Updated: Jan 17, 2022
This post is excerpted from an unpublished manuscript by Wendy Keller. She is an award-winning former journalist, a respected literary agent, an author, speaker and acclaimed book marketing consultant. She got her first job as a newspaper reporter as a 16-year-old college freshman. This excerpt is about her years growing up in the Worldwide Church of God. She eventually left that cult-like organization and made a very successful life for herself even in the midst of other life tragedies.
I saw a video on YouTube recently. A guy in his 20s was talking about leaving his Hasidic Jewish culture. He had been a “rebel” in his faith since his teen years. He was often punished for asking questions. Can you relate to him? I can.
His tale made me cry. I remember being like that man, thinking those thoughts, suspecting that the only way of life I knew somehow had something wrong with it. We each have triggers, reasons why we started doubting the belief system we once held sacred. Maybe “God” broke a promise to you. Maybe the pain just got to be too much. Maybe there were obvious lies you couldn’t ignore anymore. Maybe you saw too much abuse and finally said, “This just can’t be right!” Maybe you’re still making the decision to leave and are reading these words with your heart pounding and tears waiting just behind your eyeballs.
My first clue that my Fundamentalist cultish religion might have been wrong was when Jesus didn’t come back with an army of angels to smite all the unbelievers and save my baptized parents. That was in the 1970s. I was just a little kid. I was scared. Despite the certainty of our leader—who happened to be “God’s Only Chosen Apostle for These End Times,” Jesus didn’t come back then, nor the next time he was predicted nor the time after that either.
I asked a few questions, but the harsh, swift response I got from the grown-ups was enough to make me decide to only ask questions within my own mind for a long time after that. Besides, I was female. My only role—as I was told so often—was to marry, keep house and have babies.
Were you told that “bad people” lived outside of your religion? Were you too encouraged to give up all other relationships except with those in your organization? Were you told to give massive financial offerings, gifts or tithes to the church, even if that meant hardship for you? Maybe your treasure was being stored up in heaven . . . right where you can’t get at it. Maybe you grew up knowing all kinds of hardship so that the leaders could live in sumptuous homes and enjoy fabulous lives—on your back or the backs of your parents. In the 1970s, the people who would one day become my in-laws took a second mortgage on their home to help fund the Work of God in These End Times. After all, they’d never have to pay it back once Jesus returned in a few months, so why not?
My people weren’t the only ones focused on the afterlife. Most cultic, Fundamentalist or extremist groups drill into members’ heads that this life and its suffering is merely a stepping-stone to some glorious afterlife, filled with every good thing you can imagine. That’s why people strap bombs to themselves and blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces. That’s why people who join cults turn their backs on their families, raise their children in near-poverty or hurt themselves in some important emotional or physical way. In the 14th century, a splinter group from the Roman Catholic Church would whip and beat themselves until they were oozing blood and getting infections to cure themselves of sin. Some of them thought it was a way to avoid dying from the Black Death. Others probably just bought the party line that we’re all sinners and whatever suffering we have is no less than we deserve. The belief that you are a sinner—overtly or covertly—is a core belief in most religions, even those that are not considered extreme. The interesting angle for me today is that if the God you were taught to worship is a God of Love, why does He want His followers to suffer even more than is typical in a human lifetime? What does that really prove? Do people who are not members who suffer terribly—in a concentration camp, as slaves, by some form of modern torture—not get credit for it in heaven? Things to think about . . .
Shortly after I left my cult, there was a big news story about some other people who were waiting for the end, preparing for the End Times every day of their lives like I had been taught most of my life. Maybe you read about this story? There was a group of people in Rancho Santa Fe, which is near San Diego, California. They followed a man called Major Herff Applewhite, Jr., who has a pretty messed up track record as a human being and may have had some serious mental issues. Regardless, he got 39 people to believe in his Doomsday predictions. They gave him a lot of money. The men who followed him castrated themselves! Applewhite learned that the Haley Bopp comet was about to pass by Earth. He told them that when it did, if they were ready, their souls could be picked up and somehow transferred by aliens into brand new bodies. met passed the Earth. The day before the comet showed up, with its alleged retinue of aliens in their spaceship, Applewhite and his loyal members put on matching track suits and killed themselves on March 26, 1997. The aliens didn’t show up. Eventually the corpses were found rotting right where they lay.
You can say that’s just plain craziness. People who have not been raised like we were don’t get it. They don’t realize that like a goldfish who never realizes he’s in a bowl of water, cult members don’t realize how far outside mainstream society they are, and if they do catch a glimpse they are conditioned to fear or dislike it. But since you’ve left, or are considering leaving, you may start to see glimpses of the same craziness in the group you knew, or the outrageous lies you were told to believe, in the hard-to-forget statements from your former leaders.
You were probably also told of all the bad things that will happen to you if you left. So far, so good. You’re reading this, so you haven’t been smitten by an angry god, robbed and left for dead by a gang of heathens, or forced at gunpoint to commit crimes against your faith.
The thing about leaving that I remember most clearly is this: you don’t know who to trust. It’s easy to overtrust the wrong people and undertrust the good ones, because you have no way to sort out which is which. It’s also easy to get so overwhelmed with just the basics of living “on the outside”—food, clothing, shelter, community and so forth that you don’t have time to even think, “Is this likely to be in my best interests long term?”