Sep 14, 2019

I Left the Cult Next Door

My mother and I stopped speaking after I broke with the man we called the Apostle.
My mother and I stopped speaking after I broke with the man we called the Apostle.
Tracy Simmons
Wall Street Journal
September 12, 2019

For the past five years, I have received a daily email filled with stories about those who succumb to extreme religious ideologies. Whether it’s the Nxivm sex-cult trial in New York earlier this year or the Netflix documentary series “Wild Wild Country,” Americans have shown an expansive appetite for cult stories. While my interest in the topic isn’t unique, it’s personal: I grew up in a cult.

In fact, I grew up in the cult next door. There wasn’t sexual or physical abuse. We never lived in a compound. I didn’t work on a farm in the woods. Instead my cult venerated one man, who said he was an apostle receiving direct revelation from God. We followed the Bible and this man’s teachings. We gave him 10% of our income—which he used to buy a Jaguar, snakeskin boots and a house on the Rio Grande.

In hindsight, my mother and I must have been the perfect mark. A woman abandoned by her husband and left to raise a socially awkward child on her own had some wounds. She was looking for belonging and acceptance. We had faith in Jesus but were never going to be noticed at the megachurch we attended. All it took was someone to make us feel special.

Enter a man with a charming Caribbean accent. We met him when we were invited to his Albuquerque home, when I was about 7. He invited us to worship in his living room and made my mom feel noticed. His care, instruction and prophetic rhetoric made us feel important. And after being deserted by her spouse, my mother felt seen. Too bad she was seen by the wrong person. We began to call the man the Apostle.

In our little group, those without a spiritual father were called orphans. After joining, members were assigned a male pastor to meet with weekly. And then once a month everyone would gather together to hear the Apostle’s divine word. If you were obedient enough, you could become an elder or prophet. When I was a member, there were about 20 normal members and three elders and prophets. That was our home group, but others gathered throughout the area.

At first the cult simply offered charismatic worship. But over time it became more. The Apostle proclaimed God was sending him updates to the Bible—often ones that didn’t make much sense—like demanding that unmarried women give their earnings to their spiritual fathers, who would in turn give them an allowance. Eventually anyone who disagreed with anything was cut out.

We considered mainstream organized religions faulty and their adherents misinformed. Non-Christian religions were especially dangerous. Eventually we cut ties with those who didn’t believe the same as us, especially if they argued a lot. If we were too strong-willed, we were shamed about our disobedience and prayed over until the demons found their way out through vomit or collapse. Hardship was a clear sign that God disapproved of our behavior.

The desire to feel welcomed and earn approval can push even the most rational people to make bad mistakes. In extreme cases, such people commit violence in the name of their cause. Or they literally drink the Kool-Aid. But in everyday cults like the one we belonged to, the mistakes were small but significant over time—voluntarily forfeiting our earnings, relationships and free will.

I started to pull away from the cult when I went to college in the early 2000s, putting a wedge between my mother and me. The wedge grew into a wall over the years as I became a religion reporter and refused to discuss the Apostle and his teachings with her. My refusal was followed with a letter from my mom saying we could no longer be in relationship because I “continued to disobey God’s law.” Her note came with two boxes full of my childhood belongings.

Cult expert Rick Alan Ross once told me that he learns about a new cult in the U.S. every day. Most of these are like the cult next door that I grew up in. They won’t cause death or sexual abuse on a massive scale. Rather, these everyday cults tear already weak families apart.

The real issue is how many distressed and lonely people go without care. People like my mom, who needed love and healing, but couldn’t find it in a church, neighborhood, family or friend. I don’t know if there’s a top-down solution to protect people like her from cults. But we can all do a better job noticing each other, showing empathy, and offering acceptance to those around us. You never know who you might be saving.

Ms. Simmons is editor of the religion news website and a lecturer at the University of Idaho.

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