Without Grace — Michelle Campbell’s Story

Without Grace:
The Story of Michelle Campbell


Table of Contents


Acknowledgments

Acknowledgment and Thanks are in order for if it wasn’t for the influence and encouragement of these people I would not be where I am today; standing with booth feet on the ground; with a clear vision and purpose.

Mom and Dad, Rodney, Sandra, and Cassaundra — Without family, where would I be? Thanks for teaching me that “blood is thicker than the ICC baptism waters”,and for your patience with me during those tumultuous years.

Karens Sims — my closest and best friend and sister in the faith, thanks for standing by me when I didn’t have the strength to look up.

Art Barrett — thanks for your guidance, friendship, and supporting the REVEAL group through the giving of your time and prayers in helping the wounded find safer pastures to heal in.

Kimberly Grassi – Thanks for being a devoted and encouraging friend over the past few years and keeping hope alive that I would regain my freedom one day.

Shalon Goldsby — Your ability to take a painful situation and put it into a tasteful light of humor has brought much laughter in my life. Thanks!

Janja Lalich — Thanks for putting the little bug in my ear to start a support group and for offering your support and expertise in educating and helping to those who are affected by destructive cults.

Mardi Barrett, Martha Miller, Molly Malone, Monica Lamboy, Evie Valasquez, Eric Hammerling, Greg Lamboy, Sonia Avita and Alie Olsen, you are the best people to know on earth and thanks for walking beside me and helping me move beyond a dark period in my life.

Rick and Sara Bauer, Gary Winter, Art and Lyn Ryter, Terri and Karen Smith, Nikki Walker, Jessica Whitaker, Kim Cavendar, Catherine Hampton, I-Chun Lin, Joanne Ruhland, Carol Giambalvo, Dave Anderson, Leanne or “Anne-Lee” Holmer, Remy Clark, Tien Ngyuen, Chris Lee, Calen Thomas, Juan-Carlos Roca, and for those who have participated in the REVEAL support group, thanks for being so inspiring and for making yourselves available to help others heal.

To some old friends who have not been forgotten: Lisa Reynolds, Lynn Kling, Cynthia Mitchell, Chris and Joanne Frizzi, Collette Hana, Brooke Morgas, Troy Belt, Roderick Brooks, Michelle Hafer, Theresa King, Deborah Ferguson, Lynn Ryan, Linda Nickels, Matthew and Kimberlee Leber, Andrew Berlfein, Michelle Zika, Angie Gordon, Erika Gold, Thomas Standifur and Jeff Day— I learned a great deal from all you while I was a member in the ICC and your friendships made a difference in my life. One thing I have been constantly reminded of and sometimes offer as advice to those who are going through transition, is not to throw the baby out with the bath water. It would be a mistake and not fair for me to say that I didn’t learn anything good while I was a member. You all are a big reason as to why that will never be said by me. I believe there is a lot of good in all of you and glad to have been given the opportunity to know you. Thanks for offering me your hand of fellowship and friendship while I was a member. I hope one day that we will be reconciled and pray that you are truly experiencing the freedom that is yours in Christ.

With much regard and love for God and life in general,

Michelle

Introduction

It is our duty to share what we know if it has helped us to move beyond some darkness in life. We can talk it out or write it out, but we must get it to those in need. We can support someone and encourage someone else to take the healing steps or paths or ways. We should think about where would be if there were no books or people to guide us when we need it. Then, with an open heart and extended hand, we can pull someone else along.

                    — Iyanla Van Zant

And he sent them out…to heal.

                    — Luke 9:2

It has been three years since I left the San Francisco Church of Christ, which is an affiliate of the International Churches of Christ. I was involved with the group for five years and four months. Leaving the ICC was one of the most painful and hardest decisions to make in my life, but it was a good one. I have had the desire to share my story for awhile, but I needed to first come to a point to where I felt I had a sense of peace, clarity and the ability to open up and express my thoughts and feelings concerning the church. My reasons for putting my story in print came after a lot of prayer and thought. I felt it was time to answer to those whom I know in the ICC as to why I left. Although they are not allowed to speak to me personally, hopefully they will some day get the opportunity to read my story. In recent months, I also felt it became an issue of importance; because of my involvement in facilitating a local support group for former ICC members and setting up a web site, along with another former member, that serves as a resource of information about the ICC on the Internet.

Many times, I have been asked what made me leave? I find that my answer tends to overwhelm the curious listener. It was a culmination of experiences throughout the years. Partly, the manipulation; being caught in the middle of an “ends justify the means” system by which the group operates. (i.e., always hearing ” yeah, the church has it problems and people are imperfect, but the church is changing people’s live for the better”, as a defense when serious offenses were committed and when questioned about the abusive behavior that exist within the group.), the deceptive recruiting techniques, twisted teaching of the scriptures and the poor understanding that the leadership and most members have of God’s grace, are some of the reason’s why.

As a result, I have a deep concern for the spiritual and mental well-being of my friends and anyone else who is a current member of the group. My intention in sharing about my experience is not to indict the individual members within it because I believe most are sincere, but are caught up in an environment that is insidious and deceptive.

In attempts to shed some light as to why I joined and then left the ICC, I decided to focus on a few areas of my involvement with it; my recruitment, experiences while in leadership, periods of doubt, events that led to my departure and finally, the process I went through in attempting to reconcile and be “restored” back into the church. If you are a current member reading this I want to make it clear that my purpose in sharing my experience is not to convince you to leave the group. That is a decision I believe an individual needs to come to on their own. I put forth to you the challenge to examine what you have chosen to be apart of and look to see if the fruit is good or bad. My prayer is for you to have the courage to face the truth no matter where it will lead you.

I learned some important lessons while a member in the ICOC. As well, there were positive changes that took place in my life as a result of the discipline I learned through the group. I developed a discipline to study the scriptures and adhere to them as I walk with God. I was encouraged to have an attitude of excellence in whatever I was to be involved in. Mostly, I was taught to be loyal and to strive for peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness with whomever is around me and in my life. With the same devotion I was taught to have for those within the group, I hold onto in supporting and helping other’s with their decision in leaving it.

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Before the ICC

I am originally from the Bay Area; I was born in San Francisco and raised in San Jose. I am the youngest of three and the only girl. My religious background while growing up was in Roman Catholicism. However, I stopped attending church during my teenage years. At the age of twenty, at after much soul searching, I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior and experienced a lot of good changes in my life. I had always had a belief in God, but never satisfied with answers that organized religion offered as solutions for the problems that a person can face from time to time.

To me, Christs message of compassion and unconditional love, along with the truth he taught and the grace we attain because of his sacrifice on the cross, was what changed my mind and heart and was the basis for my decision to follow him.

My plans in 1990 were to move to Tennessee in order to finish my education and get a degree in music business. I had always had a passion for music and building a career in artist management. My father is a Jazz musician and I played Alto Sax, Basson, and Electric Bass over the course of 10yrs. It only seem fitting for me to pursue such a vocation.

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The Recruitment Period

Meeting “Rory”

In 1990, during my Junior year in college, I became a member of the San Francisco Church of Christ. I had just transferred to Cal State Hayward in January of the same year. A month after I started classes I met a girl named Julia. She was a graduate student. Julia approached me while I was outside the student union, studying for an upcoming mid-term. She came and sat down on a bench opposite from me and began to ask me what I was studying. Not wanting to appear rude I engaged in a small conversation with her. I found her to be very friendly and very interested in getting to know me. In the middle of the conversation, she asked me if I went to church anywhere. I told her I did and that I lived in San Jose and commuted to school. Ironically, she invited me to a church service being held in San Jose later that same week. She also told me about their campus club, Campus Advance (they have changed their name since that time to Club Upside Down). She also invited me to have lunch with her later on in the week. I took her up on it.

During the middle of lunch with Julia, a friend of hers shows up. her name is “Rory”, a pseudonym. Rory was very friendly and she had a great sense of humor. She was a senior at Cal State studying Art history. Julia and Rory came across very friendly and sincere. I was happy that I met them and I was looking forward to getting to know them better over time. At the end of lunch, we exchanged phone numbers and they promised to keep in touch with me over the quarter. I remember walking away from that meeting with them feeling like I had just made some new friends on campus.

Later I discovered that what I though was a casual meeting with Rory was actually planned. Julia had been given a challenge by her zone leader at the time that before she was to leave the campus ministry, she was to meet someone who would take her place as a future leader. Julia told me months after I became a member that the day we met each other was her last day of being a part of the campus ministry at Cal State.

I spoke to Rory very recently, she is no longer a member of the church, and she confirmed for me that I was passed off to her to be recruited.

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The Campus Retreat

After meeting them for lunch, I didn’t hear from anyone for a few weeks. I was told that the members from the Church of Christ were a bit overzealous in trying to get people to come to church, but that was not what had happened with me. No one called for the first three weeks, so I assumed what I had heard about the group was just a mere rumor.

However, just before the start of spring break, I had bumped into Rory on campus and she seemed a little shocked but excited to see me. She told me that she had prayed to run into me before the beginning of spring break because she had written down my phone number incorrectly and had no way of getting a hold of me. I of course asked her why she should pray such a thing and she replied that she wanted to invite me to attend a campus retreat that was being held at the Hilton Hotel in Concord. I was told that students from Stanford, Cal Berkeley, San Francisco State, and San Jose State were all going to be there. “It’s just a group of Christians getting together.” I figured since I had nothing really planned for my spring break that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to attend a retreat and meet other Christians. I accepted the invitation from Rory to attend.

Two days later I received a phone call from good friend of mine named Tonya. She was a friend from my old church. She had also been met by Rory and invited to the retreat. Tonya had almost been recruited by some members from the ICC about a year earlier on different campus. She called to tell me about her previous experience with them and to warn me that they will try to pressure me to join their church. I told her that I appreciated the call and that I would be careful to look for the things that she had pointed out, but I still intended to attend the retreat so I could form my own convictions and opinions about them. I didn’t want to base my opinion about the group on rumors. Besides, I had already committed to going and I didn’t want to go back on my word.

At that time in my life I was on a new campus and it was important for me to meet other Christians and to be encouraged in my walk with God. Even though I had come to believe in Christ in the fall of 1987, I felt that lack in knowledge of the scriptures and understanding of what God’s will was for my life. I felt a little disillusioned by the status quo I had witnessed within the Christian culture. For me to become a Christian in the first place was a step I thought I would never take. A few months before I was met by Julia I had prayed and was searching for two things: 1) People who really follow the Bible and 2) to find a new church.

It so happened at the same time an important family function was scheduled for the same weekend of the retreat and it had slipped my mind. After my mother reminded me of it, I felt that I should cancel going to the retreat and attend the function. I called Rory to let her know that I would not be able to come to the retreat after all. She was quite persistent and asked if I could at least attend for one day. After going around in circles with her, I saw that there was no backing out this easily so I compromised and attended the retreat for one day.

I decided to attend the second session of the retreat. Rory asked for me to meet in the Hotel lobby at 8:00am. I drove from San Jose to Concord and thought to myself on the entire trip up there that I must be crazy for getting up so early on a Saturday morning and getting to Concord by 8:00am. It’s an hour and a half drive one way. Unaware of the fact that when I got there, Rory was not. She had flown out of town the night before on a family emergency. Instead I was greeted by a friend of hers named Laura. She explained the situation to me concerning Rory and apologized that no one called to let me know. I contemplated leaving at that point, but I had just spent an hour and half on the road and I felt I had traveled too far just to turn back around and leave. So I stayed.

I was introduced to whole bunch of people at the retreat and all of them were friendly. The speeches that were given by the women campus leaders were moving and thought provoking. I was impressed by their honesty and felt very moved. After the messages were given we broke into small groups of about 10-15 women and everyone was to discuss what “convictions” they had gained from the messages and what they were going to do to “repent”. I personally felt uncomfortable in having to participate in such a forum since it was my first time being exposed to the group. When it came time for me to speak, the first thing I said was, “I’ve heard a lot of bad things about this church, but I am impressed by all the love I have seen displayed today and I’m glad that I came.”

On that day, I met Pam Skinner for the first time. She was one of the campus zone leaders of the church and the leader of the discussion group. The group broke for lunch and Pam approached me and asked me if I wouldn’t mind spending the lunch hour talking. In our conversation she asked a bunch of questions about my past, my spiritual beliefs and what I was doing presently in my life. I answered most of her questions without revealing too much about who I was, but now I realize it was enough for her to work with. At the close of our conversation, she asked if I would be interested in studying the Bible with her. I agreed, I figured it wasn’t too crazy of request and the Bible was harmless thing to study. I felt I could handle it and welcomed the opportunity to learn more about it. I didn’t feel at the time, I was being recruited to join another church. Before I left the retreat, Laura extended an invitation to me to join them for church service the next say. I declined and attended my church instead.

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“Studying the Bible”

Within the next week, I received a call from Pam inviting me up to Hayward to have dinner at her place and to study the Bible one on one. However, when I arrived there were two other members from the church as well. I notice that the one to one Bible study was actually 3 on 1. I felt a little uncomfortable talking about spiritual issues with two other strangers in the room. Although they were friends of Pam’s I still didn’t feel comfortable. This was my first time meeting with them and I felt I had to connect with them on the spot. there was no time to build trust in these relationships.

As the weeks went by Pam and I kept in contact more and more. I felt we were becoming good friends. I was impressed she would drive all the way down from Hayward to San Jose (which is a 45 minute commute each way), just to study the Bible with me. I felt she was genuinely concerned about my spiritual life and wanted to see me do my best in following God.

I tried my best to approach the studies with skepticism. I remember asking a lot of questions concerning the church and revealing to Pam that I already heard some negative things about them. Her response was that I need to decide if I am going to listen to people of God’s word (the Bible). I needed to base my thoughts and feelings about the church on what the Bible says, make it my standard, because it is black and white. I was not to go by people’s opinions.

She even encouraged me to review the notes from each Bible study we had in order for me the “build my own convictions” and not to even go by what she says. What I realize now is that I was led and paced towards the right response for predetermined conclusions about the scriptures the movement uses. I was led to believe I was making these “awesome” strides in learning more about the Scriptures and God’s will for my life.

Because of my previous religious background, I began to be labeled by Pam and Rory as being “religious” – this label is put on anyone who has somewhat of a religious background before they join the group. I never considered myself as religious and still don’t. I began to get the feeling that the term was negative and that they viewed me as not being a Christian.

There were times when Pam and I came to an impasse in some of the studies because I would not agree with her point of view on some issues. Such as one can lose their salvation, a person needs to be baptized in order to be saved; belief was not enough, and a person needs to be baptized into her church or they are not a “true Christian” and are lost.

She would never answer me directly when I would ask her if she felt I was going to hell. I was always met with the response that is not her place to tell me whether or not I was going to hell, she was just stating what the Scriptures say and I just need to go by what the Bible says.

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Discipleship

The first time she tried to get me to admit that I was not a Christian is when we studied discipleship. At the end of this particular study one is asked a series of questions in order to disqualify you for salvation. I was asked based on the study was I a Christian? Was I a disciple? Was I saved? I said yes to all and so she approached the issue again by asking me have I done all the things Jesus says a disciple should do? “No, not all,” was my response, “but I feel I have done some of the things he says to do.” She didn’t push it any further and asked me to look over the Scriptures again on my own time and tell her what I think in a few days.

Looking back on the that time, Pam knew not to push me too hard or I would have walked away for good. At the end of each study, the question on my salvation would come up. My response was the same until we studied out the difference between light and darkness. Tied in with this study was a long, emotional soul bearing session led by Pam confessing her deepest and darkest deeds of her past. “Rory” also shared with me her past. I was quite surprised and a little shocked by some of the things confessed to me, but I appreciated their openness.

I was then asked if there was anything I would like to share about my past. I was a little nervous, but I felt since they had just opened up to me that there would be no harm in me revealing the deeds of my past. At the end of the study they asked me to write down all the things I had just told them and to study out the account of Jesus being arrested and crucified and that we would talk about it in a few days.

We got together again a few days later and read the account of Jesus going to the cross out of the book of Matthew. Pam also read to me a medical account of what happened to Jesus physically during his beating and crucifixion. It was a graphic account and I felt very sobered after listening to it. Finally Pam asked me to look at my sin list and began to tell that all those sins I had committed, Jesus became them while he hung on the cross. I felt tremendously guilty and sad and felt awful inside.

Near the end of the study series, I was introduced to Karen Townsend, who was the women’s ministry leader of the church. She was also Pam’s discipler. Karen again reinforced the same things Pam was trying to get across to me. In the sin study Pam began to tell me that I had so much religious pride that it was going to cost me my salvation. I told her that I didn’t see the pride that she was talking about and I thought she was trying to get another recruit for the church. Karen, then began to tell me that it was evident that I loved God, but that I only understood part of his plan for my life. She encouraged me to “stay in the word” and keep an “open heart“.

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“Counting the Cost”

For the next two months, I attended Bible talks and some other events the group held. I finally decided to attend a Sunday service which was on Mother’s day. I was deeply impressed by the enthusiasm I saw in the members and the message preached that day was on sacrifice and giving to others. After the service a member in the campus group came up to me and asked me when I was going to become her “sister in Christ??” I was taken aback by the question and Pam noticed. She quickly intervened and told her that I was still building my convictions about my relationship with God.

Within that same week Frank Kim, an Evangelist in the movement, came into town and preached a passionate message about how it only takes one person to make a difference in God’s Kingdom. He used the story of David and Goliath and illustrated how David went against all the odds and stood up for what was right because he loved God. He finished his message by stating that the walls in your heart need to come down and one needs to drop their pride and follow God the way Jesus intended for us to follow him.

I don’t know what happened to me during the message but I finally gave in and turned to Pam and told her that I wanted to become a “True Christian.” That night we stayed up to 2:00am studying the Bible and counting the cost — which is a series of questions posed to an individual in order to determine if they are ready accept the church’s doctrine and eligible to be baptized.

After all that was said and done I was convinced by those who had studied with me that I was lost, my first baptism was invalid because I wasn’t baptized as a “disciple” and because of my “pride” in being reluctant to accept their version of the gospel, I was going hell. All in all took me three months before I officially joined. I was baptized on May 18th, 1990, the same day as Pam’s birthday.

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The Path to Spiritual Leadership?

Two weeks after I joined the church, I got the chicken pox for the second time in my life. This of course meant that I could not attend church services for a few weeks. I remember Pam and other members calling me every day to see how I was doing. I made sure to use my time “wisely” and called all my old friends to tell about the recent changes in my life and to ask them to study the Bible. A friend from work took me up on the offer.

Pam was excited and praised me for being aggressive and not allowing my illness to slow me down and be ineffective. For the next few weeks, Pam continued to bring my name up in the messages and used me as an example that the women should follow. After we did the first study with my friend, she was no longer interested in going any further.

About a month later, I received a call from Pam inquiring about my plans for the summer. I told her that I had already signed up for classes for the summer quarter at Cal State. Hesitantly, she turned the conversation onto another topic and then we hung up. A half hour later she called back and asked me how serious I was about attending the summer quarter. I mentioned to her that I was placed on academic probation at the end of the spring quarter because I had spent more time studying with her and has less time for homework and I also got the chicken pox right at the end of the quarter so some of my grades went down.

Finally, she told me that she and her husband, Rob Skinner, were asked to lead the San Jose campus ministry and she thought it would be a good opportunity for me to be trained by her to become a Bible talk leader and since I lived in San Jose, I could spend more time reaching out to my non-Christian friends. I felt honored and agreed to stay in San Jose for the summer. Within the first three months I converted a friend from work into the church and I was raised up to be a Bible Talk leader.

There were a few things that concerned me about being in leadership:

  1. Qualification
  2. Amount of control exerted on a member
  3. manipulating situations for a non-member to conform

As I mentioned before, I was appointed a Bible talk leader only after three months of being a member. This happened because, back then, in order to be considered for leadership, one had to be “personally fruitful” — that is, you had to have met a person, take them through the entire study series and baptized them. At the time I was put in leadership, I didn’t feel I had the biblical knowledge or the emotional maturity to lead others on a spiritual level. I was a new convert. I received constant praise from those around me about “What an awesome sister I was” and “How God has great plans for me” and that my conversion was a victory for God and it built other’s faith that even those who are a part of other churches can be converted.

Looking back on these statements, I see they had appealed to my ego, not my heart. I was enticed by flattery. I soaked it up and began to feel an underlying sense of pride and arrogance.

I served in different capacities of leadership within the next three years, from Bible Talk leader to assistant house church leader, and was responsible for leading a household. I was assigned on many occasions “get in there” with a particular “hard-hearted” sister in order to persuade them to change their behavior or attitude. I remember on one occasion, I was told by my zone leader that I needed to be hard on one woman in particular who was not being “obedient” and “teachable.” I personally felt that it was the last thing that the woman needed — if anything, she needed to be greatly encouraged, but my discipler disagreed and told me I am not to be “sentimental” but “hard-lined” in my discipling times with this woman. Sometimes I was on the receiving end of such direction.

Being in leadership was no party. The pressure to perform and produce to their standards was intense. On some occasions while I was a leader in the campus ministry, Rob Skinner would tell us in our leaders meeting how God was sick with our lives because we didn’t push the members in our Bible Talk to bring enough visitors for Sunday service or there weren’t enough studies happening with “non-Christians”. I used to ask myself, how did Rob know if God was sick with my life or not? We were constantly being discipled by Rob and Pam through the messages they would give on Wednesday or Sunday. It was an indirect way of conveying a message to us leaders that they were either happy or disappointed with us. Sometimes Pam would let me know that she was going to share about a mistake I might have made in the week concerning my ministry and use it as an example how not to do something. I felt publicly humiliated on different occasions.

I found that being in leadership I became another person’s mouth piece and puppet. Many times I would be instructed on what to say and how to say it when I would have to talk to one of the women in the Bible Talk. We were always receiving direction on how to motivate our people. Meet with them daily, find out how their QT’s were, pray daily with them and give them specific direction on how they could meet new people. Find out what sins they were struggling with and find scriptures in the Bibles to “convict” them. Many times I was directed to “become a person’s best friend” and to get to know as much about them.

In the leader’s meetings we would be asked to share information we had on a person so that the Evangelist or zone leader could make sure to preach on it in the sermon in a any given week. The person being recruited never knew that they were the topic of discussion in the meetings. One tool that was used to track a potential members progress with the study series was the use of a conversion calendar. On it would list all the studies the person has done, who the members were who were in the studies, the activities the person had participated in with you such as QT together, evangelize, relationship times (watching TV, having dinner and lunch together), how often they attend church, Bible talk. This chart was presented to the group for open discussion in order to gain ideas on how to move the person through the study series as fast as possible. These charts would be used to determine who would be put on a list to be baptized within seven to fourteen days or by the end of the month.

Very rarely was God or Jesus mentioned as the one who ultimately move a person’s heart. One thing out of many things that grieve me most about this group is the blatant lie told by the leadership that confidentiality is taught and encouraged. The intimate things told to the leadership about the person are shared throughout the group. On the outside a non-member is paced and lead to believe that God himself is speaking to their heart when they hear messages preached on the very thing they are struggling with or have done in the past. After awhile, I began to realize that there was always an ulterior motive behind why I would get to know a person. It wasn’t because I wanted to but because I had to in order to convert them into the group. Everyone outside the group was a potential convert and we were told we needed to make every effort to convert them.

There were times I was taken out of leadership for not being obedient and submissive and at times not performing to their standards. It was then I would be labeled as being spiritually weak or judged and told that I was struggling with some sin. I felt a lot of shame and felt like I had failed in not living up to expectation. For a person to be taken out of leadership was looked on as being something adverse and negative to the group. I began to view God as a disciplinarian figure who was just waiting for me to mess up so he could criticize or punish me.

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Periods of Doubt

My first few months in the group were fine — it was like visiting Disneyland, running around in the magic kingdom every day. I found myself neglecting all other things that were important to me, i.e. my job, my education, and my personal desires and dreams for the future.

However, I had begun to lose contact with some old friends. I had passed up a job promotion because it would have required for me to work on Sundays. I was told by my discipler that I needed to “seek first the Kingdom” and not allow any job to get in the way of me doing so. I eventually lost my job of six years. By the sixth month of being a member in the church I was academically disqualified from school. I felt overloaded with my responsibilities to the church.

After my first year as a member, I was tired and burned out. Financially I was in ruins and it got worse and worse year after year. I was exhausted emotionally and physically; my health was not up to par. I remember being easily susceptible to catching cold or flu at the drop of a dime. I had moved 7 different times within the 4 years that I was a member and I had gone through 5 different jobs as well. On the average, I got 4 1/2 hours of sleep each night for the entire time I was a member. For the most of my membership in the church, I lived with 4 or 5 roommates (who were also members) at a time and rarely had moments of privacy. I began to wonder if my life was really improving or was I just being disciplined by God as some in the group has told me. I felt my joy and sense of self-esteem were eroding away the longer I stayed in the group.

In the summer of 1993, my best friend in the church decided to leave. I was told that she was not being “open” about some sin and that she allowed a bitter root grow in her heart. For the first time in three years, I no longer bought into their negative propaganda against people who leave. This was my friend who I loved and cared about and knew pretty well. I figured there had to be more to it. I did my best to stay in touch with her because I was genuinely concerned about her. One night we had a conversation over the phone and she began to ask me questions about my personality — Did I feel it had changed since joining the church? Did I feel like myself anymore? And the clincher — had I grown as a person? Had I accomplished what I desired and dreamed of doing with my life?

It didn’t take long for me to answer the last question, the answer was “No.” I had believed for so long that by becoming a member of the church, my life had changed for the better spiritually and personally, a claim most, if not all, in the church will make. But I began to ask myself at what cost did these changes come about and who really got the credit? Man or God? How far did I need to go in order prove my loyalty to God and the church. Who did I hurt personally for my so called personal and “spiritual” advancements as a church member?

Granted, there were some good things I felt I had learned over the course of time, but I had come to realize that I learned a very scripted way of how to speak to people inside and outside of the organization. I was taught to behave in a way that began to violate my conscience. I realized that I was doing things for the group, not out of a pure devotion to God, but out of a unhealthy fear of punishment if I didn’t. If I went a day without reading the Bible or praying I began to feel something was wrong with me and that God was not pleased. As these feelings and questions began to rise to the surface more, I began to step back and observe the behavior and attitude of the environment I was in.

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My Doubts Increase

Near the end of the summer in 1993 I was having serious doubts about my involvement with the church. I had led a Bible talk that summer and was faced with many problems within the household I had lived in. There was much disunity and I was tired and burned out.

I began to express my struggles to my discipleship partner and I stepped out of leadership and almost out of the church entirely. I began to get a lot of attention from the leaders encouraging me to hang in there and I was encouraged to make some changes in my life, such as moving into a different household and aligning myself with “stronger” Christians. One of my best friends, who was a member in the Chicago Church of Christ, even flew out to spend a few days with me in order to encourage me.

Also, during that time, ABC’s 20/20 news program had aired a piece on the church and we were told to write to the producers of the show to tell them how great our lives were because of being members in the church. I refused to write because I felt if we, the church, really possessed the “truth” then why do we need to partake in a writing campaign defending who we are? I thought that by the fruit of how we live would be evidence enough to show people that we were sincere, harmless and right in purpose.

I was advised at the time not to view the show at the time of its airing and I didn’t. I was told that I needed to focus on getting spiritually stronger and watching a negative report on the church would only hinder me.

A day or two after the airing of the show, the evangelist of the Oakland Region critiqued the show for us and gave his own personal feedback concerning it. I was alarmed by his comment concerning one woman’s account of her husband committing suicide because he had lost all hope of going to heaven after leaving the church. His rebuttal to her account was, ” her husband had the response of Judas Iscariot. He had a ‘worldly sorrow’ about sin in his life.” I thought, “How incredibly insensitive can one be towards such an awful situation?”

Also, around the same time, a woman who had once been a part of the church and had left about eight months earlier, died in a horrible freak car accident. We all were shocked by the news that her life had ended, but some who knew her well made the comment, “she had her opportunity to be right with God and she decided to turn away and sometimes death is the consequence.” After hearing this, I seriously began to question my involvement with the church, but fear of such a consequence happening kept me in a little longer.

By the end of the summer of ’93, I ended up moving in with a couple named Chris and Joann who were my zone leaders in Castro Valley. I felt indebted to them for taking me under their wings and helping me to get back on my feet and to regain some perspective. Joann and I became good friends and she was someone I really respected in the church and was a positive influence in my life back then.

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Point of Departure

Moving in with “Laura”

My last eight months as an active member in the church were the most demoralizing and painful to experience. It is a little difficult to discuss to this day, but with much thought and prayer to the matter, I chose to share this part of my story with the reader in order to reveal the depth of the manipulation practiced by the leadership and the strong influence an abusive environment can have on anyone who in character and nature is harmless, but by association become abusive themselves. Keeping in mind the personal nature of the content and for respecting the privacy of the person that was involved, I have opted to use a pseudonym in place of their real name. My intention is not to indict the individual, for like I was, her commitment to the church is sincere, but is a victim in an abusive environment and under the influence of manipulative people.

I stayed with Chris and Joann for a few weeks near the end of the summer and I eventually moved into Oakland after I had become friends with a woman named “Laura” (a pseudonym), who was a new member in the church at that time. We had met a few months earlier at an outdoor church service. After we first met we just got to know each other better over time. Since I had just got out from underneath a bad living environment before I moved in with the Frizzi’s, I was very gun-shy in wanting to live with anyone. I wanted and desired to live alone.

I was, of course, caught in a double-bind situation. On one hand, I was told I have the freedom to do what I wanted and if I felt living alone is what I wanted to do then that was fine, but I would be much better off living with other disciples and there would be less opportunity for Satan to gain a foothold and for me to become selfish. Laura had expressed that she would like to have a roommate and had offered for me to move in temporarily until I could find my own place. After getting the approval from my discipleship partner and reluctantly from Laura’s discipleship partner I moved in.

Laura’s discipleship partner, Carol, was reluctant to approve of us becoming roommates. The reason she stated was that I wasn’t doing well spiritually and she was concerned what kind of impact that would have on Laura. I felt a little humiliated by the objection given. My discipleship partner, Joann, thought otherwise and after discussing the matter with Carol, I was allowed to move to Oakland and in with Laura.

After making the move, things seemed to be settling a little bit better for me in regards to the church and the issues and doubts I had raised seemed to had diminished. At the time, I attributed it to the transition of leaving one area and moving into another. Change of scenery is good, sometimes.

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Focus Entertainment Management

Laura and I discovered a lot about each other in regards to having similar interest and taste in music. She was a professional singer/songwriter and had been performing for most of her life before she joined the church. After listening to her demo tape, I was impressed by her vocal ability and we began to discuss working together in shopping the demo tape around to different record companies.

A month after her baptism Laura was asked by the sector leader to be a part of the song leader’s team for the church. She seemed very eager and enthusiastic taking on such a responsibility and definitely enriched the talent already present on the team. After much discussion we decided to work together. I became her personal manager and she was my first client, so to speak. We founded an entertainment management company entitled Focus Entertainment Management.

The main reason why we picked the name Focus was that because our “focus”, as disciples of the church, was to seek and save the lost in the world. The initial plan was to use this company as a means to reach out and recruit other musicians and vocalists in the Bay Area to join the church. We also thought that eventually an arts and entertainment ministry could be formed from it for the church in San Francisco. Before I could apply for the business license, I had to get advice and show my business plan to the leaders for their approval. To my surprise, there were no objections, at first. So we went ahead with our plans.

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Pressure on the Relationship

Shortly after we had started the company, Laura was advised by the sector leader not to sing professionally for six months and to focus on her relationship with God. I at first did not agree with this advice and was not supportive. I felt it wasn’t good for business to have to cancel upcoming gigs and it would hurt our reputation within the music community of the Bay Area. Also, during that time, I had shopped her demo tape around to a few people in the business. An entertainment lawyer who had listened to the tape became very interested in wanting to back Laura financially and wanted to introduce her to some well known producers in the industry.

I went to the sector leader with this information, for by this time she was discipling Laura, and she advised me not to tell her what had developed concerning her music. I was not to encourage her in any way to think about her music and singing professionally for the next few months.

I felt awkward and pulled in two directions. One — I had a responsibility to Laura as her manager to communicate what I had been working on, but on the other hand, I was told that I needed to obey God’s direction and heed the advice given. I found it difficult to explain to those on the outside why we had to turn down offers for Laura to perform.

On a personal level, Laura and I began to experience what I thought were adjustment pains of being new roommates. I began to receive criticism from her for many things I thought to be pet peeves. One example, not making sure that the tassels on the rug in the living room were aligned in a perfectly straight order. I had no objection to making sure that they were, but I disliked the feeling of being chastised if they weren’t. Quickly, the criticism turned more personal in nature, like not taking vitamins daily, drinking coffee, and not wearing house slippers around the apartment, etc. I began to receive criticism about my attitude, my behavior, my appearance and so on. She began to criticize me for not being a leader, labeled me as being weak, passive and prideful, as not being conducive to her spiritual mobility and deceived about my spiritual growth in the church. It felt like I had a cymbal clanging next to my ear.

Doubts began to plaque me inside about who I was and I started to disassociate from everything around me. I felt I had walked into the trap of trying to gain her approval at every turn. Yet, she was not my discipleship partner. I began to feel increasingly insecure. I guess on a subconscious level, I was aware of it and was trying to assess it. In a journal entry I wrote:

I think harsh criticism is the most damaging and joy stealing above anything else. I think Laura my roommate is most critical of me. It’s almost smothering if I let it get to me. Lately, I have learned that I just need to take this to God in prayer because he is in control of every situation in my life and the people who are in it.

                    — Journal Entry, December 1993

Over the months I dismissed Laura’s behavior as just being a young Christian who needed to grow in compassion and understanding. She had only known me for a short while when this took place and I thought she was being incredibly presumptuous and intrusive. By observation, I saw that Laura was having a hard time adjusting to some of the mandates of the church and I began to discuss some of the things that were being said to me with my discipleship partner and Laura’s discipleship partner. I was constantly met with a pat answer, that I needed to be patient and to be understanding, in spite of her shortcomings. The pressure and strain in our friendship got worse as time progressed.

We had also put together a band that was made up of “non-Christians” and began to hold rehearsals as the six month restriction was coming to an end. I was directed by the leaders that I was to be at all the rehearsals for it would not be “spiritually healthy” for Laura to be alone with non-Christian men. These were friends of ours that we’d known for years.

In the spring of ’94, we had signed a three month contract with a local restaurant for the band to perform on Sunday afternoons. As for the guys in the band, we put forth many restriction in order to control their behavior. They couldn’t drink, smoke, and swear around us and they had to pray with Laura before the start of any performance. They complied with all the demands made on them. The pressure to appear that Laura and I were unified to the band was intense and I felt deceptive in doing so. There was no room or freedom for us to show those on the outside otherwise. It would have painted a negative impression in people’s minds.

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The Straw That Broke the Camels Back

The day of my birthday, I was surprised by Laura’s behavior. She had made a concentrated effort to plan a series of events to take place that day and was surprisingly nice to me. Deep down I thought it was only because it was my birthday because, by this time, I felt she really didn’t care much for me as a person.

However, two days later, what I had felt wasn’t too far off. Again I received some misdirected anger from her over a situation that took place on my birthday. A friend had come to our place on that day to join the party that was being held for me. He wanted to change his clothes, yet he didn’t bring a change of clothes with him. She offered to let him wear a pair of her jeans, shirt and shoes. He took her up on it. Somehow another member who was also at the party found out and told Laura’s discipleship partner. This was obviously a big deal to someone in the group.

Two days later, Laura had planned to go out on a date with this same friend, and got a call from her discipleship partner ordering her to cancel the date because she was concerned about the intimacy of their relationship. The discipleship partner of the brother involved expressed to me that the brother was being rebellious and if he were a “fall away” it wouldn’t matter — he wasn’t a leader — but if Laura was to leave the church it would be a big loss.

I thought to myself, how can he say such a thing with a good conscience? With what authority did he have the right to think one person’s salvation doesn’t matter and the other’s does? I began to think that Laura was being favored by the leadership for two reasons — she was a potential candidate for leadership and serves as a good marketing/PR tool to bring others in.

After she met with her discipleship partner and other leaders, they convinced her that she had acted “independently” and those who she had been hanging around with had influenced her to be that way. For this reason, she started to blame me for leading her astray spiritually. The verbal badgering by her got worse until I finally blew and a huge argument broke out between us. I was fed up. That evening I couldn’t sleep because I was so angry and my mind was racing with all kinds of thoughts of leaving the church. I called a friend at 2:00am crying because I didn’t like the anger I felt and I didn’t want to sin against God. I told her that I was hanging on a thread in remaining in the church and that I felt torn down.

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Shutting Down and Moving Out

Later in that week, the women’s ministry leader of the Oakland region met with Laura and me and advised us to put the business on hold. She told me to step away from responsibilities with managing Laura and the band and if I didn’t then she would advise Laura not to work with me. I was to put my business on hold and focus on strengthening my relationship with God.

A few days later, it was decided by the leaders that I needed to move out of the apartment. I got angry that such a decision was made without ever consulting me on it. I had no job and no money to move into a new place, plus I had already paid my rent for that month. I was told I would be moved within three days into another apartment with another member. In the interim, between moving and finding permanent residence, I stayed with the house church leader and her roommates for a few weeks. The weeks following my move were the most intense and confusing emotionally.

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The Rumors Fly

Within the next month after I moved out many implications began to be brought to my attention that Laura and I had a “unnatural relationship” with each other. There were many implications coming my way that Laura and I had the dynamics of a lesbian relationship. On several occasions a Scripture in Romans chapter one was read to me on how women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. I felt angry and frustrated because I was being labeled unjustly.

One day a friend came to me with the same concern and said she had noticed the kind of anger and bitterness Laura had displayed towards me was that of a man and woman relationship and that I needed to make sure Laura would not fall back into her old sin and that I was not above falling into the sin of homosexuality. I was alarmed and became very paranoid that my every move was being watched.

Laura and I finally were given advice not to speak to each other except on Sundays and Wednesdays during the fellowship breaks at service. It came to the point that we could not even socialize with the same circle of friends. We were to be completely separated. I was being labeled as the one with the “bad heart” and Laura was just a “baby Christian” who didn’t know better. I was made to feel that I was to blame for why our friendship was failing. Laura on the other hand began to receive a lot of attention from the leaders and given more and more responsibilities in the church.

Rumors began to run amuck and I was incredibly unhappy and began to contemplate leaving the church, but I was afraid of the consequences and began to pray for clarity on what was happening to me. It seemed though the more I prayed the worse it got. I began to discuss some of the things that were being said to me with my discipleship partner. I was frustrated and I felt like the more I spoke up about things, the more I was getting discipled about my attitude and heart. I knew deep down that there was a serious problem that needed to be addressed and it wasn’t.

Within the same time frame, Laura’s new roommate, Amanda, comes by the place I was living to talk to me. She wanted to reassure me that she was my friend regardless of her and Laura being roommates and that she was tired of hearing rumors about me being obsessed with Laura. What???? is what I shouted in my mind. Who was spreading such a rumor? I thought. I thanked Amanda for her concern and her loyalty. Although her intentions, I believe, were sincere and good, it was after that conversation my doubts about the environment I was in grew much stronger.

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Combatting Cult Mind Control

About a day or two after Amanda had stopped by, I was baby sitting for the couple I was living with (who were also members of the church). I noticed that they had a copy of a book entitled Combatting Cult Mind Control on the bookshelf out in the living room. I decided to browse through it.

What I read in the book was alarming, and I began to notice patterns in my behavior that the author discussed in the book. I also was able to identify the same patterns in my friends behavior and the group as a whole. In retrospect, I realized that, the moment I decided to withdraw from the church emotionally and mentally, I began to regain my critical thinking skills. One reason I think why Laura and I had the tension between us is because, at the time I was shaking the cult mindset, she was in the beginning stages of adopting it, and adopt it she did.

I decided to take the next day and pray about what I had read and what I was feeling. It was one of the many intense days facing me. At the end of the day, I went to the roof-top of the apartment and prayed for a few hours more and finally decided to leave the church. In my heart, I felt if I had to take the verbal bullying, the implications of being a lesbian from the leadership, and the alienation I felt from my friends within the church because of such implications, I would sooner or later be completely destroyed emotionally, and it was time for me to leave in order to protect myself and gain clarity on the entire ordeal.

I decided to talk to some friends within the church to get a sense of how they were feeling about the church and did they have any doubts as well. One person in particular who was new to the group expressed that she was not happy and didn’t like the person the leadership was trying to turn her into. After I spoke with her at great lengths, she decided to leave the church as well. I also began to talk to some people who were studying to become members and told them what to expect if they were to become members. They too decided not to join the church and were happy that I came forward with my concerns.

Finally, I contacted Laura’s family and I was asked to talk to some of Laura’s old friends in order to help figure out a way to talk with her and convince her to at least take a step back and research the background of the church. I attempted to talk to her, but to no avail. She began to drill me with questions concerning my beliefs and convictions about the church and the Bible. She said that she needed some space and time to think about talking to me alone.

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Marked

A few days later, I get a message passed onto me that the women’s ministry leader wanted to talk to me. I pretty much knew what she was going to say. When I finally decided to call her back, she informed me that they had decided to “mark” me — in other words, they instructed the members to shun me if I ever attempted to talk to them. They made an announcement that I had been disfellowshipped and “marked.”

However, by this time I had already decided and left the church a few weeks prior. It felt like I was fired after quitting a job. Over the next few weeks, it was obvious to all of us that the leaders began to insulate Laura all the more from her family and friends. It was scary to all of us to see this happening.

I began to make plans for moving out of the household I was living in. I really had no place to go and I relied on the hospitality of some old friends and acquaintances. Finally, Laura’s mother extended an offer for me to stay at her house for a few weeks until I could find something permanent. Her mother also had made a few phone calls and gave me a name of a minister who was familiar with the church and had spent some time counseling some former members who had recently left the church.

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After Leaving

Trying to Talk With Laura

At the time, I was very leery of people in general and didn’t know who I could trust, but I wanted some answers to some very troubling questions, so I decided to give him a call. Within the first five minutes of the conversation I began to cry because he had described to me what I had already suspected about the church. They do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. God and Christ are not the source of identity, power or salvation — they have been put aside and replaced with man-made works-based, not grace-based, system. The system I had lived in for so many years was corrupt and abusive. I didn’t want to believe it deep down.

There came a time that we did attempt to talk to Laura by luring her away from church members for a few hours one evening, it was duplicious in the manner that we did so, and our attempts in getting any information through to her failed for she refused to listen to anyone and an argument broke out. We were all surprised and a little taken aback by her initial response towards us. It was that of fear. We ended up chasing after her and picking her up and carrying her back up to the house. Unfortunately, we traumatized her all the more. It was never my intention or anyone else’s to physically restrain or emotionally hurt her. [Let it be duly noted that this was not the proper way for us to have handled this situation and in retrospect it only made matters worse and pushed her further into the group.]

As if things couldn’t have gotten any worse, the local Sheriff’s Deputies arrived and took her back home after speaking to us about what all the commotion was over. Her mother made a desperate plea for her to listen and was even willing to be arrested just to prove to her daughter that her concern for her was real and that she loved her. It amazed me in how in a matter of days, the church leadership had gotten to her and turn her against her family and friends who were not apart of the group.

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Trying to Be “Restored”

Within the next week, I flew to Texas to spend time with my cousin and to relax and tried to gain some clarity as to what had happened. About a month after I had left the church, I began to doubt that I had made the right decision in leaving. I began to contemplate returning to it. I was in a lot of pain and I felt very alone. I tried to talk to some friends from church back home.

Some of their responses knocked me down even further. Some said that they had nothing to say to me and that I just needed to repent. Some said that they couldn’t speak to me and that I needed to talk to the leaders. I thought to myself that they had been influenced deeply and it made me wonder how people who pledge their devotion and love over the years and in matter of weeks be so cold?

I contacted the women’s ministry leader in Oakland and she told me that the only way I could be restored back into the church was if I was to come back to the Bay Area, and that I would have to return to Oakland because it was the sector I was a member in. I couldn’t go to another sector or church within the movement to be restored.

Now for all practical reasons, there was no reason for me to return to California. My immediate family no longer lived there. I had no job lined up, and no place to live if I were to return. But wanting to make things right, I agreed and headed back to the Bay Area with only three hundred dollars to my name.

When I returned, this same leader had told me to take a few weeks and think about what I had done and do my best to come to terms of peace. She also advised me not to talk to any members in the church; that God wanted me to be alone. I did as she said and spent a lot of time alone thinking. In the meantime, I began to put my life back together. I found a room to rent and began to work temp jobs until I found a permanent job with a software development firm.

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Suicidal, Talking With Julia

About every two to three weeks, we would talk over the phone in order for her to assess where I was at and if I was broken according to the church’s standards. Each time she would tell me that she felt I wasn’t broken yet and for me to go back over some issues and she would give me Scriptures to study. I continued to have daily quiet times and prayed for God to help me come to a point of brokenness. What I found happening to me, though, was that I became more and more depressed, and began to have thoughts of suicide for the first time in my life. I had it all planned out in my mind of how I was going to end my life. I was numb and all I wanted in life, at that point, was not to have to wake up from my sleep.

I decided to get help, but I did not call the leaders. Instead, I called the woman who met me in the first place, Julia. By this time Julia had graduated and was working as a therapist. I called her and told her over the phone my thoughts of suicide and that “technically” I was not supposed to be speaking to her in the first place. She said she didn’t care about the rules and for me to meet and talk to her.

We met for a little over three hours and I told her the entire story as to what happened and why I finally decided to leave. She interjected some things for me to think about but she also questioned the motives of the leaders and my former roommate. From her point of view, she felt I had been manipulated and verbally abused by Laura and that she was a manipulator and that the leadership was blind to it. She raised a question as to why after four years of being a member, I am all of a sudden a lesbian when I had no previous experiences or desire to be. She pointed out that the women’s ministry leader involved in the situation was not the best person to handle this because it seems she tended to favor Laura. After our conversation, I felt relieved that all the things I had speculated on were confirmed. I was not crazy for thinking those things, someone else also saw them.

My feelings were validated for the first time by someone on the inside. Julia wanted to help me and she told me it was up to me if I wanted to tell the leader about our meeting and that legally, she cannot tell her the content of our conversations. I decided to tell go ahead and tell her. I wanted to do my best to remain obedient to the advice given about not speaking to members, so I thought it was best to tell her. She was not pleased and began to rebuke me for going against advice and by me talking to Julia it just showed how rebellious my heart was. I tried to explain to her that I was depressed and I knew that she could not help me work through my feelings of suicide and that I trusted Julia. She replied that she would have to get advice on how to proceeded with me from that point on.

A few days later I got a call from her telling that if continued to meet with Julia they would not help me any further in being restored. I needed to go to someone in the “world” to get help. At the same time Julia received a phone call from her sector leader advising her to honor the edict given by the leadership and that she is a “Disciple” first before she is a therapist.

Julia obeyed. I was hurt and thought to myself that they were leaving me for dead.

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Christmas and the New Year

A month later Yolanda and another woman named Joann met with me to see how I was doing. This was a few weeks before Christmas. We met for breakfast and Yolanda started off the conversation by stating that this was just a meeting to see how I was doing, not a meeting to talk about me getting restored. I thought was it necessary to have a disclaimer before talking me as though I had some unspoken expectation of something else? I was just happy to see them since I had been isolated for the past four months.

Christmas came and went. I chose not to celebrate the occasion because deep down, I wasn’t sure if I believed in Jesus or not by this time. I remember feeling like I had to shut that part of my life down in order to get through the holidays. It was too painful to celebrate the birth of a Savior whom I was told would no longer love me if I didn’t meet certain standards.

I remember I went to bed early on New Years eve because I just wanted 1994 to be over. It was the worst year of my life! The bi-weekly conversations between Yolanda and I continued. In the mean time, I had written out tons of thoughts concerning the past year on my journal in order to make sense of what went on. I wrote a lot of letters to God asking for him not to let me go, apologizing for hurting him and his Kingdom, for his forgiveness. I felt my faith in God was null and void and I had no one to blame but myself. I was riddled with guilt. I just wanted to reconcile and be at peace.

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Being “Restored”

In the beginning of February, I received a phone call from Yolanda telling me that they had decided to restore me back to the church within four to six months and that we would start meeting with each other in person every two weeks to study the Bible. She again reiterated that I was not to speak to any members in the church. She also told me that there would be two other women studying with me. One I knew pretty well — her name was Joanne — but the other person I didn’t know too well, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of talking to her about her life. Her name was Laverne.

Within the next two weeks, Laverne and I met at a local coffee shop and spent time getting to know one another. At the end of our conversation, I asked if I could have her phone number so I could put it in my address book. She said no, she didn’t think it would be a good idea and she would have to get advice about it. “How did I feel about that?” she asked. I was a little taken back and said that’s fine, just let me know when it’s okay. We did not start off on a good foot and never got on the right one.

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Surgery

By this time, I had broken off all ties with those who tried to help me out of the church back in the summer of 1994 and was once again estranged from my family. At the beginning of March in ’95 I moved into a new place. I had begun to feel like things were coming back into place in my life. However, a few weeks after the phone call from Yolanda, I was diagnosed with a tumor in my left ovary.

I was scared because I have had a history of tumors — fortunately they have all been benign. I was scheduled to have surgery at the end of April. I thought deep down that God was punishing me for leaving the church and that he would take my life during the operation. I tried not to let these thoughts get to me, but in a weird way, they made sense according to how I had been trained to think while I was in the church. Bad things happen to those who leave.

I was quite stressed and wanted more than ever to make peace with those who had something against me. Laura was one person in particular. I wrote a letter to Yolanda requesting to write to a few friends within the church before I went in the hospital for surgery. Again, she told me now was not the time and that I would have the opportunity to do so later. I just needed to trust God. Given my frame of mind, it was disappointing and discouraging.

My mother flew in from Florida a few days before the operation and stayed for the next month to take care of me. It was a good visit. We were able to mend the strain in our relationship and draw close during that time. I also noticed during that time, Yolanda never called or came to visit me while I was in the hospital or while I was at home recovering for the next couple of weeks. The passage about the sheep and the goats came to mind concerning her behavior. I thought about Jesus’ contempt towards the “goats” about how they did not bother to visit the sick and that if you do this to the least of these you have done unto him. Her actions made me think.

There was a couple who were current members who found out that I was going in the hospital and wanted to visit me. They were told that they could not.

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Renewed Doubts about the ICC

A few weeks after my operation, Joanne and I met to study the Bible. The topic of Laura arose again. This was one topic that constantly came up during the past studies. In essence, they were trying to get me to admit that we had a relationship with each other than just being friends, but I just was not aware of it, and somehow this was an area of my life I was “deceived” about according to them. I needed to “check my heart.”

Another month went by before we met again and during that time I had viewed a report on new religions in America produced by MTV. To my surprise, the International Churches of Christ were featured along with other groups that are considered to be cults. I watched the show and the whole issue of the church being a cult came to the surface again. This time I really began to look at the evidence and facts that surround this claim about the church. I researched the definition of what experts consider a cult.

The next time I met with Yolanda and Joanne, I told them that I had viewed the show. They asked me if my feelings were the same as the former members that spoke out against the church. I told them that I can see both sides of the story since I have been on both sides, but I was doing my best to come to my own conclusion based on the Bible.

Right then Yolanda asked me to lower my voice, we were in a restaurant, and said, “You may never know who might be listening and we don’t want anything negative about the church getting out to someone who doesn’t know about it.” I thought to myself, who cares? And why is she so paranoid?

She continued the conversation by telling me that she has had a “hard time trusting me since I left the church and as far as she knows I could have been recording our past study sessions in order to tag the church.” At that point, I got angry and told her, “that she gave me way too much credit to think of such a thing and that if I was playing a game with them, I would not take the past 10 months of my life in doing so.” I told her there were other things I could concentrate on in my life to improve it, but God says that I need to make every effort to live in peace with those around me and I felt that is what I was trying to do.

In response she told me that I shouldn’t be angry and that just showed were my heart was. She was just being honest with me and that I should appreciate the input from her and my response just showed that I haven’t forgiven people in the church. I asked her if they had forgiven me and how would I ever know it if they weren’t allowed to talk to me? She did not answer. She told me to pray about the state of my heart.

After that particular meeting, I no longer felt eager to be restored back into the church. the next time I met to study with them, I met with Joanne and she wanted to talk to me about the evening we tried to get Laura to talk to her friends and a minister. She wanted to know “where my heart was” at that time and was it right for me to physically abuse her. ABUSE???? I was floored when she said this. I asked her if she got that impression from Laura and her opinion on how things went that evening.

Finally, in frustration, Joanne asked me what really went on between us that had made me be so distrustful and unforgiving? I told her that Laura had spoke of me being a “cancer that needed to be cut out “when I was struggling with whether or not to leave the church and when I called her to confirm if she had made this statement, she told me “If I thought there was any way our friendship could be salvaged, I might as well forget it and that I was deceived, sick and that my deception was so thick I couldn’t see it.” I told Joanne that, for many months after that was said, I continued to bring this up to Yolanda, and yet there was no apology given. It was as though she condoned Laura’s attitude and behavior.

Joanne finally acknowledged that Laura had no right to say the things she did and that I needed to forgive her whether or not she apologized. I agreed with her, but I told her it would take time for me to heal and forgive.

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Beginning to See Clearly Again

the summer of ’95 passed and I was still not “restored”. I began to see this was an issue of control, not my spirituality. As the fall approached, I started to study out justification and grace in the Bible to understand the true meaning of the words. I began to understand that I am only justified through Jesus, nothing else. My deeds don’t justify or define my self-worth. I began to understand very clearly that the only way to be saved is by grace, not works. I began to see that there was a lot of boasting in the church about how many members they have, how many people are studying the Bible, how awesome their marriages are and all the great things they are DOING to advance the “Kingdom” of God.

I decided to do some reading on the topics of thought reform and cults. There was one book in particular that caught my attention. It’s entitled “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds”. It discussed the recovery issues one faces once they have left a destructive cult or a one-on-one abusive relationship. Before I read the book, I prayed and asked God to give me courage to face the truth and let me be honest with myself if I identified with anything in it. I took note of every issue I related to that was discussed in the book and found after reading it I had marked the book from beginning to end. As a result, I met with one of the authors of the book, who is also an exit counselor and consultant.

After our meeting and reading more Scriptures on justification I made the decision to no longer pursue restoration in the church.

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Breaking Away

I met with Yolanda and Joanne for the last time a week before Thanksgiving to let them know my decision. They appeared shocked and Joanne looked like she was going to cry. I had been trying to get restored for over a year and four months. It was hard for me to look at her because I knew what she felt inside was sincere, but she was viewing me as someone lost. I told them I needed time and space away from the church to heal completely from my experience in the church and that I needed to pursue a relationship with God elsewhere.

Yolanda read a scripture to me in regards to me running a good race and someone has cut in on me. She proceeded to tell me that Satan prayed for this day to come to where I no longer wanted to study with the church and that he had a hold of my heart. By this time I was educated enough to know that she was trying to manipulate and scare me by twisting the scriptures. I also saw the illogical thinking in what she had just said. I thought to myself, “Who does Satan pray to?”, and, “Why is my decision to seek God and to know the truth solely based in the power of Satan?”

At the end of the conversation we hugged each other and said our good-byes. They told me that the door is always open for me to call them if I wanted to study or pray and they implored me to stay in the word. I told them I appreciated their concern and the time spent over the past year in trying to help me. I felt sad in saying good-bye to them, but relieved that the turmoil was coming to an end and I could begin to heal and be restored back to God’s grace.

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Final Thoughts

Many times, I have been asked what did it take for me to see that the church was a cult? What made me leave? It was a culmination of the experiences I just shared above tied in with my research on cults and the recruiting techniques used by cultic groups.

Many times while I was a member in the church, the leadership would constantly mock and deny the accusations of the church using mind control and being a cult. I recall once that there was an all-congregational meeting at the Calvin Simmons theater in Oakland held in order to respond to the allegation of the church being a cult. We were given negative literature on the Cult Awareness Network, which was one of the biggest critics of the ICC. The leadership in the ICC does a good job in filtering information to the common member within the organization.

    [Webmaster’s Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was bankrupted and bought up by Scientology since this article was written. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

It’s important for one to do their homework thoroughly before considering being a member of this group. I believe it is a threat to a person’s mental and spiritual well-being and is not to be taken lightly.

The leadership in the ICC does practice mind control, as a program to lure and keep members in. Unfortunately, they use the Bible as a front to do so. I joined the church because I wanted to be a better Christian, I wanted to take my relationship with God higher but instead it was catapulted in the depths of despair and disgrace. I became an entirely different person, a person I did not like on the inside. I have often described my experience in the church as being spiritually blown out of the water. As a result, I began to run away from believing in God.

However, my perspective on what had taken place began to change after I received a response from a letter I wrote to a Christian recording artist named Margaret Becker, I wrote to tell her of the impact her music made on my life over the years. I shared a little about my experience with the church, but I never went too in depth about all I had experienced back then. A month later I received a postcard from her expressing her concern for me after reading my letter. She stated that she read what was written and that which was not and she had little to offer me other than hope. She wrote, “God is working in you, on you and around you and her prayer was that I relax and give way to his process.” She also stated that he is able to deliver, he is able to heal, he is able to restore, he is able period! He was doing a new thing in my life (Isiah 43:18-19).

My reason for sharing this particular story is that the words she offered did give me hope that God had something new and better planned for my life — a plan better than any leader in the ICOC could conjure up for me. Those words help change my perspective about the nature of God. I had forgotten that he promises to be on my side no matter where I am in my life.

What made the greatest impression on me about what was written on the postcard is that those words were full of compassion and grace. No one in the church ever offered up such words towards me when I felt my lowest. It helped me to see that there are people who love God outside the church. The church teaches that all others who call themselves Christians, are hypocrites, lazy and uncommitted; only the members in the ICOC are doing God’s will and following the truth.

About a year ago, I spoke to Margaret Becker and got the opportunity to thank her in person for encouraging me in the way that she did. I’m convinced God used her to convey a message of hope for me.

Over time I have been able to heal and forgive. Most of all, I feel have been restored back to the grace of God. My relationship with God is much healthier and I’m thankful for the new relationships in my life that have been established since I left the ICOC.

My hope is if you are a former member, by reading this story you will hopefully draw some parallels from it and realize that you are not alone and you’re not crazy for feeling the things you might concerning the church.

If you are a current member, I appreciate that you read this story to the end. If there is one thing I would like to leave you with is this, constantly seek the truth in all matters. Don’t stop with what the leaders tell you — talk to others as well. The voice of reason can be found in many places — it is not exclusive. For those whom I knew personally in the group, I pray for them daily that they too will experience the freedom that is rightfully theirs.

Out of distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me free.
With God on my side I do not fear,
What can man do to me?
The Lord is on my side to help me,
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in princes.
All nations surrounded me;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me, surround me on every side;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me like bees,
they blazed like a fire of thorns;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
I was pushed hard, so hard that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my song
he has become my salvation.

          — Psalm 188:5-14

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©1997 by Michelle Campbell <[email protected]>. All rights reserved.


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