Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on April 6, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
The backlash is one of the most difficult things we all faced in leaving our cult-like churches and controlling families.
One morning in my apartment, right after Racquel and Ashley left the church, Racquel’s phone rang. She stepped into the next room for a private discussion.
She came back out looking troubled.
Ashley asked what was wrong, Racquel said Sister H. from Louisiana just called.
Racquel started crying.
“Sister H. told me that the pastor may be wrong, our parents may be wrong, but not to give up on the Pentecostal church. But I just can’t do it. I can’t.”
“Did anything like this happen to you when you left, Eleanor?” she asked.
Yes. Yes, it did.
One of the pastors and his wife at our old church in Dallas called me and tried to convince me to attend Bob Jones University. They agreed with my pastor in Colorado Springs, said the only way to honor my parents was to do this one thing, to obey them.
My friend Anna called me a few weeks after I moved out. She said she’d gone back to the church. The pastor and his wife took her into the office, asked her about two of my Facebook posts she’d liked and commented on. One was lyrics from “Keep your eyes open” by NeedtoBreathe (they believed all syncopated music was of Satan). The other was heychristiangirl.tumblr.com. They said didn’t see the humor, they said it was sacrilegious.
Anna said the pastor and his wife asked her if she agreed with me moving out, if she’d aided me. They said they didn’t want her to influence their children to move out without their approval.
I caught my breath. I could see it now.
They can’t stand to lose one of their own, because that’s losing a soldier in the culture wars. You take one step back and now you’re one of the outsiders, one of the “lost” they evangelize. And they need your soul.
So when I hugged Racquel while she sobbed, I could say, “Yes, this happened to me, too.”
This is why leaving these churches, these homes is leaving a cult. And this is what it’s like to be a conductor, to walk beside abuse survivors and seek freedom.
As a conductor, I’ve had months of watching and preparations. I keep an emergency cellphone with an unlisted number in case a controlling parent blocks my regular phone. I carry pepperspray and a rape knife, both legal on my campus, so I can protect myself and those who ask for our help.
Our network discusses alternate scenarios, backup plans. We plan for the worst while hoping that one day this won’t be necessary.
Here’s we learned about helping people move out:
Take the essentials, but stay safe.
TESSA, a non-profit in Colorado Springs that offers advice and support to spousal domestic abuse survivors, has a checklist.
Clothes to last a week
Cash and bank information
Keys to car and work
Important paperwork and records
Personal items like photographs and jewelry
When Ashley moved out, five of us showed up because we knew her father was armed, he’d wrecked the car and the apartment, and we didn’t know when he’d return. I learned anyone who feels threatened can request police protection while moving their possessions.
Sometimes we left something behind we valued.
I couldn’t take my heirloom violin from the 1890s or one of our family dogs I’d bonded with. Ashley left her dog Sasha and her bed because we couldn’t fit it in the van, and Racquel sold her horse when later she couldn’t pay board and her own living expenses.
We lost diaries, mementos, and valuables.
We decided our freedom was worth losing those things or that lifestyle. We realized the important thing was keeping ourselves safe and learning how to heal.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 15, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
Rescuing people from cults is not an item to check off of a to-do list. It’s a process.
While we worked together on the UnBoxing Project, we learned this through our own exhausted time and money.
We didn’t just need to free people from church attendance and their abusive, controlling homes. In little funny moments and frustrating conflicts, we watched them free their own minds and personalities.
Moments like when Racquel wore jeans for the first time. We’d told her that she had a lovely figure that didn’t need to be concealed under long, wide skirts, and she didn’t believe us until then.
Moments like when Eleanor first moved out, I recommended dry beans for cost effective meals, and she didn’t know how to cook them.
Moments like the Socratic dialogue with Michela in a reclusive university meeting room, establishing that safety was possible.
After my friends and I got out, we struggled with various levels of PTSD, depression, and anxiety from the emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse we’d endured. It would be difficult enough to hold a job while dealing with shock and recovery, but many of the people we helped didn’t have any experience in the workforce.
I believed in self-sacrifice, and I didn’t care if I wasn’t well enough to help other people. Nobody else was going to do it if we didn’t. I told Cynthia Barram this, and she gave me a graphic image: She said to picture a woman in a place where food was scarce. The baby still sucked at his mother’s breast, but she had no nutrition left to give. At this point, the child was just eating blood.
We needed stability and resources ourselves, but with our parents gone, we only had each other. Like the undernourished mother nursing, we gave more than we had to give.
Many of us had to drop classes because taking care of extra people was so stressful. Eleanor ended up paying more than her portion of rent for the house she got with some of the people we’d rescued.
We realized that we weren’t heroes, and we didn’t have the strength to be heroes.
The question was, at what point do you let people learn for themselves? Our own limitations answered for us: we didn’t have the means to support other adults who had so little experience with the outside world.
We all decided that if we needed to rescue people, we wouldn’t be able to share finances with them, like cosigning on a lease. Getting out of a cult left these adults without survival skills, and we were young and broke, too. For the first year after my parents kicked us out, my sister and I rented from a family whose children were grown.
If only we knew some people who were older than us, who had the financial stability to own a house and rent out a room. If only we knew people who could teach a young adult, between the ages of 18 and 25 or so, how to keep a job and pay the rent.
Unfortunately, most of the people in the networks we had were similar to our own parents. That’s what isolation does – it limits the people you know.
We’re still looking for people who can help with temporary housing in our Unboxing Project, perhaps who have more stable living conditions than those of us who needed to escape, too.
We need places. People who are willing to take a young adult into a guest bedroom, and help them prepare for life outside. Help them find and keep a job.
Those of us who were abused aren’t very demanding. We generally don’t take up much space and we shrink at the thought of imposing on anyone. Just let us know we’re welcome, and let us know that it’s okay to talk about what’s going on. We need therapy to deal with what we’ve worked through.
Can we ask you to do that? Because we can’t do it ourselves.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 12, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
In July 2014, Ashley came over to my apartment to visit one Saturday morning.
Then Ashley got a text message from Gissel, one of her friends from the Pentecostal church she’d left six months ago.
“Hey, can you come pick me up? My dad kinda went crazy and kicked me out. I dont have anywhere to go… can I stay with you?”
Gissel was on her lunch break at work, so Ashley and I drove over to get her.
On the way to her dad’s house, Gissel explained she already planned on going to live with her grandmother in Texas.
The night before, she’d stayed out with her boyfriend and a group of other friends until past midnight. She discovered her dad had locked her out when she tried to come home, even though he’d never enforced the curfew he set for her older brother and his girlfriend.
Gissel kept asking why it was different for her as a girl, why she was being punished.
One of Gissel’s younger sisters let her in the house so she could get her suitcases already packed for her move. We put them in the trunk and drove to Ashley’s house.
The rest of her siblings watched us from the window, huddled together.
Ashley told Racquel what had happened and that Gissel would be staying over for the rest of the week until she flew out of town. Gissel went back to work for the day, and we picked her up that evening.
She was quiet. Reality set in.
Silent tears slipped down her cheeks. There was no home to go back to now.
We hugged her, asked her if she was ok or needed to talk. Told her it was ok to be sad, ok to cry.
Later she sat next to Ashley on the couch while we watched anime and the first Pirates of the Carribean movie.
Ashley helped her dye her hair that week, another thing that the church deemed sinful. Gissel started wearing a crucifix her dad gave her. He’d told her if she was going to leave the church and wear jewelry now, she might as well wear that.
After Gissel left for Texas, we kept in touch. I asked her last fall how she was doing and if she would like to share her story.
Now she is free, free to live outside the cage.
I thought once Racquel and Ashley and the others that we’d moved out were free that excitement would dissipate, that everything would start to go back to normal. That the Underground Railroad wouldn’t need to keep operating.
But Gigi reminded me that so many more are out there, waiting.
Gissel studied social work at community college and works in a healthcare center in Texas. She also now cohosts a YouTube channel called Gen and Gigi.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 9, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
Content warning: victim-blaming, religious manipulation.
Do you know what it’s like when You’re scared to see yourself? Do you know what it’s like when You wish it were someone else Who didn’t need your help to get by? Do you know what it’s like To wanna surrender? I don’t wanna feel like this tomorrow I don’t wanna live like this today Make me feel better, I wanna feel better Stay with me here now and never surrender Never surrender
– Surrender, Skillet
“Mama! Mama! Look at the butterfly!” I squealed in delight at the wonder perched on my shoulder.
“Don’t move, Lovey! It’ll fly away.”
I stood as still as possible as my mom snapped a picture of this beautiful creature, and watched as it flew away. I remember thinking as I watched the butterfly float into a beautiful, summer day, how amazing it would be to be able to just whisk yourself away whenever you chose… I had no idea how much I would pine for that fantasy to become a reality.
I always remember my parents being there. No matter what the occasion was. Pajama day at school, Grown-up day, Job day, doctor’s appointments, they were always present. I can’t remember an important event they were not in attendance for. I went to them with everything, no matter how strange, and they were always brutally honest with me. I liked it that way. Being a straight forward person, I needed that to grow. Things were always so comfortable…and then 2001 came and everything changed. Drastically.
My mom had gotten involved with a church when she was 15, and the experience had always stayed with her. She had visited a Pentecostal holiness church and had received what they call The Holy Ghost, which to them is the basis of salvation. You cannot attain Heaven without it, and once you have received it, even if you walk away from God, you are marked and you will be a target for Satan. My dad, on the other hand, is Irish /German and was raised Catholic. He was actually an altar boy growing up and wanted to become a priest. However, he grew out of that sometime in high school.
While living in Louisiana, my mom met a girl named Billie Jo, and they went to a Pentecostal church together. My mom converted all the way this time (lost the pants, threw away the jewelry, chucked the TV and music) and as soon as my dad joined, we essentially became Amish with microwaves.
But even then, my parents broke me in slowly. As an only child, I had practically every Disney movie known to man, and they allowed me to hand over my Disney movies in exchange for Veggie Tales. From there, it was my Veggie Tales traded in for either a trampoline, or a puppy. My daddy bought me both.
They introduced me into that world slowly, and with ease. I appreciated that, even then. I knew they could have completely ripped everything away from me and made the transition harder than it already was. But they didn’t. I never thanked them for that. I guess it kind of got buried under every other emotion that surfaced after.
At first, things weren’t so bad. The family environment was great. Having no family in Colorado, the church appeared to be exactly what we needed. I started going to the church school which consisted of about 50 kids. I made friends quickly, and it seemed so easy at first. We were accepted as new converts and everything was cool. My parents also made friends, and were treated like family by the pastor. They were like their kids.
I believe this is what started the depth of my parents’ relationship with the ministry. Around 2006, the pastor decided he wanted to evangelize and ended up electing a man from Mississippi to pastor the church. I’ve never seen a man so hell bent on changing people for the worst.
To my parents, this couple took the place of God. I have literally heard my dad say that if John Burgess asked him to stand on his head for 6 hours a day, in the middle of I-25, that he would do it without hesitation.
They believe that he is the voice of God, that even if he is wrong, and they sin because of his advice, that God would honor their obedience and look past their own wrongdoing.
The church services are filled with hype and the sermons are mostly guilt, especially directed at young people. They warn us of the wrath of God if we choose to walk away and almost every service we are reminded of the horrors that have happened to backsliders all through Pentecostal history, including those from our own youth group.
One instance in particular was one of my close friends Sharonda. She grew up with me, my mom babysat her and her older sister, and I looked up to this girl. She was my idol for a long time. She was my piano inspiration, she was cool, and she loved people. I’ve never met a heart as big as Sharonda’s. She was shot and killed late summer 2012. The case was never solved, and the Burgesses made not only her death, but her funeral an omen and message to all of us, that we should not run from God, for he is a jealous God, and his vengeance is strong. She is seldom mentioned among the young people. It just hurts too much.
The Burgesses continued to push their way into the minds of the church, and more and more young people have been driven away from God. Most of the “backsliders” that I know, don’t even believe in a benevolent God anymore. This started to become my opinion very young. I couldn’t see how any of this made sense. I thought the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was just and honorable? Not malicious and manipulative.
After my parents began to blindly follow the Pastor, I started to lose control. I shut off all emotions because I just couldn’t handle them anymore. I began to get more and more reclusive, and eventually began to blame myself for the guilt and pain that my parents were dealing with due to the controlling ways of the church. Everyone feels this way. It’s their modus operandi.
I didn’t know how to help and I began to fall into a deeper depression. I began to self harm. This was done is so many ways, I cant even begin to explain it all. Eventually, the self harm wasn’t enough. I attempted suicide six times starting at the age of 11.
I tried everything. Nothing worked.
My mom caught me cutting once and literally dragged me in to Shanna Burgess (the pastor’s wife), who promptly told me as I lay on the floor. bleeding profusely, that it was all in my head and I needed to stop being so angry at God.
She told me I was the one to blame.
After coming to her weeks before with my heart wide open and breaking in pieces, I explained one reason why I felt so alone. I was raped when I was 6 years old and had no way to express my feelings. She, of course, immediately took this information to my mother who denied it profusely. My parents have never believed me. She told me I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself because come on, it never happened! I hated them before but after this? I could never forgive them.
They had and still have a hold on my parents like nothing I’ve ever seen.
When I turned 18, things started to look up. I was finally allowed to have a phone because I had turned 18 (pastor’s rules for youth), I was finally granted rights to a car (that I bought, of course) and everything was going good. I had been in good graces with the Burgesses and my family and I was following the rules to perfection.
And then after a falling out with my best friend at the time, I started to become close friends with a girl named Racquel. We began to grow closer and closer as the months went on, and before you knew it, we were opening up to each other. I told her things I had never told anyone ever.
Eventually, our concerns about the church and their doctrines, the Burgesses and all sorts of other questions came to the forefront of our conversations and we began to discuss them. We grew even closer after learning about some of the abuse that the other one had endured.
We got caught discussing these topics, and we were separated and forbidden to speak to one another. This happened four times. Each time we grew closer and closer and eventually, we started to go to extreme lengths to see each other. My parents and the Burgesses resorted to lying to both of us, trying to force us to hate each other.
After another six months of not speaking, we once again rebelled and talked about what had happened. We realized they had lied to both of us, obtaining information by hacking email and bank accounts. My parents forced me to stop attending my college classes because Racquel might try to visit me there.
We communicated to each other through Eleanor for about 3 weeks, and then we started to sneak out again. We had contemplated running away many times before, but something was different this time. When two adults aren’t allowed to talk because they get caught listening to One Direction, there’s some serious malfunction going on. It had reached an all time idiocy and we had had enough. We both left home, and the night I did that was the hardest decision of my life.
Three days later, my dad was going to throw my stuff on the sidewalk. My mom, who was out of town at the time, convinced him to let me come pack my stuff, so he left for a few hours. Racquel and Eleanor went with me. The first thing I noticed when I came in was that all my pictures were facing down and some sat in piles on the floor. I almost lost it then.
I just remember feeling like my parents died, and I was cleaning out their house.
A little later, Cynthia Jeub and Aaron also came over. I’ll never forget the look on Cynthia’s face when I saw her. I walked outside to greet them, and she just looked so disturbed. But there was also pride in her eyes. She hugged me for a good ten minutes. I’ve never expressed how much that hug meant to me.
They helped me pack up and I decided last minute to check my mom’s car. I went to look for any remaining items, and when I opened the door, I saw that the inside of the car was destroyed. I can only assume my dad went crazy and trashed the car. It was really scary.
Everyone was panicking because we didn’t know when he was coming back, and he has guns so people were starting to freak out. We left not long after. It didn’t really hit me until then, how drastic the change was going to be.
Since then, I have gone through a lot. I’ve put myself through an abusive relationship, made myself be something I wasn’t, lost connection with my family for months at a time because of “religious differences,” moved around a lot, found out I was adopted by my dad, been through a ton of counseling, self-harmed, ran from my home state, even shut my humanity off a few times.
But one thing I can say I haven’t, nor will I ever do, is forget who I am and where I came from.
I can’t express how hard it has been. The sleepless nights, the thousands of times I’ve cried myself to sleep, and woke up screaming. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
But you know what? I don’t regret it. I can’t. I’ve invested too much into this decision to fault it. To those of you trying to escape, its not impossible. It’s not easy, but I promise its worth it. We have helped more people come out since my decision to leave, and the feeling is so liberating, knowing you are a voice and a model for them.
To those of you who have siblings that are still in captivity, don’t give up hope. They will make it. YOU are their light, no matter how dark you feel sometimes.Because sometimes the darkest shadows have been cast by the brightest lights.
And no matter what bad choices you make long the way, I’ve found that I don’t have to be ashamed of them. Because they are finally my decisions. So while wading through your red river of screams just as we have, remember you do not fight alone. You can make it.
And never surrender…. the battle will be worth it, and we will win the war. I don’t wanna feel like this tomorrow I don’t wanna live like this today Make me feel better, I wanna feel better Stay with me here now and never surrender Never surrender
Ashley attended public school and later homeschooled online. She finished her senior year at the pentecostal church’s school. She was the first person on her mom’s side of the family to finish high school and attend college. She is interested in psychology, forensics, and criminal justice.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 8, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
Liz helped our network assist Racquel and Ashley. Here is her perspective.
Nearly two years ago, I received text messages from Eleanor about a friendship between two girls that had been recently forbidden by their religious leader.
I was asked to attempt to sneak a cheap TracFone to one of the girls at her school because I would not be recognizable to her parents, who had confiscated all her means of communication. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in class that day.
Eventually, they acquired their freedom by leaving their church behind and living with friends.
Most people assume their own community has only good intentions in mind for members. Why would we believe otherwise if an overwhelming majority of us were taught that strangers are the ones who seek to hurt us? In reality, data suggests that most cases of violent crime and sexual assault occur between people who are at least acquainted with each other or in regular physical proximity.
In spite of statistical and factual realities, we teach our children to fear strangers. We teach them to avoid the rare anomalies but fail to teach them to look for warning signs in the mundane. This contributes to the denial in identifying abusive communities when people are a part of one.
Instead, people taught to fear the outside world might think that to leave would be worse.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt says that evil is banal. It is predictable, common, and is generally perpetuated by unremarkable people motivated by their own, typically material needs. An intense, outward adherence to a particular ideology or manifestation of a psychological condition might be present but neither are enough to explain why communities as a whole behave a certain way.
In other words, abusers are regular people and not the monstrous caricatures we see on TV or evil stepmothers in children’s fairytales. There might be a few narcissists and sociopaths at the upper echelons dictating the orders, but several people who are afraid of seeking out other dissenters within the group.
With hierarchy and scale, diffusion of guilt and responsibility is inevitable. Diffusion of guilt is generally paired with resistance to collective guilt that should logically follow the diffusion. The lower end claim to be following orders, the higher ups claim they didn’t personally do it. It’s the same garbage that makes none guilty for abuse that many participated in. It is as if people hope that with sufficient diffusion, the amount of culpability per person is rendered insignificant. Dilution of active ingredients in homeopathic “remedies” operates this way.
Abuse as a phenomena doesn’t become significant simply because the perception of responsibility among abusers is thinly spread out because there is always someone else to blame in the eyes of the guilty such that their victims somehow become responsible for their own abuse.
What I’ve gleaned from my studies in history and politics is that there is a tendency to conceal or otherwise diminish the significance of abuses as a means of trying to protect the legitimacy and reputation of an organization such as the Catholic church, many American universities, collegiate and professional sports teams, the entertainment industry, among many other examples.
When an organization cares more about protecting its own reputation than removing abusers or helping victims, there is a reason to question the validity and value of such an institution and the complicity of people within afflicted organizations.
Even if an individual abuser recognizes the harm they cause, to reject the cultural norms is to risk being socially ostracized and possibly, their standard of living. Obedience experiments by Milgram and replicated by others show that people are generally submissive to figures of authority up to a certain point. It is likely that people from more isolated communities would escalate punishments further when commanded by members of their community than people from the general population being instructed by a stranger because of a greater sense of obligation and desire to belong in the former.
Defection is complicated. It comes with a high price tag in both an absolute and perceived sense.
People in deliberately isolated communities are generally taught that outsiders are evil, that its their own fault for being mistreated or that victims deserve it, and that the victims aren’t being treated badly in the first place. If maltreatment is believed to be normative and benevolent it tends to make victims attempt to justify what is going on as a means of internalizing conflicting messages.
The more isolated people are, the harder it is for them to recognize their own condition and the more complex the logistics of leaving becomes.
Liz was trained at a local college in her hometown to teach freshmen at her high school about how to avoid and recognize dating violence, local resources for victims, and statistics regarding the frequency of rape and lack of conviction. She was also a student teacher assisting adult education courses in rape escape and self-defense in evening courses offered by her school to the community.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published on Eleanor’s blog on March 7, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
Content warning: forced starvation, religious manipulation.
Somehow I never imagined the inner peace and joy I felt as a 5 year old girl after being filled with the Holy Ghost would disgust and scare me. I am writing this because I believe my voice should be heard. I hope that by telling my story it will help my healing and others with similar stories as well as prevent more stories like mine from happening.
The music was loud and the atmosphere was pulsing with energy. I wanted to show how much I loved God, so I went up to the front of the sanctuary and danced with all my might, letting my tears flow. I had been taught that I should dance before the Lord and not let anyone’s opinion stop me.
Often I was the first one or the only one at the front of the church. This was good. It meant I was a leader, and that I was fighting spiritual warfare. It would also show my pastor, who was God’s voice in my life, how my walk with God was and what a good apostolic young person I was. I remember night after night where this was my mindset.
I was isolated from other members of the youth group because I would refuse to do things that the Pastor had commanded us not to such as ride in a car with a guy unless it was approved or there was a married approved chaperone was in the car. However, then there were the many many times where I sat or knelt at the alter weeping feeling the guilt of my many sins because yet again I simply failed to uphold the standards because again I had listened to unchristian music, watched a tv show, or could not stick to a daily prayer life.
For years I went through a cycle of getting trouble with my best friend for questioning the pastoral authority or why we held to some of our standards or had completely disregarded the rules, and then being told that I and my best friend Ashley should not talk or hang out because our personalities did not complement each other. Meanwhile, I stood by as she was abused in so many ways by both the pastoral authority and her parents because the only thing I could do was be there for her.
In January 2013, my best friend and I had come to the conclusion that we did not and could not agree with the church. However, we were discovered yet again and were ripped apart. This time, the Pastor lied to both of us, trying to turn us against each other by saying that the other one had ratted us out.
At the direction and guidance of the Pastor, my friend’s parents were punishing her for not losing weight because it was said that God could not use her unless she lost the weight. Because of her inability to meet their demands, she had begun starving herself. I texted her in absolute caring compassion for her to “FUCK (written politely as $@##) what they [her parents] think” to drive home to my friend that starving herself was not the answer, and that her parents and pastor were wrong.
During one of the long sessions in the Pastor’s office after getting caught, I discovered the Pastor had hacked into my best friend’s phone and found my text. I was questioned about my lack or respect for authority. My hands were tied as I seethed in anger not able to tell the pastor the context of the text, lest the abuse she suffered would increase because the Pastor was part the abuse. My best friend was far too scared of losing her parents and being kicked out to do anything other that play along with them. So at the age of 19, she had every form of communication, transportation, and even her means of education stripped from her. She was not even allowed to be alone in her own home.
In March, the deception worked and the pressure had finally broken me to the point that I gave in and did exactly as the church (i.e. the Pastor) wanted me to do. I felt helpless and that the reason for my insanity was that I was not submitted. I continued to not talk to my best friend and tried to force myself into the mold they had created for me with my approved Christian friends and my guilt-ridden prayer life.
I still had all of the same questions. Why must a man my pastor dictate to me what God wants and God not talk to me directly? Why must I not be allowed to talk to my best friend who was still the most important person in my life? How could so many injustices and abuse be what a loving God wanted? So when my little sister decided to leave suddenly and move in with a guy I had never met, and I had no idea were she was or if she was safe, when my approved friends failed, I reached out to the one person I knew who would be there: my best friend.
Within two weeks of resuming secret communication, we had both discussed in detail what we saw wrong with the church, and had stated that no matter what we were going to keep communicating, even if it had to be hidden. Almost immediately, my best friend started to date a coworker.
On December 15, 2013, her dad followed her to her boyfriend’s house, and that night he kicked her out. I received a text saying, “they know everything can you come and get me.” I immediately drove to her house and picked her up. From there we were housed in a friend’s apartment who had also recently escaped an abusive fundamentalist home.
There has been a lot of healing and learning since then and now. Learning to live outside of the box has not been easy, nor do I think it ever will.
I now have the wonderful freedom of choice and with that comes both what I would describe as the beauty of a rainbow and the burden of the rain cloud.
Making these choices is the scariest and most exhilarating thing that I have ever done. I have learned and accepted more of who I am.
I can only hope that healing will come in time and the scars will become less painful.
Racquel graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology in May 2014. She struggled with undereducation from inadequate homeschooling and private education in her church throughout her college career. Racquel hopes to pursue a graduate degree in counseling, and her job involves assisting troubled teens.
Eleanor Skelton blogs at eleanorskelton.com, is the news editor of the UCCS student newspaper, and is majoring in English and Chemistry. The following was originally published as “The Underground Railroad: Intro” on Eleanor’s blog on March 5, 2015, and is reprinted with permission.
“Eleanor, does your church teach the doctrine of pastoral authority?” my friend Racquel asked.
She was waiting with me in the classroom for my Organic Chemistry review session to start.
“What is that exactly?”
Racquel attended an apostolic Pentecostal church in Colorado Springs that taught a person wasn’t saved unless they had been baptized and spoken in tongues at that particular church, not another Pentecostal church in the area.
A long list of offenses such as watching movies and television or wearing short skirts and jewelry could grieve the Holy Spirit, and then you’d lose your salvation and have to “pray through at the altar” again.
“Pastoral authority means that Brother Burgess prays and decides if it’s God’s will for us to talk to a guy in the church, date him, get engaged, or marry. And whether or not we can move out of town and attend another apostolic church,” she explained.
“Other apostolic churches allow social media and let their young people listen to CCM [contemporary Christian music], but our pastor has decided it’s not spiritually good for our congregation.”
Racquel didn’t see the harm in what her church banned, but believed her pastor had good intentions.
“I can tell my pastor cares about the people in the church, the way he walks around and prays for us during the service.”
I hadn’t moved out of my parents’ house or begun dealing with the unhealthy cycles in my own life, but I knew something wasn’t right. A church should support my friend, not make her miserable.
Over the next few months, Racquel and I had many theological discussions, and I argued that Jesus was about freedom and grace, not rules. I said her church had the tendencies of a cult. But she couldn’t see it yet.
I’d started texting Racquel’s best friend Ashley. She’d just gotten permission from her parents to own a cellphone and drive the car again, even though she was nearly 20 years old and attending massage therapy school full time as well as a part time job.
I had moved out in August 2012, and felt even more strongly that Ashley’s family situation was toxic since my escape from fundamentalism.
In January 2013, I lost contact with Ashley when her parents and Brother and Sister Burgess discovered she and Racquel had watched movies again and listened to rock music, including Skillet. Brother Burgess declared Skillet was demonic after listening to their song “Monster.” Ashley finally bought her own iPhone with parental and pastoral permission eight months later.
Now it was late October. Ashley and I were meeting for coffee that evening. She taught me Search for Truth Bible study lessons, intended for potential converts, as an excuse so her parents would allow us to hang out.
I was driving down south towards Starbucks when I got a text message from her.
“I’m sorry, Eleanor. I can’t come meet u. My parents are now not letting me use their car for anything.”
“Stay calm, see if I can pick you up in a bit,” I replied.
“I’ll try. Don’t know if I can last that long. Cya.”
“You can make it. I believe in you. You still ok?”
“No I’m not. I’m done Eleanor, I’m sick and tired of this. I can’t do it anymore. I’m too tired and can’t keep this facade up. I’ve fought for 13 years against this and am too tired to continue fighting this. I have no control and no choice. I’m fed up and there’s no way out. I realize that now. I just don’t know what to do now.”
“Do you want out? Do you want to make the jump?”
“Yes I do. But I can’t.”
The church and Brother and Sister Burgess trapped both girls in an awful double bind, using manipulation and lies. I knew they needed out.
I organized a network of friends to be prepared when they asked for help. We informally called ourselves the Underground Railroad, in honor of the Civil War stories most homeschooled kids read over and over.