CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.
HA Note: Danica is a MK and homeschool alumni. She blogs at Ramblings of an Undercover TCK.
In this series: Part One | Part Two
The thing about a cult is that you don’t know you’re in one, until you’re out of it.
Like most kids raised by Born Again Baby Boomers, I grew up hearing about cults from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Jim Jones, the Branch Davidians and Charles Manson were all intriguing villains whose manipulative and destructive exploits peppered my childhood story times with appropriate and delicious horror. The New Age cults in This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, Christian horror books by author Frank Peretti, were held up as examples of what to look for lest my siblings and I be led astray when we got out ‘in the world’.
What nobody told me was that cults can happen within Christianity, in good churches, under the noses of diligent leadership.
My first experience with Nancy was her vociferously shouting, “Amen! That’s right!!” in agreement with our senior pastor’s sermon. Although our church is Assemblies of God in denomination, it is very moderate on the charismatic spectrum. It’s definitely not, as I heard a pastor in Texas once put it, a “Woo-Hoo Church”. So Nancy really stood out from the incongruously orderly sea of former Catholics, military members, and recovering addicts that make up our congregation. A teeny, tiny little voice at the back of my head thought cynically, when I first heard her hearty agreement with the pastor’s words, Who does she think she is? But that voice was immediately quieted and overridden by an inner admonishment to quit being so judgmental, followed quickly by admiration of how strong her voice was. How dedicated she was to hearing the sermon. How unafraid she was to speak truth. I became a little star struck.
A few weeks later, Nancy showed up with her kids to the midweek prayer group I led.
She prayed eloquently about strongholds and principalities and hinted at ‘words’ from God.
I’ve always had a heightened awareness of all things mystical, so this excited me. I thought, Here is someone who knows my language!
She stayed that first night after everyone had left and chatted some about how they’d just moved into a ranch they’d bought. My dream was to own a ranch. She told how they used to be missionaries. I was a missionary kid. And her kids were homeschooled. I was homeschooled and planned on homeschooling my own kids. The pull I felt toward her was powerful. It seemed like so much of her story paralleled my own, almost like she was telling my story back to me, but a better, shiner version. One that was lacking even a hint of the mundane. Like Edmund offered a plate of Turkish Delight, I ate it up.
Over the next few months, Nancy and her kids continued to come to prayer group on Wednesday nights. She began bringing words from God she had printed off of the internet, sent out by prophets I had never heard of. Dutch Sheets. Chuck Pierce. Cindy Jacobs. Peter Wagner. I was encouraged because I was learning to hear from God, too. Here is someone who can disciple me, I thought.
Nancy, herself, also got words from God – long ones that she’d write down on pieces of pink paper and keep folded in the front of her bible.
She invited us all out to her ranch and showed us where she was keeping supplies ‘just in case’. “You mean like, the End Times?” I asked. Her ranch was going to be a way station, an End Times refuge. It was exciting to think about all of us up there, living off the land, a community. Nancy and her kids already knew how to live off the grid, she told us, because she had lived with the Amish for a while.
“The Amish don’t usually take to people on the outside,” she said, “But they loved my kids. They taught us lots of things they don’t normally share with non-Amish.”
This was becoming a recurring theme. It seemed that Nancy had experienced a lot of things in her life.
Her experiences were always ‘special’, things nobody else could ever hope to do.
They either had to do with normally unattainable insider information, like living with the Amish, or they were wildly exciting and somewhat dangerous. She had been married to an arms dealer, she whispered to me one night when we were supposed to be in a worship service with the rest of the church. He was exporting weapons under the guise of missions work. Another time she and the kids narrowly escaped in the dead of night from an armed compound where a cult leader tried to keep them captive. She’d once fasted for 40 days, and at the end of the fast had a vision where she was leading a group of children during the End Times through dangerous roadblocks to the safety of a cave.
I had the thought, once or twice, that her stories sounded a little too fantastical. I mean, what are the odds that so much would happen to one person? But I pushed down these doubts as judgmental thoughts.
Besides, Nancy made me feel special.
By being on her inner circle, I got to share in her reflected glamour.
Robert J. Lifton’s “Thought Reform And The Psychology Of Totalism” is my go-to resource on cults. His “8 criteria for thought reform” includes “Sacred Science”: the cult leader’s access to “special knowledge.” You can read them all here:
Claiming special knowledge was how Robert (Father Paisius) DeLucia turned an Orthodox Christian school for troubled youths, of all things, into his little cult. (About the school and DeLucia: https://academyabuse.info/ ) By claiming unique insight into the hearts of the students for whom he was headmaster, teacher, and confessor, he convinced them that only obedience to his whimsical and cruel commandments would save them from spiritual destruction. He also liked to fire off random accusations against young people under his authority and watch their faces in case something stuck. DeLucia has been defrocked and placed on a leave of absence that does not appear to be ending any time soon; he is also under investigation by the Alaska State Troopers. Recent graduates of the academy received their diplomas by enrolling as homeschool students via the local public school district.
The students were out in the community all the time, working, helping other non-profits, and doing a music ministry that was really very good. But they’d been targeted by a person who wanted to control their lives and had no qualm about finding and exploiting their insecurities. They kept quiet until a group of former students, years away from DeLucia’s influence, made enough of a stink with the church hierarchy that they had to send an investigator whether or not they believed what was being said–and apparently they were convinced, since DeLucia is no longer permitted to serve. But it took years for some of DeLucia’s victims to overcome their inculcated shame and silence and begin to say that what had been done to them was wrong. That’s also a common feature of cults no matter where they appear.
Problem is, “Cultic” can have two meanings; abnormal theology/teachings or abusive control-freak behavior.
And during my time in-country in the Seventies, Christian Cult-Watch groups only defined “Cult(TM)” by the first meaning, that of abnormal theology. While they were parsing splinter groups’ theology letter-by-letter, a LOT of actual Cults by the second meaning were skimming by under their radars. (It helped that these Cults skimming under their radar had the same theology as the Cult Watchers — “Born-Again Bible-Believing Evangelicals(TM), YEC, Dispensational, Sinner’s Prayer Salvation”.) And these Cults-by-Abusive-Behavior then used their Christian Cult Watch clean bill of health as another weapon to abuse their people.
P.S. Frank Peretti wrote FICTION. And a LOT of Christians cannot tell the difference between fiction and fact.
“Because people are people, and the world is full of tricks and twistiness yet undreamed of.”
— One of The Whole Earth Catalogs