Susannah, 23, was a member of the Birmingham (UK) Church of Christ for 15 months. During that time, she became isolated from her family and gave up all her non-Christian friends. Her whole life revolved around the Church, until she realised that she belonged not to a Christian organisation, but to a religious cult.
I was a student in my second year at university when I bumped into Sophie. We’d met the year before – we used to go to the same lectures – but had lost touch. The two of us went to coffee together. We talked about college for a bit and then she asked me if I wanted to come to Bible study classes.
I was a Christian at the time, so I didn’t think there was anything odd about it, and arranged to see her the next day. We met in a shopping centre in Birmingham. She brought along Samantha, another friend. They took me through certain verses of the Bible, asking me questions on what the text meant. Sophie explained that, before I could become a member, I had to believe that the Bible was the word of God.
I was there for about half an hour. Then they gave me some verses to look through before we met again in a couple of days. They told me they belonged to the Church of Christ. Samantha, with her husband, were the Birmingham leaders.
At that time, I was feeling quite lonely and vulnerable. I’d drifted apart from some of my friends the term before: They’d been into pubs and clubs – which just weren’t my kind of thing – and the friendships had fizzled out. Soon, through Sophie, I began to make friends who belonged to the Church. They were very affectionate and would give me hugs whenever we met. I realise now to them I was just another potential recruit, but at the time I needed to feel that I belonged.
The Bible studies with Sophie and Samantha continued. Once we had one in a car park, because we’d been in a Littlewood’s cafe and it felt too public. With so many people around, I felt a bit of an idiot.
In the fifth lesson we had, we talked about sin. I confessed that I’d shoplifted when I was younger, and stolen from my landlady. I’d also lied and treated people badly. As we talked, I began to feel incredibly guilty and worthless. I thought that I was a Christian, but I obviously wasn’t. Samantha and Sophie told me that I had been led astray by the world. But I shouldn’t worry because the next lesson was on baptism. And if I decided to become a member of the Church, baptism would cleanse me, and I could start life again as a true Christian.
I had to give up smoking before I could join. Another girl had to give up her boyfriend, because you weren’t allowed to have a relationship with a non-Christian. The baptism took place a few days later. I was immersed, fully clothed, in a sort of paddling pool. They told me I was their new sister and they were glad that I’d seen the light. I felt elated and unusually high.
Sophie and I met up a couple of days later. She explained the rules of the Church and that we would have to spend a lot of our time evangelising – trying to convert other people. This involved standing on a street, asking people if they wanted to come along to a Bible study group. Some told me to get lost, others would stop and chat and then give me their phone number. I would phone and keep inviting them to various group meetings until they eventually turned up to one.
After four or five weeks, all my social life was taken up by the Church. Some mornings, we’d need to get up at 6am for prayer meetings. Every day, we were expected to devote one and a half hours to prayer. Evenings were busy with meetings and Bible study groups. Twice a week – on Wednesdays and Sundays – there would be a service. I was also advised on how much time to spend on college work. Soon the Church was controlling virtually every aspect of my life.
I also had to give a tenth of what I lived on to the Church. Because I was a student, that amounted to 8 per week, but when I started working, I had to give even more. There were also other funds that I had to contribute to – things called the Church in India and the Poor Fund. During the holidays, I had no money and couldn’t contribute for six weeks. I was told that I still had to give my contribution, even if it meant I would starve.
There weren’t any written rules, but we were advised to keep our dress modest. We couldn’t show any cleavage, wear short skirts or anything clingy. One girl was told off for wearing too much make-up. Even leggings were frowned upon. The brothers – what we called the male Church members – toldus they were a “distraction”.
We were encouraged to date, although it wasn’t what you normally think of as dating. Every Saturday night, one of the brothers would ask one of the sisters out – we were advised not to refuse – and we could make up a foursome. A group of us would go to the pictures, or for a pizza, but we always ended up talking about spiritual matters. There was nothing romantic at all about these dates. They were just so that we could get to know each other. There were about 190 of us in the Birmingham group.
If a couple were romantically interested in each other, the leaders were consulted. They would then decide whether the couple were “suitable”. If they were, the brother was allowed to make a date. This time, he’d make a big show of asking a girl out with flowers and presents. We were taught that marriage was the ultimate step, something we all had to aspire to and these dates were the first step.
Even then, rules governed how they behaved. They were discouraged from kissing – that was reserved for special occasions like Christmas and birthdays. One girl even told her boyfriend that she didn’t want him holding her hand because it gave her improper thoughts. If a couple became too involved with one another, they would have to split up on the advice of the leaders, because it was a distraction to their faith.
As my commitment grew, my friends outside the Church told me I was bonkers – that I should leave now while I still had the chance. Another friend who had been involved with the London branch told me to have nothing to do with them, that they were evil. But in the Bible it says you will be persecuted for your faith, so I didn’t take any notice of them. If anything, it strengthened the belief that what I was doing was right. Soon I stopped having anything to do with friends who weren’t in the church.
My parents became worried. Mum would phone every night for a week and I was never in. Gradually, I became isolated from them too. After a year, I started to have second thoughts about the Church. But when I confessed my doubts to Sophie, she scolded me for losing faith and told me that, “Satan is getting to you”. We were expected to be submissive and obey. If the leader told you to stand on a box and start preaching in the middle of the street, we’d do it because we’d been told to.
Then there was a meeting, where we had to reconfirm our commitment to the Church. We had to improve. If we were untidy, we had to organise ourselves; we had to spend more time evangelising. Being a Christian, they told us, was not easy or joyful. A lot of pain was involved.
I burst into tears because again I felt that I’d been living a lie. That I wasn’t a good enough Christian. Even though I was often tired from lack of sleep, and devoted all my spare time to the Church, it still wasn’t good enough. My friends tried to comfort me. They told me not to worry, that they would help me through it. But I couldn’t stop feeling guilty. I felt that in some way I had let God down.
I talked it over with another sister. Basically she told me that I had to stay in the Church. If I did, I would have lots of friends and go to heaven; if I left, I’d be lonely and go to hell. At another meeting, one of the leaders told me that I shouldn’t be with my parents, where I was staying at the time. They ordered me to go back with them.
At that moment, I realised that if I carried on obeying them, I might never see my parents again. I wasn’t going to let that happen, so I told them, “I don’t give a damn what you think” and went back home. After a couple of days, I made up my mind to leave the Church completely, even though I had been a member for 15 months.
That wasn’t the end of it. Members would still come up to me and say, “Susannah, what have you done? You must come back. We’re your friends, the only ones who can help you.” But I refused to have anything to do with the,. Now they ignore me completely.
Since I left, I have been suffering from psychological trauma. I’m taking anti-depressants and am seeing a counsellor. The Church manipulated me through guilt and fear. Now I have lost many of my friends, and have to find my own answers to everything. It’s scary. They used to tell us that if you left, you’d go to hell. I still believe it sometimes.