Sister, My Sister
Tonight, I am thinking about the sisters, women friends, whom I left behind in the church. Twenty-five years have passed, and I still can see their faces and hear their voices. I remember meals, life events, and laughter. Yet, at the same time, I also reexperience pain, fear, and sadness.
These memories and feelings are especially intensified when I think about the people whom I personally recruited. A few entered the mission field, married, and had children, known as “Kingdom Kids.” These young people, instead of enjoying a simple life of music concerts, scholarship, and young love, are now recruiting others. Some of the people whom I met, thankfully, have left this oppressive, Bible-based group, which I will simply call “True Church.”
In Judaism, one does teshuva when a chet (mistake) is made. Teshuva literally means “to return.” In short, it is possible to make things right. This knowledge comforts me when I think that there is no possible way to retract those many solicitations to True Church events and attempts to indoctrinate others. I realize that I still have the opportunity to educate others about high-demand groups.
Therefore, I’m not writing about the church in anger, resentment, or therapeutic release. I’m using my pen to help you—and even myself—understand the culture in which real, normal people, who are in pursuit of friends, faith, and community, end up.
To help you appreciate the context of how your daughter or friend got involved, I will summarize my story.
In the early 1980s, I moved thousands of miles away from my home to study in a large city, where my boyfriend attended college. The first week of the semester, he ended the relationship. At 19, I found myself in an apartment about one mile away from my vast campus. I was completely removed from college life. By nature, I’m somewhat shy. The city overwhelmed me with its enormity and fast pace. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies, and depression quickly ensued. During this time, my parents were focused on their marital conflicts that would result in a divorce in a few short years. The perfect storm had begun.
At that time, a classmate invited me to an innocuous Bible study. Suddenly, I had instant friends, who called me several times a week to do numerous activities. They invited me to a country weekend retreat and waived my registration fee. While I had always held a sense of spirituality, I did not believe in the infallibility of the Bible. I would, and still do, classify myself as a spiritual seeker. I had, and still have, a deep respect for all religious traditions.
During the retreat, I met a handsome fellow visitor, who expressed interest in the church—and in me. Between passionate parking-lot kisses, he told me that he felt this group had the truth. I started going to church to see him, although leaders had advised him to disregard me because I was not as “advanced” in faith matters as he was.
Immediately, two women invited me to go through a select series of Bible studies to prove to myself that I wasn’t saved. Moreover, they indicated, using scriptures, that I needed to be baptized by immersion. The aforementioned man entered the baptistery fairly early. I wanted to have a relationship with him, and it was obvious that the only way to do so would be to pursue the church.
“Crucify your nervous self and surrender to God,” the young man told me on several occasions.
The women, finally exasperated at my lack of progress, decided to bring the campus minister into our studies. He personified a successful True Church leader in that he exuded a lot of charm and charisma. I fell under the spell as he spoke of beautiful families and true, everlasting marital love. Like any young college student, I wanted all of that in my future. The church promised so much compared to the “world.” I began to read the New International Version Bible, the only “acceptable” translation. During sermons and studies, we were expected to have an open Bible and notebook. We filled these journals with the leadership’s wisdom.
After four sessions, the evangelist broke me down through his intense reasoning and interrogations. He made me realize that I was a sinful creature who needed a relationship with God. Upset by this revelation, I decided to be baptized.
My world changed forever. The lives of your daughters, sisters, friends changed forever when they stepped into that water. A therapist called membership with groups such as the True Church a “marriage.” If that is the case, the baptism serves as a wedding. It is the initiation. The initiate steps into a baptistery, lake, ocean, or bathtub, and a True Church member dunks them. This act is followed by boisterous singing and joyful shouts from other congregants. The initiate is now a “baby” Christian and part of God’s select family.
True Church leaders will tell you that this church family has changed since its inception. They will reference the dismissal of its founders. One has moved on to create yet another group. It is reasonable to say that True Church made restructuring changes.
It had to, in light of the intense criticism of the leadership and its financial mishandlings. They apologized for heavy-handed tactics and said they would make modifications. Yet, many of their actual belief systems haven’t changed.
Recently, I watched about three dozen True Church YouTube videos. Twenty-five years later, it is still the same story: Christ took on your sin, and you need to rid yourself of it and be saved. The Bible remains infallible. The church recognizes only baptism by immersion in its church as a basis for salvation. Finally, most of the organization purports that it is the one true church.
What fascinated me about the videos is that the actual language of the congregants has not changed in 30 years. An Asian evangelist halfway around the world is using the words “fired up” in a discussion about his church goals. Our church sermons were peppered with these words, in addition to “brothers and sisters,” “winning the world for Christ,” and “amen.” Everyone is continually amazed at the “awesome things God is doing in bringing fruit to the ministries.” In thought reform, this is called “loading the language.” Groups create a special vocabulary that isolates them further, creating an us-vs-them mentality. It also tends to shut down critical thinking.
The videos also indicate that True Church leaders are still strong proponents of discipleship. One-on-one “discipling” has always been the key mechanism to this church. Everyone is “discipled” by a more mature member. This practice serves to retain members. I wanted to leave the church one month after my baptism, and my “discipler” cried. She pleaded with me not to go, and shared numerous scriptures. This is typical. Committed sisters inform you that you are a dog returning to its vomit (an actual Biblical passage). They try to manipulate you psychologically by bringing up relationships and memories.
During my 5 years in the church, the leadership assigned me to five different women “disciplers.” Women are only to work with women. They are not to teach, counsel, or train men. When they enter the patriarchal machine, they reinforce the doctrine of submission to members of their own sex on a day-to-day basis. “Older” sisters give advice on dating, clothing choices, vacations, moves, college majors, and jobs. The church controlled every aspect of our lives. My roommate and I wanted to go away for a weekend, and our disciplers told us we had to be back for Sunday services.
This hierarchy also occurs in living arrangements. Following my baptism, leaders told me that I needed to share a residence with “strong” True Church members. Non-Christians constituted anyone not in the organization. I was assigned roommates, who reported my doubts to other leaders. Roommates had direct “discipling” interactions with us.
For example, I know of a woman who had been mugged on the subway on her way to church. Frightened, she returned home. Her more mature roommate rebuked her sternly for not using the money in her pocket to venture on to church. There was never an excuse for missing a church service. When I was in True Church, I went to service on Sunday, Wednesday evening, and Friday nights. I also attended a Bible study, time with my “discipler,” and studies with non-Christians. I am still astounded that I graduated from college with all of these demands on my time. I have a lot of intellectual curiosity, and it is painful to me that I wasted my college years.
Don’t get me wrong: The church leaders expected us to be excellent students, so that we could be examples to the world. I simply couldn’t manage everything. One’s entire True Church existence is centered on “growing” as a Christian and bringing in as many people as possible. We were taught how to meet people during classes, on subways, in grocery store lines and bring them to Bible studies. We kept small notebooks with people’s telephone numbers and notes about them. This process was ultimately supposed to lead to “fruit,” or conversions.
When I was selling church, I brought in numerous visitors. Many were baptized. I “discipled” three young sisters, but two “fell away,” or left the church. The leaders reassigned the other young woman to a “more challenging” “discipler,” who would address her sin and doubt more aggressively. In 5 years, I rose only to assistant Bible study leader, while those who were recruited at the same time were ministry interns or women’s counselors. I was constantly plagued with doubts, which were assuaged by my older sisters, women also in the church.
People often ask me why I stayed so long. Living in the church was akin to a bad, abusive relationship. I endured intense criticism, intimidation, and punishment. Yet, at times, there was fun, pleasure, and celebration. The combination strengthened a traumatic bond, a relationship that is not logical. Dutton and Painter (1981) have defined traumatic bonding as “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other” (in Kurst-Swanger & Petcosky, 2003, p. 37). The combination of intense kindness and pain was confusing. I simply went into survival mode.
As young women, we were caught up with the church’s promises; in particular, the romantic notion of marriage. Weddings were heady, hypnotic experiences in the True Church. The couple was following “God’s plan” and starting an “awesome family.”
Of note, the True Church was very interested in our sex lives. We were celibate until marriage. When dating “steady,” mature Christians would hold hands and kiss each other on the mouth at the door. “Disciplers” continually asked us if we had fallen into lustful thoughts or masturbation. I was present when a male leader asked my roommate if she did the latter, and if she used pencils or buttons. This voyeurism was disguised as practice known as “getting to the root of the sin.” It also stripped us of any personal, protective boundaries, so that we were more open to their words.
Words shaped our very existence.
After spending 5 years in the church, I slowly began to listen to other voices. A report about the True Church from a reputable newspaper shook me to the core. The church dismissed these accounts as “persecution” and “spiritual pornography.” I am still grateful to that reporter. Despite the church’s attempts to neutralize the damage, the seeds of doubt had been planted.
I began to spend time with friends outside of the church. Most of them believed that I was in a bad environment and were happy to assist me. I began to look more critically at my leaders.
Then, a few weeks after my 24th birthday, I left. Like a woman leaving an abusive marriage, with no outside friends or a bank account filled with money, I planned my escape. I sought advice from a mainline church leader, who encouraged me to get out of my living situation as quickly as possible. I stopped giving as much money to the church. I got back in touch with my family and friends on the outside. I had always maintained these relationships, but on a more superficial level. The goal had been to eventually convert these people. Therefore, they only knew a fake, happy individual who popped into their lives now and then.
I was lucky. My father supported my move financially and emotionally. I was young enough to begin recreating my life. Ironically, I did not start intensely working on this piece of my life until recently. I found a therapist who specializes in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. She has been an invaluable piece in my recovery. Through forums, I talk with women whose friends and loved ones are still in groups like this one.
For the most part, I have moved on with my life. I vacillate in my spiritual beliefs. I worship in several different venues. Yet, I feel grounded. I am pleased with the life I have created.
Still, on nights like tonight, I remember my former sisters and the late-night talks around the 1950s chrome kitchen table. I am burdened.
They will never leave my freed heart.
Kurst-Swanger, K., & Petcosky J. L. (2003). Violence in the home: Multidisciplinary perspectives (p. 37). New York: Oxford University Press.
About the Author
Sophie Grayce is the pseudonym of a woman who spent 5 years in a cult in the early 1980s. After leaving, she earned a Master of Arts degree and established a career. She has traveled to four countries and many cities in the United States.