From the time she was 8, Libby Phelps Alvarez traveled the country protesting funerals. Like other members of the family-based Westboro Baptist Church, she often crashed the funerals of fallen soldiers.
“They think that they're fighting for a nation that supports homosexuality," Alvarez told TODAY, explaining the rationale behind the protests.
Now, Alvarez has left the inflammatory Kansas-based church started by her grandfather and travels the world with her new husband experiencing simple acts once forbidden by her former cult-like religion – like getting a haircut. She also has gotten her ears pierced.
She said she first began to question church activities after a friend’s husband died while serving in the military. Her family picketed the funeral. She stayed behind.
“There was a point when we started praying for people to die,” she said. “I didn't actually do that but I was around when they did it.”
In addition to disrupting military funerals, Westboro church members also are known for extreme anti-gay and anti-Semitic rhetoric, targeting both groups in their protests. But they shocked the nation when they announced plans to protest the funerals of the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting.
“Westboro will picket Sandy Hook Elementary School to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment,” the church announced in a tweet.
"They think that they are the only ones who are going to heaven and if you don't go to that church you're going to hell,” Alvarez said.
She decided to leave the church four years ago, slipping away while her parents attended a protest.
"I was terrified I was never going to see my family again,” she said, still tearful at the memory.
Alvarez still aches to see her parents, but “my aunt emailed me and said that nobody wants to talk to me anymore."
Today, Alvarez lives about 30 miles away from the church. She still regrets the hurt she caused others but tries to remain focused on her current, peaceful life. She hopes her break from the church will inspire other relatives to make the leap.
“I would tell them I love them and that people aren't evil like we were taught,” she said. “And even though I am crying right now, life isn't full of sadness and sorrow and disease and heartache like they told us. You can lead a happy and good life."