I grew up in the Worldwide Church of God. My mother joined in 1974 and was baptized on December 25th the same year. It was looked at as such a wonderful thing to be baptized on the same day the rest of the deceived world was celebrating their “pagan” holiday. I wasn’t very fond of going to church because, even at a young age, something in the air seemed strange.
My first vivid memory of WCG activity was going to the feast in the fall of 1974. I was five years old. We went to Niagara Falls and there was a “church convocation” every morning of the seven-day feast. My mother drove there from Ohio, and the annual Feast of Tabernacles trip became a yearly-anticipated event. We also went to the Pocono’s, Virginia Beach, and Saratoga Springs, NY. Although, when we were actually there, I couldn’t wait for it be over because the daily meetings were treacherous.
Sitting through hours of boring lectures–every day–was torture. The first day of the Feast and the “Last Great Day” there were two meetings, one in the morning and then a two-hour break for lunch and then another meeting in the evening. When we would get back to our hotels or the rental house, we weren’t allowed to watch TV or do anything fun. We did manage to fit in a few sight-seeing events, but we were mainly supposed to be seeking God, so we weren’t allowed to go outside or anything, but we had to stay quiet in the room. Some of the families there were so poor and their cars were so old and broken down, that they shouldn’t have even attempted to make the trip, but they did, probably out of fear of being disobedient. What a horrible burden on families–especially those with small children.
Women were not allowed to wear makeup back then. It was the homeliest looking group of people you’d ever see. If the reason for not wearing makeup was to keep the women from attracting men, I’m sure it worked.
The observance of all Christian holidays in my house came to a halt. Well sort of. My father did not accept the teachings of the WCG, so he continued to purchase a Christmas tree each year and tried to make a festive time of it for me and my older brother. My father thought the WCG group was a bunch of cuckoos and that caused a lot of friction in my house. He tried to cooperate and came to a few meetings and even took some days off of work to drive to some of the feast locations. But he knew it wasn’t right. He and my mom eventually alienated from each other. We always had to choose sides. When we decorated my dad’s Christmas tree, my mom would come downstairs and roll her eyes at us and look at us and treat us like we were traitors of the most extreme type. That was very confusing to process in my mind as a child.
My mom always put WCG activities first before her family. She was not involved in my school activities. I was a member of the band and was on the flag line all four years in High School, but I don’t think she ever came to one performance or concert. It was embarrassing to have band concerts at school and when they were over, my mother was the only mother who wasn’t there. When the WCG had an activity for the kids, or basketball, or soccer games, she would cancel everything else to volunteer for their events and donate much time and money and food. If we kids didn’t totally adhere to WCG rules, my mother treated us like unwanted refugee children. And it was bad for us because, since my father didn’t attend, we would often make excuses not to go to services with my mom on Saturdays. I cannot count the number of times I faked being sick so I wouldn’t have to go. While I usually had to go since I was a girl and my dad had decided I should be with my mother, my brother didn’t have to go too much.
I remember one Saturday I was so upset about having to go to “church,” that I was angry with everybody while I was there. Another young boy around my age really got on my nerves at services, so when I came home I told my father and my brother how stupid he was and how much he got on my nerves. Later that same day I started coming down with a virus and had a horrible stomachache. I was told it was “punishment” for talking evil about WCG members (God’s “true people”). After that experience, I was convinced that the WCG was the “one true church” and that any negative thoughts or comments about the “church” would bring me some type of punishment.
I told my mother that I knew that the WCG was the “one true church.” She was very proud of me for making that statement at such a young age. I was about eight or nine years old then and I really did start to believe it was the “one true church.” I also remember staying home from church one day and eating a bacon sandwich (my father ate the forbidden pork and kept it in the house). I got sick shortly after I ate it–probably from my system not being accustomed to it. But back then I was sure it was because I was “sinning.”
When I was sixteen, my cousins who attended my father’s family’s Baptist church, asked me to come to church with them on Easter Sunday. I was kind of excited to be doing something with them because I was usually ignored or treated mean by them because I was the “cult kid” and they were probably afraid I would rub off on their own kids. My father bought me a new outfit and they came and picked me up early Easter morning. I went to this Baptist church and while I was sitting there in the pews, something felt so right. The gospel of Jesus Christ was being preached and I had never really heard it like that before. Although I still didn’t quite understand it, I responded to the call to accept Christ. I walked right down that aisle by myself and nothing had ever felt so right in my life. It felt like a weight had been removed from me and light was shining all around. I was very excited to learn more about what I had just done.
After the church service, my cousins dropped me off at home and as I reached the back door, a feeling of dread started to come over me. I walked in the house and my mother was at the kitchen sink with her back to me. She didn’t acknowledge me when I walked in the door, but just as I started to pass her, she turned around and looked at me with disgust and with anger in her voice said, “Are you proud of yourself?” I cannot tell you how confused I was. I had just given my life to Christ, and it felt so right, and then I came home to be reprimanded for it. I was crushed and totally dumbfounded, and started a cycle of being in and out of faith in Jesus Christ from that time.
I became very rebellious as a teenager and had feelings of inadequacy. I started smoking marijuana, sneaking alcohol in my bedroom, and skipping school to have boys over while my parents were at work. I always felt like I could never measure up, even though I didn’t know what I was supposed to be measuring up to. I felt I could never do enough, or that nothing mattered anyway since I was going to be burned up and no longer cease to exist after the Tribulation–and that was only if I made it through the Tribulation.
I became anti-social and was looked at as being “weird.” I was tormented by demons in my bedroom at night, and came very close to killing myself with a .357 magnum one day. While sitting at my vanity dresser and looking in the mirror, I held it to my head with my finger on the trigger. The only reason I did not do it was because I thought it was very selfish to have my parents see my brains splattered all over my bedroom. I now know it was the power of God who saved me that day.
I was told that I wouldn’t be going to “the place of safety” and that I would go through the Tribulation and that I needed to learn how to live off the land. I was told I needed to learn which wild plants and berries were edible because I wouldn’t be able to buy or sell and that I would probably be left to roam around naked, or held captive in a concentration camp, and probably would be killed eventually. I was told this because in my teenage years I had come to hate going to WCG meetings (since I was old enough to not need a baby-sitter, I could now stay home on Saturday) and since I wasn’t adhering to the regulations, I was an outsider. I was already an outsider even at services because being one of just a few African American families there I was never accepted into the “cliques” at services. Our congregation met at a High School in Ohio and most of the members were white and from rural communities in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. I know that skin color has nothing to do with it, but how do you convince that to a group of people who were taught that they were the “chosen Aryan descendents of Israel”? I still cannot understand to this day how any African American people willingly became a part of such an organization. The African American members were not treated equally at all.1
Other things I remember:
- The thin, red, green, or blue, etc. booklets that explained individual doctrines
- Ambassador College
- Lying on the floor coloring, or playing small games between the seats, as a child through torturous, lengthy sermons
- Children always getting “disciplined” in the bathroom
- Purple hymnals with most of the songs written by Dwight L. Armstrong [brother of Herbert Armstrong]
- HDW telecasts at the feasts
- Members running to book tables like zombies to pick up their copy of Mystery of the Ages
- Members saying that women were going to be asked to stop getting pregnant because their flight to the “place of safety” would be difficult if pregnant or with small children
- People having to ask the minister or writing to “headquarters” for permission for the most ridiculous things; e. g., is it okay to go out to eat on the Sabbath? Are we allowed to have a gun in our home? Can we attend my child’s graduation on Saturday?
- Not being able to participate in sports or other school events that had competitions on Saturday
- So, so many poor people and depressed people
After I graduated from High School and moved away from the city where I grew up, I searched for WCG congregations in cities where I lived. I knew that God was real and that I needed to connect to Him so I tried to attend services there. I still felt that I was condemned if the church I attended was not a WCG congregation, but when I’d visit, it always felt too weird. I was always alone, and rarely did people come and talk to me.
By that time I was a social recluse and had accepted the idea that I was weird and stopped caring about what people thought of, or had to say, about me. I was unmarried and had two children and had two abortions and was a mental wreck because I still felt I was doomed to burn up and cease to exist at the end of all things. It had been branded in my mind that the only solution was to fit into the WCG standards, and I knew I was too weird and strange to fit in there.
One day while in my early twenties, I just got down on my knees and prayed: “God, I know you are there but I don’t know how to come to you. Do I read the Quran, or the Bible to get to you? Do I smoke marijuana and praise Rastafari to get to you? Do I pray to Buddha, or empty my mind of all thoughts to get to you? Do I cover my head and follow the writings of Louis Farrakhan to get to you? Lord, I know that the teaching of the WCG is not right. God, I accepted Jesus Christ at the Baptist church once but I was told that was wrong. God, please show me the truth and how to come to you.”
After I prayed that prayer, my mind immediately flooded with Scriptures from the Bible. I opened up my Bible and started looking up the Scriptures that were coming to me. God answered every one of my questions through the Scriptures in the Holy Bible, and I knew that Jesus Christ was Lord. I knew He had forgiven me of my sins and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior that day.
Still, I remained like the person mentioned in the Scriptures whose seed was sown in soil with weeds, and it took me many years to get to a point where God’s Word took real “root” in my life. I still have trouble attending church services regularly–sometimes I dread going.2 This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it is true. I am very reluctant to believe what I hear preached in churches. I am always skeptical and always on guard so as not be deceived again. I always search the Scriptures myself to see “whether those things were so” like the Bereans mentioned in the book of Acts. [Acts 17:10-11] I have a wonderful pastor and church family, but I distance myself from them and don’t participate in much there. I pray about this because I don’t want to be this way, but it is hard. Anything that reminds me of the way the WCG used to do it, gives me chills. No matter what, I know God’s grace is sufficient for anything that I come to Him with. I have learned to stop worrying and feeling guilty and to just walk in the freedom that Christ gave us. He said His burden is easy, and His yoke is light. [Matthew 11:30] And it truly is. I now know that as I submit myself to His will, not “the church’s” will, that He will continue to change me into His image. Praise God! That is true freedom!
My mother accepted the changes in the WCG and attends one of the congregations in Ohio. She has a close walk with the Lord and studies the Scriptures for herself. The current pastor of her congregation still uses many of the old church tactics. He intimidates and controls much of his congregation and controls everything there including women’s ministry. Many of the members are still afraid to listen to teaching and preaching outside of the “church,” and the pastor gets upset when he finds out that they do; he even preaches about it. Very few of their members appear to be experiencing the freedom that Christ offers. Her pastor does not believe in or teach some of the basic beliefs of the body of Christ; i.e., the rapture of the church3, and still teaches about going to the “place of safety.” For some reason, many of the members, including the Assistant Pastor, do not believe that God the Father sits on a throne. The pastor has stopped the members from gathering together to pray before or after services because he doesn’t like the way they pray (using the Scriptures), and also stopped them from worshipping before the services start. I don’t understand how this minister can still do these things if the whole WCG is now “Bible believing.”
There are still many hurting people in that congregation, which is why my mother has decided to remain, even though she now believes the Bible for what it says and has other sources for sound doctrinal teaching and Bible studies, etc.
My prayer is that any and every one who was deceived by the teachings of the WCG, do not give up on God, and come to know the saving power of Jesus Christ. He is still Almighty God and He is there with open arms for us. Even though we were deceived, we chose to listen to man instead of God. He gives us total free will to choose. He gives us many warnings in the Scripture about false teachers and false doctrines. We must read the Word for ourselves and do what Paul said: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8)
By Sheena – Child survivor of WCG
Footnotes by ESN:
1 In the early `60s and before, the Worldwide Church of God practiced segregation; i.e., in some areas Blacks were given a special section to sit in at the Feast of Tabernacles; had their own dining hall and were segregated from the Whites during social activities. During the rest of the year there was to be no interracial mixing. The prohibition against interracial dating and marriage (considered a “sin” by Herbert Armstrong) was taught in the WCG for 50 years up until 1991. Read: “Herbert Armstrong’s Racial Views.” (includes several quotes by HWA from his 1963 Plain Truth article).
2 Read: Why is it hard for me to attend a mainstream church? (Q&A)
3 For more on the rapture, see: Do you have anything that substantiates the Pre-Tribulational Rapture? (Q&A)