“My name is Lisa and I’m a former cult member and reverend.”
“Hi Lisa,” Everyone says.
Only, there’s no “everyone” and there’s no support or recovery group for this kind of situation.
I spent five years working through the pain and anger with devoted family and friends, and now I’ve moved past it (for the most part).
What still remains are two situations:
1) A large Christian Fundamentalist population in America which is leading Christianity down a dark road.
2) Numerous damaged church and ministry peers who talk to me often, needing validation for what happened to them and needing resources to move on
I’m by no means an expert, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night (that was a joke, by the way).
I spent part of my five years away from My Cult Life getting my Bachelor of Arts degree (a degree was something women in particular weren’t allowed to get in the Cult) and I minored in Religious Studies. I studied under Dr. S.T. Campagna-Pinto, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Many of my text resources can be attributed to him, as he suggested some of the most fabulous books to read.
These pressure tactics and dictatorial pastoring happened with everything in our lives—not just dating. I was on call with him around the clock. I never vacationed. I didn’t color my hair, or buy different clothes, or stop jogging in the mornings otherwise he’d tell me how to color my hair, how to dress, and how skinny I needed to be.
The pastors under his leadership were much worse: we had to check in with them over the money we spent, where we went on our personal time, etc. The type of music we listened to, the movies and tv shows we watched, what we browsed on the Internet, and the books we read were all censored and subject to their approval. If we read a book, watched a movie or bought a CD that they disapproved of, we were subject to harsh reprimands, public embarrassment, or even getting asked to leave the group (followed by a public humiliation). Any music, books, clothing item, etc. that they didn’t like was subject to a bonfire.
At one point in my second year in this school, we were all instructed to “pray” about what God was telling us to discard in the bonfire. Then, we were reminded of things that might be included in that list of items: secular music, clothing that was too revealing, mementos from old boyfriends, etc.
I couldn’t really think of anything God had spoken to me to burn, so one of our staff leaders came around to each of our wardrobe cabinets and helped us “hear God’s voice.” I had a bikini and a hat from a mission’s trip to Burma that they suggested I burn; the bikini, for reasons that it was against our dress code in that ministry school and the hat because that staff member felt a demonic spirit upon it. I didn’t agree with either of them, but considering that I’d already been yelled at by our pastor for not following instructions of the staff members, I thought it might be best to do as I was told. I cried over the hat from Burma, because it was a special souvenir that I’d received on a trip I took in 1999 that I knew I’d never be able to replace. I’d gone to the country wanting a pointed hat, but I could never find one. Come to find out, they were Vietnamese in origin. Well, on the flight home to the U.S., I saw a man in the airport with one of them and I asked him where he bought his. He said he bought them in Vietnam and he had an extra one if I wanted one. I was so thrilled! The only souvenir I wanted was a hat, and some random stranger gave me one! And now, I was about to burn it in a bonfire in Austin, TX because some ministry leader thought it was demon possessed.
I stood around a circle later that evening with all the other students and staff members. First and Second year students stood in the inner circle, around the fire, with boxes and trash bags full of items that were precious to each of us. We knew we’d each take a turn, parting with our past lives, and each face seemed scared and pained. Tears were running down most of our faces. At the time, some people said they felt God’s presence telling them to throw the items in the fire so they could let go of past loves, past anger, past issues, but in reality, we were crying because we were confused, scared and afraid.
We were in a group with pastors and leaders who didn’t allow us to think for ourselves. Not one of them trusted us to develop a genuine relationship with God, or interpret the Bible for ourselves. Instead of love, they dictated by fear and anger. Instead of understanding that we were fresh out of high school, they lacked compassion and understanding. Most sad of all, they didn’t teach us how to think for ourselves, but threatened us and rebuked us anytime we spoke up against them or had a unique thought for ourselves.
Hannah Arendt, a well-known scholar, talks about the real evil in the world: the failure to have original thought. Arendt claims that this was something that one of Hitler’s right-hand men, and the Nazi’s did best: failed to think for themselves. Instead of thinking for themselves when an order was given to load up a houseful of Jewish men, women and children , set it on fire, and stand outside of the house with guns loaded and aimed, ready to shoot if any of them tried to escape, the Nazi’s did what they were told. At the end of the war, they said, “We were just following orders.”
How many times do we just accept something we’re told to do? How many times do we just follow orders? Is it the norm in today’s Christian Fundamentalist church to think like a Nazi? I know it was for me.