Cream Cheese and Memories

We’ve all had a moment where we pick up something or hear a song and it takes us back to a specific moment in time. I’ve been having that experience lately with whipped cream cheese. The past few mornings, I’ve been off work and have been waking up to a bagel and coffee at home. As I spread the cream cheese across my bagel, I’m taken back to the years I lived in the Phoenix, Arizona area and first attended Master’s Commission.

After my first year in Master’s Commission Phoenix (which is now Master’s Commission USA, and I’ll refer to Master’s Commission Phoenix as such), I took some time off to work and figure out how to pursue ministry (since my future plans changed drastically after being in Master’s Commission). Many mornings or afternoons, I’d drive to Einstein Bros. Bagels (and no, I’m not getting paid to endorse them, but I would accept sponsorship from them in the form of their honey almond shmear) and get a bagel and coffee for breakfast.

Master’s Commission USA was less of a militaristic boot camp than Master’s Commission Austin (the group is now called Elevate 3D, after getting kicked out of the Master’s Commission International Network) was. Because of that, I have some pretty decent memories of my time living in Phoenix, since I was able to experience the city from time to time.

Master’s Commission USA wasn’t perfect, though. My year there wasn’t something I’d do over again. I was constantly conflicted by what I saw displayed as “Christlike” and what I’d learned was Christlike. I thought to be Christlike, a person should be themselves, be kind and study the Bible to the best of their ability. What I learned in Master’s Commission USA was that to be Christlike, you should compete for a celebrity status, show off your performance skills, and worship God with an outward display louder and better than anyone around you (yelling and screaming, jumping and dancing, and waving your arms were all smiled upon). Becoming Christlike wasn’t a pleasure; it was a task and it was expected of us.

I was absolutely confused, because I wasn’t the type of person that would be accepted in that type of group. I was shy, academic, and independent. I didn’t sing. I couldn’t dance, and I didn’t really like yelling in church. So, I changed. In all honesty, it wasn’t like I changed strictly to fit in. In fact, I tried to stay “me” as much as possible. But, each day we’d have some kind of activity that reinforced the “normal” Master’s Commission behavior. If we weren’t like everyone else, we soon started becoming like them, or being taught how to act like them.

We’d start off prayer in the church sanctuary every morning and we’d be surrounded by our fellow students. Some would be pacing the church floor, shouting out their prayers. Some would be laying on the floor crying out for their freedom or someone else’s.

After prayer, we’d have a number of activities to do, but sometimes we’d have dance practice. I was kind of girl at high school or junior high dances that either didn’t go because I couldn’t dance and so had a fear of dancing, or stood around with a group of friends and couldn’t even sway to the music because my rhythm was off. Now, all of a sudden, I was supposed to be in a large group of my fellow first year students and learn choreographed dances in one afternoon? Oh god.

I wasn’t the only white girl, but I was surrounded by students of different cultural backgrounds and let’s just say that most of them were coordinated. It was terrifying to learn these dances, and even worse when everyone was picking up the dance moves and I wasn’t.

We’d move on to human video practice, which is where Master’s Commission staff or students had taken a song (Christian or not) and choreographed movements to tell a story. Sometimes it was acting. Sometimes it was dance-like moves. Either way, to me it was hard. I was an actress in high school plays, but I’d had no major roles. Not to mention, it seemed like everyone in Master’s Commission had been an actress, a singer, a musician or something creative and done bigger and better performances than I had. Which may have been true…or it may have just been the competitive environment I’d stepped into without realizing it.

Because I failed to learn dances and was horrible at human videos, and because I couldn’t sing, there wasn’t any ministry left for me to do with the exception of janitorial work and discipling people in the youth group (which we were required to do). At Phoenix First Assembly of God, we often had celebrity ministers come visit. On one occasion, Joyce Meyer came to hold a conference. While I wasn’t allowed to attend, because we were busy with our Master’s Commission duties, I was allowed to help out the church janitor clean up the church after the sessions got out. The entire weekend, we spent cleaning bathrooms and vacuuming the three story mega-church.

Although I never got to travel, and experience what all the other students were experiencing on the road, I was able to stay in Phoenix and attend every church service. This allowed me to meet some really wonderful people. I made friends with dozens of people and families. It was so nice to meet families who’d invite me over for a Sunday afternoon lunch and a movie, especially since I was away from home for the first time. On my day off (which I had in Master’s Commission USA and not in Master’s Commission Austin), I’d have people to go have coffee with, or go shopping with and that was really nice.

My experience in Master’s Commission USA wasn’t awful, admittedly. It doesn’t haunt me like my time with Master’s Commission Austin and Elevate 3D in Lafayette, LA now does. It did derail my plans for college for several years and led me into a misguided relationship with God and ministry. Because of that and many other reasons (including their unethical treatment of staff members across the entire network of affiliated groups), I don’t support Master’s Commission and I don’t endorse it.

Since starting this blog, though, what I’ve learned is that when you become a staff member in Master’s Commission, the negative experiences really tend to grow. I’ve spoken with many former Master’s Commission USA staff members who have a very different perspective of the same year I was there simply because they were on staff. They knew Lloyd Zeigler better, had a different relationship with the other staff members, and most importantly, saw everything that was behind the scenes. Sometimes, what we as first year students saw on the front end was incredibly different from what we were told was happening or what happened. My own experience on staff with Master’s Commission Austin and what is now Elevate 3D is a testament to that. As a staff member, you’re held to a certain level of responsibility that students aren’t and that often has a negative effect. Though, in Master’s Commission Austin and Elevate 3D, many former (and current) students have emailed me or spoken to me saying that they had experienced much of what I had.

My experience with Master’s Commission is bittersweet. I met some great people along the way, and lived in some wonderful cities filled with entirely new (to me) cultural elements. I even traveled to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Myanmar. I learned to cook crawfish etouffee and blackened alligator. These experiences are special memories I like to remember.

But in Master’s Commission, I was convinced that I would be a better Christian if I were in the group and in ministry. I developed an elitist Christian mentality, where I believed I was better than the typical church member (also a sign of a cult). I felt I had to invest my energies into constant prayer and Bible study, and had to restrict any fun or recreation and worse yet I had to deny my ability to get a college degree, start a career and start a family.

I wish I’d never met the Master’s Commission group when they came to my church and my high school to perform a school assembly. I’d be long finished with my master’s degree, and be better off psychologically. I don’t believe in the cliche, “Everything happens for a reason,” but I do believe that I’m responsible for my choices and my actions. I also believe that I can still make the most of my life, can still achieve my goals, and can eventually heal to a point where I’m not haunted by my time there.

I do feel a little like someone who’s gone through war, or a terrible divorce, instead of someone who joined a discipleship program. Instead of the claims they promised, I find myself battling nightmares and being afraid of people and new situations.

After Master’s Commission, I stopped journaling, because it was something we were forced to do while there. Journaling was something I’d done since I was a child, because my favorite writer, Ann M. Martin gave me writing advice to “journal every day.” My love for journaling was destroyed after seven years of forced note taking and writing.

This blog has restored that love for journaling, as you can tell. And all the therapists are right–journaling is extremely therapeutic. Even as I write these blogs, knowing my inner thoughts are going to be seen online by thousands of people, I still feel like it’s my own personal journal. I feel a great sense of relief when my head is cleared of these memories, instead of letting them sit inside, rolling around, and getting mulled over and over and over.

I also feel a great sense of relief that I should be able to eat a bagel and cream cheese without having to necessarily associate it with much of the negative things I’ve dealt with in life. We’ll see. I’m sure you’ll hear from me soon if the cream cheese keeps me thinking about all of this.