The Hard Way:
How I Came to my Understanding
of the Difference Between
Religion and Cults
- Father and Mother’s Backgrounds
- Ambition and Alienation
- Berkeley: The Disenchantment of its Diversity
- First Contact with the Group
- First Impressions
- Bible Studies
- Counting the Costs
- Growing Spiritually Older
- The Turning Point
- Total Assessment
Remembering my childhood is not easy. Most memories of my growing up come back to me in daydreams, at most a blurry reflection of those events which brought me to my existence and beliefs today. Yet, one thing I do remember vividly is the look of sadness and concern on my father’s face when I told him for the first of many times that I did not share the same Baptist beliefs as he did. His forehead wrinkled and his sad brown eyes glanced over me in pity as he shook his head and predicted, “Well then, you will have to learn the hard way.”
Almost five years later, my father’s words still haunt me, mostly because they have proven to be true in every facet of my life: in relationships with people, in excelling in school, in overcoming occupational obstacles, and especially in religion. It is almost every parent’s dream that their children carry on family traditions, yet when children choose not to live up to those aspirations, much bitterness and confusion is likely to ensue. My parents blamed themselves when I deviated from their religious orientation, and in doing so, missed their opportunity to question my new “religion”. In retrospect, I do not believe that I chose a religion. A self-proclaimed “religion” chose me.
To give you some background on myself, I am a technical writer and will graduate from the University of California at Berkeley in May 1997. From April 15, 1993 until March 23, 1994, I belonged to the San Francisco Church of Christ (SFCC), a western affiliate of the Boston Church of Christ (ICC). Hereafter, I will refer to the group as the ICC. For obvious reasons, I have replaced actual names with pseudonyms.
Father and Mother’s Backgrounds
I grew up in a non-religious environment in the sense that my family rarely went to church, hardly ever prayed before a meal or going to bed, and seldom cracked open a Bible. Just the same, I was considered to be a Baptist all my life. Both my parent were raised in very strict religious environments, both brought up by single, black Baptist women. Both my parents, for their own reasons, turned away from the ritual of religion, and sought their own ambitions, though still praising God from time to time. My only guess is that these were echoes from their childhoods.
Ambition and Alienation
While religion was put aside, economic ambition was strongly emphasized in my family, Growing up poor and black, my parents sought the American dream in nice houses, big lawns, fancy cars. In order to achieve their material dreams, my parents had to, and continue to this very day, work very hard.
Unfortunately, our home life suffered as a result. Forced to attend a predominantly white high school where I was often the only black girl in my classes, I was very alienated and lonely. My parents thought that the only way for me to achieve financial success later on in life was if I was to attend and assimilate into this particular high school, and they would not allow my transfer to a more diverse school only fifteen minutes away. When I tried to talk to my parents about how miserable I was being such an obvious minority, they merely shrugged it off or became very angry as they told me that they were tired from working so hard so that I did not have to grow up in poverty like they did.
When I got accepted to U.C. Berkeley, my parents were very happy for me because this marked another step in their legacy of financial success. I was very happy too, because I was going to be attending a multicultural, interracial school for the first time in many years.
Berkeley: The Disenchantment of its Diversity
Coming to Berkeley, I was very unprepared for the reaction I would get from such a diverse institution. Many white students in my dorm and in my classes asked me questions concerning my blackness which were just as ignorant as the ones asked by the white students in high school. Many of the black students spurned me because I did not come from the ghetto and, according to them, I had led “the privileged life”. For the first few months, I hung around mostly Asian and Latino students, yet still felt alienated when they began to speak in their other tongue around me to one another or to relate to one another through their cultural similarities. I often questioned my own existence around them, as they did not make very much eye contact with me. Only as an afterthought did they invite me to their parties or to eat in the dining commons with them, and even then, I found myself all alone.
First Contact with the Group
In February 1992, I was sitting in the dining commons in the dormitory where I lived. I got up to put away my tray, and as I stood in line waiting for the conveyor belt, I noticed a gigantic smile, excited eyes and curly hair jumping up and down saying, “And he’s so awesome! And we’re going out on another date this weekend!” She seemed overly excited, but I didnt care.
When I had placed my food on the belt, I turned around and found myself face to face with her. She looked at me with tenderness as if I was her long, lost friend and said, “Hi, my name is Janice. Would you like to play volleyball with me and some friends of mine?”
“No, thank you. I don’t know how.” I started to walk away.
“Oh, well, neither do we. We’re just learning how. C’mon. It should be a lot of fun.”
I agreed and that next Saturday, I was out playing volleyball. The girl who had invited me was not there. She was on her date, so I just played with a friend I had invited to join me in my humiliation. I was having fun, until I noticed that something was very weird. Two men whom I did not know were hooting and hollering for me on the sidelines. Every time I fumbled and missed the ball, the guys on my team hissed at me, while the men of the sidelines cheered me on:
“You can do it!”
Whenever I hit the ball correctly, the men on my team just appeared to be relieved, while the men on the sidelines shouted overexcitedly:
“You go girl!”
I found out later that these two strange men were Janice’s friends, and that the men playing on the volleyball team were just ordinary students living in the dorms.
That night, I got a phone call from Janice inviting me to come and check out her church. I said sure. I had nothing else to do, so I went.
The service was in a hotel ballroom in Concord, a good forty minutes away from where I go to college. When I asked Janice why the service was so far away, she said that they moved around frequently. When we walked in, I was impressed with how gentlemanly the men acted. Unlike the Baptist churches I had sporadically attended during my life, this religious group was multicultural. Blacks, whites, Chicanos, Latinos, Japanese, Chinese, Native Americans, and others gathered together under the same roof for one purpose — to worship God. As Janice led me down the aisle to our seats, she was greeted by just about everyone. “You actually know these people?” I said. “Yeah,” she answered, looking dreamily into the distance. “We take care of one another.”
The service began when four older men called song leaders took the stage. The crowd cheered the head song leader on as he led us into a very upbeat and lively song which all the members knew by heart. Jance arranged for me to have a songbook, and passed it to me, squeezing my knee in overly enthusiastic glee.
After the song, a married couple came to the podium. The members in the audience continued to cheer them on. Both of them discussed how sinful and immoral they were before they came to God. Then, they both described how and when they were met, motioning to the member in the crowd responsible for their relationship with God at which time the crowd’s attentions shifted in admiration of the fruitful disciple. After telling of their baptism and subsequent forgiveness, both members reiterated the power of the Cross, (Jesus’ death) to work in our lives.
After confession came communion, the traditional weekly passing of the bread and wine. I wondered why such a modernized group would stick to such an old custom, but I did not question it, for the bread and grape juice were coming around, I had not eaten since the night before, and I was hungry. When communion came to me, I broke off a piece of bread and stuffed it in my mouth, then washed it down with the thimble full of juice provided. It was tasty. Janice looked at me in shock. I found out later that communion was a spiritual event and only disciples were allowed to take part in it.
Suddenly a hush fell over the crowd of bowed heads. A short, dimpled white man with a big smile took the podium alone. The crowd erupted and cheered with the tenacity of a nation welcoming its new king to the throne. “Come on, Michael!” “You go, bro’!” “Alright now, Michael!” Michael was the lead evangelist for the sector.
Michael proceeded with his message,–“Come on”, Michael!”– which began by informing the crowd of the depraved state of the world,– “Yes, Michael!” –and the immorality of all mankind. He went on to describe how God had great plans for us–“Yes Lord!”– before we went astray and threw it all away with our sinful ways. Then, he told us to hear the message, read the Bible, repent of our many sins, get baptized, help make more disciples–“You go’ bro’!–“, and keep going to God daily. He reminded us that we must remember God, or else, God may not remember us. After reading some guilt inducing interpretations of scriptures from the Bible, he told us that we were all special and loved by God. He urged disciples to study the Bible out with visitors, and for visitors to open their hearts to the Word of God.–“Amen!”
Parting Songs and Fellowshipping
The song leaders took the stage again, and we sang three more songs before the service was dismissed. During this song, members and visitors linked arms and held hands to show their unity and love for one another, singing phrases over and over again, smiling, happy. I had never seen anything like it in my life — certainly at none of the black Baptist churches I had attended.
After the service, Janice introduced me to some other members before we went to lunch together. All were very interested in me, asking how I liked the service, then about my family and background. Later, she called me on the phone and asked me if I would like to study the Bible. I said sure.
Bible Studies Bible studies were issued to new recruits in varied orders depending on the needs of the recruit. The studies I went through were The Word, Discipleship, Baptism, The Kingdom, The Cross, Light and Darkness, and Counting the Costs. Each subsequent study was supposed to narrow my options more and more until I broke, and begged them to save my soul. The following is a synopsis of these studies and the ways in which they were administered. Blinded by the promise of being saved, I endured the verbal abuse of the studies. Also, the group advertised itself as fun, caring, and safe; making sure that they met my needs, serving me.
My the first study was an introductory one in which Janice asked me personal questions about my relationship with God and whether or not I felt I was serving God with my whole heart. After she persuaded me that I was not serving God by just going to school and doing well, she showed me a scripture in Jeremiah about how God “has plans” for me to “prosper”. The study consisted of a cycle of rebuking (verbal abusing) me for my past sins against God, then praising me for my desire to be right before God. I was scared, but very much relieved at the same time.
A week later, Janice brought a fellow sister to the Bible study, Paula. Paula took notes while Janice threw obscure scriptures at me from the Bible, asking me to interpret them. I would give my opinion of what they meant, then she would rebut my responses, reading the scripture again and again until her version of interpretation seemed the only valid one. Janice kept drilling Matthew 28:19 into my head. It was supposedly “the last command.” The cult referred to it as the “great mission.” The scripture, and I know it by heart, says:
“Therefore, go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”.
And this, I was told, is how a true Christian or a disciple of Jesus must live. “Christian = disciple = saved.” Janice, Paula and I sat, read, interpreted, and reinterpreted scriptures until I was convinced that I was not saved.
A few days later, Janice, Paula and I studied out baptism. Janice and Paula made a big deal about the practice of baptism and how those of other churches were invalid. SFCC of the ICC requires full immersion of a new disciple into a body of water. Showing me several scriptures where the saved were immersed in water, they reiterated the importance and urgency of becoming a disciple. In all the scriptures, they showed how the people who immediately heard the Word of God practically went diving into the waters of baptism. This urgency served to speed up the process of my recruitment into their system.
One of the most confusing and ill-taught study for me was the Kingdom study. Surprisingly, this study led by the women’s counselor, (the cult’s term for “female evangelist,” because women were on a lower spiritual level than men) consisted of a barrage of prophetic scriptures from the Old Testament, and apocalyptic scriptures from Revelations.
The woman’s counselor, Michelle, seemed confused even when she tried to describe the metaphorical meaning behind the signs and visions of the past and the future. The study did not last as long as the other ones and I was very afraid.
Afterwards, Janice and Michelle talked to me enthusiastically about school and my family, soothing me. They made it seem like every word from my mouth was the most intelligent and insightful thing they had ever heard. Later, while walking me home, Janice asked me to bring a list of my sins to the next study.
A few days later, Janice and I studied the Cross. Janice took me to a small, private ice cream parlor where she insisted on buying me a cone. After having chosen a table, Janice reached into her backpack and pulled out what appeared to be a report.
“Did you bring your sin list.”
“Yes.” I gave her the list of feelings of anger, hatred, frustration, resentfulness, and sexual attraction.
“Okay.” She glanced over the list, to my horror. It was private. Between me and God. She handed me a booklet. “Now read this.”
I read the title of the report: A Medical Analysis of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The report was lengthy, detailed, and highly graphic. Supposedly, a doctor had analyzed the crucifixion of Jesus and came up with some startling conclusions. Apparently, as the report stated, Jesus did not die on the Cross, but after having been bled on the Cross for long hours and then finished off, a large rod shoved up into His intestines by dissenters. I was extremely disturbed by this piece of literature.
“So what do you think?”
“It’s pretty gruesome.” I didn’t really know what to say.
“Yeah, and to think, you did it to Him.”
“You killed Jesus, just like they did. Just look at your many sins.” She showed me the list. “With these sins, you have nailed Jesus to the Cross! But everything is going to be alright. God will forgive you. You must become a disciple.”
I was far too confused to ask anymore questions, because I knew that she would just make me look stupid by reading some obscure scripture from the Bible. I was humiliated and depressed. I looked at the medical analysis one more time, reading about the horrible death of Jesus Christ. I began crying out of fear.
“You feel guilty. I know. But it is alright. God will forgive you. You must be baptized.”
“Can I take this home and think it over?” I motioned to the report.
“No,” she quickly grabbed the report and shoved it into her backpack. “This is my only copy. The Bible is all you need to make your decision.”
I wondered why she chose to show me that supplementary report if the Bible was all that I needed in order to understand why I should become a disciple. But by then, I was afraid to ask questions. I was afraid of how I would look before them and their God. And I was very much afraid of going to Hell.
Light and Darkness
I had been studying the Bible for a month when I did the Light and Darkness study with Janice and another sister. This study would make or break me. I was taught to believe that I had to be a disciple if I was to ever get into Heaven. So I was hooked, even though I did not agree with some of the interpretations of sin in Light and Darkness, such as the one that said that my looking at a guy who I considered to be physically attractive was the same sin as killing forty people on a subway.
I was told to look at spiritual and not worldly aspects of things. Janice reminded me that I was to forevermore associate with God’s kingdom and refuse the world. Dating outside the group was forbidden. Friendships formed under any other premise than saving lives were frowned upon. We were in the light and everyone else was lost, in the darkness.
My friends warned me. They showed me the ICC cult information packet. I did not believe that the ICC and the SFCC were affiliated. I laughed as I read the packet as it was outdated and written from the perspective of more conservative Easterners. They even showed me a teen magazine article about a girl who left one of the Churches of Christ. Relatives of former members called me and told me what I was getting into. Even my own father said, “Why are you doing this to me?” when I told him I was going to get baptized.
“Dad, I am not doing this to you. I am doing this for you.”
Counting the Costs
I was baptized April 15, 1993. Before the baptism, I did the last study of becoming a disciple, Counting the Costs, which consists of confessing any last-minute sins, and then dedicating yourself to applying the Bible to your life, making Jesus your Lord.
I brought the magazine article written by a sixteen-year-old girl to who had belonged to the so-called Churches of Christ. The girl had left the group because of the tremendous pressure the cult put on her to be perfect, or at least to live up to a standard of perfection. I told Michelle to read the article and please tell me if I was about to join the same group mentioned in that article.
Michelle glanced momentarily at the article, then set the magazine face up on the table. She whipped out her Bible and plopped it down next to the magazine and said, “Which one are you going to listen to?”
As I looked down at the teen magazine, I saw a prissy cover- girl on the front page with a big, stupid grin. The headline said something like, “How To Have The Boy of Your Dreams Wrapped Around Your Little Finger”. Below that in fluorescent ink it said, “I Belonged to a Cult!”, then something about prom nightmares. I looked at the Bible and it looked back at me with seriousness. I chose the Bible. Michelle and Janice were elated.
After I was baptized, disciples I did not know came up to me, hugged me, asked me how I was doing. But I had a hard time being out of myself. I was never a socialite, and being forgiven for my many sins and getting dunked did not change a thing. I had to eventually force myself to converse with others during fellowship, yet most of the time, I spoke of worldly things like parents, school, friends, jobs, grades. I rarely spoke of spiritual things like my relationship with God, how much I loved God, or what I was willing to do to serve God.
Janice became my discipler (spiritual leader). She and other disciples constantly rebuked, or verbally abused me on what I talked about when I talked to people. I was not deep enough, and in order for me to be deeper and more spiritual, I had to be closer to God. I prayed, fasted, skipped classes, avoided friends who did not go to the cult; I completely cut myself off from all things not connected with the cult in the name of carrying out God’s purpose.
Growing Spiritually Older
During the next few months, I noticed many changes in my life. Janice, once eager to hang out with me and be a friend, focused her attentions on recruiting others. Frequently, I knew that I had a lot to say to people, but I could not for fear of getting rebuked. I had a lot of stifled feelings, and I cried almost every day. I thought that my crying was a sign that I had come closer to God, when actually, we were further apart than ever. I could not even trust my own judgment when it came to reading the Bible. All my thoughts and actions were exposed, and changed to fit the cult’s interpretation of the Bible.
There are many events in particular that really opened my eyes to the hypocrisy, deceitfulness and cruelty of the group. These major events caused me to eventually fall away (withdraw) from the SFCC.
- Once, in fellowship, a brother asked me what I prayed for when I prayed to God. I told him , even though I felt very uncomfortable answering such a personal question, that I thanked God for the disciples, my physical family, and other stuff, like I praised Him for beautiful days and the like. The brother got really upset and said firmly, “You better be praying for Jesus and thankful that He died on the Cross for you!” I was extremely confused, hurt and angry after this unprovoked confrontation. I tried to talk to several leaders about this and they said that I was being too emotional, and that I was in sin. Months later, the same brother approached me in an all-congregational service. He remembered me. “Sister, what do you pray for now?” I lied and told him I imagined that Jesus’ blood as He died for us on the Cross. The brother praised me. I had never felt shame and confusion as I felt at that moment.
- Once I was at child-care, which is when members are chosen to come into church early and have an early miniature service, as they must take care of people’s young children during the regular service. We sang a song before communion. The song was all about Jesus dying on the Cross, and his blood covering our sin, and how we did it to Him, and how we must be broken over our sin. It was a song which was meant, I thought, to provoke deep thought and self-analysis, a serious song. The song leader demanded that we smile in joy as we sang a slow, melancholy dirge. I did so, because I was instructed to by a more spiritually mature, male member. I was so confused and angry when the song was over that I wanted to cry. I felt like someone had whipped me, telling me that they would not stop until I laughed from the joy I was receiving.
- Over the summer, some pre-cult (worldly) friends and I had planned a trip to Mexico. The cult was really against vacations. They even urged college students who lived out-of-state to stay in Berkeley, so that they could serve the ministry and not be tempted to digress to their old ways. Well, they let me go because I had already paid for the trip long before I was a disciple and I did not appear to be struggling spiritually. While I was in Mexico, I had a great time away from the disciples, despite the fact that I was sexually immoral. I had some sexual thoughts about some of the guys on the beach, and was sexually attracted and aroused as a result. In addition, I had watched a very provocative movie in the hotel room I shared with my high school friend. I had to confess all this and more to Janice when I got home.
- At one all-campus devotional, we were read a scripture about faith and the evangelist distorted it to mean that we are all sinners and that unless we started bringing in more prospective recruits, God was going to cut off all connections with us. I felt attacked and humiliated. I told a sister how awful it was for the evangelist to get up on the pulpit, squeeze that scripture dry, and call us all sinners just because we were not growing in numbers as rapidly as he had wanted. The sister said that she did not feel attacked, but inspired. She gave me a funny look, as if I was being ungrateful and should have enjoyed his verbal abuse.
- We were commanded to share our faith daily (inviting people to church). At first, inviting one person a day to church was enough. After a while, demands increased. The cult demanded that we make a lifestyle out of meeting people, inviting them to church, explaining how our lives were changed by Jesus and the Cross, studying the Bible with them, and making them disciples. There was no such thing as “free time.” All time was spent doing things for the advancement of the Kingdom. If we did not bring people to church regularly, we were branded as struggling (ineffective and sinful).
- We were told that everything we have, we do not deserve. All we had was given to us by God for the benefit of the Kingdom. Women sold their diamond rings. Men sold their cars. They did this to give to the church so that they could afford to pay the evangelists. This is all under the guise of saving the world.
- Attendance, once optional, became mandatory. Everyone was urged repeatedly and strongly to bring a friend. I went on prayer walks in the freezing rain and cold when I had the flu, to mid-week services when I had unwritten ten-page papers due the following morning, and to campus devotionals when I would rather have gone to the movies like all the other college students. When I wanted to go to a comedy club with some worldly friends after a campus devotional one Friday, I was rebuked for not discussing it with my discipler first and being independent.
- Commitment was mandatory. Sunday service and lunch – 5 hours, Monday Bible Talk meetings – 2 hours, Tuesday discipleship (confessional) times – 1-2 hours, mid-week service – 5 hours, Friday campus devotionals – 5 hours, Saturday dates – 4 to 5 hours. If I had a paper or a report or a lab or a problem set due, I had to schedule it around church activities. If I was tired because I had stayed up all night to finish homework after church sucked up all my time, I was branded as sinful for being undisciplined. It was a perpetual cycle. (Note: All times include preparation, the activity itself, and required fellowshipping times following the activities).
- I had a class with one gorgeous guy who did not belong to the SFCC. He kept looking at me from across the classroom. I looked his way once and had to pretend that I was disgusted by the attention he was giving me. During the rest of class, I kept sneaking peeks. Later that week, I was talking to a sister when I mentioned him nonchalantly.
- I remember, for several months, I would pray on my knees each night before I went to bed that God would kill me overnight, so that I did not have to go on another day as a disciple. I hated my life. All that mattered to me was going to Heaven. I did not care who I hurt, how I wasted my money; all I wanted was to get to Heaven. Even when I prayed this out loud in circles with my Bible Talk and Discipleship Group, they “Yes Lorded” and “Amen’d” my death wish prayers to God.
“Did you think about Jesus at all while you were in Mexico?”
“What?!” I was shocked and upset that she would ask such a question.
“Jesus died because of people like you — sinful people who compromise! He died because you were sexually immoral! You nailed Jesus to the cross, again! You’re a murderer!”
After she forced me to give a moment-to-moment description of every last sinful detail of my trip to Mexico, I was reduced to shame. I felt so guilty for the next week that I was ashamed to show my face. As time passed, my discipler forgot about what she said to me while I was in Mexico. I never did.
As with many elitist, religious groups, the SFCC believes that all who do not belong to their church are going to the fiery depths of Hell, although they will not mention this to a brand-new recruit, only weeks to months after his/her first being met. My life became a mad struggle to save my friends, my relatives, and the entire population of the world.
Three times during my involvement, we were forced to fork over fifteen to sixteen times our regular contribution (10% of our weekly income) for special missions contributions, (the betterment of much-talked-about-but-never-seen overseas establishments). Since it is very difficult to obtain 153% of one’s income, we often had fund-raisers. One middle-class man would not do this, saying the Bible says that he must only hand over a tenth of his income. They disfellowshipped him for dissent.
Likewise, I was warned that if I were to lower my weekly contributions for any reason, I would be in serious trouble with the cult’s financial coordinators. At one point, my discipler humiliated me until I forked over a ten dollar check which was sure to bounce as I was between jobs. Thus, I obtained an emergency student loan to help pay for my second special missions’ contribution. In addition, I bounced over $300.00 in overdrawn checks as I could not keep up with the cult’s demands. All in all, I spent about $1500.00 in my eleven month involvement.
“Oh, and by the way, I sort of had some interest in a guy outside of the church.”
“Earlier this week.”
“Why are you just telling me now!?” It was obvious she was becoming unglued.
“Because I didn’t think it was that important. I mean, I didn’t look at him but once. And I didn’t do anything. I didn’t talk to him. I pretty much gave him the idea that I was not interested.” I sensed a rebuking, so I fumbled to correct myself to no avail.
“But it’s still sin to be attracted to someone outside of the church. And it’s an even bigger sin now that you’ve let it simmer!”
“But nothing happened!”
“Satan works! The next time he sees you, he might ask you to get together to study at his place. You go over there, like an ox going to slaughter. You’re attracted to him. One thing leads to another. And before you know it, you’re in serious sin!”
I was being rebuked for things I did not do, but things that the leaders imagined I would do because they did not trust my judgment, and they certainly did not want me to trust my own.
The Turning Point
I think that the turning point occurred when I was really burnt out one night because with church activities and my obsession to do well in school, I had slept only four hours in a three day span. I was so exhausted on Friday that I could hardly keep my eyes peeled open. I was hanging out with my discipler and her other disciple at a cafe. Both were older than me spiritually. We were going to confess our sins to one another and then go to the campus devotional.
“You’re being awfully quiet.”
“What? Oh yeah, I’m just tired. That’s all. I only got about four hours of sleep in the last three days, and I’m not all here now. I can barely process what you say, much less respond to it.” I did not know whether or not I made sense, and frankly, did not care if I did or didn’t.
“Oh, well that works for you, but think about us. I mean, we’re tired too. It’s very selfish of you to sit up there and not at least try to be out of yourself.”
“But I’m tired.”
“Jesus was tired!”
For some reason, at that point in time, I realized that I was not Jesus. The past eleven months had proved that over and over again, but this time, it was evident. I was not Jesus. But I could know say it, for fear of reproach.
“I can’t even think.” Which was true. I was not going to lie anymore.
“Well, then obviously you’re in sin. You refuse to live up to Jesus’ standard!”
I started crying and babbling, but my words were as incoherent as my thoughts. The other sister turned to me, smiled and laughed at my tears.
“Ya know, I think that these feelings you’re feeling are just feelings.”
Then they both laughed, and so did I, as I had been trained to do. One final uncomfortable laugh. Then, I was silent again. What was wrong with having feelings? I thought.
I left the cult on March 23, 1994. I finally came to terms with the fact that the cult had torn me away from my family, shattered my friendships, crushed my dreams of wanting to be a writer or anything for that matter, and hurled me into a bitter and confused relationship with God. Most of all, though, I knew that the lie I was living was not going to ever get me into Heaven. I did not think that I was and would ever be forgiven for my multitude of sins.
I decided to fall away (or rather break away) after reading a scripture in Proverbs. It was Spring Break and I was up early one morning having my quiet time (required morning moments with God), too early for a Spring Break morning. As I read the scripture, it became more and more clear to me that I just did not understand what the scripture was trying to say to me. In a reflex, I reached for the phone to call one of the disciples for an interpretation. Then, I held my hand in the air, thinking. Why did I have to ask them for their interpretation? And what difference did it make anyway? I was only getting up early, pretending to be close to God, and essentially ruining my life to be accepted into their group. That was the moment when I decided to leave the SFCC.
One leader informed me, after I had told him how I prayed each night that God would kill me, that in leaving the cult, I was committing spiritual suicide. I cut off my communication with the members after that chat. Since then, Janice called me several times to tell me that I am selfish and lacking in integrity for not wanting to talk to her.
Trying to Put the Pieces Back Together
As time goes by, it is easier to understand the manipulative tactics the cult used to suppress me and to distort the Bible for their own use. About a year ago, I decided that I wanted to be a true Christian, to worship God, and to have a relationship that was not wrought with anxiety and guilt. After much searching, I was finally led to New Life Christian Church in Concord. What was really a problem for me was setting apart the cult’s interpretation of God and my own. I had convinced myself that, even if He sends an angel to me telling me to go back to the cult, I would rather burn in Hell than heed the angel’s warning.
But now, I am a lot more confidant in God and in His grace. Researching different cults, including ICC, helped me to come to a better understanding of the difference between religion and cults. Religion is based on ones convictions, while cults are founded on coercion.
Back into the Mainstream
The scariest thing since leaving the cult is not dealing with people’s reactions within the cult, but the reactions of people outside of it. One guy who left the cult because of his desire to be intimate with women kept calling me to remind me that Satan had a stronghold on me as well, in the next breath he wanted to meet me for a romantic interlude. (Suffice it to say, I did not take him up on his offer).
A guy living in my dorm suggested that I visit other churches to find the best church for me. When I told him that I just was not interested in going to any church for a while, he said that I had truly turned my back on God. (Most people who leave the ICC need a lot of time to process their experience. It took me eight months before I could go to church.)
When I mentioned to one teacher’s aide how I was in the process of writing an autobiography of my cult experience, she was very excited for me and told me that she would be really interested in reading my manuscripts; yet only moments later she suggested to me that I was naive, gullible, and essentially stupid for getting mixed-up in a cult in the first place. I tried to explain to her that people don’t look for cults to join, cults look for people. My parents and a few ex-friends have been wholly unsupportive of my cult awareness projects, as many see my belonging to a cult as something I should be ashamed of, something I should hide.
The Positive in a Negative Experience
I think that God strategically placed this situation with the cult in my life to teach me a valuable lesson: that I must trust my own judgment. If my lesson with the cult did not occur, I would still be getting used by people, letting so-called friends use me on a daily basis. Now, I am my own self, and I try not to worry about what people think about me. I know that the most important thing for me is to believe in myself, to know myself, to see myself as deserving of great things, and to love myself unconditionally.
That may sound self-centered and egotistical, but I do think that the most difficult thing in the world is to love others when you cannot even love yourself. A lot of people in this world love themselves so much, that they forget to love other people. People in cults think that they are loving the world by denying themselves the right to love themselves. I have finally found a happy medium.
Why I Am Involved in Cult Awareness
Right now, I am striving to make the issue of cults widely known in my local area. In addition, I hope to make materials on cults more readily available to those who may need them before making life-sacrificing decisions. Such cult awareness resources are needed everywhere. Indeed, I have learned about religion the hard way. But when you think about it, is there any really easy way to learn anything?
Four years later after my involvement and I am on the verge of graduation. (I still have to take a two-unit course in something at a JC thanks to an overlooked lack of units required to graduate.) I work at a computer company as a technical writer and look forward to getting out of debt (if you want to be rich, stay away from the three Cs–cults, college, and clothes).
Yesterday, I received a call from a friend of mine who recently left the ICC — Tien (her real name). Listening to her sent me back to a time when I could think of nothing but the way in which I was deceived. After hearing her out, I said, “Tien. It’s amazing. I never thought that I would get over being controlled and manipulated in the way that the ICC did. I mean, I thought that I would think about it every spare second of every day for the rest of my life. But do you know that this whole day went by and I did not even think of the ICC once–well, that is, until you called with all this news.”
In Spring of ’95, I started a student group on campus called SCAN, for “Students for Cult Awareness, Now!” On one occasion our sole means of advertising–a signboard on the main bridge to campus–was stolen. On several occasions, it has been vandalized. Our first project–to get more books on cults in the campus libraries–was unsuccessful. We received all of our book request forms back (about 20 in all) with notes claiming that most of these works were not “scholarly” enough to merit purchase. All of the recommended books were written or edited by people with their MAs and PhDs!
Other explanations directed me to some obscure and unknown library way back in the annals of the campus where students rarely frequent. After certain members insisted that we use the old “fight fire with fire” technique to combat cults and began staging “Bible Battles” with members of the ICC, I became worried that our mission to educate ethically had been distorted. Again, I was confronted with what was right: to allow unethical behavior to persist in the name of carrying out a group goal or to rule out this behavior by controlling members’ actions. SCAN disbanded in ’96 after such a dilemma could not be remedied.
I have heard recently that the ICC mocked SCAN and what we were trying to achieve. Here, I would like to make a statement with regards to SCAN’s successes:
SCAN was the second student group established at UC Berkeley to combat cult mind control. Although the first group endured only a semester, SCAN lasted a year and a half. During that time, SCAN has personally assisted four students who were in the vices of the ICC and helped them to make informed decisions. Out of these four students who received help from SCAN, four left the ICC. Most people who join the ICC will eventually leave anyway, it’s just a matter of whether they get help to piece back together their lives or not.
I continue to be involved with cult awareness through REVEAL. SCAN was affiliated with REVEAL, and many of the ex-members who left the ICC have sought out and continue to seek out support within REVEAL.
The Road to Recovery
The road to recovery has been winding and unpredictable thus far. In February ’96, just after The Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of Christ was published, I became a Christian.
The biggest difference between SCAN and REVEAL was that SCAN was intended to look at the impact of psychologically damaging cults from a strictly psychological perspective. REVEAL looks at the same cults from spiritual and psychological perspectives. The pastor at the church to which I belong, New Life Christian Church, did extensive research on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and understands how both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the ICC replace the gift of God’s grace with the burden of works.
In conclusion, I would just like to thank the following people who are making my road to recovery a lot less bumpy: Janja Lalich, Exit-Counselor and former cult member; Hal Reynolds, Student Activities Director at UC Berkeley; Michael Lisman, Certified Therapist and former cult member; Michelle Campbell, REVEAL coordinator and former ICC member; Catherine Hampton, REVEAL coordinator and former ICC member; Art Barrett, Pastor at New Life Christian Church; Karen Sims, member of New Life Christian Church; Martha Miller, member of New Life Christian Church; Kelvin Vivian, friend; Robert *******, a random stranger I met on the Net who has the same last name as mine, is a Christian pastor, and works as a Technical Writer (the similarities here are weird!); and Rich Measures, fellow participator on the ICC newsgroup (although I haven’t logged on in quite some time).
I believe that God has placed these people in my life so not only can I have better understanding of what is of Him, but also of what is NOT of Him–they have given me valuable insight. And I thank God for the wonderful things that He has done to lift me out of the doldrums of despair and into the light of the Truth.