Letter submitted to the editor of the Defiance Crescent-News on October 28, 2018
Local law enforcement, judges, and politicians have all come out against Issue 1 — the state ballot initiative that would reduce many drug crimes to misdemeanors and favor treatment over incarceration. The goal is to end the destructive warehousing of addicts in county and state prisons.
The main objection seems to be that if Issue 1 passes, drug users, knowing they will not face jail if arrested, will use opioids and other addictive drugs with impunity. If these people can’t be threatened by the powers that be with jail time, the thinking goes, they will have no reason to stop using drugs. Isn’t this already what is happening?
The costly, ineffective “war on drugs” has been fought most of my adult life — without success. Perhaps it is time to admit arresting and incarcerating non-violent drug offenders has not stemmed the tide of abuse. Instead, this war has left ruined lives in its wake. If the goal is to help addicts become productive members of society, we must move to treatment-first methodology. Issue 1 moves Ohio in that direction.
I spent several years in the 1970s volunteering at a drug rehabilitation facility. As a pastor, I came in contact with countless people who had substance abuse issues. In my dealings with these hurting people, I can’t think of one instance where incarceration (the stick) was preferable to treatment (the carrot).
The prison industrial complex opposes Issue 1 because it will cost them money. I would think it would be desirable and good for our society if we drastically reduced county and state prison populations and expenditures. The money saved could then be used to provide rehabilitative services, including drug treatment. It is shameful that the United States has the highest per capita incarceration rates in the world; that we put a premium on retribution and punishment instead of making people whole. The number one reason people ending up in prison? Drugs.
What I’ve noticed in current local discussions about Issue 1, and past discussions about medical marijuana and the opioid crisis, is the unwillingness by many to truly see and empathize with the people materially affected by these things. Why is this?
I propose we use the Bible parable of The Good Samaritan as our example of how to treat drug addicts. Love, compassion, a helping hand, and material support is what is needed, not punitive jail sentences.
The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.
Heather Riggs, the wife of the pastor of Victory Christian Church in Seelyville (Terre Haute), Indiana, was arrested last week and charged with “theft, check fraud, forgery, neglect of a dependent, dealing a Schedule I,II, or III controlled substance, and dealing a Schedule IV controlled substance.” In November 2016, the church’s youth director died of a heroin overdose.
This is a story that should remind us that despite all their talk of God and his awesome sin delivering power, Evangelicals face the same problems as the rest of us. The drug crisis continues unabated, both in and out of church.
On Friday, police arrested 42-year-old Heather Riggs.
Riggs was an employee of Victory Christian Church in Seelyville.
According to court documents, the investigation started about two weeks ago when police arrested Jason Reed after a traffic stop.
Reed was in possession of a controlled substance.
Police say Reed told investigators he was selling drugs to Heather Riggs, adding she was using the church’s money to buy the heroin and pills.
Police say they found text conversations on Reed’s phone dating back to November of 2016.
Those conversations allegedly discussed different locations to meet and the prices for the drug purchases.
While looking through the church’s bank records, police found 14 different occasions where Riggs wrote a check to Reed.
Police also learned Riggs wrote 140 checks to herself.
On Friday, police began to question Heather and her husband Shawn Riggs.
Shawn told police for a check to be written, there needed to be two separate signatures.
Shawn said there were three deacons at the church who could sign a check.
Shawn told police after an accountant left the church in 2016, Heather and youth pastor Jared Smith took over the church’s financial responsibilities.
Smith died after a heroin overdose in November of 2016, leaving Heather in charge of the money.
Shawn told police he was not aware of Heather’s heroin addiction.
He said he had not received a paycheck in several months, and didn’t question it because of the church’s financial issues.
When police started interviewing Heather, she said she first started talking to Reed in February of 2017, saying she met him while playing softball with the church team.
That is when police told her they had the phone records.
Police say Heather began talking with Reed the day after youth pastor Jared Smith passed away.
Investigators say Heather changed her story, saying she got Reed’s phone number from Smith’s cell phone and contacted him after Smith’s death to buy oxycodone.
She told police the first time she started using heroin was in a gas station parking lot in February 2017.
She told investigators she used church money to buy the drugs, telling police she forged the signature of her husband or one of the deacons to write the checks.
She admitted to falsifying the church ledger to hide her theft.
When police asked her about two different occasions where she took two small children she was babysitting with her to Reed’s house to buy heroin, she said she only remembered doing it once.
Heather was arrested and charged with theft, check fraud, forgery, neglect of a dependent, dealing a Schedule I,II, or III controlled substance, and dealing a Schedule IV controlled substance.
Warning! Lyrics may contain offensive, vulgar language.
This is the one hundred and fifty-ninth installment in the Songs of Sacrilege series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a song that is irreverent towards religion, makes fun of religion, pokes fun at sincerely held religious beliefs, or challenges the firmly held religious beliefs of others, please send me an email.
Twice a week I pass by the church that held your funeral
And the pastor’s words come pouring down like rain
How he called you a sinner and said now you walk with Jesus
So the drugs that took your life aren’t gonna cause you any pain
I don’t think he even knew your name
And I refuse to kneel and pray
I won’t remember you that way
I lit you a candle in every cathedral across Europe
And I hope you know you’re still my patron saint
I tried to forgive, but I can’t forget the cigar in his fist
I know that they were heartsick, but I need someone to blame
And I know how they blamed me
I know what you’d say
You’d tell me it was your fault
I should put all my arrows away
I’m sure there ain’t a heaven
But that don’t mean I don’t like to picture you there
I’ll bet you’re bumming cigarettes off saints
And I’m sure you’re still singing
But I’ll bet that you’re still just a bit out of key
That crooked smile pushing words across your teeth
Cause you were heat lightning
Yeah, you were a storm that never rolled in
You were the northern lights in a southern town
A caustic fleeting thing
I’ll bury your memories in the garden
And watch them grow with the flowers in spring
I’ll keep you with me
These wolves in their suits and ties
Saying, “Kid, you can trust me”
Charming southern drawl, sunken eyes
Buying good will in hotel lobbies
Buy fistfuls of pills to make sure you don’t hurt no more
You don’t gotta feel anything
Got their fangs in our veins
Got their voice in our head
Got our arms in their grips
No, we can’t shake free
This goddamn machine, hungry and heartless
My whole generation got lost in the margin
We put our faith in you and you turned a profit
Now we’re drowning here under the waves
(We’re no saviors if we can’t save our brothers)
Drowning out under the waves
(We’re no saviors if we can’t save our brothers)
Drowning out, drowning out
You can’t have my friends
You can’t have my brothers
You can’t have my friends
You can’t have my brothers
You can’t have my friends
You can’t have my brothers
You can’t have me
No, you can’t have me
Officers with the Lufkin Police Department arrested Denman Avenue Baptist Church’s family pastor Monday in connection to allegations that he committed prescription fraud to obtain pain medication normally used for dogs. [This statement is incorrect. Tramadol is normally prescribed to humans.]
Eric Thomas Garland, 30, of Lufkin, was booked in to the Angelina County Jail on a third-degree felony prescription fraud charge. He was released later Monday after he posted a bail amount of $5,000.
The Denman Avenue Baptist Church web site lists Garland as the church’s family pastor.
“Eric Garland was placed on administrative leave by the Personnel Committee immediately upon learning of his prescription drug addiction,” a statement from the church said. “At this time, Eric has been relieved of all pastoral duties and responsibilities and is now facing the consequences of this addiction.”
According to the arrest affidavit, Garland obtained a canine pain medication called Tramadol through “misrepresentation, fraud, forgery, deception, or subterfuge.”
A Lufkin PD detective was contacted by a local veterinarian who wanted to speak to someone about a possible prescription fraud on May 31. When the LPD detective spoke to the veterinarian, the vet told him that he has prescribed 210 tablets of Tramadol to Garland since March.
The vet also told the Lufkin PD detective that Garland told him the medication was for a chocolate Labrador retriever named Bayla because the dog had back leg pain, the affidavit stated.
The veterinarian told the detective he first saw Garland on March 17 and that he prescribed him 30 Tramadol tablets, 30 Rimadyl, and two Bravecto, the affidavit stated. Then, on March 20, Garland allegedly called the veterinary clinic on March 20 and said that he had lost the Tramadol, so the vet prescribed 30 more Tramadol tablets.
According to the affidavit, the vet told the Lufkin PD detective that Garland came back on April 6 and April 18 and was prescribed 30 more Tramadol tablets each time. When Garland came back to the veterinary clinic on May 17, he got a prescription for 60 Tramadol tablets, the affidavit stated.
The veterinarian told the LPD detective that on May 31, he spoke to a veterinarian at the Lone Star Veterinary Clinic. During their conversation, a vet there brought up the fact that Garland had been to his clinic numerous times recently.
After that, the veterinarian contacted vets at Pineywoods Veterinary and the West Loop Animal Clinic. The vets he spoke to at those clinics also said that Garland had been by numerous times to get Tramadol prescriptions, the affidavit stated.
On May 31, the Lufkin PD detective sent a request to the Commissioned Online Prescription System for Garland’s prescription history from June 2016 to May of 2017 and found that Garland was prescribed about 1,037 Tramadol tablets between June 1, 2016, and June 6, 2017.
“Prescription drug addiction is a national epidemic,” the statement from Denman Avenue Baptist Church said. “The church is made up of all walks of people and as we have been reminded is not isolated from addictions or other unwise circumstances ordinary people face day to day. The church family at Denman is here to provide the love and support that can only be found through faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to all people in our community.”
I wonder if Garland was taking other drugs too. The reason I wonder is that 1,037 Trampoline over a thirteen month period comes out to about eighty tablets a month. I am on long-term pain management and Tramadol is part of my treatment. In that same thirteen month period I took 1,560 tablets, four per day. If the Tramadol was all that Garland was taking, he might have become dependent, but I doubt addicted — unless he was binge using. I suspect the bigger issue is HOW and where he was obtaining the Tramadol.
Guest post by Carol. For many years, Carol was a member of The Way. You can read Carol’s blog here.
1970s Word Over the World
In January, 1978, at the age of eighteen, shortly after dropping out of college, I got 100% involved with The Way. Back in my hometown, I moved into a “Way Home” with two other Way believers to help run Way Classes and “move the Word.” That’s what you did in a “Way Home.” I witnessed to everything that moved, sometimes going door-to-door alone. I landed a job in the laundry department of a local hospital. One of my fellow employees was my first Way recruit.
In February, 1978, I met the president and founder of The Way at a large Way gathering called a Heartbeat Festival at the Omni Hotel in Virginia Beach. I waited, alone, outside a conference room where Dr. Wierwille was meeting with the Word Over the World Ambassadors (WOWs) from the region. About midnight, he walked out of the room. I got up, walked over to him, introduced myself, and said, “I want to go WOW this year!” (WOW was The Way’s main lay outreach program, volunteers serving for one year wherever assigned by The Way.)
The next morning, I sat on the front row in the large meeting of hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, people. At the end of his teaching from the stage, Doctor pointed at me and said, “You’re going WOW. next year; aren’t you honey?” I nodded my head yes, and he said, “Have you signed up yet?” I shook my head no, and he bellowed, “Well come on up here!” He motioned his arm for me to join him on the elevated stage, which I did, and he personally signed me up to go WOW.
As I stood with him on the stage in front of the sea of onlookers, he again enthusiastically bellowed, this time to the whole audience, “Who else wants to go WOW!?!” As people came up to the stage I helped hand out the blue WOW sign-up cards.
Little eighteen-year-old me, on stage with the “man of God of the world,” our “father in the Word,” “Doctor,” as many loyal followers affectionately referred to him. I felt large and small at the same time. Privileged. Awed. Humbled. Knowing that I was doing God’s will for my life. Or so I thought.
It was almost intoxicating, but not in scary or uncontrollable way. I was high on the “love of God.” I thought there was nowhere else on earth where one could experience this unique oneness, unity of purpose, synchronicity, and more. I later came to call it “the chewy, caramel center of God’s heart.” It was almost tangible and was a feeling that would be duplicated at Way functions multiple times in the following decades.
Latter May through July, 1978
Before going WOW in August, I jumped on board with The Way’s statewide summer outreach program, WONC – Word Over North Carolina. I was assigned with three other young ladies to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Fort Bragg is located. I got a job driving a taxi cab. We witnessed to lots of soldiers and ran one Power For Abundant Living Foundational Class.
Sometime between February and May, I had made the commitment to enter The Way’s leadership program, The Way Corps. WOW was a one-year commitment; Way Corps was a lifetime commitment. My upcoming WOW year would serve as my first year of Corps training known as the apprenticeship year. (Ministry years ran from August to August.)
I was commissioned, with hundreds of others, as a WOW Ambassador at the Way’s yearly festival, the Rock of Ages, held at Headquarters in New Knoxville, Ohio. (The Rock of Ages was discontinued in 1995 after twenty-five years.)
I was sent to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was designated a WOW Family Coordinator. There were four WOWs in my family, all of us barely adults – myself, another young woman, and two young men. Along with overseeing the WOW family, I oversaw our Twig Fellowship. Our WOW family was assigned with six other WOW families to Milwaukee and made up a WOW Branch, which was overseen by an 8th Way Corps trainee on his interim year assignment.
The Way was structured like a tree known as The Way Tree. The roots of the tree represented the research of God’s Word stemming from Dr. Wierwille and the research department at Headquarters. Research is what “fed the tree.” Later The Way purchased other training locations which were collectively called “root locales.” The Trunk represented a geographical country, such as the Trunk of the USA or the Trunk of Canada. Limbs were states, such as the Limb of New York. Branches were areas within a state and were typically composed of about seven Twigs. Twigs were the household fellowships held in Way believers’ homes. An individual believer was sometimes referred to as a Leaf. The Twig is where believers spent most of their time as far as Way meetings were concerned. A common phrase at that time was, “Life is in the Twig.” In the mid-1990’s, the term “Twig” was replaced with “Household Fellowship.” (Click here to listen to the song, Am A Leaf by one of the popular Way bands of the 1970’s.)
My WOW family lived in a small, run-down apartment on the East Side near Lake Michigan and the University of Wisconsin. We spent a lot of time witnessing on campus. Through the year, I worked part-time jobs as an office assistant, a bus girl at a restaurant, and an ice cream cart driver selling frozen treats on the East Side.
One of my WOW brothers was my boyfriend. We had met at the end of Summer Outreach in North Carolina and had sat together through the teachings and the WOW commission at the Rock, never imagining that we would be assigned to the same WOW family. We were both stunned when we opened our assignment envelopes. He was kind of pissed because, since he was the man, he thought he should be the Family Coordinator. I was concerned because we both had raging teenage hormones. He was 18. I was 19.
Shortly after opening our assignment envelopes, our WOW Branch gathered so we could all meet each other. At that time, I privately told our Branch Leader that my WOW brother and I couldn’t be together; we were in love. There was no way we could concentrate on our commitment to God if we lived together in the same house. Our Branch Leader took my request up the Way Tree to higher leadership. The verdict came back – we were to stay together. The assignments were inspired by God.
I got pregnant within a couple months and got an abortion. I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, where our Limb Leaders lived, to get the abortion. My mom paid for it. I stayed in the Limb Home for a few days after the procedure. The Limb Leaders were kind, but to my recollection, we didn’t discuss the abortion. I recall feeling very alone, crying alone, and bleeding a lot. Other than my boyfriend and my Branch Leader back in Milwaukee, no one else in the Branch knew, at least that I was aware of. I returned to my WOW family like nothing had happened and went back to “moving the Word.” At that time in The Way, abortion was pretty much treated like getting a splinter removed.
In September, 1979, after the end of my 1978-’79 WOW year, I entered in-residence training with the 10th Way Corps at The Way College of Emporia in Kansas.
The WOW Ambassador and other outreach programs with The Way were on a volunteer basis with participants supporting themselves financially while doing the work of the Ministry; there was no monetary compensation from The Way. Volunteers were expected to continue to tithe from income received through their part-time secular jobs during their full-time volunteer service with The Way. As WOWs, we were to work our secular jobs twenty to thirty hours per week and do the work of the Ministry forty hours per week. (Click here to view pages from the WOW Handbook.)
When I was in Corps training, the program consisted of a first-year apprenticeship, when a trainee served closely with Way Corps, a second year in-residence at Way root locales, a third year as an interim or practicum when the trainee served wherever assigned by The Way, and a fourth year back in-residence at Way root locales. The in-residence years were work/study programs and were financed via funds solicited by the Way Corps trainee. Those who funded the trainee were called “Spiritual Partners” and agreed to a monthly or other non-tax-deductible financial donation. The Way Corps trainee was to pray for and to write to each Spiritual Partner once a month during that in-residence year.
The Way Corps training program was not an outreach program, per se, though outreach and teaching were some of the final goals as part of the “lifetime commitment to Christian service.” A Way Corps trainee could be assigned to an outreach program during the apprentice or interim years or after graduation.
The in-residence years included an outreach exercise called Lightbearers. Trainees would live in the field with Way believers for two weeks and help recruit enough people for the area to be able to run The Way’s Foundational Class.
As an outreach exercise, Corps trainees would sometimes have “witnessing” days in their local root locale communities.
The Corps program also included hitchhiking requirements where trainees were to witness to those who gave them rides and were to “believe God” to arrive at assigned destinations within given time frames. I hitchhiked over four thousand miles while in The Way Corps. On one of my hitchhiking assignments, from Kansas to New Mexico, my partner and I did not arrive at our destination in the allotted time frame. We had missed it by four minutes. We had to turn right around and hitchhike back to Kansas from New Mexico. (Click here to read a transcript from my 13th Way Corps personal journal detailing that excursion.)
Through my Corps years I spent time at three of The Way’s root locales in Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio. I spent a couple of weeks in New Mexico at The Way’s L.E.A.D. Outdoor Academy. L.E.A.D. stood for Leadership, Education, Adventure, Direction and was The Way’s wilderness, rock climbing program, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I did not spend any Corps time at The Way’s root locale in Gunnison, Colorado. (The Way sold its Kansas and Indiana properties in the 1990’s after losing followers en masse. At some point, The Way also sold the L.E.A.D. property in New Mexico. The Way kept its Headquarters in Ohio and The Way Family Ranch in Colorado.)
Though I spent over four years in Way Corps training I never graduated. I left the program, not once, but twice, midstream in the training, both times during my interim years. To break one’s Corps commitment was akin to a Judas’ betrayal.
Yet, for the most part, I loved my in-residence years at the “school of the prophets” and was successful through that part of the training. In-residence, our lives were scheduled for us. We seldom had “free time.” I believed that I was in the center of God’s will and heart. I felt I was in a cocoon where I was learning how to do things right so as to be better able to serve God’s people. I believe that is why most followers went into The Way Corps — to serve.
The proving years (interim/practicum) were my death of confidence. The pressure of overseeing people’s spiritual lives, of receiving revelation from God, and of bearing good spiritual fruit overwhelmed me. Externally I appeared capable and confident. But, internally, I felt an incredible urge to flee. I sought escape from an internal dissonance which was brought on by trying to run in shoes not designed to carry me, but that I believed were my duty to make fit. Or perhaps, I was trying to run from manipulation that I didn’t recognize as such.
Not only did I break my Corps commitment, I did so in an AWOL fashion which only added to the shame of my broken integrity.
I think one reason I chose an AWOL approach was because I felt that if I counseled with leadership and then disobeyed, in my confused perception, that was a more direct act of disobedience than if I just disappeared. Plus, I felt any counsel would try to talk me into staying.
For decades after breaking my Corps commitment, a dark shadow of shame followed me. I would try to understand the whys of my betrayal. Immaturity? Insecurity? Low self-image? Lack of confidence? Unrelenting standards? Fear of failure or perhaps success? Devil spirits? Character flaws?
It took me until 2016, eleven years after leaving The Way, to realize that by fleeing the Corps I didn’t break my integrity. I was actually endeavoring to keep my integrity by trying to be true to my core, to my self. But I didn’t know how. Still, I wish I hadn’t left in an AWOL fashion.
To me, the Corps was a huge commitment.
And I had broken that commitment twice.
The ensuing shadow-of-shame haunted me for decades.
Yet, all that while as I was treading the waters of life trying to keep my head above my shame, unknown to me and other followers, top Way leaders were abusing their authority, engaging in covert and rampant illicit sex with followers.
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.