Hurricane Harvey, and How Fundamentalist Groups Attract and Retain Members

As Hurricane Harvey pummeled Houston, Michael and Debi Pearl’s ministry, No Greater Joy, organized quickly to send a team to Texas to prepare and serve food:

As the flood waters in Houston continue to rise, Nathan and a team of Amish men from the community have deployed (with proper equipment) to Houston, partnering with several local fire rescue stations and officials to coordinate their rescue efforts. One of the fire departments through which we are coordinating asked that we bring and prepare food for the rescued, as well as the rescuers. 100% of your gift goes to disaster relief work for things like fuel, supplies, equipment, food, water and any other need for the victims of Hurricane Harvey. The task set before the team is brutal, dangerous work, so please pray for them.

The organization has since posted two updates, both of which contain pictures of their team cooking and distributing food.

In the pages of No Greater Joy’s magazine and its many books, Michael and Debi Pearl inform their followers that God wants parents to beat their children into submission and wives to obey their husbands without question. I’ve written about the Pearls perhaps more than any other fundamentalist organization. I grew up in a Pearl-following home; I saw their teachings negatively affect my life and that of my siblings (and parents) in very concrete ways. I consider their materials and teachings extremely dangerous.

—In 2006, four-year-old Sean Paddock was suffocated to death when his adoptive mother tied him in blankets to keep him from getting out of the bed; his parents were followers of the Pearls’ child-training methods.

—In 2010, seven-year-old Lydia Schatz died of liver failure when the tissue in her thighs broke down due to a beating that lasted for hours; her parents, followers of the Pearls, were beating her in accordance with the Pearls’ child-training methods.

—In 2011, thirteen-year-old Hana Williams died of hypothermia after her parents locked her outside in a cold rain in an effort to break her rebellious spirit; her parents, too, were Pearl followers.

Michael and Debi Pearl have come under increasing criticism in the last decade, not only from without Christian homeschooling but also from within, as a gentle parenting movement has deemphasized the harsh physical discipline the Pearls preach. Still, though, they have followers. There are many who have refused to turn away from their ministry, including my own parents.

Their response to Hurricane Harvey is an excellent example of how fundamentalist organizations like No Greater Joy attract and retain followers despite abusive aspects or dangerous teachings. In organizing disaster response—as well as regular engagement in soup kitchens or prison ministries on the local level—these organizations both remain relevant and do concrete good (or at least have the appearance of it).

For many, this sort of direct action can paper over a lot, and can even serve as a testimony of the organization’s godliness—“you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16).

In the end, I’m not sure whether anything can be done about this. Any help is welcome when it comes to a disaster of this sort, and no help should be turned away. Still, it’s hard for me to watch an abusive organization whose teachings have lead to the deaths of at least three children use a disaster like this to promote their brand. Serving up meals in Houston, however genuine the impulse, does not make the Pearls’ teachings any less dangerous.

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