I was raised in the WCG until I was about nine. Not too long after things started to drastically change, my father decided to pull me, my mother and my little sister out of the WCG while he began to figure out what was happening to “God’s only true church.” At this time, my father had not been attending services with us because of his alcohol problem and had been suspended for an unspecified amount of time. I remember being woken up one morning by my father. He was explaining how “God had changed which church He was guiding” and that we were going to be attending the new one from now on. I was relieved, thinking maybe he would stop drinking, start going to church, and begin to be a father again. I was wrong.
The Philadelphia Church of God (PCG) was the organization he had decided was the “one true church” and we began attending small home services at the home of a local minister in McMinnville, Oregon. There were probably only about 15 members at that time. As the fellowship became larger, and more and more families (mostly x-members of the WCG) started to attend, there were things that I began to notice. At this point, I was old enough to start really understanding what I had been taught and what the “church” was all about. I would ask questions about the “World Tomorrow” and what God had in store for me when He returned. Most of these questions were answered with quotes from the Bible, which, let’s face it, isn’t really something a kid is going to understand. Being a kid in “the church” was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. You battled with kids at school because they didn’t understand your way of life, why you couldn’t celebrate your own birthday, why you had to sit outside the door while they made decorations for the class Christmas tree, etc. These are all things that “the church” says “strengthens you.” They prepare you for the time when you will have to suffer even more greatly for the word of God.
When I started high school and developed a social life outside of the group is when things got out of hand. My father, still drinking, but this time able to hide behind the fact that he was a prominent member of “the church,” would criticize every one of my friends. They were okay to talk to at school but I was not to spend any time with them outside of that. This is not something a social teen can do. Kids need to experience growing up no matter what religious practices they have. So this turned into an ongoing and sometimes very dark battle between my parents and me. I went to PCG’s church camp and while I met a few people who were feeling the same way I was about the strict rules and the unanswered questions, most of the teens there were very cold-hearted and seemed to be in some sort of popularity contest over who was the best teen Christian. I soon found out that a lot of these so called “good kids” were not at all. They were manipulative, judgmental, rude, arrogant and selfish. A very few of them were sincere.
More than anything I was confused as to why I couldn’t get a straight answer for anything. My father would always say, “Well, because that is the way God wants it.” I wanted to be in the school plays and was not permitted to because I couldn’t wear the stage makeup and also because me being in the “spot-light” was considered vanity. It’s a school play, for crying out loud, not a Broadway musical! I missed out on dances, choir events, friends, and more importantly, my high school years because of rules that didn’t make any sense. Social interaction wasn’t the only thing that suffered. My class work came after my Bible Lessons and since my father was sure the Great Tribulation would come before I even graduated, I never really had a great deal of interest in school work. In my sophomore year in high school I started to think about college and what I wanted to do after I graduated. Neither of my parents encouraged any kind of education after high school. They were sure things would come to an end before then. I began to work harder in school and managed to get my grades up to a reasonably good average and on a number of occasions was actually scolded for not paying enough attention to my “church-work.”
Things began to get worse and I grew very hostile towards my parents as well as the PCG. Most Saturday mornings began with an argument between me and my father. I had my home personality, my school personality and my church personality.1 I had to live a lie at home to keep any sort of peace. At services I would just turn myself off and turn into the girl that everyone wanted and expected me to be. I took notes on sermons, I discussed topics with my peers and other members of the group. I acted like it really was my way of life. In all actuality, I wanted to cry when I walked into that place. I wanted to yell at the top of my lungs when the sermons would say things about how we need to make sure we are not judgmental and then turn around and flat out say that the world would be a much better place if certain people were killed. I hated feeling like I was supposed to be so much better than what I actually was. I began to sink into a deep depression and almost ended my life. My mother took me to the doctor (a very rare thing) and I was given an anti-depressant that would “make everything ok.” I took this hoping it would give me a few pseudo peaceful moments at home and at services, but in the long run it didn’t do a damn thing. I told my mother I wasn’t going to pretend that I didn’t know why I was upset all the time. I knew the reason I was crying every night in bed and why I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was unhappy in the “church.” I did not believe it to be the truth. I was sick of living a lie and a double life. That next morning, my parents gave me the choice I had been waiting for years to make, and for the first time in my life, I did not keep the Sabbath.
To this day I have an extremely hard time finding a place where I am comfortable. Some have called the WCG and the PCG a “cult.” I agree to this wholeheartedly. The typical association might not be the right usage but the idea is there. You have to be let into the group by an official, you have to strictly abide by the laws of the group; once you have been disfellowshipped, you are not to have contact with the people in the group, etc. In many ways it is a cult2 and the emotional damage is also very apparent in the people I have talked to about it, including members of my own family who were also raised inside. There were many ministers and deacons that I came across in the group that were very hard on the younger people. My little sister and I both had been told by Craig and Colleen Craig Winters that our clothing was much too poor to be worn to church services. Dennis Leap, at Philadelphia Youth Camp, would openly make examples of people at the camp that were doing things he didn’t see as appropriate. I was an example on one occasion. I had been injured pretty badly while playing soccer earlier that week and had been on bed rest for the last few days. His way of thinking seemed to be that physical injury and illness were a direct result of “spiritual sin.” He made a point to make sure everyone knew that the real reason I had been injured was not because of actual physical strain, but because I had sinned and was paying for it physically. Can you imagine hearing that? This is a small part of what I and many other young kids were subjected to at these camps.
I now have no real belief in religion.3 This is in part due to the fact that it was shoved down my throat for so many years and partly due to me wanting to really make sure that when I do believe in something that I can really believe in it with my whole heart. I have read and heard several other stories about past experiences with these two “churches” and my opinion is that it’s not what you say you believe in, it’s what you believe to be true in your heart and soul. You can talk all day long about how close you are to God and how righteous you are and convince people you are living a straight life, but if the very next day you are out lying and judging people then it doesn’t matter what other people see. You are lying to yourself. Hypocrisy is one of the things I saw most in that group and most in my family. I just don’t see how that amounts to serving God.
By Kendra – Child survivor of WCG
Footnotes by ESN:
1 Read: Wearing Masks (child survivor testimony)
2 Read: Identifying Marks of an Exploitive, Abusive Group.
3 WCG and PCG, as all Bible-based cults do, used “church” and “religion” (which is an emphasis on works and rituals) as a front in order to control and exploit others for the leader’s purpose. Such organizations are abusive and deceptive and teach a false god. See Leaders of Totalistic Groups Have These Traits in Common.