The following, which is from the book, Pushing Jesus, which is yet to be published, is part of my story of religious abuse. Although just part of my experience, it’s when my recovery began.
I Could No Longer Pretend
My euphoria with Grace Catholic Church was short-lived. Within a few short months, our new adventure turned sour once again. A new cult of personality emerged, replacing the former one. This time, it wasn’t Gene’s haughty, cerebral, and effeminate arrogance that was mimicked. It was Braun and Ballew’s strong-willed, profane, “the ends-justify-the-means” attitude, which was emulated—especially by the elders, who were appointed by Jon and Richard. Collectively, the elders were reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s character, Dirty Harry, who became popular during this period.
Verbal combativeness became a way of life, a venerated way of life—as Jon and Richard excommunicated people we had known for years for offenses so trivial it was hard to believe. Using the least provocation, they confronted anyone who balked at their mandates, which were not given as wise counsel or advice but as “a word from the Lord” that nobody was permitted to dispute. When a representative from the new leadership spoke, everyone was expected to obey—or else. Like Dirty Harry, they challenged anyone who disagreed with their dictates, saying, in essence, “Go ahead; make my day.”
One family became persona non grata because they spent the night with someone who had argued with Jon. That’s all. For this offense, the family was cast aside, condemned, and shunned—never to be among “the chosen few” again. A second family, who had moved to Birmingham several years earlier, received “a word from the Lord,” which informed them they should abandon the ministry and seek secular work. Having spent four years obtaining a degree from a seminary, the couple, understandably, balked. Because of this, they were also excommunicated—cast aside forever.
Just as soon as someone was discarded, the rest of us were expected to follow suit and shun the people as well—regardless of how trivial the offense might have been. I just couldn’t do it. Refusing to submit to such nonsense, I maintained communications with many who had been excommunicated, which was my first act of defiance toward the new order.
Additionally, Braun and Ballew began calling themselves apostles—precisely as Gene had done several years earlier, which not only surprised me but disheartened me as well. Arrogating authority to themselves, which belonged only to God, their behavior was reminiscent of our experience with Gene, which had proven to be so emotionally devastating.
Worst of all, it was the personal weaknesses of Jon and Richard, which were imitated by the newly appointed elders—not their strengths. The elders adopted the macho, petty, belligerent aspects of the apostles’ personalities rather than the positive ones, which were numerous. Having seen both Jon and Richard ream some unfortunate soul a new one many times—just like Dirty Harry, it would have been comical to watch the elders imitate them—if it had not been so painful for those of us who were the recipients of their caustic, vicious verbal assaults. Replacing fraternal collegiality with vertical authority, “the government” controlled the wayward sheep, using an iron fist to do so.
Insisting on submission in every area of life, the elders intimidated the sheep through verbal abuse, enforcing their will on those who had gone astray—poor, unfortunate, wounded Christians who, out of despair, had chosen to medicate their pain with vice. By this point, the sheep were accustomed to being beaten emotionally. Those who balked were excommunicated and treated with scorn, contempt, and ridicule. Being confronted by the elders was a terrifying and humiliating experience—an experience so difficult to endure that most would go to almost any length to avoid it.
The two elders appointed for our family were particularly brutal—by far, the worst of the lot. After one confrontation, I actually had suicidal ideations for the first time in my life. Normally upbeat and gregarious, I spiraled downward quickly. Many were concerned about me, but it made no difference to the church leadership—none whatsoever. In an attempt to straighten me out through verbal intimidation, they just kept pouring it on—guilt, blame, humiliation, shame, ridicule, and condemnation. After a verbal beating by the elders, I became quite compliant. After each confrontation, they left me bleeding emotionally with wounds, which required two decades to heal. Although they may have meant well, the leadership at Grace Catholic was systemized, institutionalized degradation—all in the Name of God.
As always, I hoped things would turn around; but that never happened. Finally, I had had enough of their venomous attacks upon people, who had once been open and vulnerable but who had now become timid, cautious, and occasionally sneaky. After enduring several years of abuse at the hands of my two elders, who were both untrained and ignorant, I decided to leave.
Before I did, however, I wrote Braun a seventeen-page, single-spaced letter, telling him about the rampant abusiveness meted out at Grace Catholic Church. Wanting each word to be precise, it required nearly a year for me to complete. When it was finished, I smiled, experiencing the cathartic satisfaction of having put my balls back on—of having faced my tormentors defiantly, standing firmly rather than slinking away in defeat like a coward.
From the day Jon Braun came to my fraternity thirteen years earlier, he had been my hero—the person I had followed, and I had never deviated from my allegiance to him. But things had changed and so had Jon. He was no longer my mentor, and I could no longer pretend that he was. As I walked to his door holding my letter, I felt like a little kid who had bad news to tell his dad. To bolster myself, I thought; Keep it in your sneaker, Wattsie—just like I had encouraged Poncho to do many years earlier. As I handed Braun the letter, I was apprehensive about his response. Nevertheless, I had to do it; my conscience required me to be forthright. After handing it to him, I walked back to my house. As I did, I felt a tremendous relief. Once again, I was like The Cisco Kid—no longer a wimp to be verbally beaten and abused by the elders.
As I was to discover later, Jon didn’t even bother to read the letter—not at first anyway. Although disappointed, it certainly didn’t surprise me. Condescending to accept criticism from me wasn’t really an option for Jon. Like Gene before him, Braun lacked the humility to do so. Nevertheless, I presented it to him, which was all I felt required to do.
Because I had made several copies and sent them to interested people across the country, however, my letter was read by hundreds and had a sobering impact on Grace Catholic for years. In fact, many ex-Crusaders made additional copies, sending them to others in an attempt to spare people from the heartache of being associated with this new cult of personality. In the letter, I pointed out three problems with the church model that I thought needed addressing—fear, infallibility, and elitism.
The following excerpts have been taken from the letter, which was written more than three decades ago:
Fear: Sin is destructive, and the sinner . . . feels a deep sense of suffering. The purpose of the government is to provide what will effectively re-establish the sinner to his feet again . . . but something else happens.
The sinner feels worthless, and the government of the church reinforces this worthless feeling with vilifying names and countless subtle jokes and slanders that do get back to him. This makes it virtually impossible for the sinner to trust the government because he really feels they don’t truly love and care for him . . . . He is wounded, and all of the cuts and jokes make him bleed; and this makes him go downhill rather than stabilize.
His worthlessness intensifies, and this desperate person loses all sense of self-control. He sins more; and in his desperation, he seeks out the elders to confess his sins, or else he keeps quiet about his sins and feels the pangs of “living in darkness.” In either case, the government is more guilty then the sinner because it reinforces the feelings of worthlessness and alienation rather than promoting a healthy sense of love, compassion, empathy, and support. Ultimately, the sinner forgets the love and forgiveness of the Lord; and the only thing that keeps him from further sin is fear of a verbal lashing by the elders. In short, he operates under the law.
Infallibility: At the root of this problem is a unique form of infallibility that is practiced by the government of Grace Catholic Church . . . . While it is easy for them to admit they have made “a lot of mistakes,” it has never been their practice to admit they have made a mistake about a specific person . . . . .
This makes one wonder whether they are afraid to admit to a specific mistake, or even more disturbing than this is the thought that they really don’t believe they’ve made mistakes.
Elitism: There is an unhealthy idea that exists in the church. Simply stated, it is this: To question a decision of the government is to question the Lord Himself; to doubt the wisdom of the elders is to doubt the wisdom of God.
There was more—much, much more; but it’s easy to see how distorted Grace Catholic had become—all in an attempt to create an ideal church for others to follow. My letter, which came straight from my heart, was submitted to Jon as head of the government. It was my final act of trying to be one of them.
When it was not taken seriously, I packed all of our belongings, loaded them on a Ryder Truck, shook the dust from my feet, and headed out of I.V.—never to live there again. As I was driving away early in the morning, I looked around me one last time. I saw the guy who lived in the teepee. He was still gardening; but at least, he was now wearing shorts. I also noticed there were no stray dogs wandering the streets—thanks to the Vietnamese Mungs. Other than that, not much had changed since the day I had arrived more than seven years earlier.
My leaving didn’t make much of an impact, which I knew it wouldn’t. Grace Catholic Church continued for several years, and their numbers grew—primarily because they started associating with other bands of ex-Crusaders in various parts of the country. For years, however, wherever they went, their abusiveness was challenged because someone had read the letter I had submitted to Jon Braun.
By 1986, their entire movement shifted; and they joined the Antiocian Orthodox Church, which is very similar to Greek Orthodoxy. At that point, they seemed to stabilize and have been at home within Orthodoxy ever since. I’m happy for them, but I couldn’t have continued with them on their journey. The tradition they chose was the one I had abandoned when I invited Christ to come into my life at the University of Georgia many years earlier. For better or worse, I had put my faith in the God of the Scriptures—not in the God of the sacraments. My motto was sola Scriptura, and that would never change. Their emphasis focused on ritual and tradition; mine was to return to biblical truth, which once again became my authority.
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Having spent seven years in I.V. with The Brothers & Sisters and Grace Catholic Church, I thought I had wasted many of the best years of my life; but I was mistaken. As I would discover much later, it all had a purpose—a purpose I did not understand at the time.
When I left, my relationship with the Lord had been damaged—significantly damaged; and it remained damaged for a long, long time. That’s not what I wanted nor what I expected, but it was certainly my experience. If I had remained in I.V.—submitted to the elders, my life would have continued to deteriorate—with the added bonus of being criticized and maligned for the deterioration.
That’s how spiritual abuse works. When a person has been abused, those responsible for the mistreatment blame the victim for the emotional and psychological damage caused by the abuse. Worst of all, the mistreated person comes to believe that his or her abusers are correct, which increases the victim’s sense of guilt, driving the person further away from God. It’s a vicious, destructive downward spiral, leading to an unfulfilled, wasted life.
Neither wanting to be a masochist nor a whipping boy any longer, I chose to return to what I knew to be true years earlier; but I found it was a difficult place to find, requiring years of wandering in an emotional desert. Like a woman who has been in a long-term physically abusive relationship, I had trouble with trust for years. Because of my negative experiences, I found myself wary of Christian people rather than being open and transparent. It’s not what I wanted, but it certainly was what I experienced.
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For me, What’s It All About, Alfie was more than a song; it was how I felt about life when I began studying for my master’s degree in Church-State Studies at Baylor University a few months later. While in Texas, although disillusioned and cynical, I made a commitment to return to my foundational beliefs. I did this in spite of all the pain I was experiencing—pain I often medicated with alcohol.
Regardless of what the future held, however, I was determined to never allow another arrogant narcissist to diminish my relationship with God. Recovering from my seven years of religious abuse required a quarter century of effort with numerous pitfalls and setbacks along the way. In one sense, I’ll never be finished.
Recovery is a lifestyle, not a destination. When I finally achieved my goal of being emotionally and spiritually healthy, however, I was stronger than ever—with many of my weaknesses having been transformed into strengths. The process was grueling. At times, it required a level of introspection, which frequently made me uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I was determined to recover completely and not squander my years aimlessly—consumed with debilitating bitterness.
As I drove across the long, hot, dry desert headed for Texas—with my wife and children following close behind, I had hours to reflect upon the past and to wonder about what the future might hold for us. I had been completely committed to two movements. Each deteriorated into a cult of personality, spearheaded by men who claimed to be apostles, making their pronouncements equivalent to God’s Word—a poor man’s version of papal infallibility. The number of people who have one life-altering experience based on such deception is small; but the numbers who have two experiences like mine have to be miniscule, which made me shake my head—appalled by my own gullibility.
I began to recognize that my mind had been raped just as assuredly as the young women’s bodies had been violated several years earlier, when they opened their legs to the “Two Witnesses,” believing they were serving God by doing so. Unlike these girls, however, it required longer for me to unravel the full scope of my deception.
I returned to graduate school for two reasons. I wanted to break free from the chains of Grace Catholic Church; but more importantly, I wanted to know things for myself. I was tired of being led around like a little boy, following men whose purpose was to manipulate me—men who used God’s Name to further their selfish ambitions. Now thirty-three, it was time for me to grow up and no longer play the role of “Andy” to Jon Braun’s version of “Kingfish” in The Amos ‘n Andy Show.
Arriving in Texas several months before classes began, I was a little apprehensive but eager for the new challenges which awaited me. Although I was beginning a new chapter in life, I had no idea how devastating the impact of my seven years in I.V. had been, but I began to recognize it soon thereafter. No longer cocky and self-assured, I had become timid on the inside—constantly fighting the fear of failure, which had been instilled in me by my two elders. Nevertheless, I was eager to push forward—determined to accomplish my goals. I had no alternative, having burned my bridges in I.V.
The first inkling of the severity of my psychological damage came when I went shopping for a motorcycle, which I needed for transportation. There were two good choices. Being a little confused about which to purchase, I remember asking myself, Who is going to tell me which one to buy?
When I had this thought, I began to realize how dependent upon the decision-making of the elders I had become. At Grace Catholic, “acting independently” was always considered an act of rebelliousness; compliance was a requirement. Before my experience with them, I could have easily made my choice but no longer. The fear of making the wrong choice paralyzed me. Even though I was nearly 1,500 miles away from their grasp, the voices of the elders were still reverberating in my mind, telling me I was incapable of making the right decision—incapable of being an adult.
Recognizing how twisted my reasoning had become, I made the purchase, which was one step further away from the debilitating mind control that had enslaved me. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I would be required to take such baby steps toward independence—day after day, month by month for years. That’s how twisted my thinking had become. I had plummeted so deeply into the emotional abyss of the cult that it was five years before I could see the emotional light of day—ten years before I was more normal than not.
My recovery from religious abuse, which has now been in progress for more than thirty years, has provided me with more wisdom and understanding about my experiences than I ever dreamed possible. I can now stand on my own two feet, confidently trusting in God—never fearful of false teaching or of misguided leaders, confident in the Scriptural truth I’ve internalized over the years.
To learn more about about the subject, go to: Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom.