Sunday, July 6, 2008

Confessions of a Fledgling Churchgoer

This is a sermon I am going to give at my little church next Sunday. My minister was kind enough to ask me to speak. Here's what I came up with. What do you think?

About three years ago, I was standing on a beach in Westerly, Rhode Island on a very windy, drizzly day. It’s good that there was a mist in the air because I was crying. The reason I was crying was because I was missing someone terribly. And the person I was missing was the Lord.

“Go to church,” said a voice in my head.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Go to church,” the voice grew louder.
“I can’t , I can’t,” I cried. The picture of a small white church with green shutters came to mind. It was St. Mark’s.
“Just try,” said the voice. “Just try.”

Well, here I am, standing before you all, amazed at both myself and God. The reason I am amazed is because many years before, I had sworn I would have nothing to do with God or churches ever again.

You see, I had been in a fundamentalist cult called The Way International from the time I was fourteen until I was twenty-nine. The leader of the group hated churches. He hated religion in general, except his own brand of Christianity which taught you could basically commit any sin you wanted so long as you prayed about it and quoted Scripture. That was his definition of grace – playing God for a fool.

Well, like the Scripture says “Be not deceived, God will not be mocked. For what a man soweth , that also shall he reap.” The leader of the cult, a man named Dr. Wierwille, (he wasn’t a real doctor), perverted the Word of God and taught us to do a lot of bad stuff – the usual stuff you hear about in cults – sex, fraud, mind control. We learned it all and the whole time, I thought, crazy as it seems, that we were doing the will of God.

So, I reaped what I sowed and the whole thing came crashing down on my head after fifteen years. Spiritually and physically abused, I had nowhere to turn. I was not allowed to leave. It wasn’t that they were holding a gun to my head. No, cults hold people captive by instilling complete and total dependence on the leader. The three D’s of cultic control are dependence, deception and dread. Cult leaders capture the minds of their followers, just as mine did, and I was helpless to act.

Now, the Doctor always taught that seminaries were the breeding ground of Satan so as soon as I left The Way, I hightailed it for the devil and went to divinity school. It’s as if I was on a great boat that got shipwrecked and I got washed up onto the shores of Yale Divinity School. I was a wreck. I tried to go to services there but every time someone opened a Bible, it was like shouting “incoming” to a war veteran. I felt like diving under the nearest pew. I skipped my classes on the Old and New Testament (since I was very familiar with each) and immersed myself in the classics. My mind woke up. I started to think for myself.

In The Way, we weren’t supposed to think for ourselves. Cults don’t allow followers to doubt but I am curious by nature. I’m a doubter. But the more I doubted, the worse I felt. I was told I was not doing the will of God. I was told I was possessed. I was hungering for truth but leaving The Way would be tantamount to giving my soul to the devil. I was terrified to leave. If it wasn’t for my mother, who faithfully hung in there with me all those years, even when I accused her of being a messenger of Satan, I would not be standing before you here today.

Fast forward to St. Mark’s. Once I summoned up the courage to walk through these doors, I heard the minister preach and one of the first things he said was “Don’t park your mind at the door.” That was a refreshing change. Maybe this would work, I thought. Of course, I stumbled through the liturgy, books and papers flying everywhere, not knowing when to stand or when to sit, and mostly doing it with tears streaming down my cheeks. I was crying again. But this time from joy, this time from the feeling that I was home.

For the last three years I have had the privilege of facilitating the woman’s meditation and journaling group. I guess old habits die hard and I was programmed in the cult that I had to be involved. But I didn’t want to be too involved. I desperately needed the fellowship of other women, spiritual women, who were on the journey, seeking and loving God as much as I did. You see, it was really a selfish thing. I have been the one who has benefited the most.

I went to Bible study and encountered for the first time people actually expressing doubts about the Scripture (they did that all the time in seminary but I paid no attention. I had shut off my heart to the Word at that point. It’s amazing that they let me stay, at all, isn’t it?) Anyway, at our little Bible studies, I heard individuals speak their own minds and express their own opinions and raise their own questions. And they did this in a loving way. They weren’t afraid that the wrath of God would come flying down on their heads.

It seems like a long time since that day on the beach and an even longer time since my time in the cult, over twenty years, actually. I have two children who were born into the cult who are now grown and pursuing their own dreams, one in film, the other in law. I have just completed a memoir about my experience called Losing the Way.

In closing, what I really want to say is thank you. Thank you to St. Mark’s for opening your hearts and arms to me and allowing me to question and doubt and do dishes and not do dishes, sell cheese and not sell cheese and not damn me to hell for any of the above. I have been most fortunate to have found such a treasure right down the street from where I live, a place where I can bring all of me to love God with all my heart, my soul, my strength AND my mind. Thank you so much.


Christine said...


I think it is an awesome sharing. I too have left the Way--three years ago--and have had the humbling experience of attending a church and finding myself home again. I love that God is faithful an longsuffering. He was waiting for us to come home all those years!



SunHound said...

I know there have been many writings published about what is a cult and what are the characteristics of cult-like behavior, but I often wonder how these things form. Does a Christian pastor wake up one morning and say "I'm tired of this - I think I'll form a cult"? Do they pull out their dog-eared copy of "how to form a cult for dummies" and go to chapter 1?

I think the cult behavior spawns from the dark side of human behavior - as Lord Acton said, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." When people yeild their power to a leader or teacher, giving him or her their total devotion, they are unintentionally creating a breeding ground for a cult. Like an egg is impregnated with the sperm, the fertile mind of the leader is impregnated with this absolute power and the embrio of a cult is formed. But the birth of the cult will only follow after the continued incubation by the first-followers - they are the ones who promote the person-worship, the esoteric behavior and terminology, the pressure to stay in the group. After a long enough period of time, the pattern is locked in, the group culture has solidified, and the cult is born.

So what is to be learned from this? Are cults preventable? - probably no more preventable than bullies in the school yard. I am sorry to hear of all of your suffering in The Way, Kristen. Maybe there is hope in early detection and maturing the methods of rescuing people from the control of a cult. And afterwards, God's healing. As the scripture says, we must "overcome evil with good."

Schumes said...

So sorry about your tramautic experiences, but thanks be to God for His redemption. And for your courage in sharing your story with others.

Derek Selvon said...

I cant go to church....anywhere. I was kicked out during 'mark and avoid' and the teachings of the way still dominate my thought patterns. I was with the way for all of my early life. Am looking for others like me.

Anonymous said...

I too am a former Way Int/WayCorps participant. But, I am not going to blame them for the pschological shortcomings & adolescent foolishness of my childhood. GOD, by HIS grace & mercy brought me to HIM to have a true relationship with HIM thru HIS son,JESUS CHRIST, before I was ever involved with TWI. So my experiences, though degrading & deceitful, were ordinary,worldly,demonic activity which occur to EVERYONE seeking to SERVE the LORD JESUS CHRIST on a daily basis. Our FATHER,GOD is ALL LOVING & LIGHT. People, through which the powers of darkness utilize to forward its plans, are what we,through our senses, are deceived by...Eph.2,3,4,5,&6. Life is about maintaining a true & vital,realistic relationship with our LORD & MASTER(Kurios),Jesus Christ. We only know the LORD thru HIS Word. TWI was only a research & teaching ministry to me...not a cult(cult is what the WAY was called in the 1st century by the unbelievers), so I never gave my heart to TWI, but to my Savior, Jesus CHrist. I'm sorry former WI followers placed the organization above the Lordship of Christ in their lives. I suspect they mimimally experienced for any length or degree GOD's TRUE, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE & salvation by GRACE, not of works. I keep reading over & over blame on the ministry & individuals for lack of our own PERSONAL LACK OF RESPONSIBILITY. May GOD's GRACE abound in your lives. Please,GOD loves us all & can NEVER over-ride our freedom of will.
GOD bless you & your family.
Joe M. Florida

potato said...

dear anonymous,

your experience was obviously different from a lot of former members of the twi cult. all of our experiences are different. thank god you were a better person than those of us who were beaten, coerced, bullied, and intimidated. because you were better than all of us, you didn't suffer what we did. you should feel good about yourself. you rock. you're gonna get so many rewards when you get to heaven. boy, I wish I was you.

after your words of exhortation, I feel so sorrowful that my personal lack of responsibility made me sit through forced sessions of verbal abuse, physical attacks, and submission to bad advice out of fear of consequences, out of fear of losing my children. what must jesus think of me???

you know, I don't hold twi responsible for the shortcomings of my childhood and I have yet to run across any ex-member who does. what we do hold them responsible for, however, is taking advantage of our weaknesses and using them to hurt, rather than to heal.

Kristin, I am looking forward to reading your book more than ever.

Rev. C. Walking Turtle Mann (ULC) said...

> ..."I heard the ministur preach and one of the first things he said was “Don’t park your mind at the door.”"

Funny... That was the essential attitude with which we newbs of Bloomington IN were greeted by then-Twig Leader John Scott before we sat down for the first reel of the PFAL Class. Then came the intro session, the walk through the fundamentals of Biblical research and basic scholarship, and on to the Gifts and the Manifestations. All in all, a remarkably potent love-bomb indeed she was.

Averse as I was to any notion of organized churchlike activity at the time, all from the early days of childhood Presbyterian exposure and church-sanctioned scapegoating (for I was born gender-nobbled and was soon made over into the Justifiably Scapegoated One "so that the Children of Israel might be cleee-ee-ean") the hours of PFAL indoctrination were made more than merely bearable by the remarkably accepting attitude of the operators. This changed drastically as time and involvement moved forward, though.

I signed on as a WOW Ambassador at the second Rock of Ages festival. I remember well to this day the time I said something in passing about the anomalies of a new-met Twig member's incoming "God Concept", which brought the query from Danny Stockemer (the Branch man for Fort Wayne IN, where the Inspired Vision of Dr. W + dartboard had placed me). With a look of sheer puzzlement on his face, he asked in all seriousness, "Um, what's a 'concept'"?

That was when I first realized what manner of company I had fallen in with. I asked a few more "terrible unspeakable" questions here and there, was given everything from tirade to tears as response (not so satisfactory) and departed the WOW Program before the term of service was out.

By then I had embarked on a self-formulated "program" of somewhat Biblically justified(FNORD!) self-mutilation that persisted for some years. Some wounds heal to invisibility; others leave scars. By then, I had "voluntarily" forced the too-obvious gender issues into a state of self-deluding blanket denial that left all but myself with a few self-obvious clues re "The Problem" of my having been born as I am into the Christian World at all, in the first place.

Decades later, I took up to resolve those life-threatening issues by means other than Churchianity or psychiatry. Much dangerous struggle followed. My comfort level within my own skin is right fine now, though; best of all, I did not need to become a showgirl nor any manner of "Alley Tramp" to gain that full Inner integrity that, by some few passages of Holy Writ from some few cultures, lives on regardless of the conformation of "The Meat".

But that reassuring bit digresses well ahead of the intended timeline. To return:

I saw John and his lady at their Bloomington home a year later. I was in the area and decided to ring the doorbell. Gnosis, the dog, was still all happy wags and woofs - but John and his lady (whose name I have indeed disremembered; keeping names has been my ongoing challenge in this life) proved cold as ice and accusing as all Hell. (That settled it.)

I think I did hear the word "Freak" uttered as I turned to leave. No matter. I had done enuf Biblical Research science for "those guys" already; I certainly was not inclined to re-immerse myself at all in the hurly-burly of any Twig milieu by then.

After all, I had already gone from the darkness of Ugly American Presbyterianism (with all the endemic hypocrisy therein) to a place wherein I could (and still do) read exactly *any* Holy Book from *any* culture and pull out the points held in common with every other genuinely holy book from every other culture and people on Earth. I keep what I gained by way of the benefit of the former association; the remainder is aught but "water under the dam", as a civil engineer might put it, in terms of my time so spent.

That is why John 8:32 is to this day "Just All Right by ME". The good townsfolk of the place where I live and work today have had no problem with that operative attitude at all, be they secular or religious samesame.

As for the Other Kind (for we have those too in some measurable abundance): that selfsame John 8:32 sure makes a right fine touchstone for winnowing 'em into proper recognition. One can hardly pray well for those whom one has failed to properly recognize, now can one just?

After all, it was VP Himself (I do remember well those eyes, that handshake, and that remarkable Harley; where is that scoot now?) who reputedly always pointed out to the Advanced Class inductees under his own tutelage: "The reason you are here is because you did not understand what the Foundational Class has already taught you."

"Trinity" Doctrine? Almighty Creator God (Item One) being in full-actualized residence in Christ (ergo Holy Ministry of Reconciliation; Item Two) well and consciously lodged within one's own well-kept self (Item Three; thus Holy Reconciliation, personal Redemption and one strong, beautiful "Hope o' Glory" for an everlasting lifetime) makes for exactly such a Big Three in Majority as I, for one, have ever needed under Heaven. But I, too, had to gain "the guts to leave the Temple" long before all that became actualizable in the World of Form.

My heart and prayers go out to you in your prior forced suffering and ongoing recovery, Ma'am. There is no question about it being "Different for Girls" in this life. As for the up-and-coming cultmakers in our midst: Indeed, they are all the same. Once well and truly clued, any near-fool can readily break their "power".

Genuine Power is one thing. Force, be it subtle or brutal, is another, different, second-rate (at best) thing. Force is universally resorted to by those unfortunate quasi-human ones who are unable and/or not willing to trust Creator, Life, the Universe and Everything for their daily sustenance, and from that standpoint "always do the Right Thing" so as to keep "The Flow" a-going well, with no call for any constriction.

Um, I think that you, Ma'am, have certainly done that much, in essence, for yourself - and most excellently at that. The Light Within *my* Self salutes the Light Within *your* Self, Kristen! Namasté and Heaven bless all your holy undertakings forever! :)

BTW, the stated (also non-registered as of today) URL reflects the "Concept" for an utterly free and fully, genuinely human /ecclesia/ of Spirit, operating seamlessly and invisibly for the sole purpose of keeping John 8:32 alive and well in toto with no need at all for walls, indoctrinations, member-lists, tithing, Branches hanging fire until properly re-dogmatized by "Trunk", or any other part of that eminently manipulable halfwit-grade material fooferaw. 'Way down inside, I think, we each know our Father's Voice. It is only to first still ones' "little-s" self sufficiently inside in order to "catch a clue" on cue, one finds.

But I have vestibuled a bit overmuch; must be on me way now... I'll get me coat. Mine's the one with the pockets packed to overflowing with self-actualizable Items from Heaven... Help yourselves, ladies 'n' gents; plenty for all who stretch forth the hand, no matter how crippled she be... Thank'ee one and all; it has been real. I'll be off now.

FWIW: A Google name-search entry on the boards actualized this connection.

Anonymous said...

It was the hardest thing I have ever done to make peace with God and surrender,after years ((years))
of therapy and suicide attempts,hospitalizaions I can begin to live again without the dark weight of cult teachings clouding my heart and mind.
Also a former member of the cult called The Way International.