Leaving a cult after 14 years complicates your relationship with God
I love television. I am a movie nut and enjoy everything the entertainment industry has to offer. One of the great things about TV is the way in which viewers often see themselves in some of their favorite characters. We connect with their situations, with their attitudes and with their perspectives on life. Out of the many fantastic female leads gracing the small screen today, Ellie Kemper in the title role on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt resonates with me in the most personal way.
I am Kimmy Schmidt.
Like her, I too spent 14 years of my life living under the authority, control and manipulation of a man who framed his need for power as a call from God. My brother's and my deep involvement in what I can only describe as a cult happened the way it does for many people who grew up the way we did. A single mother trying to make a living for her children saw no harm in allowing her kids to be so involved in a religious entity. I mean, it’s a church — so what harm can come from that?
My mother asked very few questions because she trusted the notion that a church is a safe place. I had no idea the blind dedication, having to ask permission to go on trips, skipping family celebrations, adhering to a strict dress code and the expectation to always be at every single activity, among a host of other misplaced priorities, were the signs of a religious cult. My mom was never involved like we were. In fact, when she tried to protest many of the church’s ways, we vehemently defended them. From the age of 13, I wholeheartedly allowed this person and his leadership team to dictate the projection of my life all in the name of “pleasing the Lord.”
The thing about those years is that I honestly thought I was doing God’s work. More than that, I believed my religious devotions, centered on the activities and “vision” of a church, meant I was living a spiritual existence.
I mean, I went to Bible study and summer camp, worked up to 60 hours a week (for free) and gave my time, money, effort and energy. How could I not be in the will of God? I mistook my busyness and blind dedication to a man with ulterior motives as a relationship with a higher power. It wasn’t until I broke free of the oppressive legalism that I found a life-giving path that taught me the difference between religion and spirituality.
It was not an easy feat for me to relinquish the brainwashed ideals about the world I held as my own for nearly 15 years. I am the oldest of three children to a single mother who placed her focus on providing for her kids with a limited educational background. She trusted the church folks with her babies.
I didn’t wear pants, makeup, jewelry, nail polish, skirts above my knee, color in my hair or sleeveless shirts, among a host of other things that were off limits. I attended the local university instead of going away to college and sacrificed personal advancement as well as blood relationships. So imagine how it felt that he told congregants horrible things about me as a way of isolation so my “rebellious ways” wouldn't infect others.
You see, that’s how he maintained control. If someone showed signs of what he considered to be rebellion — which pretty much meant they had a different opinion — he’d spring into action, calling on the other leaders to encourage their mentees to steer clear of said person. For me, after being in it for so long, and starting to feel disillusioned with the control and scrutiny about how I wanted to live my life, the last straw came in January of 2011 when his wife called a handful of female “influencers” into her office and it turned into a prayer session about the length of our skirts. I remember sitting there thinking, “This cannot be what it means to live for God — crying out because my dress comes a half-inch above my knee.” How could anyone find true spirituality in such a religious environment?
At that moment, I decided to research the history of the dress “standards” and other legalist control tactics the pastor used on us. After months of reading, praying and self-reflection, at the age of 27, I walked away. I met with the pastor and let him know my stance. This man that I called “dad” for the last 14 years ended our conversation with, “Don’t become an enemy of this church.”
He said not to use social media as a way to spread discord. He turned around and did the very thing he “warned” me not to do. Just like that, all of my sacrifice went down the drain. His daughters, whom I considered my sisters, cut all ties with me. People who I spent holidays with, instead of with my family, stopped talking to me and did not invite me over anymore. Even after I finally left town a year later, when the pastor heard I’d be home for my high school reunion, he reached out to the only contact I had left at that church and told them horrible things about me when he thought I’d be staying at her house. He practiced manipulation of the highest level.
After leaving the cult, my faith was shaken severely. I went through a bout of depression, bitterness, anger and frustration. I could never reconcile how God would allow individuals who claim to “have the truth” treat people the way I was treated. But it has been five years since I left and I can truly say that I am freer and more connected to the universe. To me, those are the makings of real spirituality, not being mixed up in the “do’s and don’ts” that keep so many people from achieving authentic piety.
In my apathetic and cynical state, I didn’t want anything to do with a church or religion. It wasn’t until I realized that spirituality is the real objective that I became a better person. A more healed person. I am at peace with my past experiences and my outlook on the future feels good.
My relationship with a higher power is not contingent on what I wear or where I go anymore. Spirituality means being in tune with yourself and living your life in a way that fulfills your purpose — that satisfies your reason for being here. Some find that through attending a local church that truly has the Word, and for others, it means something totally different.
So what does spirituality look like for me? Well, I set time aside first thing in the morning (or sometime through the day) at least three times a week, to meditate and read uplifting material. Whether it’s the Bible or inspirational literature, it’s important for me to have uninterrupted quiet time where I can clear my mind and speak affirmations into the universe. I find a great deal of harmony in my world in doing so.
I have a lot of growing to do, and just like Kimmy Schmidt, I’m OK with that. Life is about finding your way, and I bless the day I started finding mine.