Guest post by Carol. For many years, Carol was a member of The Way. You can read Carol’s blog here.
I originally wrote the following narrative two to three years after leaving The Way, in 2007 and 2008, dividing it into several parts. Between 2008 and 2016 I made some revisions and added my health story (written in 2005) as an Addendum. In April, 2017, I began expanding the narrative with more specific personal accounts, which may continue as an on-going project. Within the body of the narrative, I provide links to further information and to memoir pieces I’ve written about certain incidents or time periods. It’s a long read. But, in another sense, not. It covers over forty years.
I hope the narrative gives a glimpse (1) of some of the reasons folks join “cults” or similar groups, (2) of consequences that can result from following authoritarian and elitist groups, and (3) that even decades-long true believers can change.
I got involved with The Way International in September, 1977, at the age of eighteen and exited 28 years later in October, 2005, at the age of forty-six. The journey continues…
1960’s -1977: Why would anyone joint a cult?
I wasn’t raised with a specific church doctrine, but my family attended a Methodist Church and Camp-meeting with some regularity in my younger years. From about age eight years old and into my teen years I was fascinated with the supernatural, reading books on UFOs, playing with Ouija boards, intrigued by witchcraft, and dabbling with astrology. I attended some sort of Baptist revival with a friend when I was maybe ten; I remember going up for the altar call. When I was around eleven years old, I saw a movie about Nicky Cruz, The Cross and the Switchblade, which led me to read Cruz’s book, Run Baby Run. Cruz’s story made an impression on me; it seemed authentic as opposed to a religious facade. Around twelve years old I attended a Methodist confirmation, but to my recollection never completed the requirements.
Around thirteen years old I read the four gospels and concluded that Jesus Christ was the biggest egomaniac that ever walked. However, I did like the poetic flow of the gospel of John. I continued to read parts of the Bible during my early teens; my opinion didn’t change. In the Old Testament I read about a vengeful God who annihilated people. Of the folks I talked with about the Bible, no one could satisfactorily explain the contradictions to me. I could argue most Bible believers into a corner, and for some reason I enjoyed it. Understandably, I rejected the Bible as an ultimate authority, but thought it contained some truth, alongside other religions.
Also at thirteen years of age I fell in love for the first time and gave my whole self, body and soul, to my young teenage lover. I craved attention and touch, to be wanted, and to please. I was involved with four such all-encompassing relationships between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. In the second of these relationships, I was a victim of physical abuse. I ended that relationship after about one year which coincided with the ninth and final hitting session; that time I fought back. At the time I did not reveal the physical abuse to anyone; I was embarrassed and didn’t want people to think badly of him or me. He was a “jock” four years older than I; I was a cheerleader. I decided then to switch peer groups and to become friends with the “freaks.”
In late spring, 1974, at fifteen years of age, I began experimenting with drugs. Three months later, I became romantically involved with one of the main high school drug dealers. We were never in short supply of mind-altering substances. In October, 1974, we ate seeds from datura stramonium (Jimson weed). I lived a four-day sleepless nightmare filled with hellish hallucinations while strapped to a bed in ICU. My boyfriend was restrained with a straight jacket. Yet, even after the stramonium nightmare, we continued experimentation with various kinds of hallucinogens — LSD, windowpane, blotter acid, mescaline, MDA, and a few others. (Click here to read about datura stramonium and click here to read a two-part series about my experience.)
Most of my psychedelic experiences caused me to feel at one with the universe, in harmony with all creation. But then as the months passed the trips began to turn bad. The feeling of tripping lingered even without having dropped any acid. I became paranoid and withdrawn.
Needless to say, I had many thoughts of insanity. My saving thought was, If I was insane I wouldn’t know it. At that point, in desperation for my sanity after spending over a year in my chemically-induced spiritual search, I quit experimenting with drugs and turned to Transcendental Meditation (TM).
In late summer, 1975, at sixteen years old, I got 100% involved with TM, volunteering at the TM Center, assisting with classes and initiations, and planning to attend the Maharishi Mahesh University in Iowa after high school graduation. Within eight months of starting TM I broke the relationship with my dealer boyfriend. He got busted a few months later.
A little more than one year into TM, I met my next boyfriend (four years older than I) and moved in with him the summer before my senior year of high school. He was faithfully involved with a small Baptist Church. Yet, he smoked pot on an almost daily basis, and we cohabitated, “living in sin” for ten months. Because I wanted to please him I dropped my involvement with TM and decided I’d try to believe the Baptist doctrine which was difficult for me, especially the hell-fire teachings. Almost every Sunday I found myself at the altar in tears of shame, wondering if I was “saved.”
We had wedding plans for June, 1977, a few weeks after I graduated from high school. But in May I broke the engagement; I couldn’t come to terms with belief in a God of damnation. I felt that for our marriage to work I had to believe. I was also struggling with mood swings, depression, and feelings of low self-worth.
I was eighteen years old. I felt driven to find “the truth,” to discover God, to find my way “back to the garden.”
Some may wonder about parental guidance through these years. For whatever reasons, I had few disciplinary boundaries while growing up. (Plus, it was the 1960s and 1970s.) I also apparently developed some issues with abandonment. In the 1960s, Mom spent extended time as an in-patient for manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder). Dad was challenged with anger issues, possibly as a result from a brain injury due to a serious car wreck prior to starting the family. Like most of humanity, my parents were good people who went through some hard times, handling life as best they could.
Looking back, I see that those circumstances influenced choices I made in seeking elsewhere to fill certain unmet physical, emotional, and familial needs. Yet these were also rich times spent freely exploring nature and life. From the age of four and into my teen years, I spent most of my free time playing outside. From my mid-elementary years and up I was a latch-key kid. I am the youngest of three children.
In 1961, when I was around two years old, our family moved from Daytona Beach, Florida, to the foothills of North Carolina. My parents lived in that NC home until their deaths, Dad in 1996 and Mom in 2009.
Our neighborhood was full of kids. We rode bikes all over the place and played pick-up football, softball, and rolly-bat. I loved to run and played lots of tag, relays, and Sardines (a hide-and-seek game). We regularly camped outside in our yards or select places in the surrounding woods. We directed our own play; adults were seldom involved.
Our neighbor owned and boarded horses. The large pasture stretched behind our house. I fell in love with horses and rode almost daily until I was around thirteen years old. Sometimes I’d even go for a ride before school. I loved grooming horses and caring for them. My parents bought me my first pony when I was six years old. His name was Dynamite. I later owned Princess and then Black Eagle. I liked riding bareback and pretending I was a Navajo or Cherokee Indian. Other times Marie, my horse-riding friend, and I would pack saddle bags and pretend we were explorers.
Shortly after the split from my fiancé in May, 1977, I moved onto a farm with a hippy family who had moved to the North Carolina foothills from New York. I dabbled with Transcendental Meditation (again), the teachings of Ram Dass, yoga, and a group that followed The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ.
In June, I visited a cousin with the purpose of accompanying him to a Wicca meeting. He ended up having to work, so I spent the day with my aunt with whom I attended a small Charismatic gathering. At that meeting, I heard speaking in tongues for the first time. That day I was led into tongues and began to see a different side to the scriptures.
I returned to the farm and told my yoga-hippie friends that they didn’t have to do all that meditation to be one with God — “Just believe on Jesus Christ and speak in tongues!”
I became engrossed in the scriptures, trying to understand and craving to comprehend the “breadth and length and depth and height,” “to know the love of Christ,” and to be “filled with all the fullness of God.”
I began reading and rereading Acts and the Pauline epistles, mainly Ephesians through Colossians. I drove over an hour one way to attend church services where I had been led into tongues. The message at this church was different from what I’d been exposed to at the Baptist Church. The theme was love, grace, mercy, and understanding. Not to mention, they had good music!
I was full of questions and wanted to understand the Bible and be able to reconcile at least a majority of the contradictions. I decided to attend college focusing on biblical studies and counseling. I also had an interest in service work with either VISTA or The Peace Corps.
I chose a college that had “spirit-filled” connections, Montreat College near Black Mountain, North Carolina, in the heart of Billy Graham country.
During my few months at Montreat I attended Montreat’s Presbyterian Church services along with various flavors of Charismatic meetings in the local vicinity. However, the same insecurity and shame that I experienced in the Baptist Church again haunted me. I couldn’t seem to find satisfactory answers to my questions nor a remedy for my shame.
I became friends with some students at Montreat who were considered to be spiritually mature. We met regularly for prayer meetings. Talk went on qualifying who was spiritual enough to be allowed at these assemblies. Looking back, these meetings mainly served to achieve an emotional high with some participants being slain in the spirit and speaking in tongues out loud and uncontrollably. During one of these sessions I had to leave because I felt like I was tripping; I felt paranoid and dirty. I don’t think I went to any more prayer sessions after that one.
Montreat would invite well-known Christian leaders to speak with the students. It was a small school, so students were able to personally meet and interact with the guests. Jackie Buckingham was one of those guests. She and her husband, Jamie, were personal friends with Nicky Cruz. Jamie was Nicky’s co-author of Run Baby Run. As Jackie shared some of the miracle stories, my heart burned within me to know God and his power like she described.
On one occasion Ruth Graham visited the college campus. I attended a small gathering with about twenty young ladies and Mrs. Graham. We met in an informal living room setting attired with a few upholstered chairs for seating and the rest of us on the floor. It was very comfortable. I asked Mrs. Graham questions regarding speaking in tongues and the holy spirit field. Her answer was that she simply didn’t know the answers. I thought to myself, If Ruth Graham doesn’t know, who does?
Around this time is when I found The Way.
Fellowship meetings with The Way were tender and welcoming and didn’t involve the frenzied, spirit-filled confusion I was experiencing at some of the Charismatic gatherings. At Way Fellowships I witnessed what I had read in sections of Acts and the Pauline epistles: all things common, decent and in order, fruit of the spirit, greeting with a holy kiss.
I enrolled and took The Way’s Power for Abundant Living Foundational and Intermediate Classes, which were combined the first time I sat through “the Class.” I drove a three-hour round trip, from Montreat to Hickory, for almost each of the fifteen sessions; though some sessions were combined over a few weekends.
For once I was getting answers to many of the questions that plagued me. Apparent contradictions in the Bible were explained. I learned that I was righteous before God and that I had “sonship rights.” I began to memorize King James scriptures, repeating them over and over in my mind convincing myself of “the truth.” I was finally learning God’s will for my life. Jesus promised, “Seek and ye shall find.” I had found it. Or so I thought.
Friends from the prayer group at Montreat warned me that The Way was a cult. I considered their words and read about The Way in cult literature. It appeared to me that those who claimed The Way was a cult based that conclusion mainly on the fact that The Way did not believe Jesus is God. Until shortly after starting college I never realized that Christians believed that Jesus is God. At the time, I was stunned that anyone would think such a thing, that a man could be God. Therefore, the main thrust of The Way being a cult because it was non-trinitarian didn’t concern me much.
In my college Old Testament history class I wrote an answer in response to an essay question on a test asking to compare Old Testament faith with New Testament faith. My essay was based on research from The Way. I received an A+ on that essay with a note from my professor, “Excellent research. I have questions about some of your findings.” Having been warned The Way was a cult I felt too uncomfortable to ever approach the professor on the matter.
The prayer-group friends subjected me to a type of interrogation with an emphasis on the Trinity. We met in a small classroom. There were five of them and one of me. Four of them were standing with one at the chalkboard writing. I was seated. Their examination included questions, authoritarian proclamations, and accusations regarding The Way and its “devilish doctrines.” I recall a couple of them raising their voices at me, I think in an attempt to wake me from what they considered my delusion and to save me from the “cult.” I felt attacked, cross-examined, and scared.
Not long after that incident my college roommate, who suffered with mental illness, was found in the parking lot trying to pick sparkling diamonds out of the glitter in the pavement. She had also recently begun using the window instead of the door to exit and enter our college dorm room. The prayer-group friends who had interrogated me blamed me for tainting my roommate and causing her to get “possessed with demons,” all because I was attending a Way Class and Fellowships. I was the only student at Montreat involved with The Way.
These were the people warning me that The Way was a cult? I guess it takes one to know one. Jesting aside, I believe these friends’ intentions were good. But their approach, for obvious reasons, sent me running in the other direction.
I mailed a handwritten letter to Dr. Wierwille (Wierwille received his “doctorate” in 1948 from an unaccredited seminary, Pikes Peak Bible Seminary, which was located in a house in Manitou Springs, Colorado), the founder and president of The Way, whom I had listened to for forty-five hours on audio tape as he taught the combined Foundational and Intermediate Classes. I shared with him what had happened with my prayer-group friends. I never expected to hear back. But I did. I received a typed letter in an envelope with a return address from “The Teacher” in New Knoxville, Ohio. He commended me for my stand and wrote, “When people throw dirt at God’s Word, all they do is get their hands dirty.”
I finished my first semester at Montreat College and then dropped out to study and serve with The Way.