Mar 31, 2017

Russia designates myriad of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ materials as extremist

The Jehovah’s Witnesses center underwent an unscheduled inspection of documents from February 8 to 27

ITAR-TASS/Yevgeny Yepachintsev
March 31, 2017

MOSCOW, March 30. /TASS/. In the period of 2009 through 2016, the Russian Justice Ministry recognized 95 materials circulated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses Managerial Center in Russia religious organization as the ones having an extremist nature, the ministry said in a report at its official homepage.

"In the period of 2009 through to 2016, ninety-five materials that Jehovah’s Witnesses brought into and circulated in Russia were found to have an extremist nature," the report said. "As many as eight local cells of the organization were recognized to be extremist ones, banned and disbanded since 2009."

The Jehovah’s Witnesses center underwent an unscheduled inspection of documents in the period of February 8 through February 27.

The report also said the Justice Ministry suspended all activities of the organization as of March 15 and until consideration of the case by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.

As of March 15, the organization and its structural units cannot use the services of mass media, hold meetings or mass actions or public functions, or use bank accounts except for the purpose of paying bills and taxes, compensating for the losses inflicted upon others and paying out remunerations to the personnel they hire.

Reports on suspension of operations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses managerial center appeared in the media on March 23 when the Justice Ministry placed it on the list of public and religious organizations, the operations of which were suspended in the wake of their extremist actions.

On April 5, Russia’s Supreme Court will hear a lawsuit wherein the Justice Ministry seeks to recognize the Jehova’s Witnesses as a religious organization, to disband it and to ban its operations in Russia.

The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life

Young adults who decide to abandon their cloistered Jewish communities have only one another — and a single organization — to help them navigate the alternate reality of modern-day New York.
Young adults who decide to abandon their cloistered Jewish communities have only one another — and a single organization — to help them navigate the alternate reality of modern-day New York.

MARCH 30, 2017

On Thursdays, the nonprofit organization Footsteps hosts a drop-in group for its membership of formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, who mostly refer to themselves as "off the derech." "Derech" means "path" in Hebrew, and "off the derech," or O.T.D. for short, is how their ultra-Orthodox families and friends refer to them when they break away from these tight-knit, impermeable communities, as in: "Did you hear that Shaindel's daughter Rivkie is off the derech? I heard she has a smartphone and has been going to museums." So even though the term is burdened with the yoke of the very thing they are trying to flee, members remain huddled together under "O.T.D." on their blogs and in their Facebook groups, where their favored hashtag is #itgetsbesser — besser meaning "better" in Yiddish. Sometimes someone will pop up on a message board or in an email group and say, "Shouldn't we decide to call ourselves something else?" But it never takes. Reclamations are messy.

At the drop-in session I attended, 10 men and women in their 20s and 30s sat around a coffee table. Some of them were dressed like me, in jeans and American casualwear, and others wore the clothing of their upbringings: long skirts and high-collared shirts for women; black velvet skullcaps and long, virgin beards and payot (untrimmed side locks) for men. Half of them had extricated themselves from their communities and were navigating new, secular lives. But half still lived among their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox sects in areas of New York City, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley and were secretly dipping their toes into the secular world — attending these meetings, but also doing things as simple as walking down the street without head coverings, or trying on pants in a clothing store, or eating a nonkosher doughnut, or using the internet. They had families at home who believed they were in evening Torah learning sessions, or out for a walk, or at synagogue for evening prayers. On the coffee table were two pizzas, one kosher, one nonkosher. The kosher pizza tasted better, but only a couple of people ate it.

The group was facilitated by a Footsteps social worker, Jesse Pietroniro, soft-spoken and kind, who had told me that he had his own conflicted religious upbringing. He allowed the attendees to democratically settle on a loose theme for the evening. One woman in her early 20s brought up sexuality. She had started to date and wasn't quite sure what the norms were. A young man talked about how hard it was for him to interact with women casually outside his community, since he was taught that sexual desire outside the intent to procreate means that one is a sexual predator, so anytime he was attracted to someone, he worried he was going to do something untoward, or that he was a kind of monster. The young woman who had suggested the theme said she didn't know when exactly to submit to kissing — the first date? The second? Is she a slut if she kisses at all? Is it still bad nowadays to be a slut? She'd heard girls talking on the subway and calling each other sluts, and they were laughing. Are there rules for this? A few of them made sex jokes. The O.T.D.ers, newly alive in a world of puns and innuendo, love a junior-high-grade sex joke. The social worker narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips and tapped a finger to his chin and nodded and opened the question up to the group. (I was allowed to document the meeting on the condition that I wouldn't publish anyone's name or descriptive information.)

Another woman in her early 20s, sitting on the sofa in jeans with one leg slung over its arm, told us she had spent most of her life being molested by her father. She told the group that recently she had taken to advertising online, saying she followed the laws of family purity — going to a ritual bath after menstruation, not having sex during her "unclean" week — and that she was available for sex in exchange for money. Ultra-Orthodox men visited her at all hours, and they cheated on their wives, having sex with this ritually pure young woman in her apartment. When the men finished, they told her what a shame it was that she was off the derech, that she seemed nice, that she should try again at a religious life.

A man, 30ish, still with a beard that he now trimmed closely to his face, talked about staying with his religious wife, who knew he was no longer religious but wouldn't join him on the other side. He knew the marriage should be over, but he wouldn't leave, and he couldn't bring himself to cheat on her, and he wanted to know if he was unable to cheat on her because he was bound up by his religious values or because he was innately a good person. Another married man said that you don't need to be taught in a religious context not to cheat on your wife — it's a tenet of secular marriage as well, and what the whole operation often depends on.

"I guess I just don't know if I'm a good person because I'm a good person," said the guy who wanted to cheat but might not, "or if I'm a good person because I was taught to be a good person."

They went around in circles for many minutes, most of them summoning scriptural sources on whether morality is inherent, then other sources to make or disprove that point, then laughing at the fact that they'd summoned Scripture. The married man who was deciding if he should have sex outside his marriage put his head in his hands, then through his hair and made a great, guttural noise of frustration.

They all took a breath and laughed at themselves again, and then they went silent, and in their silence was their uncertainty, now familiar, of whether these questions would ever be answered, and if they could talk enough about it to the point where they would ever feel normal. God, would it ever feel normal?

Footsteps was started in 2003 by a college student named Malkie Schwartz, who grew up in the Lubavitch sect in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and who knew after high school that she wanted to step off the community's moving walkway to marriage and motherhood. She moved in with a grandmother who wasn't religious and enrolled at Hunter College on the Upper East Side.

But just because she left her community didn't mean that she felt part of the secular one. She started Footsteps as a drop-in group right there at Hunter and told a couple of formerly religious friends what she was doing. About 20 people showed up to the first meeting. Soon they had a G.E.D. study group — and a human-sexuality-and-relationships group, so that they could learn about sex education, which was normally taught to the ultra-Orthodox only in the days leading up to their weddings. Footsteps became a chrysalis for them through which they would leap into their new lives, just as soon as they figured out exactly how to live them.

Schwartz eventually left the organization in the hands of nonprofit professionals — Footsteps was a chrysalis for her, too — and went to law school. Today, Footsteps is a 501(c)(3) with an executive director, social workers, scholarships, court-companion programs and special events like fashion nights, at which members learn about modern style outside the realm of black-and-white dresses and suits and hats. Ultra-Orthodox communities, whose leaders stand vigil against outside influences, know about Footsteps; about half the people I met in Footsteps first heard of it when they were accused by someone in their family of being a member.

It's hard to talk about O.T.D.ers as a group, because like the rest of us, like ultra-Orthodox people, too, they are individuals. No two people who practice religion do it exactly the same way, despite how much it seems to the secular world that they rally around sameness; and no one who leaves it leaves the same way, either. In the region of New York City, New Jersey, and the Hudson Valley that Footsteps serves, 546,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews live in one of about five different sects. With a few exceptions, like the Skver sect in New Square, N.Y., which has actual boundaries and operates its own schools, the ultra-Orthodox live not in cloistered neighborhoods, but among secular America in Crown Heights, Flatbush and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and beyond. Perhaps it's easiest to think of them as living in a different dimension — occupying the same space but speaking a different language (Yiddish, for the most part), attending different schools, seeing their own doctors, handling judicial issues among themselves and eating their own food from their own markets.

So once they leave, if they leave, they learn how ill equipped they are for survival outside their home neighborhoods, and that has a lot to do with the ways that ultra-Orthodox communities are valuable and good: the daily cycle of prayer and school and learning; how people share goals about family and values; how neighbors support one another during times of need. Once that's gone, and all a person has is her mostly Judaic-studies education and little familial support and no real skills, life gets scary. For those who leave and are married with children, the community tends to embrace the spouse left behind and help raise funds for legal support to help that person retain custody of the children. You could be someone with a spouse and children one day and find yourself completely alone the next.

I learned about Footsteps in 2015, after the very public suicide of one of its young members. Her name was Faigy Mayer, and on a hot night in July, she went to the top of 230 Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron district, where there's a rooftop bar, and jumped. In death, she became something of a brief symbol (and also a lightning rod) for the O.T.D. movement, with her story plastered across local papers, many illustrated by a Facebook image of her holding a paintbrush and standing in front of a newly painted mural that said "Life is Beautiful."

As news of her death broke in the New York tabloids and the Jewish papers, seemingly all the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox people I know (who number in the hundreds — but more on that later) converged on my Facebook page to wonder if the suicide of Faigy Mayer was a case of mental illness or if suicidal tendencies were a condition inherent to the kind of person who would leave a secure and comfortable community in favor of a large world with no guarantees, a world that you'd been warned would reject you. What kind of person wants to leave safety and start from the beginning, sounding different from everyone else, not knowing what to say, not knowing how to make a living — not knowing how to read past a sixth-grade level, because English is taught as an afterthought, if at all, in many of these schools?

The conversation on my Facebook page was like the ones that happen between Republicans and Democrats after mass shootings: Half the posts said that we should not be looking at religious society as a cause of mental illness. The other half responded that in many ultra-Orthodox communities, the mentally ill don't get help not because it isn't available to them but because there's a stigma of bad genetics that could make a person less attractive in later marital matchmaking. And does someone have to be mentally ill to feel hopeless after being rejected by her family? Does someone have to be extraordinarily sick to succumb to the despair she feels after having ventured out into a world where she is all alone, without the skills to survive?

"I can't think of many members who haven't, at one time or another in their journeys, contemplated suicide because they have felt they have no other options," says Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps. Meaning, by the time Faigy died, they were used to this. On the night of her death, the lights stayed on at Foosteps, and members came in for an impromptu drop-in group. The social workers reached out to the members they knew to be struggling and encouraged them to come in and talk. They planned a memorial for a few weeks later.

There were two notable O.T.D. deaths in the last few years. A year and a half before, it was Deb Tambor, who overdosed on pills and vodka, surrounded by the pictures of the three children she lost custody of when she left her Skver sect in Monsey. A year after that, Joey Diangello, 34, overdosed after becoming a powerful force in protesting child abuse in ultra-Orthodox communities; he said he was raped in a ritual bath by an adult when he was 7.

After I heard about Faigy's death, I interviewed people who knew her, hoping to be able to paint a portrait I ultimately couldn't. Her family relationships had been too contentious, and only a few of her family members would speak with me. Her friends told me different stories, but ultimately, the only thing I could say about her was that she was sick and didn't get the care she needed. On the night of a Footsteps Thanksgiving celebration, I returned home to news that Faigy's older sister, Sara, who was religious and had just been released from a psychiatric facility, had hanged herself in her parents' home.

Shmuly was among the Footsteps members who knew Faigy. By the time of her memorial service, he had been O.T.D. for several years, having understood since elementary school that there was a world beyond 60th Street in Borough Park, Brooklyn. All he ever wanted was to know more about it. He was afraid of being married off after high school and so went to Israel for yeshiva (and then to India and then to Thailand) and staved off marital offers, until one day he found Footsteps and enrolled in the G.E.D. course there.

Shmuly had known he wanted to go to college ever since he was sneak-reading $7 best sellers he found on the rack at Duane Reade. He loved the story "The Cop and the Anthem," by O. Henry; he read the abridged version of "The Call of the Wild" over and over. But his school would not release his transcripts for college applications, and so he spent a year of intense study in the computer labs at Footsteps, starting with the English language and basic long division and ending with his G.E.D. He couldn't learn enough about philosophy and art. He loved the 20th-century avant-garde, like secessionist art and Dadaism; he loved the tension between the old and new ideas of the art world, and how certain art was rejected as if it were corrupting or dangerous. He enrolled at Hunter College to study art history.

He's 27 now, tall and smiley and soft-spoken and polite. His English is noticeably inflected with Yiddish: His T is aspirated and dentalized instead of glottalized — in "certain" and "button," he pronounces the T, whereas most Americans just swallow it in the back of our mouths. His O vowel is less diphthongized than most American speech, and he tends to avoid contractions. He says words like "hair" and "bear" as "hear" and "beer." It doesn't bother Shmuly that he sounds different; "Yiddish is very hipster now," he says.

I also met Malky, who knew Faigy Mayer but hadn't been close with her. Malky was from a prominent family who lived in an Israeli community so strict that when tourists walked through in short sleeves and shorts, they literally stoned them. In the summer, Malky would complain about the black tights she had to wear, how hot a Middle Eastern July could be, and her mother would say, "Well, hell is hotter." When they moved to the States, Malky taught art classes to ultra-Orthodox children and wore skirts that were not black, and this marked her as a difficult marital match. Finally her parents found someone who would marry her, but Malky took one look at him and said no. It wasn't her choice, though. Her parents, whom she loved very much, promised her to this man anyway. "Who's going to want you?" she remembers her father, who was equally bereft, telling her. "You're 22. You're wearing green skirts. We had no choice."

Malky planned to kill herself before her wedding. Six weeks before the big day, or her "deadline," as she calls it, she read an article in an Israeli newspaper about Footsteps. She called the group and told the counselor who answered that her parents were going to marry her off, and the counselor asked, "Well, what do you want?" Nobody had ever asked her this before. She went through with the wedding, because she loved her family and couldn't imagine that they didn't deep down know what was best for her in a way that she didn't.

Her parents told her that she would get used to the man once she was married. On her wedding night, as her husband approached her, Malky ran to the bathroom and cut her gums, smearing the blood on her underwear and coming out and saying she couldn't consummate the marriage because she had her period. The day after her wedding, Malky went to her parents' house, and her mother shaved her head, a custom in some sects. Malky begged her mother to let her come home, but her mother pleaded with her to make her marriage work. Malky continued to refuse her husband, and after seven weeks, she again found Footsteps.

She left her husband, got a divorce and went to live on her own, but she remains vexed by her love for her family and her fear of embarrassing them. She's an artist now, but for the longest time she wouldn't put her name on her paintings or participate in an art show, because she knew how much that would damage her family's reputation. On Friday nights she covered her head and walked over to her parents' house, where her nieces and nephews would ask where her husband was and why she didn't have children. She still goes every Friday night, but they don't ask anymore.

"Do you know when people are in love and they say, 'This person is going to kill me, he's not good for me,' and then they never want to break up?" she asked me. She cried and shook her head helplessly. When we spoke, her hair was curly, and highlighted, but still growing in after being shaved. "This is what I have with my family. It's like, I love them so much, but they are horrible for me. They stop me in everything in my life."

Three and a half years ago, Shmuly and Malky met at a Footsteps-sponsored birthday party, and they became friends and running partners. Shmuly realized he thought of Malky as more than a friend, but Malky wouldn't consider a romantic relationship with him; she told me she couldn't allow herself to belong to a man ever again.

My mother became Hasidic when I was 12, after years of only desultory High Holy Days observance (my parents were divorced), and I was sent to yeshiva high school and Orthodox summer camps. My sisters followed and became religious, too; none of us were ever forced into any of it, which is why my sisters' religiousness baffled me. My mother has long told me that she did it because she wanted her daughters to have a life that wasn't cheap and immodest — that she found secular culture was becoming too crass; my sisters tell me it makes their lives more meaningful. Almost 30 years later, I still challenge them on this in a way that they must find tedious but are kind to me about.

It was clear to everyone that religious practice just never took with me, and I waited out my time in my house until the day I left for college, when I swore I'd never wear a skirt again or rush around in anticipation of sundown on a supposed day of rest. I swore I would rid myself of the vestiges of what was taught to me, which was to be afraid of an angry God who made me a certain way and then disavowed that way in the hope that I'd be some ideal of a person who committed arbitrary acts of blind devotion — eating kosher food only; not turning the lights on during Saturdays; not wearing linen and wool together, which is an actual and serious Torah law. I've been only marginally successful in keeping this oath.

I was taught that I was innately bad and that I had to work at these rules in order to become something approaching good. In the ultra-​Orthodox school I attended in ninth grade, I was taught to use the bathroom quickly, lest my exposed unmentionables lead me to sinful acts of self-examination. I left that school, but in a more modern one, I received more or less the same lessons. I was taught that humans were the ultimate intellectuals, unless you asked questions that extended beyond what was in the Torah. I was taught that if I ever ate a legume or a piece of risen wheat on Passover, my children would be cut off from their legacy as Jews. No one knew for sure what that meant, but over the years, the collected guesses I got from teachers included: infertility, miscarriage and having to watch my children die before I did. I no longer keep a strict version of Passover, yet each time a legume passes my lips during those eight days, I wonder if I should be hedging my bets, and so an internal war flares inside me over some hummus. After years of confused and at times contentious discussion, my husband and I now identify as something like Conservative Jews; we are incredibly ambivalent but active (read: dues-paying) members of a synagogue.

When I left Orthodoxy, there was some shock of re-entry into regular society, even though I never really left it. I had negotiated to keep a TV in my mother's house, and my mother, may God and all the rabbis whose graves she prays over bless her a million times, understood that fundamentalism wasn't something I could get behind. So I watched "Beverly Hills, 90210," and "Twin Peaks" and "A Different World" to see how regular secular Americans related to one another.

I had friends who weren't as lucky — some who had to change out of pants into skirts as they rode the elevators up to their apartments as teenagers; some who still can't visit their parents on a holiday if they're going to drive. And yet even under my best-case-scenario O.T.D. circumstances, so much of my previous life remained part of me that even when I didn't wear a skirt and even when I didn't observe Shabbat and even when I just went right out and ate nonkosher foods like shrimp, the fears and worries persisted that I was doing something wrong, that I had only departed because there was something lazy about me, that I was too prone to evil inclinations. Even in my lucky circumstances I am left with flickers of superstition and magical thinking, no matter how long it has been since I've realized that most of what I was taught as a child is not something I agree with as an adult. And still, every night, I place my hand over my sleeping children's eyes and I recite the Shema bedtime prayer on their behalf. Every year, I fast on Yom Kippur and apologize for the ways I can't bring myself to be what I was told God wanted. I do it just in case, or because I'm a coward, or at least because I'm not as courageous as your garden-variety Footsteps member. All of which is to say that I don't know if it will ever feel normal.

On the night Faigy Mayer died, her body lay on Fifth Avenue until it was wrapped up with all the blood and tissue around it, according to Jewish tradition, and sent to Borough Park to her bewildered parents and their local funeral home. Women from the community stayed with her body all night, washing and guarding it. Others would organize weeks' worth of meals for the family, and the community would come to their home to pray for seven days.

The morning of Faigy's funeral, her father stood up next to the wooden box that held her body. Her O.T.D. friends weren't allowed into the service at first, but one of them spoke to the bouncerlike guy at the front and assured him, in Yiddish, that they didn't want any trouble. They just wanted to mourn their friend. Before Faigy's father began the eulogy in Yiddish, he addressed them, notable for their lack of black hats and their lack of beards. "Thank you very much for coming," he said. "I didn't prepare anything in English, and I'm sorry."

After the funeral, the cedar box that held Faigy's body was taken to New Jersey, off a main road in view of a Coca-Cola bottling plant, where she was buried among other Hasidim, which, it seems safe to say, is exactly where she never wanted to be. The gravestone carries an acrostic of her name, talking about how she suffered, how good she was. One line reads, "May the psalms she read with such devotion bring peace to her dear soul." When I visited the site, next to her was a freshly filled grave with a temporary marker for her sister, Sara. The two graves were a sight that, though I knew to expect it, made me step backward and put one hand to my mouth. I said Kaddish from muscle memory, though I'm sorry for it, because I feel fairly certain Faigy wouldn't have wanted that, either.

When her friends left her funeral, one of them noted what a "pageant" the whole ceremony was, and then they went to a pizza place that she loved, to remember her. Some of them later took a train to the city, to the place where Faigy's body had landed, the site of her last stand against this life. They grew quiet and somber all over again, and they found themselves wondering if you could ever really escape the circumstances you were born into. What if it doesn't get besser? What if hell is hotter? They had only one another to help answer these questions. In that way, Footsteps is a lot like the organized religion it's designed to help its members transition out of: Each exists to make sense of an utterly baffling world. But whereas religion seeks to reassure you that you're not alone, Footsteps seeks to reassure you when you realize that you are.

Malky had planned to go to dinner the next night, with Shmuly and another friend, at the French restaurant Daniel for her birthday. Malky and Shmuly loved learning about new foods and wine outside ritual use. But the day came, and Malky felt that having such an extravagant meal in light of the news was unseemly. When she called the restaurant to reschedule, however, she learned that it was booked so far out that they weren't taking new reservations. They kept the date.

That night, they luxuriated in the lives that they were somehow still living, having come out on the other side of something. So much had happened to them, but they were young, and one day, the years of living the lives they wanted would outnumber the years they'd lived the lives they didn't want. They drank five bottles of wine among the three of them, and when it was time to go home, Malky and Shmuly decided to take a yellow cab back to Brooklyn instead of a train. They stopped first to drop off Malky before heading to Shmuly's house, but when Malky got out of the car, she asked Shmuly if he wanted to come upstairs with her. He left the car, and she took his hand and led him up the stairs, and he has remained there, with her, ever since.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a contributing writer for the magazine. She last wrote about the television host and producer Andy Cohen.

Mar 30, 2017

Remembering: The Heaven's Gate cult

Nigel Watson
Jack Peat
The London Economic
March 30, 2017

Twenty years ago the belief that a UFO would take them away to a better life led 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult to commit mass suicide on Wednesday, 26 March 1997. The 18 women and 21 men, ranging in age from 26 to 72, killed themselves along with their charismatic leader Marshall Herff Applewhite.

Calling themselves the ‘Away Team’, they believed that they would return to the Kingdom of Heaven, which they called the Next Level. Applewhite revealed that he took on his human form in the 1970s who ‘offers a graduation class, offers life, out of this evolutionary level into that Next Evolutionary Level, and we are at the end of one of those times.’

66-year-old Applewhite had been involved with running UFO salvation cults since the 1970s. Under the name ‘Bo’, he had worked with Bonnie Lu Truesdale Nettles aka ‘Peep’ to collect supporters. Bo and Peep were also known as ‘Guinea and Pig’, ‘The Two’ or ‘Ti’ and ‘Do’. Bonnie died in 1985 of liver cancer leaving Applewhite to carry on their mission.

Ben Zeller, author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion’ notes that;

‘The two founders, were spiritual seekers living in Houston, Texas. Nettles was an astrologer and theosophist, and engaged in “channelling,” a New Age practice involving spiritual communication. Applewhite was raised Presbyterian and briefly considered becoming a Christian minister, but had become interested in alternative religions and spirituality. Both were avid astrology believers.

‘They met and decided that the stars had determined that they had a mission together. Over several years they came to believe that they were part of the end-time story foretold in Revelation. They developed a belief system focused on interpreting Christian biblical end-time prophecy combined with belief in space aliens and UFOs. Basically, they agreed with Erich von Daniken and some other popular 1970s authors that the Bible and other ancient religions actually are describing space aliens, who were mistakingly called Gods by the ancients.

Today the Heaven’s Gate website is run by one or two anonymous followers. They call themselves ‘The Telah Foundation’ and explain that:

‘The Group ended in 1997 and there has been nothing to join since that time. There are no members.

‘We were in the Group for 12 years and they asked us to assist them in several things, like the website and emails, after they departed.’

When asked by email, ‘How should we regard their actions looking back on the matter, were they right?’, their reply was:

‘We are still running the website to inform the world of the existence of the Next Level.

‘Yes, they were right.’

When asked if they will join them when they die, they replied:

‘We will not join join them when we die. No one joins them upon death. You have to enter in a live body.’

Although they had used several aliases, their ideology remained basically the same. Jacques Vallee in his book Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults (And/Or Press, 1979) notes that in 1975 they ran the Human Individual Metamorphosis (H.I.M.) group. In announcements for a series of meetings, they said they would “physically leave the planet within months.” It was also claimed that their bodies had undergone a physical metamorphosis that had changed them “physically, chemically, biologically.” They also said that they would demonstrate in public the overcoming of death after a period of three days.

These predicted events never happened, but 22 years later the arrival of comet Hale-Bopp, indicated to them that a spaceship was finally coming from the Kingdom of Heaven. Applewhite, along with his followers were now prepared to go to what they literally regarded as heaven.

Living in their rented mansion at Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego County, California, the cult had survived by providing website development services. They denied themselves material goods and sexual activity; indeed six male members of the cult were even castrated to maintain their celibacy.

Their cult activities borrowed heavily from Christian religion, and Applewhite was often regarded as a Jesus figure. Other inspirations were the contactees of the 1950s, the counter-culture of the 1960s and Theosophy. A more obscure source of inspiration was a story by Mark Twain entitled, ‘Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven’. In this, Captain Stormfield tells of his death and riding a comet to Heaven and is told about three great poets, Saa, Bo and Soof.

Lynn Picknett author and expert on UFOs and the paranormal says:

‘They seem to provide an up-to-date sort of pseudo mysticism – in the form of an ecstatic death cult – that took the place of conventional religion for its followers. It rather cleverly adapted a belief in an afterlife to the world of the UFO.’

Steve Dewey author of ‘In Alien Heat’ agrees that:

‘There’s a god shaped hole in humans, and when you take away one filler, another rushes in…

‘Ufology and religion are close bedfellows, and that the secularisation of the West has allowed alternative religions to flourish. It took on trappings of religion while thinking it was something else, or something more, but was just another proto-religion.’

Most UFO groups and beliefs are harmless but as Swedish UFO researcher Clas Svahn says they can have tragic consequences:

‘UFO beliefs can be very dangerous when held by a charismatic leader.

‘Here in Sweden I have met several people hearing voices from ”aliens” that have told them to do things that no sane man or woman would do. One of them, a friend of mine, was told by his voice to go out in the woods in the middle of the Winter. He was later found dead their due to low temperatures.’

In her essay ‘Heaven’s Gate: The End?’ Wendy Gale Robinson notes that cyber culture was held to blame for the suicides, because, ‘there is something inherently dangerous about cyborgs, bodily liberation, and multiple online identities for some people who lack a secure sense of self. Perhaps the Heaven’s Gate cult members would’ve been better off if they hadn’t been exposed to the Net and those of us on the Net would’ve been better off if we hadn’t been exposed to their memes.’

She leans towards the notion that the combination of the arrival of the comet, the forthcoming millennium, their UFO beliefs and popular culture offer a better explanation for their behaviour.

Ben Zeller underlines the importance of the internet:

‘Whether such a group is possible today is a definite yes. But far more likely today people would simply read about these ideas in books and on websites and not join an actual group. There are no doubt a few small groups scattered here and there. There was a group based out of Roswell, New Mexico, that had similar beliefs about UFOs and aliens being in league with the devil, but last I checked they had only a few members. But overall there are fewer such groups. Now that we have the internet people don’t need to join a group to find kindred spirits, they can find them online!’

As for them being just a US phenomenon he says:

‘UFO religions are not particular to US culture. The Raelian movement based out of France is an active UFO group. Though to be clear, they do not teach suicide. There are some Russian UFO-oriented groups too. The Aetherius Society is one of the oldest UFO religions, and it is UK based. Again, nothing violent or suicidal about that group. But generally new religions do reflect where they emerge, and the religious and cultural concerns of the members in terms of their specific locales.’

George Chrysalides who runs the ‘Religion in the 21st Century website ( says:

‘I wouldn’t like to speculate as to whether a similar organisation (as scholars, we try to avoid the term “cult”, which is somewhat pejorative) is possible 20 years on. I’d guess that it is not so likely, for several reasons. Numerous religious groups, including HG, associated a final event with the millennium. It’s possible that Applewhite regarded the year 1997 as being 2000 years on from the birth of Jesus. Twenty years on, there can be no such rationale.

‘People have also moved on since 1997. Full-time commitment to a millennial group is probably not such a live option for many people, and there are certainly not so many “intentional communities” (people who come together through choice rather than geographical location) these days.

‘It’s not uniquely American, in the sense that there have been suicide groups in other countries – notably the Order of the Solar Temple, which had branches in Switzerland, France, and Canada. There have also been quite a number of UFO-religions in Japan.

‘You ask what lessons we can learn. When the news of Heaven’s Gate broke, few scholars had heard of it, and most of us had to do quite a bit of research to find out who they were and what might have happened. By contrast, the anti-cult movement was quick to jump in, despite having little information, to tell us that “this is a typical cult”. One lesson we might learn is the danger of scaremongering, while at the same time acknowledging that those who followed Applewhite were by no means unintelligent – or particularly young, either.

‘Given a conducive environment, groups can espouse beliefs that would be overwhelmingly rejected by people living in a more conventional social environment. One feature of the so-called “suicide cults” is that they largely lived apart from mainstream society, and therefore lacked the touchstone of normal conventional ways of looking at the world.’

Robert Scheaffer a UFO sceptic and author of numerous books on this topic, comments that:

‘I think that Heavens Gate was like so many New Age and religious cults, not specifically UFOs. It had its guru, who was followed blindly by the cult members. There are many people desperately seeking ‘otherwordly wisdom,’ and someone who boldly claims to have it will attract many followers. How it will end up depends largely on the personality of the leader. Some just seek adulation and riches, others have a more sinister side. Jim Jones and Applewhite were obviously among them.’

Robert encountered Bo and Peep back in 1976, when they held a recruiting meeting advertised around the University of Maryland in College Park. He says:

‘Arriving early, I recognized Applewhite and Nettles standing around and chatting with the cult members. I said nothing. During the meeting, Applewhite and Nettles sat incognito among the audience while the cult members at the speakers’ table talked glowingly about the coming “harvest.” Those who were ready to be “harvested” would be taken up to the “next level” by the UFOs, where they would live a better life. Bo and Peep are the only two people now on earth representing that higher level. The cultists on the panel obviously believed every word of this nonsense. When asked the whereabouts of their leaders, the cultists claimed to not know where they were: “We believe they are in the Midwest somewhere.” They were lying. The Two were seated in the audience, although amazingly nobody seemed to realize this. Some of the audience members were quite angry, presumably having had friends or relatives disappear into the cult – probably this is why Bo and Peep chose to remain incognito. When I had a chance to ask a question, I raised the issue of The Two’s previous brushes with the law – news reports had mentioned several – and I asked if these were the kind of persons whose word they would trust so completely. As I was speaking, Applewhite rose up from his chair on the other side of the aisle, stood full up and glared at me, from about fifteen feet away. He was a large man, and he had an air of being dangerous. It would have been easy to blow apart the charade by confronting him right there, but I did not. I have always regretted my failure to act in that moment, most especially in light of what ultimately happened.’

M.J. Banias, UFO researcher and critic, sums up the situation in these words:

‘As far as UFO religions go, Heaven’s Gate began with a pretty typical ideology; that humanity is destined for something greater, and that our souls truly belonged among the stars, free from the confusion, pain, and illusions of everyday life. UFO religions, mystics and believers today still tell this same story, and push this same message. Ancient astronaut theories, achieving higher ‘vibration’ states, or the belief that certain humans are genetically chosen by ET, are all part of UFO discourse and the UFO narrative.

‘Undoubtedly, for the UFO subculture, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide was a symbol of theological UFO belief going awry. However, the core of the Heaven’s Gate mythology, the seed which dug deep roots into the minds of its followers, is very much still present today. Twenty years ago, the men and women who made up Heaven’s Gate sadly perished, but their religious ideologies are very much alive and well.’

Former Scientologist Cathy Schenkelberg confronts the church on stage in Tampa

Cathy Schenkelberg
Cathy Schenkelberg
Andrew Meacham, Times Performing Arts Critic
Tampa Bay Times
March 30, 2017

There are some things Cathy Schenkelberg can't forget, memories that bring back the shame. They burn like lava from that volcano, the famous one on the cover of Dianetics, the bible of the Church of Scientology.

Her story of one of those moments takes place at a dinner in the mid-1990s: Schenkelberg and her daughter were at the church's Clearwater headquarters. It was the "celebrity's table," and Schenkelberg was a minor celebrity. She was one of the most prominent voice-over actors in the country, making nearly $400,000 a year in commercials. • A member since her early 20s, Schenkelberg said she had given increasing chunks of her income to the church, paying for courses in L. Ron Hubbard's way of thinking, expensive "auditing" sessions, and advanced several levels up the church hierarchy. The training, fellow members told her, would allow her to be free, to become truly herself. • There was always a price. More courses, more training, more everything. The price to sit at the celebrity table was $2,500. • "You're going to have to move," the maître d' said. "Somebody else wants the seat." • Then, she said, she saw Tom Cruise walking up to the table.

• • •

Schenkelberg, 47, left the church in 2009. Her one-woman show, Squeeze My Cans — Surviving Scientology, opens at Tampa's Stageworks Theatre today. Scientology representatives did not respond to a request for comment on this story, or the play.

The play is not the first time the church has been skewered by an entertainer. Recently, actor and former member Leah Remini has grabbed headlines with her A&E show Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. The church has been sent-up on South Park, and on stage, including Kyle Jarrow's A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant.

But perhaps never has a stage play mounted this kind of full-on assault of the church, as well as its reputation for heavy handed, even cultlike tactics. Schenkelberg's play has had sold-out runs in Chicago and Hollywood, Calif.

"I have to go back and forth and create for you, the audience, what it was like for me, the 20-something, being introduced to this wonderful religion," Schenkelberg said. "And then by the time you reach about 60 minutes, you see how what I thought I was getting into was chipped away, and the person that I had been was gone. I was a shell of myself."

Schenkelberg was chatty in the Stageworks lobby, even bubbly. She talks fast and is a toucher. She told a story she has told other reporters:

Some years ago, before Tom Cruise was dating Katie Holmes, Schenkelberg was asked to audition for a film role for Golden Era Productions, Scientology's audiovisual company at the church's Celebrity Centre in Hollywood. She answered an interviewer's preliminary questions.

"He asks me where I was from, what level I was on," Schenkelberg said. He then asked what she thought of Tom Cruise.

"I said, 'He's narcissistic and insecure. Can you be both? I think he's a baby.' "

The interview ended abruptly without a reading or script, she said. As Schenkelberg was leaving, a woman waiting in line told her the "audition" had been staged for Cruise's benefit, "to be his girlfriend."

• • •

She grew up in Omaha, Neb., the seventh of a firefighter and homemaker's 10 children. The family was Catholic. At 13, her older brother's car slammed into a pole. He died. The sound of squealing brakes still affects her physically.

"I remember people saying God chose him," she said. "And it made me think, 'Well, I don't like that god.' "

She majored in musical theater in college. But New York was far away, too far from her family. She settled in Chicago and started auditioning for shows. For a while, she thought about joining the Peace Corps.

At an audition, Schenkelberg ran into an actor she knew. They chatted, then the conversation got more serious. Schenkelberg shared that she was looking for her place in the world.

"Have you ever heard of Dianetics?" the friend asked.

In the past, she said, two Scientologists had tried to recruit her. This time, the messenger was right. Schenkelberg joined the church.

While she met her share of celebrities — she said she had a friendly relationship with John Travolta and shared a nanny with Cruise's sister — Schenkelberg was not part of Sea Org, the church's most rigorous and prestigious branch.

"I represent the Joe Schmoe who got in just because they wanted to better themselves or their lives or help others," she said.

Schenkelberg said she has always believed in reincarnation, a central tenet. As she worked her way up "Operating Thetan" (OT) levels over the years, paying tens of thousands of dollars, she came across material that didn't sit so well. The OT-3 level, for example, which introduces adherents to a montage of extraterrestrial characters, seemed a bit much.

Her voice-over work paid for her training. Her first gig, a Gerber commercial, paid $89,000. Schenkelberg went on to work for a slew of national clients in Chicago, then the commercial capitol of the country. She can still recite the slogans.

"Michael Jordan," she said, with a down-home delivery. "He drives a Chevy Blazer, just like you."

There was a major campaign which called for a who'd-a-thunk-it tone. " 'Who's smarter? This woman shops at Sears Brand Central. This woman's a brain surgeon.'

"Jay Leno mocked it because of the juxtaposition," Schenkelberg said. "I made tons."

A short-lived relationship resulted in a daughter, whom Schenkelberg declines to name. Because the girl's father opposed Scientology, she said, church leaders persuaded Schenkelberg to move to Hollywood. She did, and her income dropped in half, then half again.

So why did she stay in the church?

"I've spent a half a million dollars on this, I'm not going to stop now," she said. She also believed if she stopped training, she would become sick or die.

"My dad would say, 'Are you okay?' And I'd go, 'Fine, Dad!' I couldn't let him know how horrified and frightened I was because I didn't know how to get out."

In the meantime, she said, the church had collected advance payments on courses. She lost her house. For a while, she said, she danced on the edge of suicide.

• • •

She decided to leave the church. She said she was able to get $17,000 in refunds, but had given the church more than $1 million and exhausted her daughter's college fund.

The church sent Schenkelberg a letter of disconnection severing her from Scientology and declared her a "suppressive person," she said. She spent three months on food stamps. She drove across the country, acting in regional theater or performing at spoken-word events. The one-woman show came about in 2015, its title derived from the "cans," or handles of an E-meter, the device used in auditing.

Schenkelberg gave her first performance at a workshop in Chicago in July 2016. All three performances sold out. She entered a fringe theater festival in Hollywood, with the same result.

She contacted Karla Hartley, the producing artistic director at Stageworks, who had directed Schenkelberg in God of Carnage at American Stage in St. Petersburg.

"I might not have agreed to do this if I hadn't worked with her," Hartley said. "But I like a good solo show. And I like to stir the pot."

Schenkelberg has booked Boca Raton next, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. Schenkelberg said even sold-out runs barely put gas in the tank of her Ford. But the creativity does her good.

"My thing was not to take the church down," she said. "My thing was doing it for therapy."

The show has prompted letters and emails from appreciative strangers, people who lost contact with loved ones in the church. Every now and then, Schenkelberg said, the church still makes contact with her. She said she has had visitors stop by to conduct "outreach."

"They'll say, 'Hey Cathy, we saw your lights on, we want to tell you what's going on with the church,' " she said. "I'm like, 'Dude, it's midnight.' "

For more than two decades, she had spent everything on learning how to be a better Scientologist. When she talked about that, the bearer of all that wonderful news from Applebee's and Sears and Chevrolet went away. For the first time, her radio-perfect voice quavered.

"I still am constantly battling sadness and regret," she said. "But every time I do this show, a piece of me comes back. It's therapy, it really is.

"The sadness comes from the loss of time. If there's one thing about it is, I can't get back that time. Do I think I'll live another lifetime? Yeah, but this is the lifetime I want to live. I want to make a mark. Not for anybody else. For my daughter, for my family. And the time that I lost, that's what just eats me up."

Contact Andrew Meacham at or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

'Squeeze My Cans — Surviving Scientology'

The show is at 8 p.m. today through Sunday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Stageworks Theatre, 1120 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. $30-$35. (813) 374-2416.

Inmate charged with severely beating imprisoned cult leader Victor Barnard, causing brain damage

Victor Barnard
The onetime cult leader in prison for raping girls suffered brain and lung injuries, broken bones.

Paul Walsh
Minneapolis Star Tribune
MARCH 30, 2017

Victor Barnard, the onetime religious cult leader serving a 30-year term for sexually assaulting two girls from among his followers, was severely beaten in his prison cell in east-central Minnesota in early January by another inmate who said the attack was divinely inspired, according to charges filed Thursday.

Violent career criminal Shane M. Kringen, 44, was charged with first-degree assault in Chisago County District Court in connection with the Jan. 8 attack.

When authorities led Kringen from that area of the prison, he explained that he "was doing God's work," the charging document read.

One of Barnard's attorneys, Marsh Halberg, said Barnard is now at another prison and still has difficulties from the assault.

"My law partner Dave Risk and I went to visit Mr. Barnard recently at Oak Park Heights," Halberg said. "He did not recognize us and called us by other names. ... He had no memory of the months held in custody in Pine County [jail] and had hearing and vision problems when trying to communicate with us."

Halberg said Barnard now resides in the medical wing, which is separate from the traditional prison section.

Injuries include collapsed lung

According to the criminal complaint:

Video from inside the Rush City prison showed Kringen enter the 55-year-old Barnard's cell shortly after Barnard went in. Kringen left about a minute later.

A corrections officer went in during a security check and found Barnard bleeding. He was taken to Regions Hospital in St. Paul with broken bones in his face, rib fractures, facial cuts, traumatic brain injury, a collapsed lung and respiratory failure.

On Jan. 24, Kringen was read his rights by an investigator and declined to give a statement. A week later, prison officials confiscated a letter Kringen had written that acknowledged attacking Barnard. It said he stopped once Barnard was unconscious.

Barnard and his followers moved from the Twin Cities to rural Pine County in the 1990s to establish their own "utopia" — a self-sufficient community where members raised their own food, sewed their own clothes and funded the operation with a string of local businesses.

Barnard coaxed families in the River Road Fellowship to send their daughters to him, promising that the "maidens" would live lives of prayer and purity. Years later, the two girls turned to Pine County authorities for help.

Inmate's violent history

Kringen, whose last address outside of prison was in Crookston, has been in trouble with the law for violent offenses for virtually his entire life, including in western Wisconsin. His most serious convictions in Minnesota have been for third-degree criminal sexual conduct, numerous acts of assault, burglary, drug possession, criminal property damage and drunken driving.

He's currently incarcerated on convictions in Polk County for drug possession and witness tampering. Corrections records currently list his release date as Aug. 7, 2019, but a conviction for assaulting Barnard would change that.

In neighboring Wisconsin in August 2010, Kringen led St. Croix County sheriff's deputies on a high-speed chase from Hammond toward Hudson. He rammed county squad cars before he fled on foot and was apprehended by a K-9 officer. He was convicted and given a sentence of more than 10 years.

In 2001, he was convicted of assaulting a law enforcement officer in St. Croix County and given a five-year term.

Mar 29, 2017

Cult expert: Pocono Dome church has cult markers

Howard Frank
Pocono Record Writer
March 29, 2017

A leading expert in cult organizations called the group hoping to take over the Pocono Dome specialists in brainwashing, ruining families and separating its members from their money.

The World Mission Society Church of God hopes to purchase the Pocono Dome in Sciota and convert it to a retreat. On April 4, a Hamilton Township hearing will consider the church's application for a special exemption to use the facility for its activities.

Rick Ross, an author and the director of the Trenton, N.J. based Cult Education Institute said the World Mission Society Church of God believes that their female leader is God. They call her Mother God and believe that God is embodied in her.

"They are responsible for bankruptcies because of excessive donations, and people have lost jobs because of the excessive demands of the group and because of excessive sleep deprivation," he said.

The members are often put up in group housing and shared apartments. They become estranged from family and friends, Ross said.

"There are families that haven't spoken to their adult children for years because of their involvement in the group. It's ended marriages. This is a very intense group and similar to the Unification Church founded by Sun Myung Moon, whose followers were called Moonies. Their techniques of indoctrination have often been compared with the Unification Church," he said.

Ross claims the group entered the U.S. and very soon thereafter established a hub in Ridgewood N.J., spreading its organizations throughout the northeast.

"Recently, they had a conference that thousands of people attended. The group has been spreading into Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, an aggressive group growing rapidly throughout the U.S."

He said the church recruits members in malls, on university campuses and have even attracted followers in Costco.

Ross said the group is lacking meaningful accountability of its leadership.

"It is run by a dictatorship from Korea," Ross said. "This organization takes in millions of dollars a year, which has been disclosed in court records. There is no financial transparency like a budget that discloses disbursements from funds collected annually."

Ross lists The World Mission Society Church of God alongside organizations like the Waco Davidians, Neo Nazis and the Manson Family in a database of cult groups (

A representative for the church did not respond to calls for comment for this story.

Ross refers to himself as a leading expert on cult organizations. His book, "Cults Inside Out," has been translated into Chinese and Italian. He's a cult specialist, court qualified as an expert witness in 10 states and the U.S. federal courts as a consultant on authoritarian groups. He said he has given expert testimony and lectures at universities across the country and in Asia since 1982. He's also done more than 500 interventions across the globe, many regarding The World Mission Society Church of God, one as recently as Dec. 2016.

Ross said he has worked with law enforcement, including the FBI, the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms and as a consultant to the Israeli government, and has also been consulted by the U.S. Congress.

Robert Fulford: In China, a jealous state begins to clamp down on the lives of its faithful

Rev. Joseph Zhang Yinlin, kneeling, takes part in an ordination ceremony to be named coadjutor bishop in Anyang city in central China's Henan province
Robert Fulford
National Post
March 24, 2017

For a while the world has been hearing ominous reports about China extending its military power over the South China Sea and threatening Taiwan. By comparison we hear little about life inside China. But this week Freedom House, an independent think tank in Washington, has published The Battle for China’s Spirit, an extensive and convincing report containing dire news about religious freedom, or the lack of it, under the current regime.

Freedom House’s investigators have concluded that controls over religion in China have been increasing since 2012, seeping into new areas of daily life and triggering growing resistance from believers. At least 100 million people — nearly one-third of estimated believers in China — belong to four religious groups facing high levels of persecution: Protestant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong.

In one paragraph Freedom House sprinkles a few facts about recent developments: “Tibetan monks are forced to learn reinterpretations of Buddhist doctrine during a ‘patriotic re-education’ session. Dozens of Christians are barred from celebrating Christmas together. A Uighur Muslim farmer is sentenced to nine years in prison for praying in a field. And a 45-year-old father in northeastern China dies in custody days after being detained for practising Falun Gong.”

The Freedom House report says that Falun Gong is still heavily persecuted. Why should it be? It’s a spiritual movement that depends on meditation and constant moral self-searching. When it surfaced in the early 1990s, Chinese officialdom seemed to like it. By the late 1990s, however, the Communist Party saw it as a threat.

When it reached 70 million practitioners it began looking like a force independent of the state. Beijing, like any tyranny, cannot tolerate a competitor. It started a cruel, heartless campaign of propaganda, re-education, imprisonment and torture to eradicate Falun Gong. Hundreds of thousands (maybe a million) practitioners were sent to labour camps where many died (2,000, it is said) and many remain.

The constitution of China provides freedom of religion, with one crucial stipulation: Those taking advantage of this freedom must do so in the course of “normal religious activity.” The government, of course, defines “normal,” which means that congregations worship within state-sanctioned religious organizations in duly registered places of worship.

In the accepted opinion of Beijing, religion is potentially destabilizing, especially in a nation with half a dozen popular religions and many lesser forms of belief. The freedom in the constitution turns out to be the government’s freedom to supervise religion so that it makes as little trouble as possible.

Preaching to potential converts is allowed only in private, or in registered houses of worship. There are many “house churches,” where religious services take place in defiance of occasional harassment.

The Beijing bureau of religious affairs may favour one organization over another for the sake of national unity, even if both share the same beliefs and the same name.

Hui Muslims, for example, are much better treated than Uyghurs, who are also Muslims. The Hui can build mosques and pass on their beliefs to their children through their own schools; after secondary school, the young can study under an imam.

The Uyghurs are not given any such privileges. They are watched constantly by the authorities, and sometimes harassed. Most of them live in China’s western Xinjiang province, where they are 8-million of the province’s 19-million people. Xinjiang is bordered by eight countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Many Uyghurs hope to separate from China, if necessary through violence.

The Hui, on the other hand, see China as their home and rarely cause trouble. They fit within the state-run Islamic Association of China, which oversees the practice of Islam and regulates the content of sermons and scripture. Hui Muslims employed by the state are allowed to fast during Ramadan, unlike Uyghurs in the same jobs. Hui women can wear veils, a practice discouraged for Uyghur women.

The spectre of mandatory atheism has hung over China since 1949, when the revolution brought to power the Communist Party and its rule that party members must not practice any religion. The Cultural Revolution, from 1966 till 1976, was also a bitter period of suppression for believers. Tradition-hating mobs destroyed thousands of monasteries, churches and mosques. But Deng Xiaoping’s time in power, from 1978 until his retirement in 1989, brought relative tolerance. While opening China to the world economy, Deng relaxed tensions between the state and the various religions.

Under Deng, Christianity experienced a resurgence. By 2011, about 60 million Chinese were said to be practising as Protestants or Catholics. The Catholics are divided between the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) and the Vatican-approved version, with more of the latter than the former. The Patriotic Association’s chairman says its members should “fervently love the socialist motherland.”

Freedom House dates the current wave of oppression from the beginning of Xi Jinping’s first five-year term in November, 2012. (He is expected to be given a second term this autumn.) Xi is sometimes compared to Deng Xiaoping. Like Deng, he knows how to control the party but he’s so far failed to rejuvenate the nation, as he promised to do.

He’s intensified censorship, increasing the paranoia of everyone who disagrees with him or his circle of supporters. And he’s reduced religious freedom, reminding the population every day that there is only one centre of power in China.

National Post

Heaven's Gate 20 Years Later: 10 Things You Didn't Know

Bodies of members of the Heaven's Gate cult are loaded into a truck, 1997.
From cult members' eating habits to the sneakers the group wore during its infamous 1997 mass suicide

Michael Hafford
Rolling Stone
March 24, 2017

Twenty years after their mass suicide made headlines across the world, Heaven's Gate is still one of the most notorious cults of the 20th century – not to mention one of the most recognizable. In March 1997, America was shook by the strange story that included mass suicide, wild public-access-style videos, an obsession with U.F.O.s and, in true late-Nineties fashion, tracksuits and matching Nikes. They also had a new recruitment tool: the Internet.

Heaven's Gate has the distinction of being the first well-known American cult of the Internet era, using the new technology to share their beliefs with a wider audience and also to make a living. They derived a large portion of their income from designing web pages. Formed in the Seventies, they had become reclusive by the start of the 1990s and started attempting to recruit members online using the organizational name "Higher Source" for the website.

Though the web would eventually become central in the organization, the group's origins were much more grassroots. In the early 1970s, founders Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles – a Texas music teacher and nurse that he met during a stay in a psychiatric institution – renamed themselves Bo and Peep and took a six-month-long road trip across the United States. Around 1974, they assembled a group called "the crew." For the next two decades, they lived all around Southern California. Thought Nettles died in 1985, Applewhite kept the group together, and when the Internet was introduced to consumers in the early 1990s, they began using the new technology to share their beliefs with a wider audience. The reclusive group also used it to make a living, deriving a large portion of their income from designing web pages.

The cult's philosophy took its roots from Applewhite's Presbyterian upbringing – his father was a minister – and essentially grafted belief in extraterrestrials onto Christian theology. Applewhite told his acolytes that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, that God was an alien, and that they were living in the end times. They read the Bible, especially, Revelation Chapter 11 in the New Testament, a section about two witnesses that would prophecy. At the end of their prophecy, they would have to battle demons, which Applewhite and Nettles called "the Luciferians."

But then, in late March 1997, 39 members including Applewhite wearing black track suits and sneakers, ate apple sauce laced with barbiturates and washed it down with vodka. They then put bags over their heads, purple shrouds over their bodies, and laid down to leave their earthly vehicles behind. They weren't killing themselves, they thought, but freeing their souls from their so they could ascend to a spacecraft flying in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet – which at that point was passing by Earth – and were going to be taken to their new home in space. Instead, police found their bodies on March 26th, and the images of the white and black Nikes poking out from under a purple cloth would be burned into the eyes of a generation.

Here, 10 things you might not know about the Heaven's Gate cult and its infamous mass suicide

The cult borrowed a lot of imagery from science fiction
Applewhite and Nettles were huge fans of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and they brought some sci-fi to the group – resulting in theories like that Mary had been taken aboard a spaceship and impregnated with Jesus. It also led to the members that would eventually kill themselves to wear patches that said "Heaven's Gate Away Team," which you can see in the group's farewell video, a reference the specialized crew that went on missions to alien planets in Star Trek.

The group also believed that God was an advanced alien travelling in the spaceship in the trail of the Hale-Bopp comet, and that he planned to soon "recycle" the Earth. The group committed suicide so that they could ascend to "The Evolutionary Level Above Human."

They made headlines early on
In September 1975, the group visited the small town of Waldport, Oregon, to give a lecture about how U.F.O.s were soon going to make contact with the human race. According to an article in the New York Times, roughly 150 people packed into a motel hall to hear Applewhite's lecture. At first the town thought it was a joke, but soon, 20 people – or about one in 30 residents of the town – packed up, told their loved ones goodbye, and drove off.

"A score of persons... have disappeared," Walter Cronkite said on the CBS Evening News. "It's a mystery whether they've been taken on a so-called trip to eternity — or simply been taken."

They had gone to a meeting of about 400 people in Grand Junction, Colorado, who believed they would be visited by alien beings. The rendezvous never happened, but the congregation did escape with their lives. According to the Times, none of these Oregon residents were among those found in 1997.

Members were devotees of the Master Cleanse.
Aside from abandoning your family and turning over all your money, cult members were asked to cleanse their bodies of the impure influence of things like fast food and impure sexual thoughts. That often involved things like the Master Cleanse, invented in the 1940s by Stanley Burroughs and republished in 1976 in his book The Master Cleanser. Cult member Rio DiAngelo, real name Richard Ford, told Newsweek that the group took it much farther than the diet's other So-Cal acolytes – they drank nothing but the mix of lemonade, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for three entire months.

Originally, the cult promised that members wouldn't have to die to ascend to a higher plane.
According to the BBC, members were originally told that they would be able to exit their "containers" without resorting to suicide. They told L.A. Weekly in 1994 that they hoped to be beamed up into space, taking their bodies with them into the "Next Level," as members called their version of the afterlife. In the mid-1980s, when Nettles died of cancer, Applewhite amended his teachings to say that they would be given a new body in the Next Level, so their bodies wouldn't necessarily go with them. The group acknowledged that death might be necessary if they were to be picked up by the alien spacecraft, but appears to have held out hope that they could do so without dying.

The suicides took place over the course of three days.
Though the 39 dead members of the cult were found on Wednesday, March 26th, 1997, coroner's reports showed that the suicides were far from simultaneous. The members killed themselves starting Sunday using a combination of phenobarbital, alcohol and hydrocodone, probably consumed with apple sauce or pudding. The members then put plastic bags over their heads and suffocated to death, after which they were covered in shrouds. Applewhite was a late death, but not the last to die.

"Labeled 'The Routine,' the document outlined a process by which a group of 15 people would kill themselves, assisted by eight other people," CNN wrote. "Then a second group of 15 would die, also assisted by eight people. Given that 39 victims were found, that would have left a final group of nine."

Part of the Heaven's Gate dogma was that everything had to be precisely the same
"Everything was designed to be… an exact duplicate," surviving member Michael Conyers later said. "You were not to come up with, 'Well I'm going to make the pancakes this big.' There was a mixture, a size, how long you cooked it one side, how much the burner was on, how many a person got, how the syrup was poured on it. Everything." Conyers said that even male members shaved their faces a specific way.

This is a common tactic for cults – if a leader wants to convince members to do something as extreme as commit suicide, they has to replace their entire belief structure with the belief structure of the cult, a process called indoctrination.

"[Cults] say, 'You have to break out of your Western mentality," David Sullivan, a private investigator specializing in cult deprogramming, told Harper's. "You're too judgmental. You have to abandon your whole psychological-intellectual framework. Your obsessive materialism is blocking you from seeing the truth.'"

The Next Level was a place without gender, and that led to castration
Applewhite and other members underwent the procedure to help ensure they remained celibate. Applewhite, who had been fired as a music professor at the University of St. Thomas in 1970 after administrators learned he had sex with a male student, sought cures for his homosexual urges. He wanted to find a way to have "platonic relationship where he could develop his full potential without sexual entanglements," said one reporter who infiltrated the group in 1975. Castration, Applewhite believed, could make that easier. Ultimately, the group instituted a strict "no sex, no human-level relationships, no socializing" rule.

Though decisions like this were always left up to the members, eight followers were castrated voluntarily, including Applewhite. "They couldn't stop smiling and giggling," former member DiAngelo told Newsweek. "They were excited about it."

The cult went out for a last supper together.
Though Heaven's Gate members were cut off from their families and friends, they were far from total recluses. Their final meal together was a big group dinner that took place at a chain that they frequented near their compound in Rancho Santa Fe, CA.

"And a week ago Friday [just before their suicides] — just a day or so before enacting their meticulously planned suicides — the cult went out for a last supper together at the Marie Callender's restaurant in Carlsbad," the Los Angeles Times wrote.

"They all ordered the exact same thing," a waiter recalled to the paper. "It was set up before they came in. They all had iced teas to drink. Dinner salads beforehand with tomato vinegar dressing. Turkey potpie for the entree. Cheesecake with blueberries on top for dessert. They seemed very nice, very friendly, very polite. No one seemed depressed at all, or anything like that."

Two surviving members likely still operate the cult's website.
One of the ways that Heaven's Gate paid the bills was with a web design group called "Higher Source." Their website is still online.

"Clients described Higher Source employees as diligent and professional," the AP wrote. "They said the Web-site designers didn't look particularly unusual for computer experts with a lot of work in the entertainment industry, with dark, collarless shirts and closely cropped hair."

The pair most likely behind the Higher Source website are Mark and Sarah King according to Motherboard.

"The information must be available to mankind, in preparation for their return," the page's admins told Reddit's blog. "We don't know when that will be but those who are interested will find the information."

The Nikes the group wore have become a collector's item.
When the Heaven's Gate members were discovered, they were all wearing identical black-and-white Nike Decade sneakers – and the company soon discontinued the style, due to its macabre associations. Since then, the shoes have become a collector's item. An unworn pair apparently discovered in a storage unit in Arizona is up for auction on eBay for the asking price of $6,660, bearing Applewhite's face as part of its advertising.

Nike didn't exactly appreciate the free advertising.

"We've heard all the jokes," Nike rep Jim Small told Adweek in 1997. "The Heaven's Gate incident was a tragedy. It had nothing to do with Nike."

The surviving members agree. They say that the shoes were purchased in bulk because of their cost, not necessarily their style.

"They turned out to be a look that Do and the Class [adopted names for the cult leader and a member] liked," they told Sole Collector in an email. "They were also able to get a good deal on them. It was a combination of factors that made the sale happen, not because of a particular model or brand."

Are converts to Islam more likely to become extremists?

Returning to the faith.
Returning to the faith.
Matthew Francis - Senior Research Associate, Lancaster University
Kim Knott - Professor of Religious and Secular Studies, Lancaster University
March 28, 2017

Disclosure statement

Matthew Francis is a Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and the Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats, an independent ESRC centre with funding from the UK security and intelligence agencies.

Kim Knott is a Professor in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University and Deputy Director of the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats, an independent ESRC centre with funding from the UK security and intelligence agencies.

The process of conversion to any religion is best thought of as a journey, and this is how it is often described to others by those who undergo it. While conversion happens in many faiths, conversion to Islam has been suggested as a significant factor in some acts of extreme violence. But what evidence is this based on and what does conversion actually entail?

Conversion to Islam sees non-Muslims take on new religious identities, adopt new beliefs and practices, and learn to live as Muslims who gradually become accepted by others. Technically speaking, it isn’t necessary to “convert” to Islam, as according to Islamic teaching all people are born Muslim; it is more a case of reverting to one’s true identity and submitting to Allah.

In the modern world, the focus is often on individual conversion. However, in a recent guide we produced on conversion in Islam, we point out that this hasn’t always been the case. In the past whole populations converted at once, for economic, political or social reasons.

The best known part of this process is repeating the shahadah three times. The shahadah is a phrase that proclaims “there is no God but God and Muhammad is His messenger”. This pronouncement normally takes place in public, in front of other Muslims. As the testimonies of converts show, however, this is part of a longer process of religious learning and socialisation in which new and existing relationships have to be negotiated.

The journey into Islam isn’t the same for everyone. While some are new to the religion, others grew up in Muslim families, and are either returning after having lapsed or converting to a different interpretation of Islam. For example, salafi interpretations of Islam have proved popular among young British-Somali Muslims, but there are many other Sunni and Shi'a groups with a variety of differences and similarities.

Personal background makes a difference. Returners have prior knowledge, experience and even language to draw on, as well as existing family and community ties. But newcomers have to build all this from scratch, a change which by turns can be exhilarating and traumatic. It may also be hard for family and friends to come to terms with.

Data on conversion is sparse and has to be extrapolated from diverse sources. What research there is suggests that, in most European countries, converts make up between 1% and 5% of the Muslim population (up to 100,000 converts in the UK). In the US, converts (more than 550,000) make up nearly a quarter of Muslims. In the West, most converts are aged between 20 and 30, and more women convert than men.

Why do people convert? The reasons given can be intrinsic – that conversion gives them a sense of belonging, provides certainty about life and the afterlife, or is personally empowering. Extrinsic reasons include encouragement or pressure to convert for marriage, the impact of friends or a feeling of marginalisation by another religious group. Many converts give theological reasons, including the discipline of fasting and prayer, the focus on purity and piety, and the assurance that there is only one God. Some also have a sense of being destined to become Muslims: that Allah willed it.

Whether they converted because they were positively drawn to Islamic teachings and practices, or because of personal crises – such as the death of a family member, the need to combat substance addiction, or as an act of rebellion against parents – the reasons given are linked together in a conversion narrative.

These narratives differ according to the individual’s background and circumstances. White and black converts report different experiences, such as the feeling in some cases that white converts are held up as better proving the truth of Islam. Black converts sometimes find it harder to find partners for marriage, and converts from Hindu and Sikh communities often receive the worst and strongest reaction from their families and communities.

Experiences of conversion also differ due to gender. Women converts are often much more visible than men, and this too can lead to markedly different experiences in how conversion is experienced.
Unwelcome converts

The conversion journey also can be lengthier and more challenging than most people expect. Some people are shunned by family and friends. Some who adopt Islamic dress are taunted in public or worse. Problems may also come from other Muslims who sometimes expect converts to conform to higher moral standards and to cultural as well as Islamic norms and practices.

Conversion places a heavy social toll on individuals, many of whom do not find the welcome they expected in local Muslim communities. The double disadvantage of Islamophobia and a lack of acceptance is difficult to take. Some have the resilience to overcome these hurdles but others find it too difficult. We do not know how many new Muslims leave Islam in the years following conversion. Some continue to practice privately, others withdraw from Muslim communities quietly. Few are outspoken about leaving as being denounced as an apostate can have severe social consequences.
The extremist question

But what about the links between conversion to Islam and violent extremism? As previous terrorist convictions show, a minority of converts are radicalised, whether by extremist organisations, while in prison or online. However, despite their initial zeal, there’s no evidence that new Muslims in general end up more extreme than those born into Islam, nor that those who are radicalised are more socially, economically or racially disadvantaged than those who are not.

That said, research has found that in some countries – which have attracted so-called foreign fighters – converts are over-represented among violent extremists compared to the proportion of converts in the Muslim population as a whole. And research comparing American converts and “born” Muslims involved in violent extremism in 2015 found that converts were more likely to be unemployed, and to have a criminal record and a history of mental health problems. These factors were less pronounced in the UK.

What is indisputable is that the majority of new Muslims are not drawn towards extremism. Conversion and radicalisation are not one and the same, and one does not lead inexorably to the other. The former is a process of adopting a new religious identity; the latter, of being drawn into extremist beliefs and behaviours. Conversion for many marks a reported life change leading to feelings of empowerment, enhanced self confidence and self discipline, a sense of well-being and belonging, and in some cases desisting from self abuse, addiction and crime.

Will the Word of Wisdom ever change? It has before.

LDS health code • The restrictions were not always a commandment, and some wonder whether the bans on coffee and tea will evaporate in the global church.

Peggy Fletcher Stack
Salt Lake Tribune

The wisdom of swearing off tobacco — with its clear cancer-causing and addicting elements — is a no-brainer. Forsaking liquor is a tougher sell, but alcohol has its drawbacks.

Try, though, asking Belgians and Brazilians to give up coffee, or the Japanese, French and British to go without tea. To many, it makes no sense — not for health and certainly not for righteousness.

Yet that is what Mormon missionaries are expected to do as they scour the planet looking for potential converts to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A candidate for baptism or admittance to an LDS temple must agree to abide by the faith’s Word of Wisdom, a health code that bars the use of these substances.

The temporal advice was first pronounced as a divine revelation in the 1830s by Mormon founder Joseph Smith, given not as a “commandment or constraint,” but as a “word of wisdom.” By the early 1900s, though, LDS leaders moved to make the prohibitions mandatory, and now such abstinence has become a hallmark of Mormonism.

Coffee cups turned upside down — sometimes dubbed the “Mormon flip” — and Sprite in wine glasses signal LDS faithfulness to onlookers and would-be judges.

These drinks remain out of bounds, even as evidence mounts that moderate wine-drinking is beneficial, and both coffee and tea contain antioxidants to help fight off disease.

Though some point to the code as a reason for Latter-day Saints’ generally good health and longevity, Mormon officials acknowledge adherence is not primarily about health.

“It’s a symbol of willingness to live in obedience to the standards God has revealed through his prophets for members of the church,” says LDS spokesman Eric Hawkins, qualifying them to participate in sacred rituals.

In other words, Mormonism teaches that sacrificing certain substances is a significant act of deference to authority as a necessary step toward salvation.

But, as the global faith expands, has the mandate outlived its usefulness as a measure of moral rectitude?

Explore the Word of Wisdom

Doctrine and Covenants Section 89, where the Word of Wisdom is found, discourages tobacco use. But during most of the 19th century, Mormon leaders partook of all the forbidden “fruits” it lists — with some smoking or chewing tobacco. In 1902, as leaders were moving toward a more rigid interpretation, President Joseph F. Smith urged leniency for old men who used tobacco (and old ladies who drank tea).

Creating an identity

After the LDS Church officially abandoned polygamy and theocracy at the end of the 19th century, the Word of Wisdom became “a remarkably effective boundary maintenance device,” says Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. “It allowed Mormons to be very visibly distinctive and separate from their neighbors without giving an offense. It was not nearly so offensive [to mainstream America] as polygamy.”

Muslims, Jews and some Christians (think Seventh-day Adventists) have rules about what believers should eat and drink, he says, that may seem arbitrary or inexplicable to outsiders.

Mormons do, too, he says, and that’s OK.

“It’s not like giving up coffee or tea is going to adversely affect their health,” the scholar says. ”The church is not withholding fruits or vegetables, after all.”

Partaking of proscribed substances might keep an otherwise committed person out of the LDS Church, he says, but not out of heaven. The faith’s doctrine offers plenty of “post-mortal” passes to paradise.

But obeying the Word of Wisdom does carry a social cost.

“It has meant some people who otherwise believed couldn’t fully participate,” Mason says, “just because they couldn’t shake one or more of their habits.”

They sometimes are treated like “second-class citizens” in the LDS fold, he says, and cannot access temples or hold “callings” (positions) in the volunteer-staffed congregations.

The Word of Wisdom has created rifts in families, neighborhoods and friendship circles. And Judaism’s model doesn’t work in the 15.6 million-member church.

“There is certainly a spectrum of practice within Mormonism, but they are not connected to formal subdivisions like the orthodox, conservative and reform Jews,” explains Brian Birch, director of religious studies at Orem’s Utah Valley University. “It’s not as easy for someone to self-identify as a 'reform Mormon’ in terms of how they practice the Word of Wisdom and other tenets of the faith.”

Such groupings may, however, be on the horizon.
The next generations

Mormon convert Jana Riess abandoned the forbidden drinks six months before she was immersed in the waters of baptism.

Riess, an LDS author and editor in Cincinnati, had witnessed the pain of alcoholism in her family, so giving up wine wasn’t too hard.

“When you have that legacy, you are more likely to take a look around at what is not working,” she says, “and try to model your life differently.”

After forsaking coffee, she recalls, she slept better.

“I did receive the promise inherent in the Word of Wisdom,” Riess says, “and felt I would have some nourishment from this principle.”

The Mormon writer continues to live LDS standards on this, she says, and does not judge those who don’t.

Disobedience on this is “not at all” a sin, she states matter-of-factly.

Riess tells of a member who smoked before and after her baptism. During Sunday school, this woman would drive around in her car with a friend, smoking. It took years for her to break the habit, all the while remaining a committed, participating Mormon. She later led the female LDS Relief Society in her area.

“She was allowed to be baptized even though she was still smoking,” Riess says. “Her service should make us think a little about being flexible.”

Such tolerance may become increasingly necessary — if the LDS Church hopes to retain the rising generations.

In a poll of more than a thousand Mormons, Riess found that millennials differed from their parents’ generation about the nature of Word of Wisdom obedience.

More than three-quarters of baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1964) and the older, so-called silent generation viewed not drinking alcoholic beverages as essential to being “a good Mormon,” while 40 percent of millennials (for this survey, those born between 1980 and 1998) saw it that way.

As to whether one could be a good Mormon and drink coffee and tea, both numbers were lower and the gap was closer — 51 percent of boomers/silents vs. 31 percent for millennials replied “yes.”

Members of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) fall between the boomers/silents on whether nondrinking is essential — 51 percent. On coffee and tea abstinence, respondents in this category came in similar to millennials — 31.8 percent.

“There is clearly a difference in how Mormons feel about drinking alcohol,” Riess says, “versus coffee and tea.”

Some argue that the LDS restrictions have led to almost laughable extremes.

The church’s flagship school, Brigham Young University in Provo, made national news recently when a non-Mormon ROTC commander refused to sign BYU’s Honor Code, because it insisted that he abstain from a cup of coffee or glass of wine — even in his own home.

Counsel to commandment

Doctrine and Covenants Section 89 lays out the church’s dietary advice. Besides warning against wine or “strong drinks” and tobacco, this LDS scriptural text says to eat meat “sparingly” and have herbs and fruits in their “season.” It also proclaims, albeit vaguely, that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.”

It was founder Smith’s older brother Hyrum who first added the particulars a few years after the 1833 revelation.

“There are many who wonder what this can mean; whether it refers to tea, or coffee, or not. I say it does refer to tea, and coffee,” Hyrum Smith is quoted as saying in 1842. “Why is it that we are frequently so dull and languid? It is because we break the Word of Wisdom, disease preys upon our system, our understandings are darkened, and we do not comprehend the things of God; the devil takes advantage of us, and we fall into temptation.”

He went on to say that “not only are [these drinks] injurious in their tendency, and baneful in their effects, but the importation of foreign products might be the means of thousands of our people being [poisoned] at a future time, through the advantage that an enemy might take of us.”

Some have interpreted that paragraph to mean that the church should grow its own grapes, tobacco, tea leaves and coca beans rather than be vulnerable to enemies through their products, while other historians view it as a warning that these substances could harm Mormons.

This much is clear: During most of the 19th century, LDS leaders partook of all the forbidden “fruits.” Remember, the Word of Wisdom was expressly given “not by commandment” at the start.

Some smoked or chewed tobacco. Wine was used in the church’s sacrament, or communion, until the turn of the 20th century. Authorities routinely drank it, sold it, served it. Coffee and tea were common. Varieties of beer arrived with immigrant converts.

LDS apostles John Henry Smith and Brigham Young Jr. “both thought that the church ought not interdict beer, or at least not Danish beer,” historian Thomas G. Alexander writes in a history of the Word of Wisdom. “Other apostles, like Anthon H. Lund and Matthias F. Cowley, also enjoyed Danish beer and currant wine.”

Female leader Emmeline B. Wells, who became general president of the Relief Society, “drank an occasional cup of coffee, and [future church President] George Albert Smith took brandy for medicinal reasons,” Alexander reports. “Apostle George Teasdale, agreeing with President [Wilford] Woodruff, thought that no one ought to be kept from working in the Sunday school because he drank tea and that eating pork was a more serious breach than drinking tea or coffee.”

Mormon authorities wrestled with whether to urge compliance through counseling or to take a more rigid approach.

“In June 1902, the [governing] First Presidency and Twelve [apostles] agreed not to fellowship anyone who operated or frequented saloons,” Alexander writes. “In the same year, [President] Joseph F. Smith urged stake presidents and others to refuse [temple] recommends to flagrant violators but to be somewhat liberal with old men who used tobacco and old ladies who drank tea. Habitual drunkards, however, were to be denied temple recommends.”

In 1906, talk of Prohibition began, spurred on by teetotalling evangelical Protestants. Within a decade, the movement had spread across the country. LDS Church President Heber J. Grant joined in enthusiastically. Nearly three decades later, as the U.S. repealed Prohibition laws, Mormonism’s abstinence rules had become increasingly codified.

Potential damage from alcohol was well-known, but why coffee and tea?
Caffeine conundrum

In the 1920s, Coca-Cola executives sought a meeting with the LDS Church president, asking him not to forbid their product and downplaying its caffeine content. Though several apostles wanted Grant to do so anyway, the Mormon prophet demurred to the businessmen.

“We will say that since the First Presidency received assurance from the Coca-Cola Co. some years ago that they had practically eliminated the objectionable ingredients from their product,” Grant wrote in the 1930s to LeGrand Richards, then-president of the Southern States LDS Mission, “we have withdrawn our objections to its use as a beverage.”

Still, many Mormons (including apostle John A. Widtsoe) continued to believe that caffeine was the culprit in the banned “hot drinks,” so they avoided all colas — and condemned those who didn’t as not living the “spirit of the law.”

Utah-born LDS missionaries soon circulated these attitudes worldwide, teaching their converts to shun caffeinated soft drinks as part of their commitment. Some bishops even inappropriately asked about Coke in “worthiness” interviews, and BYU refused to sell anything with caffeine — even as confused Latter-day Saints guzzled these sodas in large quantities.

In the 1960s, according to biographer Gregory Prince, church President David O. McKay was at a Bountiful concert hall, where a friend offered to get him a drink from the concession stand. The friend was mortified when the cup he handed the Mormon leader was emblazoned with the words “Coca-Cola” in large letters.

“I don’t care what it says on the outside,” McKay told his embarrassed friend, “as long as there’s Coke on the inside.”

The church, yet again, set out to settle the matter during Mitt Romney’s 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, issuing a statement that “the revelation spelling out health practices … does not mention the use of caffeine” (though BYU remains free of caffeinated Coke).

Meanwhile, devout Mormons across the globe have had to assess whether their own drinks might be taboo as well and whether some sodas were healthier than their country’s murkier — and possibly disease-filled — water.
Regional dilemmas

Kava is a favorite drink among many Pacific Islanders, but it raises “tricky questions” for Mormons, says BYU-Hawaii professor Chiung Hwang Chen.

“It is neither alcoholic, fermented or caffeinated,” she says. “Quite the contrary to being a stimulant, it is a mild relaxer with some anesthetic properties.”

There are no consistent Mormon rules about its use — even in Hawaii’s LDS-dominated Laie area, some lay LDS leaders ask about kava in temple recommend interviews, while others don’t.

“The rationale for a ban,” she says, “is probably not so much about the Word of Wisdom … but the social aspect of kava drinking.”

Some argue that “irresponsible socialization [kava parties lasting through the night] among some Polynesian men should be the culprit, not kava itself,” Chen says. Others “embrace the ban fully, teaching/believing that the substance itself is problematic.”

For some Mormons, “kava is part of their faith,” writes Daniel Hernandez, a researcher at New Zealand’s University of Auckland. “For others, it’s a hindrance to it.”

“It all depends,” he argues, “on the purpose and use of it.”

Similar confusions — and conclusions — bedevil a discussion of “maté,” Argentina’s national drink, which many Mormons in South America embrace. It is at once condemned for being rich with caffeine and questioned for its cultural traditions.

“We were forbidden from drinking maté (as was the whole South American south area),” writes a missionary who served from 2007 to 2009. “The primary reason offered was hygiene, as everyone’s mouth would touch the 'bombitlla’ [communal gourd] as the maté was passed around.”

Then there’s Japan.

Seth Rogers served in the LDS Japan Fukuoka Mission in the mid-1990s and was allowed to drink barley and wheat teas, he says. “All other teas in Japan, including the ubiquitous green tea, were strictly off-limits.”

Given how much tea the Japanese “consume on all occasions,” says Rogers, “this was a real trial for the members there.”

When Lee Poulsen, who works for NASA, was a missionary in Sapporo in the early 1980s, every person who invited in the Mormon elders wanted to serve them tea. So the guest proselytizers began by telling their hosts they couldn’t have any brown, black, green or white tea, but that they could drink roasted barley tea, mushroom tea or seaweed tea.

One woman “went into despair upon hearing this,” Poulsen recalls, “because she had run out of all her other kinds of teas, and had no other option to serve to us.”

Instead, she insisted on giving the young men “boiling hot water in little tea cups.”

A balanced tension

The problem for many Mormons, especially non-Americans, is that eliminating coffee and tea means remaining apart from the hospitality and unity surrounding such beverages.

Heeding the Mormon dietary directives, says Belgian Wilfried Decoo, “is often the most obvious sign of breaking away from family traditions and fracturing the cultural cohesion.”

Beyond local traditions, coffee and tea have become a universal language binding diverse populations.

To help immigrant mothers integrate socially, European schools often organize “a short 'coffee or tea get-together’ when mothers drop off their kindergarten or elementary school children in the morning,” Decoo says. “Local mothers and mothers from other cultures get the chance to sit together for 10 or 15 minutes over a cup of coffee or tea — a symbol of their common identity, and get to know each other.”

A Mormon mother who would start out with “we never drink coffee or tea” could, he says, “undermine the social intention and the solidarity.”

From 30 years of overseas experience on five continents in rich and poor countries alike, Utahn Paul Carpenter has observed that these beverages are the “principal means” of putting diverse people at ease and “getting conversations started.”

If they were not seen as “sinful,” says Carpenter, who spent his career in the U.S. foreign service, “the church could even take advantage of them to facilitate missionary work and to accomplish its community-building goals.”

Overall, the social costs, he says, have outweighed any health benefits.

The church’s dietary injunctions were established when it was primarily a U.S. faith, says Mason, the California LDS scholar. “In the 1920s, they weren’t thinking about all these other substances.”

Latter-day Saints in diverse countries have to weigh the apparent rightness of cultural traditions against the righteousness of Mormon teachings.

Globalization, he says, “puts pressures on the church and its uniformity.”

For his part, LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks, in a recent speech to BYU-Hawaii graduates, says giving up some cultural, ethnic and family mores is a small price to pay for the richness of the Mormon gospel.

“When the practices of these cultures are contrary to gospel covenants and culture,” he declares, “we must push back and separate ourselves from them.”

Local Mormon leaders, says Hawkins, the church spokesman, “may provide counsel to their members about practices specific to their region.”

Melissa Inouye, a Mormon professor at the University of Auckland, endorses that approach.

“The people best equipped to interpret how a set of dietary rules from 1830s America should be applied to mark separation from surrounding society are the people native to that society,” she says. “Naturally, even within communities of local Latter-day Saints, and even within families, there will always be disagreements about the spirit and the letter of the law.”

Given the fact that the Word of Wisdom was “very loosely observed with regard to alcohol in 19th-century Utah (there was beer at ward parties) and is almost completely ignored today with regard to meat consumption ('only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine’),” Inouye says, “we should bear in mind that observance of the Word of Wisdom is not self-evident, but is shaped by LDS community norms at a given time and place.”

Mason, too, wonders about the coming generations.

LDS dietary restrictions created a powerful, core Mormon identity, full of meaning and purpose that served the religion for more than a century, he says, but may have to be adapted in the future.

“Mormons do not live in cloisters,” he notes. “They go to work and have neighbors who drink a glass of wine with dinner with no obvious adverse effect. They see that a moderate use of these substances do not lead to a life of misery.”

The expansive universe of social media immerses today’s members in a wider culture way beyond what previous Latter-day Saints ever knew, Mason says. “The nature of technology makes the persistence and cohesiveness of subcultures like Mormonism so much harder to maintain.”

As the faith continues to adapt to surrounding cultures, the scholar predicts, the Word of Wisdom will be “defined differently and applied differently.”

He can only imagine, Mason says, “this is what keeps LDS leaders up at night.”

Regional dilemmas

In an international church, and faced with varying customs and conditions, the Word of Wisdom can present Mormon missionaries with their share of, well, awkward dilemmas as they strive to heed the LDS health code.

Here are some examples:

Wayne Fagg: We used to substitute various Fanta drinks, some with caffeine, for water when there was none potable, for use in the sacrament when I served in Peru from 1980 to ’82. We were encouraged to drink Coke regularly to “help” rid us of microbes.

Sherrie Gavin: In Australia, alcohol in Christmas pudding is an essential ingredient, and I know no non-American Mormons who make Christmas pudding who shirk it.

Andrew Hall: Among Japanese Mormons, caffeinated cola drinks are widely seen as against the Word of Wisdom [though they are not]. Most members are aware that American members largely do not follow this interpretation, and they do not ask about cola drinks in temple recommend interviews. But they often say, “This is how we do it in Japan.”

Andrew Brown: Members in Argentina could drink Yerba maté; missionaries couldn’t. I have since drunk maté with an [LDS general authority] while he regaled me with stories of general officers of the church who had tried it and enjoyed it.

Jennifer Skousen Sudweeks: Masala chai in India. Sometimes it’s made with just spices, and sometimes it has black tea in it. It’s hard to tell because local blends don’t have the ingredients on the pouch. You actually buy it from a bulk bin, and they scoop it into a bag for you. Some members avoid masala chai altogether, and some claim they can tell the difference by the smell, which is probably true. White tea is also confusing. It’s a different plant altogether from green or black tea here. So some members think it’s OK since it’s basically herbal tea. Others lump it in with black tea. There are also some who drink green tea because it’s not fermented, and that is what they believe is wrong with black tea.

Sariah Toronto: In Russia, in the early 1990s, missionaries and members would buy kvass, a fermented beverage made from rye bread. I do recall seeing bottled kvass at Mormon functions. When visiting in people’s homes, if they did not have herbal tea on hand, we would be served “children’s tea” — jam (usually from berries) mixed with hot water.

Lisa Kay Carmack Palmer: Airag is fermented mare’s milk and traditionally provides much nutrition in Mongolia. The [LDS governing] First Presidency was specifically asked if this drink was against the Word of Wisdom. The answer was that they did not feel inspired to add this to the list of proscribed substances.