The Day Faith Left Me: Sarah’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.

I remember every moment vividly. I was sitting on the back porch. I can see it all clearly as if I was watching a video re-run of my life. The colors, time of year, even the size of that tiny porch.

I remember waking up that morning feeling something tight around my stomach. My first thought was that something was not okay. I wondered what it was. It wasn’t until my phone rang about 5 hours later that I knew instantly just exactly what it was that had my stomach in knots. Somehow my brain and body knew that this was the turning point of my life the very moment I woke up. But I didn’t recognize it until the phone rang.

I was living in the basement apartment of a couple who used to be resident directors at the college where I went to school. I hero-worshiped the two of them. They were everything a good Christian couple should be. I was honored and humbled that they offered for me to live with them for the summer. I had just graduated in May, and I was searching for a job. I had to move out soon because school was over; it was time to move on.

I was in this place in life where I had a lot of wounds. My childhood was a homeschool mess. My earliest years were being raised in crazy cults, and by my teen years my parents had settled into something a little more “normal” and enrolled our family in ATI. English and math gave way to wisdom booklets, attending counseling seminars and teaching at Children’s Institutes. When I left home at 21 to go to college I had never taken a test, never written a paper, and had no math past the 5th grade. It was only my freshman year of college that I realized just how abnormal my childhood was, even for homeschooling families.

I felt like an alien who had been dropped on a different planet.

Everything was new.

Four years of trying to figure out how to be a normal person. Everything about college was hard. But I prided myself on the fact that I picked a great Christian school, I was studying to be in youth ministry, and regardless of all I faced growing up I held to my faith like a rock! When it came time to graduate I applied for a job at my alma-mater as a Resident Director. I loved that place. I loved those people. They stepped in and were my family. I relied on them for everything. I knew they didn’t hire people just graduating, but still I made it down to the final two.

I had been journaling, and praying, and God told me I was ready.

I had what I needed to be a great Resident Director. I had my theme for the year planned out. I had verses. I was on my knees in humbleness, and I thought about what God had prepared for me. I could stay and be mentored by my spiritual mom, I could be near my best friend, I would be a part of this amazing Christian community, and I would be IN… like truly accepted as a Christian leader. I would help shape the spiritual lives of my RA’s, and I would be Gods broken vessel. A cracked pot that He made new and useful.

Back to that porch. My cell phone rang. I knew the number. It was the Student Development Office. I ran up from the basement to get better reception and sat on the very small stoop at the back of the house. Breathlessly answering. And with the greeting I knew, I knew, I knew… all was not to be. They felt God leading them towards the other candidate. I choked out something about being grateful for the chance. Hung up. And collapsed into a ball.

From my body came wails. Like deep, someone died, guttural cries of pain. The sound scared me.

I remember crying “Don’t Go! Don’t Leave Me!” over and over again. I still remember the feeling, as if in a movie, of something coming out of my body and floating off in the air.

I knew then, my faith was leaving.

I didn’t want it to. I begged it to stay. I didn’t want this. But I knew it was leaving. And I knew I was falling into depression.

I called my best friend to pick me up. I knew I wasn’t good on my own. We talked; she was a great support. But I’m not sure she ever really knew what happened.

You see, I would have bet my life that God talked to me. That He had planned for me to work at the college. I heard Him. I felt Him. I knew Him. But when the leaders I trusted didn’t choose me for the job, when God let them to the other candidate, I knew I didn’t hear from Him. The proof was in black and white. God picked them. God talked to them. And I wasn’t in the loop. I wasn’t chosen. I wasn’t in the club. And more than that, I didn’t hear from God.

If I had been so wrong about that, than what else was I wrong about?

Nothing I knew held any water any longer. Everything must be questioned. Must be looked at. Must be assessed. I was not to be trusted. My judgment was not to be trusted. I needed to leave the bubble of Christianity… well I was actually forced out… and I had no solid place to stand.

A month-ish later I got a job at one of the most secular high schools possible. Every day I had to face viewpoints that would have scared me months earlier. My roommate was gay. My students were engaging in premarital sex. Evolution was science, and creation was laughable. Choice and lifestyle were individual matters and not dictated. I floundered. Most days I thought I was drowning. I saw the opposite of everything I had ever believed or thought true. I begged still for my faith to return. I prayed. I wrote in my journal. I show up at church. I talked to mentors and pastors.

But once rational thought was let in, once I started to question, once I realized that what I had been taught had no logic… well I could never go back.

Here I am years later… and every moment of that day is etched into my memory and consciousness… the day faith left me.

Wisdom Booklet Archive Index

Nicholas Ducote, HARO Community Director

Starting in May, I began uploading my collection of ATI’s Wisdom Booklet homeschooling curriculum to our website. I will add links here as they go up. These versions are NOT intended for educational use, but for journalists and researchers who want to investigate the teachings of ATI in primary sources. Any interested parties are highly encouraged to read through our Inside ATI series and the growing collection of information on Recovering Grace.

Please let me know if you would like to see a specific volume – scanning them page-by-page is a time consuming and tedious process, so it will take months to put all 50+ volumes and parent guides online. The galleries can be difficult to read, so I’ve included compressed PDF versions as well. If you would like full-res versions of the PDFs (usually around 70 MB), email us at HomeschoolersAnonymous@gmail[dot]com.

  • Discerning God’s Will in Every Decision and Appendix on the Place of Old Testament Law in the Life of New Testament Believers (pamphlet included with Wisdom Booklet package) [PDF]
  • Wisdom Booklet #1 [PDF]
  • Wisdom Booklet #2 [PDF]
  • Wisdom Booklet #2, Parent Guide Planner [PDF]
  • Wisdom Booklet #3 [PDF]
  • Wisdom Booklet #4 [PDF]

A Brief History of ATI and HSLDA’s Relationship

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By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

Numerous discussions have arisen online about the relationship between HSLDA and IBLP/ATI. The following is a detailed account of what can be publicly confirmed about that relationship.

Originally called the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC), The Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) was founded in 1961 by Bill Gothard for the purpose of “introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ.” IBLP’s headquarters are in Oak Brook, Illinois. IBLP has a number of educational programs, one of which is the Advanced Training Institute (ATI, previously ATIA). ATI — which HA covered during our “Inside ATI: A Homeschooling Cult” series — is IBLP’s homeschooling program, the core curriculum of which are the “Wisdom Booklets,” described by IBLP as “a 3,000-page amplification of the Sermon on the Mount.”

According to the Advanced Training Institute, “In the scope of the ATI curriculum, the Bible is the main textbook, the Wisdom Booklets are the core curriculum.” That “core curriculum” began development in 1984 by a team that worked under the direction of 3 individuals: Bill Gothard, Dr. Larry Guthrie, and Inge Cannon.

Bill Gothard and Michael Farris

Bill Gothard, as previously stated, is IBLP’s founder.

Less known, however, is that Michael Farris and his wife Vickie embraced the Quiverfull lifestyle specifically because of him.

As documented in Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull, Michael Farris “came to his Quiverfull beliefs through the ministry of Bill Gothard.” In the 1980s, Gothard preached that God should determine family size. And “one of Gothard’s early converts was [HSLDA’s Michael] Farris, who was already primed for the message of letting God control Vickie’s fertility by early anti-contraception literature and his immersion, in the late 70’s, in a conservative Christian movement in Washington State.”

Vickie Farris herself explains this in her book A Mom Just Like You, saying,

Mike had recently been ordained through our local church in preparation for his new job in Washington, DC. He was invited to a pastors’ seminar taught by Bill Gothard, and one of the things Bill discussed that day was the fact that children are always mentioned in the Bible as unqualified blessings… He encouraged the men at the seminar to have as many  children as their faith could handle! When Mike came home and told me the things Bill had said, we decided then and there, with some trepidation, to trust God and stop using birth control. (page 68)

This influence led Vickie to pass on the message and “encourage other women to reject birth control methods and embrace motherhood.”

Inge Cannon and HSLDA

A graduate of Bob Jones University, Inge Cannon was truly the overseer of launching ATI’s Wisdom Booklets in 1984. According to HSLDA’s accounting, it was while working at Maranatha Baptist Bible College that “she was first introduced to the concept of home education. Bill Gothard, founder and president of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, invited Inge to attend a special conference to plan the foundation of the Institute’s home education curriculum, the Advanced Training Institute of America.” In 1985, Cannon moved to Oak Brook specifically “to direct the ATIA program.” She then continued to develop ATI — both the program itself and the curriculum — until 1990. In 1990, after 6 years of working with Gothard and directing ATI, Michael Farris himself sought her out to find a Director of HSLDA’s new division, the National Center for Home Education. She filled the position herself, becoming “the first executive director of the National Center.”

It ought to be stressed that Inge Cannon is responsible for the ATI curriculum — especially the Wisdom Booklets. More than that, as documented by Jeri Lofland, Cannon discouraged young people from going to college during ATI conferences in Knoxville. As Lofland notes,

I was just one of thousands of young people who were told that we didn’t need college credits, that college would corrupt our minds with “vain philosophies” and threaten our faith, that there are some things “God doesn’t want us to know”, and that employers would come looking for us because of our diligence, obedience, and virtue. So, many of us dutifully eschewed degrees in favor of home-based study.

Cannon being recruited by HSLDA’s Michael Farris was not mere coincidence. Cannon herself points out that she and her work is officially “endorsed” by not only Bill Gothard, but Michael Farris (as well as Bob Jones, III).

Larry Guthrie, Inspiring Speaker

The third person overseeing the development of the Wisdom Booklets in the 1980s was Larry Guthrie. In addition to writing “science and medical curriculum materials” for ATI, Guthrie is “the former director of the Children’s Institute”. The Children’s Institute, as discussed by Lana Hope, was where children “started learning about the umbrella of authority from the age of 5.” He also wrote some of the Character Sketches sold by Gothard’s ALERT program.

Still a keynote speaker at homeschool conferences, Guthrie has been promoted by HSLDA as “inspiring.” In 2011, HSLDA promoted the Minnesota Association of Christian Home Educators Annual Conference and Curriculum Fair, featuring Guthrie. Similarly in 2013, Peter Kamakawiwoole, HSLDA Staff Attorney, encouraged HSLDA members to attend a conference with Guthrie as keynote speaker.

Beyond Curriculum Developers

The warm camaraderie and partnerships between ATI and HSLDA extend beyond the direct relationships between ATI’s Wisdom Booklet developers (Gothard, Cannon, and Guthrie) and HSLDA. Dianne Hurst, ATI’s grammar curriculum developer, was featured on HSLDA’s Home School Heartbeat for a week. Hurst is also married to HSLDA’s Membership and Human Resources Director, Chuck Hurst. Steve Wells, who worked with Gothard and ATI to develop an online distance learning engineering program (the parent to IBLP’s Telos Institute and Verity College), also appeared on Home School Heartbeat for a week. Inge Cannon was similarly featured on Home School Heartbeat — and more than once.

Vicki Bentley, HSLDA’s coordinator for Toddlers to Tweens and Group Services, recommends ATI for “Bible/Character Training” in the Virginia Homeschool Manual she compiled.

In the 2008 edition of HSLDA’s Court Report, HSLDA featured a history of “The Early Days of Homeschooling.” HSLDA highlights Bill Gothard and Inge Cannon, saying ATI “helped many families get started.” Additionally, ATI is featured on HSLDA’s official curriculum list. ATI is also an HSLDA Discount Group, and just last summer HSLDA promoted an ATI “success story” in Court Report.

In 1989, prior to Inge Cannon joining HSLDA, she helped support a memorandum in Ohio written by HSLDA’s Michael Smith. This memorandum explained “that there is no legal requirement in Ohio that a homeschooling instructor possess a college degree.” According to HSLDA,

Mrs. Inge Pohl [Cannon], Director of Education for the Advanced Training Institute of America (a nationwide homeschool program), testified at trial in North Dakota that in testing 5,000 youngsters pursuant to their program, they found no significant correlation between the parents’ education and their children’s success in testing.

ATI and Patrick Henry College (started and initially funded by HSLDA) also share a rich donor. Dr. James Leininger, a Texas physician, homeschooling parent, and part-owner of the San Antonio Spurs, has long bankrolled conservative Christian projects. He was a founding director of Vision Forum. He served on the Advisory Board for IBLP. And not only was he “one of the first and most significant contributors” to HSLDA’s Patrick Henry College, he also is currently on that college’s Board of Trustees.

Jordan Lorence, ATI, and HSLDA

More than anyone, Jordan Lorence represents the working relationship between ATI and HSLDA. (You might recognize Lorence most recently as the lawyer representing the New Mexico photographer who refused to photograph a same-sex ceremony.)

In the late Christopher Klicka’s book Home School Heroes: The Struggle & Triumph of Home Schooling in America (a book endorsed by Lorence himself, which you can see on the book’s back cover), Klicka points out that Lorence worked with HSLDA from the very beginning. Starting in 1984, Lorence worked part-time for HSLDA and handled legal contacts with homeschoolers. It was Lorence, along with Michael Farris, that interviewed Klicka when he was hired by HSLDA.

In 1985, Lorence served as HSLDA’s Director.

In 1991, Lorence became a full-time staff attorney for HSLDA, focusing on HSLDA’s presence in Canada.

During this time, Lorence also worked with Bill Gothard and IBLP/ATI. Lorence spoke for several years at ATI conferences held in Knoxville and Oklahoma; he was a welcome and well-known guest. There is an online record of his presentation at a 1994 ATI conference in Knoxville. In 1996, Lorence represented IBLP in the court case Institute in Basic Life Principles, Inc. v. Watersmeet TP.

Jordan Lorence  also played an instrumental role in Oak Brook College of Law, as discussed next.

Oak Brook College of Law and HSLDA

The final and most significant relationship between ATI and HSLDA involves Oak Brook College of Law.

Oak Brook College of Law (based in Fresno, California but sharing the same name as IBLP’s geographical location — namely, Oak Brook, Illinois) was launched by ATI itself. In fact, OBCL is still listed on IBLP’s website as one of IBLP’s educational programs and their graduation ceremonies were held at IBLP Training Centers. Not only that, but law students at OBCL study Bill Gothard’s Basic Seminar material.

Law students do not simply study Gothard’s Basic Seminar material, however.

According to Oak Brook’s official college policies as of last year, a “prerequisite for admission” into the school is “attendance at all the sessions of the Seminar in Basic Life Principles sponsored by the Institute in Basic Life Principles.”

When OBCL was launched in 1995, it was done so as a joint effort between ATI and HSLDA stakeholders. Bill Gothard served as the law school’s Chancellor (and he still is the Chancellor), Michael Farris served on the Board of Trustees, and former HSLDA director and staff attorney Jordan Lorence served (and continues to serve) as the school’s Constitutional Law Professor as well as is Chairman of Oak Brook’s Board of Advisors. ***

The relationship continued when graduates of Oak Brook faced difficulties taking the bar in states other than California. In 2005, HSLDA specifically supported Texas House Bill 826 (which ultimately failed to pass) because “homeschoolers who graduate from the distance-learning school Oak Brook College of Law in California are currently prohibited from taking the Texas Bar Exam.” HSLDA highlighted that Oak Brook students “have worked as Legal Assistants for the HSLDA Legal Department” and HSLDA “hired two graduates of the school to work as lawyers in our office.”

Graduates of Bill Gothard’s law school have indeed gone on to work for HSLDA. HSLDA attorney Darren Jones graduated from Oak Brook. Will Estrada, HSLDA’s Director of Federal Relations, graduated from Oak Brook. HSLDA Legal Assistant Elliot Ko graduated from Oak Brook. HSLDA attorney Tj Schmidt graduated from Oak Brook. Former HSLDA legal assistant Daniel Beasley graduated from Oak Brook.

*** Update, February 15, 2014: Jordan Lorence emailed Homeschoolers Anonymous on February 10 and said that, as of February 10, he had “resigned from all of [his] connections with Oak Brook College of Law.” There is no official statement from the college itself on the matter. However, a screenshot from Oak Brook’s website on January 20 shows Lorence listed as faculty; their current faculty page no longer lists him.

Bread, Stones, and Bad Fruit: Jeri Lofland’s Story

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Jeri Lofland blogs at Heresy in the Heartland. Also by Jeri on HA: “Generational Observations”, “Of Isolation and Community”“His Quiver Full of Them”“David Noebel, Summit Ministries, and the Evil of Rock”“The Political Reach of Bill Gothard”, and “Bill Gothard on Education”, and “Ken Ham: The Evolution of a Bully“, “In Which the Pieces Come Together”, and “Jim Logan: The Stephen King of Fundamentalism.”

*****

“So I tell you, ask, and God will give to you. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will open for you. Yes, everyone who asks will receive. The one who searches will find. And everyone who knocks will have the door opened. If your children ask fora fish, which of you would give them a snake instead? Or, if your children ask for an egg, would you give them a scorpion?  Even though you are bad, you know how to give good things to your children.” 

Luke 11:9-13a (NCV)

 *****

My parents had only been married five years when they attended their first Youth Conflicts seminar: 40 hours of lectures over six days. Living in a new city with three preschoolers but few friends, they were lonely, stressed, and probably sleep-deprived. They were eager to be “real” Christians, to differentiate from the mainstream Protestantism of their parents, to keep their marriage intact, and to raise the best family possible. They went searching for truth, and Bill Gothard and his Institute offered them an ideal, peppered with scripture references. Surely this was bread indeed!

They became avid Gothard fans, my parents. Not into sports or other strong alliances, their allegiance was to God and the Bible. Where an extreme sports fan might display the mascot or colors of their favorite team, we had an enormous sign over our garage proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” in hand-painted crimson letters on a white ground. And they were always eager to invite people to attend IBLP seminars.

It is difficult to tease apart the teachings my parents first heard from Gothard from those they picked up elsewhere.

Suffice it to say, Bill reinforced much that they had already accepted and added plenty more of his own. When they decided to enroll in ATIA in 1987, I was not enthusiastic. I had had enough of Bill Gothard’s anecdotes and teachings, which Dad often reenacted with our Fisher-Price people, from his notes.

I knew Gothard was behind Dad throwing a rock through the face of our television. And making me wear dresses instead of jeans and my favorite pink shorts. And not letting us eat sausage anymore. And our sleepy pre-breakfast attempts to hunt for “nuggets of wisdom” while reading Psalms and Proverbs aloud to each other. And selling our big, new house with four bathrooms because having a mortgage was unbiblical. Instead, we moved to a rented farmhouse with its very own cattle lot and temperamental plumbing. The good things my parents wanted us to have were intangible: good character, the blessing of God, spiritual protection, true wisdom, eternal life. Everything else was worthless when compared with these.

I had already adapted to homeschooling, using workbooks we ordered from conservative religious publishers. Mom had her hands full with potty-training, breastfeeding, checking papers, feeding five kids, and teaching my little brothers to read. I was largely on my own. My subject assignments were written on cards for each day of the week, and once they were completed I had the rest of the day to do what I liked. It was far different from my two years in public school, but I didn’t mind.

Now, everything changed.

For at least an hour every morning, month after month for years, my poor mother tried to study the Sermon on the Mount with us via the Wisdom Booklets sent from ATI Headquarters. We reacted to the questions—which seemed designed to manipulate or to trip us up—and even more to the answers that made no sense. We knew the Bible well, and trusted it; this “material” coming from Gothard was something else entirely. Thus began endless debates and arguments. Mom identified personally with the ATI program and felt her authority was being challenged when we criticized Bill Gothard’s [mis]interpretation of scripture and the “educational” projects we were required to complete together: learning to judge other people based on appearances and reading sermons about what wretched sinners we were (Charles Finney), what a monster God was (Jonathan Edwards), and how puny our minds were compared to his (A.W. Tozer).

With the exception of grammar, school wasn’t a lot of fun after that.

It didn’t feel like “school”, with every aspect of my life (social life, entertainment, exposure to music & literature, transportation & shopping, academic grades, political bent, bedtime, menu & meal portions, time in the shower, chore list, sex education, and religious guidance) all in the hands of the same two people who had been entrusted with my soul by God himself. I argued with Mom a lot, and she called me a scorner and I got plenty of spankings and I blamed Bill Gothard for making all of us miserable. I hit puberty and had new questions, new interests, new desires, and new guilt. I was desperately lonely and looked forward to summer when I could spend more time with other girls my age.

After two years of protesting and challenging, I was tired of feeling like an outsider in my own home. I really did want to be on God’s side, whatever that was. My parents noticed that my resistance was crumbling. They decided it was time for me to attend my first Seminar. I sat beside my very pregnant mother and dutifully raced to fill in all the blanks in my workbook. When we closed our eyes and Gothard asked us to raise our hands for each of his Seventeen Basic Commitments, I was keenly aware of my mom’s presence. Would it be possible for her not to know if I had raised my hand or kept it in my lap?

I didn’t follow everything Gothard said—some of his euphemisms went over my head—but I made a lot of commitments. I gave God my right to have friends. And I was brought many degrees nearer to the inner circle of the Institute in Basic Life Principles cult.

I was looking for a fish, but had unknowingly grasped a snake.

Over the next two years, I was thoroughly assimilated. Pressured by guilt within and parents without, I gave up my own interests and desires and adopted the cult mentality. I accepted, until I truly believed, that my parents were God’s voice to me. I dressed in navy skirts and white blouses whenever I could (the dress code for Mr. Gothard’s staff), grew my hair according to the style Gothard recommended, and listened to cassettes from IBLP headquarters while I did my chores. I now tolerated the Wisdom Booklets, though the inconsistencies and poor writing still bothered me. And, to keep my Walkman, I even agreed to follow Gothard’s rules about avoiding rock music, though I still puzzled over how my favorite Christian tunes could be tools of Satan.

We attended several ATI conferences in Knoxville, TN—pep rallies where we dressed in navy suits despite the July heat and heard about the latest nations begging for instruction in good character. Knoxville conferences were exciting for teens because there were thousands of others who also did Wisdom Booklets and wore long dresses and had umpteen siblings and knew what their motivational gift was.

With a grueling schedule and impossible logistics, the week was an effective brainwashing tool.

There was a choir for students who wanted (or were forced) to participate, an orchestra, and special music performances on pianos, strings, handbells, and more. Families in matching clothes sang harmony together, dozens of “reversal babies” were put on display, and the ALERT team made emotional mothers cry by rappelling from the ceiling in their uniforms unfurling an enormous American flag.

One year we all clapped when a speaker announced that Clarence Thomas had been nominated to the Supreme Court. He was young and conservative, we were told, so we rejoiced. In another session, a pastor with three grown daughters outlined a model daily breastfeeding schedule while we all took notes. A woman with no children of her own offered a hypothetical schedule for homeschooling a brood of five. Jim Logan made us shiver with tales of his encounters with talking demons. David Barton fired rapid-fire historical quotes at us to convince us that we could take America back for God.

In the separate meetings for students (where 12- to 28 -year-olds sat segregated by gender), we listened to Gothard tell stories about his girlfriends in high school and college. We raised our hands to commit not to marry a divorced man, and to postpone dating so we could serve the Lord longer instead. Gorgeous young men and women gave “testimonies” about quitting college to come home and learn with their families, about submitting to parents and not keeping secrets from them, about getting along with their siblings, and about putting off marriage in favor of ministry. Gothard showed us film clips about England’s Civil War, warning the girls to close their eyes if the violence was too much. “Fellas, drink it in,” he said.

It wasn’t long until I was teaching Gothard’s materials myself–to children in Russia and in the United States. I memorized Bible passages by the chapter. I completed my Journal of Faith and started working on my Journal of Virtue, an introspective study of Gothard’s 49 character qualities, with examples of how I had demonstrated (or failed) each one. I read the ATI newsletters carefully and studied the photos of the girls held up as godly examples. I prayed and waited and wondered when I would be called upon to teach character to the nations, or assist government leaders with changing the world.

College was strongly discouraged as a place where youth rebelled against authority, yielded to lust, and lost their faith but I did spend a year and a half enrolled in ATI’s unaccredited and spanking new correspondence law school. The stress of three weeks at an IBLP training center landed me sick in bed for weeks with headaches that lingered for months. A few months later my mother had a postpartum mental health crisis. For a week, while studying for a state exam, I was left in charge of a house full of younger siblings so my parents could seek “counsel” from staff at an ATI training center in Indiana. Though my grades were good, I found solitary “homeschool college” to be incredibly stressful. I wearied of fighting anxiety and boredom simultaneously and eventually gave up on getting a degree.

At age twenty-two, I was finally invited to volunteer my services for IBLP.

By the time I attained my dream and landed a job at Mr. Gothard’s headquarters, I was jaded and disillusioned. Gothard was a salesman who was not strictly honest, and was a poor judge of character. He cared little about the credibility of his sources, which he rarely documented. He was quick to discharge staff who expressed alternative points of view. He overworked employees and made it difficult for them to participate in local churches. Gothard was embroiled in legal battles with partners in ministry as well as with the neighborhoods where the Institute operated. He disdained government authority, only following the rules (construction permits, building codes, employment regulations) when pressured. Employees were encouraged not to report overtime. Despite the “non-optional principles” that were supposed to ensure loving family relationships, Gothard was estranged from some of his siblings.

Gothard was controlling of his staff to the point of criticizing the hue of a female employee’s fingernails, (while coloring his own hair a noticeably unnatural shade of burgundy). Gothard surrounded himself with willowy, long-haired, very young women. Appearance mattered a lot to him. One young woman who had been invited to join the ATI staff in Russia got a fresh and cute haircut right before her trip. When she reached Chicago, she was pulled from the group and hidden away at a small campus in Indiana until her hair grew out to an acceptable length. I was appalled by her story, but she blamed herself for not considering her hairstyle more carefully.

I could look past many disheartening inconsistencies because I had been trained to believe that God himself spoke through men with power.

I was doing God’s work at IBLP, God had sent me there at last. And in spite of the overbearing rules and constant meetings and curfews and dress codes, in many ways I still had a lot more autonomy than I had ever tasted at home. So it was a blow when Gothard fired me late one night—by calling my parents hundreds of miles away instead of speaking to me, though I slept just yards from his office. Gothard found me the next day, after I’d packed up my belongings from my room and emptied my new desk. My parents wanted me to come home, he said, though they’d told me Gothard wanted me gone. I felt rejected and lied to.

Since “bitterness” was a great sin to be feared, I tried to absorb the blow and see God’s hand in it. But I cried myself to sleep for weeks afterward. It was years before my husband (whom I met while working for IBLP) and I could admit we had given years of our lives to a cult. Years of unlearning the guilt, of trying to push away the rubble of legalism to find out if our faith still survived, of accepting our humanity instead of trying to live as spiritual beings, of rejecting abuse in the name of love, of discovering that women have as much right to autonomy as do men and that children are not possessions, or extensions, of their parents.

The “Bread” we had asked for turned out to be nothing but rocks, dead weight we carried for too long. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his followers to be “fruit inspectors”. And, more clearly as time passed, we could see that the fruit of Gothard’s teaching, even when followed with the best of intentions, was of terrible quality. Humbling as it was to realize, we had been raised in a religious cult that drew in our parents and then absorbed our youthful energy, feeding on our desires to please both God and our parents.

I no longer identify as a follower of Jesus, but I am still a fruit inspector.

*****

 You will know these people by what they do. Grapes don’t come from thornbushes, and figs don’t come from thorny weeds. In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit.   

Matthew 7:16-18 (NCV)

Memories of EXCEL: Holly’s Story, Part One

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HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Holly” is a pseudonym.

I did not want to go.

That is the first thing I remember about EXCEL, The Advanced Training Institute (ATI)’s eight-week program for teenage girls and young women, which stood for Excellence in Character, Education, and Leadership. My parents had sent me to ATI’s Indianapolis Training Center for a ten-day counseling seminar a little over a year before I went to EXCEL.

I didn’t want to go there, either, but I told myself that if I were very good maybe they would leave me alone and not make me go anywhere else.

The next fall, my dad asked me if I wanted to go to EXCEL. I remember that it was a gray fall day, around this time of year, and he took me for a walk. I made the mistake, as I often did up to that point, of thinking that I had a choice in my own life, and so I told him I did not want to go. He pressed the issue, telling me all the good things he knew about the program and how it would teach me to be a young lady. I remember that we ended the conversation with him promising never to force me to go, and with me agreeing to “think about it.”

I knew I would never change my mind.

During that winter, friends of ours also in ATI hosted a mother-daughter luncheon at which two attendees of a recent EXCEL (I believe it was EXCEL II) were to be the guests of honor. To my dismay, the luncheon turned out to be a hard sell for the program, and my mother seemed intent on sending me. What was happening?

From that point on, my dad didn’t listen either. Mom wanted me to go, so he broke his promise.

They took money out of my college fund for the program and the plane ticket.

I began the process of filling out the application, with its numerous essays and commitments. I don’t remember the exact number of commitments I was expected to make, or what all of them were, but I had definitely not made any of them. One of them was to not listen to rock music, one was to remain morally pure, one was to dress modestly, and the others were similarly legalistic and restrictive. I remember trying to decide whether to honestly fill out the application saying that I had not made the commitments, or to lie. I decided it was wrong to force myself to make a serious lifelong commitment, but it was also wrong to set myself up to be made into a project either at EXCEL or at home. I filled out the forms as if I had made the commitments, deciding that it wasn’t so much a lie as it was a creative work of self-protective fiction.

The following winter, in the mid-1990s, I arrived at the Dallas Training Center, an historic hotel converted for the EXCEL program. Even though two of my friends from home were there as well, we were not allowed to room together. I had everything I expected to need for eight weeks, including toiletries, in two bags. During the evening’s orientation to the facility, the facility leaders explained our daily routine: early wake up (around six am, I think), get ready for the day, Bible study with our team, breakfast, class, a short break, another class, lunch, break, class, exercise in the park across the street, change for dinner, class, free time, and bed. Even though we were 15 years-old and up, we were not allowed to leave the property except to go as a group, escorted by staff, to walk in the park across the street once daily.

If any of us needed anything from the store, we were to ask training center staff to get it for us. We were not allowed to have food in our rooms. If we were hungry, we would be fed at the next meal, except on Sundays, when we fasted.

During our breaks and free times, we were expected to coordinate room cleaning with our roommate, as our rooms would be inspected daily. We were also expected to study for weekly tests on class material, memorize daily Bible passages, coordinate laundry with our roommates on our assigned day of the week, and find time to call our parents. We were never to be even one second late for any class or team meeting, or we would be disciplined.

I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the hotel that felt claustrophobic. It was my life.

The classes focused on etiquette and women’s submission instead of real academics. We even had a sewing class for several weeks, at which I was a miserable failure. Apparently good ATI girls were expected to have basic sewing skills, because the class did not start at “this is a sewing machine.” All of us had to make brocade vests to wear at our graduation ceremony. Since I could not sew and could not be taught, the instructor and my friend, an advanced seamstress, surreptitiously sewed mine. At home I was used to being allowed to read literature, science and history books, in addition to the ATI Wisdom Booklets.

Being at EXCEL made me doubt my future.

Were my parents trying to mold me into a cooking, cleaning, sewing, babymaking young wife? I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t even sure I wanted that.

Fasting on Sundays was a spiritual discipline, but I can’t help thinking that it may have also been a financial consideration. Walking to church was, however, a practical consideration. The training center didn’t have enough vehicles to drive 80-some girls and additional staff to church, so we walked a little over a mile each way to First Baptist Church.

On one of the first Sundays I fainted during church, which shouldn’t have been surprising, since I was obviously underweight and just as obviously suffering from an eating disorder.

From then on, I was allotted four Nutri-Grain bars every Sunday, along with the other girls who had health problems or who had also fainted on a Sunday. As much as I generally enjoyed a chance to lose more weight, I was thankful for those meager Nutri-Grain bars. The hunger I felt at EXCEL overpowered my desire for control over food.

My survival technique of being perfect worked well for me while I was at EXCEL. I never got in trouble for being late, forgetting to wear pantyhose, or failing to memorize the Bible passages. I did the laundry and cleaning for myself and for my roommate, who took advantage of my fear of failure. By graduation I was exhausted and had learned nothing except how to stay in line. On the one hand, I saw through the foolishness of the system. I never bought in to the ATI school of thought. On the other hand, the stress of pretending to agree with the program and of managing my behavior was taking a heavy toll on me. I was tired and needed a break.

When I got home, the expectation among family and friends was that I would be spiritually mature and more ladylike. Instead, I was withdrawn, exhausted, thinner, broken. I don’t remember exactly how it happened or what the details were, but I spent a lot of time in bed crying for the next few weeks. My parents referred to this as my “breakdown.”

After that, I never did another Wisdom Booklet. I don’t remember what was said, but I couldn’t do it. Within the next eighteen months I had finished homeschooling through high school and my family had left ATI. I was free.

I have never gotten free, however, from the memory of what ATI expected me to be.

Part Two >