My first memory of growing up in a Fundamental Christian Cult was about age 9. I had on a bubble onesie – the kind usually seen on babies, unless you live in the deep South. It had long pants legs, and bib top, and fabric that made bubbles in both the legs and puff sleeves. It was black and white checkered with polkadots. I feel certain I also had a giant matching bow in my hair, but I don’t remember this detail. I describe the outfit to you to reiterate just how innocent I was at this time in my life. Any 9 year old who doesn’t know enough to rip that outfit off her body in a pre-teen rage is truly an innocent. I was told I looked adorable and I believed it — and I probably did, in a ridiculously infantile way.
Anyway, I had on my bubble onesie and was in the ladies bathroom off the fellowship hall washing my hands. The bathroom was seafoam green and was decorated with cheap pink and white fake roses. It oozed a man’s view of femininity and grace. Another girl my age, Rebecca, came in and washed her hands. She looked at me and flatly stated, “It is a sin for girls to wear pants. It is not loving to our brothers in Christ to be so immodest.” I was very confused. I barely knew this girl and we hadn’t been at this “church” for long. I didn’t have a clear understanding of modesty or immodesty. My feelings were hurt and I felt aware of myself in a way I had not before.
On the way home, I told my mother of the encounter. I wish I could tell you what she said to me, but I honestly don’t remember. At that time in our lives together I can imagine it was something like, “you look adorable. Different people will have different beliefs.”
In less than six months I was wearing only long dresses and skirts to all cult (we called it church) and school related activities and my mother was too. And so it began, like a family of frogs in a pot of navy and white water over a small flame.
There will be journals/blogs from me in the coming months talking about various aspects of growing up in and eventually leaving a cult. However, today, I really want to share about the feelings that come when you realize it was all underpinned by lies and half truths and that the leaders care nothing for you or your soul. Leaders that were using their position for their own gain and not even remotely following what they conditioned you to believe and blindly follow. I want to talk about that feeling when you are left with the tatters of their doctrine and you have no idea what to do next.
It is no secret to anyone who sees my social media that I am very outspoken about politics and social justice. Yesterday, January 20th, 2021 should have been a day of triumph and even maybe some light gloating for me. But it wasn’t. My thoughts were consumed by empathy for those that must be watching the television with the tatters of their shattered beliefs when there was no Storm, only beautiful windy blue skies, and a poem.
I’ve been there. I’ve been sitting on the edge of my bed with a numb mind and a gaping hole in my chest, not knowing who or what to believe. I know that feeling. That feeling shaped my life. It made me who I am. It makes me who I am. I see you.
It does not matter that my cult was different than your cult. It does not matter that when I blindly followed, you would have known better and when you blindly followed, I would have known better. What matters is that cults create active participants who follow because they genuinely believe they are fighting a righteous fight. They genuinely believe the leader or movement is filling a need they feel in their soul. I truly believe that many (or even most) of you who would be reading this truly believed your leader to be of God and you followed for 4-6 years believing he would usher in a time of righteous justice and the fury of a jealous God. I know a lot about that. More importantly, I know a lot about what if feels like when that all just… disappears.
It’s hard to describe the emptiness, pain, betrayal, anger, and numbness that comes when you realize there is no Storm. Or in my case, the Jesus I was taught was not the Christ of the scriptures. The leader who taught it, was not a man of God. Whether you call it the Storm, Jesus, Kraken, Eden, Etc. it’s all the same. When you realize the thing you’ve trusted is untrustworthy…. or maybe you’re not even there yet. Maybe you’re just reeling, waiting for the trusted thing to show up, to return, to restore your confidence. It will not. Please learn from my mistakes, it will not come. The cult never delivers on its promises – never.
Take a deep breath.
If you are of a Christian faith, remember, nothing will be Jesus for you. Nothing. Anything that promises justice and righteousness outside of love, selflessness, and being the least of these, is not of Christ. They will know you by your love. My friends, please hear me, I DO NOT KNOW YOU. I have not known you by your love for these many years. I have never felt more determined to be away from the formal church. Her people are nothing I want to be these last few years. Please hear me. Please listen to those of us who are telling you — this is not of Christ or the things of God.
If you are not of the Christian faith, please know that the feeling of righteousness and security this cult has brought you was only smoke and mirrors. It was for the benefit of the leader and only the leader. It’s always only for the leader. You’ve been slowly groomed by half truths and sometimes outright lies. There are grains and slivers, but never substantiative truth in these cults. Your beauty, identity, and security is within yourself and your kindness and compassion to others.
I could, and perhaps will, write an entire book on the journey of recovery from leaving a cult. It’s hard, often lonely, and at times very embarrassing. I just want you to know, you are not alone. I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m sorry you were so deceived. I’m sorry you are hurting. For me, one of the hardest things about leaving was having been so conditioned to sense threat everywhere and anywhere. That everything and everyone could be part of a bigger, broader, overarching danger. Seek peace, my friends. Seek the things that don’t feel scary or threatening. Seek life in a local perspective, rather than a global perspective. Perhaps Mr. Rodgers really did say it best: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Even better, be the helpers. Volunteer, listen, read. Begin to immerse yourself in books by people who think very differently than you — old books, not new books. Read biographies. Watch documentaries. Read things that were written for a different time and a different people. Take some time to not know who you are and sit with that discomfort for a while.
Please know that you are worthy despite what you may have said or done within the cult. The other side is available to you. You are worthy to be wrong, accept that wrong and those you may have wronged, and change. You are worthy to grow, and change, and love. There are promises of sunshine and warmth when there is, in fact, no Storm.
To my friends who screamed and ranted and yelled warnings about the leader and the cult, please, hear me. I feel and understand your anger. But hear me when I say: Leaving is hard. Leaving is lonely. Leaving is scary. Those doubting need a safe place to land. I am not advocating “forgive and forget” in any way. I am responsible for my actions when I was in a cult. I am responsible for what I said, what I did, and who I hurt during those years. However, had it not been for those who gave me a safe place to land when it all came shattering around me, I don’t believe I would have survived.