(Content note: Cult abuse.)
Last time we talked about the idea of being hardcore in religion. Today we’re going to talk about where that idea almost got me.
I was Pentecostal, largely because this type of Christianity seemed like the most authentically Biblical practice of it that I could find. I’d very slowly become aware of feelings of uncertainty and unease about my practice of religion, however. I’d seen people get “miraculously” “healed” but end up back in their wheelchairs the next week; I’d seen people claim that speaking in tongues was true languages yet seem curiously unwilling to invite linguists to test their infantile babble. I’d seen countless prophecies turn out not to pass and heard countless claims I knew–or found out–had no basis in fact. And no matter how often I declared that I was in a “relationship” with Jesus, I didn’t feel like I was at all.
Somehow I got the idea that the problem was that I was doing something wrong. If I could just find the right way to worship, everything would pull together again.
In the middle of my questioning, a stranger came to one of our church’s Sunday night services to talk to folks about this Christian group he led out at Waco.
Ezekiel represented a group called the Farm (names have been changed somewhat). And his group was looking for new members.
He had strange, glittering eyes. He wore farmers’ clothing–overalls, a straw hat, boots, a plaid shirt–and had a silvery wild-man beard. He was polite enough during the service–polite enough that I didn’t even realize he was there till later–but afterward in a small kaffeeklatsch with the church’s more active younger members he claimed that “the cloud had moved” to the Farm so we should all just drop everything and run out there to join up. He was attending local Pentecostal churches in Houston because our theology and doctrines lined up pretty well with what they were doing, just not as extremely, and no, I don’t think he’d asked permission from any of the local pastors to fish off their docks.
My husband Biff had run into Ezekiel at that service’s altar call and was super-excited about what he’d hinted at. Biff talked about it for a long time before getting distracted, but even at the time I didn’t think much would come of it. After a flurry of get-togethers, Ezekiel’s first formal meeting with those of us he’d culled from the herd was held in the parking lot of our church a few days after he’d first started hanging out with us. We stood in a circle around Ezekiel, who waved a very tattered Bible in the air for emphasis as he spoke.
Ezekiel hooked his marks from the first moment.
As sales speeches go, it was quite a masterful one. Everybody there was both young and a new convert. Not a single lifelong member had deigned to show up at all to the meeting; I was the only woman there. The men around me were eager to hear what this charismatic preacher had to say. I stayed quiet and listened as Ezekiel told us with considerable vehemence that the cloud had moved.
That terminology was absolutely deliberate, make no mistake. The idea of a cloud moving as a way our god had of directing people where to go next is a very old one in some parts of Christianity. It was imagery we all understood immediately and intimately; it resonated with us in a way that can’t be overstated. Even I personally used that metaphor to explain how I moved from denomination to denomination. It wasn’t hard at all to conceive of the Farm as not only more hardcore but also as doing things more in line with the Bible than even my current Pentecostal church was. I had been wanting to live like a first-century Christian, and this really seemed like the real deal.
But something felt seriously wrong that night.
I couldn’t figure out what it was for a long time. Maybe it was something about the way Ezekiel talked; he demonized anybody who disagreed with him and made his group sound like the Second Coming. Maybe it was something about how he looked at me with such undisguised contempt when I asked questions. It turned out that he hadn’t wanted any women at his meeting. He’d wanted it to be all men, apparently. I’d come along because I needed first-hand information and couldn’t trust my bombastic husband to relay anything accurately. Ezekiel made clear that back in Waco, that kind of outrageous, Jezebel-spirit rebelliousness was not tolerated.
After that meeting, I realized that his group might indeed be very Biblical indeed, oh it might be incredibly Biblical, it might even be the most Biblical group of Christians anywhere in the world as Ezekiel claimed it was, but it was definitely and absolutely not a good place for me or really for anybody. I knew somehow that he meant to hurt whoever was foolish enough to trust him.
I was in the minority in that belief, though. It was too bad Ezekiel hadn’t brought a bus with him that night–if he had, chances are he’d have been driving it back to Waco that very night filled top to bottom with singing Pentecostal college-aged guys. As it was, after that meeting, all Biff could talk about on the drive home was how excited he was about joining the Farm. As far as my husband was concerned, joining them was a done deal. Most of the rest of the young people who’d been at that meeting were similarly eager to go out to Waco, it’d seemed. When I tried to share my misgivings with my husband, he completely blew me off.
One by one, to Ezekiel’s increasing anger and annoyance, my friends began to withdraw their decision; some just couldn’t justify dropping out of school, while others were expecting babies. Finally only Biff and two of our other friends, Big and Little Dave (they were both gangly young single men named Dave; one was tall, the other short), remained totally convinced they wanted to go. Ezekiel insulted the people who’d dropped out as cowards who didn’t “really” want to follow our god’s clearly-indicated plan.
Biff and I ended up having a showdown over it in our little apartment. I point-blank told him that if he went to Waco, he would be going without me. I was not leaving Houston and I was not joining the Farm. There was no negotiation to be had on this point: I absolutely refused to go.
When Biff ran to Ezekiel for advice, he shamed Biff for not being more of a real man for not reining in his rebellious wife more effectively. He said he’d known I was nothing but trouble! He accused me of being lukewarm as well as sinful and unfeminine for fighting my husband’s decision to go to Waco. Biff shared this information with me thinking it’d shame me into going, but it backfired, making me even more certain that joining the Farm would be a terrible idea.
I really don’t know why Biff thought the best course of action at that point was to sneak behind my back to go ask our pastor to back him up. I know now that our pastor–a very dear old man with a good head on his shoulders, all things considered–was alarmed by what he now knew was a serious attempt to lead astray new converts who didn’t yet know better. So he gave my husband a truly epic tongue-lashing.
Chastened and cowed, Biff dropped the idea, and in the end, Ezekiel returned to Waco with only Big and Little Dave.
We didn’t hear much else out of the Farm for a while. We figured that our friends were just busy, and we knew that phone service wasn’t always assured there.
Then one day the next spring, I turned on the television and saw news reports of a religious cult in Waco getting blown up. Yes, this was David Koresh’s group.
At the time nobody knew much about it. We didn’t realize there might be another cult in Waco besides the one that’d ensnared our friends. My friends and I were scared to death for the lives of Big and Little Dave. We had no idea how to contact them and didn’t know any of their families’ contact information–none of them were members of our church and weren’t actually friendly to us anyway. Finally word came to us that the Farm had not been David Koresh’s group after all–just down the road from it–and that the Farm had not been involved in the conflict in any way. Then we had to wait longer to find out what exactly had happened to our friends.
When I finally saw my friends a couple of weeks after the conflict’s end, I was stunned by their weak, emaciated, traumatized state. The reason they hadn’t reached out to us previously, it seems, is that they had almost been killed through violence, neglect, and emotional trauma. They told us that the Farm’s leaders had, in the name of disciplining them for a variety of offenses, deprived them of sleep, worked them almost to death, taken and sold their shared car, and a variety of other abuses. Little Dave had gotten terribly sick and weak as a result, but the Farm’s leaders had not allowed him to get medical assistance. My friends had been beaten and brainwashed so badly that they couldn’t see a way out of the situation.
And I saw in a sudden flash of insight:
This is exactly what being hardcore gets people.
This. Right here. This.
When the ATF had raided David Koresh’s compound just down the road from the Farm, the Farm’s people had stood in their yard to watch it all burn and had rejoiced because obviously that meant that “God” was blessing them and protecting them from the evil secular world’s authorities–because according to Big Dave, the Farm was not only way more abusive but also had a whole lot more guns. Thus emboldened, after the raid the Farm had only gotten worse in every way. Finally Big Dave (who by now was convinced that Little Dave would die without medical care) got to a phone and called his parents. With their aid, he escaped with Little Dave. Today was the first time they’d felt able to face anybody from their old lives.
My friends were like shells, like ghosts; they never returned to church, and they never really recovered from their ordeal. Even my socially-inept husband understood somehow that he shouldn’t go too far in trying to get them to return to church. Something about them frightened us all.
By now we’d also met people calling themselves Seekers. These were super-hardcore young Christians who lived off garbage, wore castoffs they were given or found in the trash, and were the most fervent Christians I’d ever met. Though they were way more goodhearted than Ezekiel had ever been, and though they were doing exactly what the Bible told Christians to do in every single particular, this didn’t seem like a life a loving god would ever want his precious children to lead. I’d found out as well about a growing movement called covenant marriage, which, though not legal anywhere yet, seemed even then like a total recipe for mistreatment of women.
I’d begun noticing that cults, while very fervent in a lot of ways, seemed like hotbeds of abuse and predation. Religions marked by extremism–and the societies dominated by those religions–were far from happy, idyllic lands of peace, joy, contentment, and progress. Their leaders ruled by violence and tight control, not love.
The more invested someone was in being a hardcore zealot, the more controlling that person seemed and the more likely abuse would occur.
I felt despair as I looked across a landscape of shattered lives and broken hearts. There just wasn’t any group that seemed both really Biblical and also healthy and affirming for its members. The further I got in my quest, the more abuse I found and the less Jesus-like people were. It almost seemed like cult leaders preyed upon that exact desire to be more hardcore than everybody else, hooking people like me by promising us that immersive, totally-on-fire experience we craved. All I wanted was to be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™–but the harder I tried to be one, the further away from me that goal slid.
If my god was real, then why did he allow these terrible things to happen to people who just wanted to follow him as closely as they could? With each discovery I made of ghastly mistreatment, the likelihood became lower and lower that any real, genuine group existed that fit the description I imagined TRUE CHRISTIANS™ had.
And how were all these Christian cults able to use the Bible to back up their opinions about how people should live? Ezekiel had had dozens of Bible verses to reinforce his message during that fateful parking-lot meeting. It’d just seemed so impossible back then that someone could twist Bible verses so completely and for that matter find enough twistable verses to support any position whatsoever. I was finally starting to notice how easily that was done and I was finally starting to wonder why Ezekiel’s Bible-backed opinion was so demonstrably more harmful than, say, my own pastor’s Bible-backed opinion. I was finally starting to wonder how, when both people have purely subjective, untestable, unverified opinions, to figure out which opinion–if either–was the correct one.
Worst of all, Big and Little Dave had joined the Farm because they had been convinced it’d been “God’s” will to go there. Biff had thought the same thing. But I’d prayed too and had gotten a very different outcome, and our pastor certainly had agreed not with Biff but with me. So which of us were right? Had it really been “God’s” will that my friends had almost been killed by a violent cult? If it hadn’t been, then how had they gotten his will so wrong? How could anybody know with any accuracy what it was? How could our god allow someone to get things so wrong?
These were some scary questions to ask. But I had to almost lose two friends and a marriage to get even that far. I did not lose my faith over the incident, but it rattled me very badly that I couldn’t trust unbridled fervor and enthusiasm, nor Bible verses nor anachronistic lifestyles, to figure out what path was correct for me.
To use the gaming metaphor, I’d gotten another roll of the dice–and had failed to see through the illusion. But another roll was coming my way.
As for Big and Little Dave, they resumed taking college courses on a part-time basis; Little Dave moved in with Big Dave and his parents for a while. I think their old church friends were all-too-vivid reminders of what had happened to them in Waco as well as a potent reminder of their error in judgment in going there. They drifted out of our orbit, and all we could do was remember very sadly the old days when things had seemed so much easier and more innocent, and wonder how such great intentions could go so seriously awry.