This is a hand-in-hand piece to go with my story of how I left a cult. It’s a side piece, if you will, meant to go a little deeper than just a tale of the International Church of Christ. I wrote it in 2019 for a Facebook post, and while I blocked several ICOC disciples from seeing it, it went a little bit viral. So I share it here in hopes that it will help one of you who are going through something a bit similar, even if you’ve never even heard of the ICOC. For more of my story, read Part 1 and Part 2.
Every great once in a while, I write up something that is more serious than what I usually compose. I’m in my 40s and still learning a lot about myself. Lately – and by lately, I mean the last SEVERAL YEARS – it’s been a spiritual journey. Not once of those yay happy happy joy joy journeys, but one of those wander through the desert, making manana pancakes, kicking up sand, kind of journeys. I’m starting to realize, I have A LOT of religious baggage I’ve never unpacked.
Like, a lot.
Like, back me up a U-Haul and hire some professional packers cuz this is gonna take some time. I’ve got Ming vases of spiritual questions, Turkish rugs with issues, and a sectional that needs serious pivoting before it’ll get up dat stairway to Heaven.
A few weeks ago, I pretty much had a meltdown. This is candy coating what it really was: I flipped out and oozed snot while crying to my dear husband, who by the grace of God, thinks I can do no wrong and is prepared at any turn to A. give me hugs, B. make me sandwiches, and/or C. calmly talk me off a ledge.
The thing is, you guys, I’ve been hurt by church.
Well, no shocker there: the church is filled with sinners. What is the hospital full of after all? Sick people. What is church filled with? Sinners. It’s kind of a DUH. Which is why I’ve brushed it off for many years. Because DUH I’ve been hurt.
Let’s be frank, I’ve hurt people in church too. I’ve been on the other side of bible studies and said some Gawd awful things, things that haunt me. I’ve said the dumbest things to my kids at time… ugh. Things I can’t get over at 3 am. What is it about 3 am, mamas? It’s like our witching our.
But it’s easy for me to brush aside the trauma, the gravity of God’s little sinners, because I’m really good at seeing the best in people, I don’t want to assume the worst, and I’m always shocked when someone hurts me.
Let’s face it: I was in a cult for over a decade. This is fun for ice breaker games, or when people ask you how you met your spouse.
“Ummm, in a cult.”
But it wasn’t funny. The spiritual malpractice went deep. My childhood upbringing, while lovely, caused in me a deep seated legalism, to the point where if I met a girl or woman who cut their hair I would mourn their salvation, because that was a certain path to hell.
By the time the cult got their hands on me, I was ripe for the picking: a shy, awkward teenager, with conservative Christian homeschooler pretty much tattooed on my meek, sweet, turn-the-other cheek face.
Getting permission to date my future husband, being “allowed” to get pregnant, raising my first two kids in the misguided ugliness of Growing Kids God’s Way and the “wisdom” of the Pearls… the next decade went by in a blur of legalism and do-it-all-for-the-kingdom. I door-knocked. I studied with women. I led Bible talks.
Eventually, by grace, I left, with three small children and my best friends at my side.
I learned there was REAL religion out there, the good kind, the best kind, the sweet kind. And for a time, I found hope again.
But the devil is cunning, y’all. He found me a couple years later, while he roamed around Michigan. Me, an innocent young woman with three babies and an equally innocent husband, had taken a job with a Baptist group home. We sold everything we had. Literally everything we had accumulated up until that point, other than our clothes and my book collection. Which, okay, was pretty substantial, shut up! JK.
Being hired by this group home we were told we’d be given children to raise, orphans, probably young.
In reality we were given seven teenage boys, inner city, refugees mostly, some with criminal records.
It was the worst and best year of our lives. Mostly the worst.
Only the best because we will forever be mom and dad to some amazing kids, the ones who survived. Not everyone did.
The worst because the religious group who fathered the organization was cruel, vindictive, and corrupt.
After blogging for a year about our adventures and misadventures with the group home (with permission to do so), we were abruptly fired, because I relayed our home life with hyperbole and humor, and not enough religion and sanctimonious preaching.
Treated like criminals and yanking our kids away from us, we were forced to sit in a church service to send us off, with the very criminals who had fired/maligned/gossiped/ruined us.
I so desperately didn’t want to go in that morning, in my best skirt, my voice wrecked from crying, our pathetic belongings tethered in a rickety trailer bought by some friends who loved us, covered in a tarp that would need to be re-tied down at least a million times in the two thousand mile journey ahead, the old minivan idling in the parking lot with the same cocker spaniel mutt in the backseat that sits there now.
18 years old, Milo is. He’s seen some things. Oh how he’s seen some things. (Note: dear Milo passed away one year after writing this, at the ripe old age of 19.)
Standing on the porch of that church is a moment I’ll never forget. I was shaking so hard, knowing I’d have to face the people who whispered about me, called me names, taken my family away from me. I stood there, and a small woman came and put her hand in mine. She is to this day, the best Christian I’ve ever known, my hero, my angel, because she leaned close, this woman of God, who had been through more than any of you ever will – drugs, prostitution, abuse, and finally redemption, and she leaned in close and whispered, “Fuck ’em.”
That was the only thing that made me dig deep and open that church door. I remember running out of gas in Utah and our debit card had been cancelled because we had gone thru so many states in too short a time so the bank assumed we had been mugged or something. The problem was it was Sunday.
At 6 pm.
Were we going to be one of those families with a cardboard sign on the side of the road, asking for gas money, anything helps, god bless? That was one of my lowest points. You see, our “job” made so little money that when we asked for unemployment the employee laughed at us. “That was a missionary position you just gave 12 months of your life to. NOT a job.”
We had nothing but the kindness of some friends who sent us on our way. Eventually we made it to Oregon, on literally our last $20.
When I got here in 2011 I was a shell of a woman. I slept on my in-law’s floor with my little sister’s Care Bear lamp shining while I wrote my first book. We found a church, but I was broken. It was Calvinist, which was at first weird, then later, alarming. It broke apart all my love for a God that I had thought loved me.
My mothering was also coming apart at the seams. The one thing I thought I was okay at was shattering. I had done A plus B so I was expecting C, but my fist-born had other plans (as well she should perhaps. Mamas of first born daughters, bless you. First born mamas with first born daughters, double bless).
Literally nothing was going as I had planned. Hello, God, we talked about this. You are totally not holding up your end of the bargain. I read the books, I took the classes, dammit, I TAUGHT the classes.
Little by little, I was spiritually falling apart. I didn’t have the answers anymore. Around me, women were raising their hands in song, peacefully raising their children, and blending in beautifully. Here I was, with a fraying faith, an older child who had abandoned pretty much anything I had tried to teach her, two more who looked to me for guidance, a spouse who wasn’t questioning the things I was… I was – and am – a wreck.
After eight years we left the Calvinist church and found a new home, but I am wary and skeptical of all the exuberance and acceptance we are experiencing now. When I linger by the “pleased to meet you/let’s connect booth” out front I am met with a woman cautiously and shyly asking me if I’ve ever studied the bible. Oh honey. Honey. HONEY. You do not want to open this can.
All in all, long story… long… when I had my breakdown the other week my husband looked at me and said “You have something all those other women don’t always have. You have honesty. So tell your story.”
Is it pretty? No. Has it been redeemed? Not that I can tell on a long Thursday night. Do I have the answers? Nope. But I won’t judge you if your views are different than your pastor’s, or your youth group leader’s. I will stand by you if the whole world’s gone dark. And if you need someone to drop the F bomb during a church service, I will do that for you, even though it goes against my conservative upbringing.
Because we’re all in this together and we’re all figuring it out as we go, making mistakes along the way, wishing we were someone different, someone better, someone who has it all worked out, who can raise their hands confidently instead of choking back tears. The religious baggage I have would fill a U-Haul for sure.
But I still don’t blame the Creator, whomever He ultimately is. He was with me, eyeing me in disbelief as I lived in the cult, biting His lip when I took that job in Michigan, calmly questioning when I spent too many years in the wrong church, and He is with me now.
Even as I throw up my hands and want to give up the faith, as I glare at the people who seem to have it all together, as I throw out a million rules and commands that I used to live by, He is with me.
And ultimately, it is well with my soul.