Other Adventurers and Pioneers
I walked into the used clothing store on this bright summer morning with nothing but shopping on my mind. My husband and I, along with our three children, had just moved from the coast back up to our home community in northern British Columbia. We had decided that the fast pace of Vancouver was just too much for us, and besides, we were homesick.
As I rummaged through clothing the very friendly lady who owned the store approached me to ask if I needed help. She started up a conversation and I eventually told her that we had been home-schooling our two older children and were currently looking for a Christian school that we could afford to send them to. She glowed as she told me about her church and its congregation, and the fact that they happened to have their own school. Perhaps I would like to come to a service on Sunday?
The first service had me hooked almost immediately. I remember that the pastor involved many of his family members in a skit that had us laughing. The songs were upbeat and fun to sing. The church members were extremely friendly. One gal, upon seeing my swelling belly, offered to give me all her maternity clothes. She had a newborn in her arms, and I later learned she was the pastor's daughter. The sermon, itself, was intriguing, and unusual enough that I wanted to hear more. When I found out there was a bible study during the week I decided to attend. I spoke to a lady about the school and she agreed to get in touch with me so we could discuss it further. I later learned that she, also, was one of the pastor's daughters.
I felt so welcomed at this church. It was plain brown and unassuming on the outside, but filled with laughter and love and unusual messages on the inside. The Spirit of God seemed to move strongly there, as was witnessed by waving hands and voices speaking in tongues. It lured me back again and again. That was how it started.
Organizations that study cults call it "Love Bombing" when someone is given instant love and acceptance and a sense of family belonging. The hugging and kissing, helpfulness and generosity were immediate. From the time I first walked into that used clothing store, I was made to feel welcome and loved and valued. How could I resist?
Another cult characteristic is "Elitism". The leader claims to have new revelation from God that is unique to the organization. The organization's leader is the mouthpiece of God and what he says is the only truth worth knowing. By extension, members of the cult also enjoy elite status as being chosen of God for this marvelous work.
I was intrigued by the cult leader from the start. He had an aura of mystery and wisdom about him that was hard to resist. I wanted to get to know him better, to get close to him. Yet, he seemed aloof at first. It became a goal of mine, over time, to become part of the "group" so that I could get to know him better.
I remember one of the first Bible studies I attended. The message was powerful and addicting. It seemed to answer long-held questions that fundamentalism couldn't answer, yet it sparked delicious new questions, too. In response to my questions I was almost always told simply to "keep coming."
The first lesson I attended addressed the subject of "Regeneration" -- only in this church, regeneration meant a form of reincarnation. I had always wondered about reincarnation and was thrilled to find Biblical passages that seemed to support it. I knew I had found the church I had always searched for. I thought I must have been led by God to it. If anyone had designed a lesson to hook me, in particular, this would have been it. I began to have a sense of wonder at the mysterious workings of God's hand. He had led me to that clothing store, He had given me the perfect first lesson, He had shown me I was where I belonged by making me feel loved and wanted there, and He had even provided a Christian school for my children! Praise God! A sense of purpose and direction were sparked in me almost immediately. My days of drifting from church to church were over.
My husband and I had grown up in diverse religious upbringings. He had been raised in a strong Catholic family, but had left the church -- much to his mother's chagrin. I had been raised Anglican/United/Whatever. We often lived in rural settings, so the closest church was the one we attended. Yet, my spiritual nature and my love of Jesus were strong in me from a very early age. Battling a difficult childhood, I often had no one to talk to but Jesus and He was my Best Friend. Only now do I understand the emotional needs I must have had fulfilled in me at that time for unconditional love, acceptance and stability.
The next lesson I took notes on was called "Crystaline Lattice" -- a beautiful, mystical interpretation of the Hebrew word for window, which literally means lattice, or network. The cross was a lattice, of sorts, and we must strive to make our lattices "mirror the lattice work of heaven." I was transported. It all sounded so lovely and believable when the leader used his skill with words to make his point. He could move us to tears with his writings, they were so beautifully done.
I found out later that the cult leader (otherwise known as the "High Priest" and "God as Represented") had training in psychology, as well as a doctorate in Theology. He was proud to use the word "Doctor" in front of his name and did so constantly. Cult leaders often do understand psychology and how to use it to attain their goals.
He was an enigma, this round little man with the self-important air. He was strongly devoted to his family and his "cause." He believed unswervingly in his mission and that he was chosen by God to deliver a message. I think he truly felt that the words he penned were divinely inspired.
His foibles, though, were many. Most cult leaders try to control their followers through the use of fear and guilt, but his own fears were staggering to him. He had been kidnapped when he was young, and his paranoia was rooted in that event, I believe. He truly thought that everyone was out to get him. I used to laugh that his daughters, grown women, could not cross the back alley from the church to their home without someone watching them from the window. When one daughter decided to go for coffee with a friend (another cult member), but didn't inform her parents of her whereabouts, they drove up and down the streets of the village, and even into the next town to search her out. Upon finding her, the leader pulled her out of the house into the driveway and ranted and raved publicly for a time. She was mortified, but he was justified -- in his mind, anyway.
He was extremely suspicious of everyone, and trusted no one but his wife. He would not allow group members to be seen in the company of other members of the opposite sex unless they were accompanied by someone, preferably a spouse. He attributed to individuals the worst thoughts and crimes, and what he concocted in his head was treated as fact by himself and the core group. For instance, if he saw a woman of the church having coffee in town with a man who was not her husband, the assumption would immediately be made that she was having an affair with him. He would proclaim this "fact" to the group and it would be accepted as such. I used to laugh that he was actually transferring his own dirty mind to others, and perhaps I was not too far off the mark on that one.
One quality he had that particularly unnerved me was his inability to look me in the eye. His shifty eyes made him appear guilty and insecure. Perhaps his insecurities were the root of his business problems. He would come up with these wild business schemes that sounded wonderful in theory, yet few of them ever panned out the way he intended. Each one was supposed to make the church big money, but few managed to do more than feed his family.
Yet, I found myself loving this man -- not romantically, but as one would love a brother or an uncle, with tenderness and compassion. He was so sincere about what he believed in. There was a vulnerable, child-like quality to him that was endearing. He had a tremendous sense of humor and our services were usually filled with much laughter. He was tender and loving to his family and their children, and he loved his God fiercely. Though he demanded much of his followers, it was no more than he demanded of himself. He was up at dawn daily, praying and writing and studying his Bible and the cult book that was written by him, allegedly with the inspiration of God. His dedication to his cause was unswerving. I found myself wanting to emulate him, to get close to him and the core group, to become one of the elite. That was to become my undoing.
I worked hard at studying and praying and following God's "leading" and eventually I did become one of the core -- one of the "Melchizedek Priesthood." This involved a ritual of vow-taking, oil-anointing and ashes-smudging -- and then regular meetings. Those in the Priesthood received special instruction that was not available to others. The meetings were mystical, beautiful and moving -- and extremely secretive. The Bible verse we claimed as our own was very telling: "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; ... show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9) I was thrilled to be included as one of this "royal priesthood."
But I felt I had achieved real status when I was hired on as bookkeeper/secretary to the church and to the church business, a music sales company. Now I was really in! I could have my finger on the pulse! Most importantly, I was as close to the leader as anyone could get without marrying into the family.
Surprisingly, this is when things began to fall apart for me. Or maybe not so surprisingly. I was privy to information such as what the church funds were being spent on, and what illegal immigration schemes were being hatched now. And, yes, there were definite illegalities occurring in both areas. Once I was asked to write a letter of recommendation for one of the sons-in-law. The letter was to the Canadian Consulate General in Detroit and was designed to facilitate the son-in-law's immigration to Canada. I had to rewrite the letter several times, as I was not allowed to mention even a hint of the work that the son-in-law did around the church. Apparently, one of our Canadian laws is that he was not allowed to work at all until he was immigrated, as he would be taking work away from Canadians. But he HAD been working, and very hard at that. He worked not only for the church, but also for the music store. Many such immigrations were orchestrated in this way. There were also many marriages between Canadians and Americans so that the Americans could move up to Canada. I never did figure out exactly what the group was running from in the U.S., but there were some pretty wild rumors floating around! According to the leader, though, God had told them to come to the north.
As for misappropriation of church funds, the worst incident I witnessed was the time an offering was taken up at the church to complete the purchase of an apartment building we had bought. It was stressed that this was "our" building, and that the church and its people would benefit from this purchase. We were all encouraged to donate until it hurt, and we did, including my husband and I. (This whole incident still rankles with him, too.) Yet later, when I was doing the books and taxes, I found that the building had mysteriously changed ownership. It now belonged to the sons-in-law.
Until this time, I had committed my life to the church and what I believed to be God's work. I worked, prayed and studied hard in devotion to the ministry and its leader. I played and prayed with other members and grew to love them dearly. They were like family to me, and since I had little family nearby, they filled that gap. We had potlucks and birthday celebrations together. We worked together, then played volleyball or had wiener roasts together. I shopped and had lunch with the ladies, and near the end I began getting close to one woman and we went to movies and coffeed together. Our children grew up and went to school together, and our brothers and sisters in the church taught them. It was a very close-knit little community and I loved it enough to devote seven years of my life to it.
In the end, though, the hypocrisies began to become more glaring -- to me, at least. As well as the things I've mentioned above, I started to notice how many divorces and hurting people there were in our church, due in part to the leader's bungling attempts at "counseling." I saw that no one outside of the church was ever really helped out much, and that bothered me. I saw the greed of the leader and the way he could justify anything he did, legal or not. I noted all the pain and fear and guilt and paranoia and thought, "There must be a better way."
In talking to other lady members, I learned that virtually every one of them also had the doubts and fears that I did, but as far as I know, they are all still in the group.
One day, I was walking and praying, agonizing about whether I should leave the church or not. A still, small voice in my heart said, "You shall know them by their fruits." It was like a gentle bolt from the blue. I began to examine the fruits of the ministry and saw only pain, fear, false hopes and broken families. Then I knew it was only a matter of time and I would be gone.
My marriage, at that time, was also in danger. The problems we had would be the topic of another paper, and I will not enumerate them here. Suffice it to say, the only kind of counseling my husband would finally agree to was with our pastor. Big mistake. He bungled ours, just as he had done so many others. I wound up leaving the church and my marriage almost simultaneously. It's funny how the final blow came with the church, though. I was working in the office one morning, as usual. The leader had asked me to pay a little of our church's back taxes every week out of the offerings money and I got out the cheque book. I knew we had enough to write a small cheque, and was pleased that we were finally catching up on years of taxes.
But the money was gone. A cheque that cleaned out our account had been written to one of the sons-in-law. When I asked about it I got no direct answers except one that I knew was a lie, that the son-in-law was being paid back wages. I knew from doing the books for a year and a half that we owed him no back wages. I was not impressed, and they knew it, and I didn't care. After all the smooth talk about how the church's books were open to all of us and that there were no secrets, I was disappointed. But in light of my current musings, I was not surprised. I was also not surprised when the next day the leader called me up and said they'd had a secret meeting the night before and God had told them to let me go.
My marriage was over, but I honestly believe the trauma of leaving the cult was worse. It's difficult to explain this to those who have never experienced it, but it was as though someone had died. I felt sad and guilty and afraid. (We had always been told that any who left would be damned eternally.) I was angry at God for leading me to a place that would waste seven years of my life and destroy my faith. I felt foolish for having wasted all that time, not listening to family and friends around me who were concerned for my welfare. I mourned the loss of some of my friends, and the fellowship we had. And I mourned the loss of my faith, and of my Best Friend. For many years I mourned that. In fact, that part still hurts me the most -- that He would betray me and lead me to destruction.
For five years I had no faith. I became atheist, then agnostic. I could not read my Bible or pray without feeling both anger and guilt. Only recently have I begun to feel spiritual "tugs." But I doubt very much that I will ever become a Christian again, though I've learned never to say never.
Do I wish I had never walked into that clothing store that bright day so long ago? I honestly don't know. Something good comes out of everything, and this is no exception. I can now empathize with those who are currently in, or have left cults. Maybe I can help them. I have chosen a career direction that fulfills and challenges me. I have no "blind" faith anymore, and try to reason everything through. I have more peace in my heart than I ever have -- and no fear. I am my own person, heading in my own direction, and I like that.
Update: March 2008
I learned a little while ago that this group had split and many had left the church. There was a court case recently in which the leader was accused of indecencies with children, including his own granddaughter, but the girls refused to testify and he walked away. Around Christmastime, I understand, the doors closed and all have gone their separate ways. I have been communicating with some of these people and there has been much damage done; many wounds to heal. Others have moved on without too much trouble, it seems.
I consider myself fully healed after many, many years of pain and guilt. Now I have a very happy relationship and home life and have moved on to better things. I got a degree, worked hard and raised all four children, and am now doing some traveling and writing and am working from home.
I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from knowing that the "High Priest's" plans came to naught, but even more from being able to become friends again with some of the people I left behind and perhaps helping them to recover, too.
It's all good.
In doing research on cults and the similarities between them, I was shocked to find out that the writers could have been talking specifically about our little cult! Maybe this will help others who are wondering (source: "Cult Characteristics").
1. Absolute Authoritarianism Of Leaders -- they are the voice of God and insist on unquestioning obedience. Our leader claimed he was the "Mouthpiece of God" and that we were never to question anything he said or did -- only accept it as the will of God.
2. Leaders Not Accountable -- they are self-appointed and accountable only to themselves and to their god. They do not need to recognize authority as we know it, or even the law. Our leader often stretched the limits of the law, and even crossed over the line on more than one occasion. He could justify anything he did. I remember one time when a supplier was asking for a long overdue payment on musical equipment he told me to tell them that the cheque was in the mail. He explained to me that as long as we, in our minds, have sent the cheque it is virtually on its way. Because of his mission, he considered himself to be above the law.
3. Leaders Shifting the Blame for their Faults on Others -- group members are made to feel that all problems are their own fault, never the leader's or the group's. If a church business failed, it was our fault for not supporting it enough. If one of God's prophecies, as given through him, did not come true, it was our fault for not being faithful enough, not praying enough, not attending services enough. There were many times I was very frustrated that he would not, could not, accept blame for anything that went wrong. He was above reproach!
4. Infallibility -- the leader is always right and anything he or the group does can be justified. Often, he is God's earthly representative. Our leader called himself "God as Represented". In giving him unquestioning devotion we were giving the same to God.
5. Group Focuses On Leader -- the group is excessively committed to the leader to the point of denial of personal goals or identities. I was not the only one who tried to get close to the leader and his family. It is almost comical now to look back at how the others strove to achieve that closeness. There was almost a rivalry at times as to who really was the closest!
6. Blurring Of Identities -- "The group/leader, self and /or God as distinctly separate identities become increasingly blurred in the follower's mind. These identities are substantially fused as the member's involvement continues. Ross." I do not remember seeing anything like this.
7. Elitism -- the leader has a special mission as an exalted leader of an elite group that possesses special knowledge. The leader, alone, speaks for God. The group "has a special mission to save humanity." We were proud to be called "Melchizedek Priests." We were called for a purpose and were receiving special knowledge that others in the world were not. It was our mission to save the world and our "High Priest" was our exalted leader.
8. Ends Justify Means -- things that members may have considered unacceptable or unethical beforehand may be justifiable in the name of the "cause." The group considers itself to be above the law because it is doing God's work. Many, many times I witnessed this. (see point #2 above)
9. Psychological Manipulation / Coercion -- "...to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members. CIC." This man claimed to have training in psychology, but if he did have some, I don't believe he had a degree in it. I, on the other hand, seemed to understand almost as much psychology as he did. I could see, for instance, the transference of his own wicked thoughts onto others. I could read his body language and see his insecurities and fears where others couldn't seem to. While he was attempting to "counsel" my husband and I, I could see glaring mistakes he was making. He was a master, though, at controlling the group through fear and guilt and paranoia.
10. Love Bombing -- acceptance and friendship, affection such as hugging and flattery, and the creation of a sense of belonging to a "family." As described above, this was something that hit any newcomers immediately. We went out of our way to make them feel welcome and loved.
11. Break With A Person's Past -- members may break ties with former friends and family, either by their own choice or with encouragement from the leader/group. Members may give up personal goals and activities, even jobs for the group. "Recruits are told that 'Satan' will cause relatives and friends to say bad things about the group to try to 'steal them away from God.' Berkeley." Some cults physically remove their members from the mainstream. Often divorce is encouraged if the member's partner is not friendly to the group, and cult marriages are arranged. I know many, many families that sold everything they had to move to our little village. They wound up taking jobs that were beneath their training, living in houses that were smaller than they were used to, in a town that had little in the way of amenities. They came from all over the United States and parts of Canada. They gave what they could to the church, sometimes to their own detriment. I also witnessed many divorces from those who were not accepting of the group and its teachings. And I saw many, many arranged marriages. In fact, now I joke that in a few years all the new children will have that rabbity, inbred look!
12. Socialize With Group Members Only -- socialization only with group members is often encouraged, and in some groups required. The group becomes the "family", and members begin to believe that only other group members can be counted on. We were told that we could associate with anyone we wanted, but the structure of the group was such that outside friends and family were gradually shuffled to the sidelines. We had several meetings every week, as well as events and outings and such. We worked together and our children went to school together. We did become "one big, happy family."
13. Fear -- often used as a tool to keep members in line. Strict loyalty to the group and leader is demanded, and members are made to feel guilty if they transgress. Members often crave the approval of the leader and are confused or afraid if he withholds that approval. We were told that we had received very special knowledge from God, and that if we were to ever leave the church we would have committed an unpardonable sin that would have us damned eternally. Once in, we could never leave. We had made vows that could not be broken without losing our place with God. This was a very real fear I grappled with when I was considering leaving the church.
14. Guilt -- another psychological manipulative. A sense of obligation is often instilled in members and they are made to feel guilty if they fall short or do not do as they are told. In our Melchizedek meetings the leader was free to announce any transgressions, no matter how embarrassing, to the group. Individuals and couples were made accountable to us all. I don't remember him ever demanding restitution, but the guilty ones were encouraged to try harder for the sake of us all. We were also made to feel guilty if we shopped at other stores than the ones the brothers and sisters owned.
15. Misuse of Confession -- "Encouraging the destruction of individual ego through confession of personal weaknesses and innermost feelings of doubt. CIC." Information of the confessed "sins" is used to manipulate and control the individual. Often they are shamed in front of the group in order to "abolish identity boundaries." We often had to confess our sins before the group during meetings. And if we didn't, as mentioned above, the leader would bring them out during the secret meetings.
16. Dependency -- the leader is sometimes very specific about how members should act and think. Members often look to the leader for advice on who to marry, what job to take, where to live, etc. Some cults go so far as to regulate hairstyles and what clothes are acceptable for wear. This exploits the need to belong and promoted dependency of the members on the group. The result is a an inability to think independently of leader or group involvement. Yes, yes, and yes. He claimed that we were free to make our own decisions, but in reality we looked to him for "guidance" on virtually every move we made. However, he did not regulate our clothing and hairstyles. That is one area he gave us freedom in, and perhaps that gave us a false sense of freedom all-around. I do, however, remember one or two women who happened to wear something that one of the daughters thought was a little too revealing or "trashy" and they were subjected to an embarrassing tirade from the daughter!
17. Child-Like Behavior -- "Encouraging child-like obedience by orchestrating child-like behavior. CIC." I'm not sure what this means, but I don't think it applies. Except, perhaps, where he demanded complete, unquestioning obedience from the core group.
18. Copying Of Behavior -- "Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior. Ross." I do not remember anything of this nature occurring.
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