’t exactly find the right words. I don’t know if this change will help or hurt how marginalized the group is, but I do know that it is happening, and it is noticeable.