I was raised since age 3 until age 19 in the Worldwide Load of Guilt1 during the 1980s and 1990s.
I grew up in a legalistic cult obsessed with “the last days” and not quite being able to earn God’s love. The WCG didn’t celebrate Christmas, Easter, nor birthdays, so I missed a lot of childhood memories. I dreaded the parties at elementary school because I would be isolated in the hall gloomily observing my classmates having fun.
The WCG couldn’t decide whether to be Christian or Jewish so I celebrated the Old Testament Holy Days and not eating unclean meats. I was more familiar with the angry, vengeful God than Jesus even though He was given lip service. The WCG was eager to flee to the “place of safety” so we rented college auditoriums and mainly met in a basketball gymnasium.
At age 5, I laid on the blanket cuddled to a stuffed lamb watching a video of a stern and crabby old Herbert W. Armstrong preach the doom and gloom of the Apocalypse.
I was a lonely, introverted boy. My social skills were at least four years behind my peers, and I had a speech therapist throughout elementary school. I was diagnosed an autistic toddler. Acceptance at WCG and school was fleeting. My dad was distant, but I was mom’s surrogate spouse at an early age.
I was a good child eager to learn and please so I dutifully did my Y.E.S. lessons and memorized all the right Scriptures and answers for Bible bowl. My parents drove an hour each way to services, and usually arrived early to help set up chairs, distribute purple hymnals, arrange floors, and sing in the choir (sing boring songs holding the blue book stiff as a board). My mom led the ladies singing group, and she sang special music often.
To illustrate the “loving culture” of the 80s I am sharing a side story. The first time my mom performed her first solo she gripped her trembling fingers on her dress and unconsciously tugged her skirt up. After services, at a social, the minister at the time bluntly told her that she was awful! In cults, the leaders squash your talents even though the Bible commands you to use them. I admire her for continuing to sing at services anyway as it became her passion and contribution to God.
The ministers were not good counselors and only gave canned advice or snide commentary. I learned early to keep most of my questions and concerns stuffed inside my stomach. The cult constantly belittled me as “an unworthy sinner going to the lake of fire.”
When I was a teen boy I was involved in a minor 4 wheeler ATV accident and had small fractures just before the Feast of Tabernacles (the most major religious holiday in the WCG). I wore an orthopedic shoe and crutches. hobbling around a giant arena filled with thousands of people. On day one, I had huge blisters on my painful hands so Mom decided to rent a wheelchair that week. My dad and some of the men disapproved of me not being tough enough and made snide comments. Most people were friendly to me when I was temporarily handicapped.
As a “church” goer, I would put on the church face regardless of how I really felt. I struggled to take notes as I wiped the layer of glaze from my eyes with my head slumped down on my hands trying to catch a snooze. I discretely tried to read a Hardy Boys mystery a few times. The clique of Y.O.U. boys sat in the back swapping baseball cards during the sermon and the Y.O.U. girls played with their hair and passed notes. The women discretely played with their jewelry and suppressed yawns. This was the weekly two hour ordeal.
I remember a couple of old men that brought their wives to services, but refused to attend the service. They would drink alcohol outside and look for lost change on the parking lot pavement to pass the time.
The “church” goer facade would sometimes crack during the Night To Be Much Observed when we would have dinner at someone’s house. I remember one poignant occasion, a deacon’s family attended with us lower types. At NTBMO, occasionally the kids were allowed to sip a wine tasting. However this time, a five year old boy kept asking and getting more and more wine until he was getting tipsy. The deacon bragged that his grandson could “hold his liquor” better than he could! Other times, stories of physical and sexual abuse in various families would leak out around the WCG, but everything was swept under the rug.
And then “the changes” of 1995 arrived! The minister’s wife was our primary pianist, and Mom became close to her with all the music practicing. My mom also helped edit the book my minister was creating so we were invited to their beautiful, large house for brunch. The minister’s wife warned us a month in advance about the major changes, but we were still shocked during the announcement video that broke the WCG.
A lot of confusion and speculation permeated the WCG, and the double-talk “clarification sermons” only added more questions and dissent. The minister transferred to United Church of God, and the local banking family quickly built a brand new church building for the new group. A couple of years later, this banking family’s bank was caught defrauding depositors, burying records underneath their home property, and they fled the country. That family’s last name was Church, and they were ironically good Christian people!
Fortunately, I’m grateful “the changes” made it easier for me to talk to the Pentecostal Christian classmate at school, and I became interested in the Assemblies of God experience. Certainly more interesting church services! I graduated from high school in 1996 and moved to another state to my sister’s (she was pressured between her dad’s Baptist church and mom’s WCG church so she became a non-church goer). I transitioned out of WCG and did the Pentecostal experience for a couple of years before I fled the past, all churches, and distanced myself from my family!
The pain from my old religion pushed me to reject Christianity. I researched other religions including New Age and shopped around for a new concept and experience of God. However, I was a lost, lonely, and a hurting shell of a young man. I experimented with marijuana; I was tempted to try LSD, but I had enough sense not to do that. I drove friends to the drug dealer. Sexual promiscuity was the drug of my choice for a few years and I didn’t care what happened to me. The self-hate and unworthiness was that bad! I was tempted to jump off a bridge once, but a voice said “not today,” and I walked myself off that bridge.
I had to become homeless before my recovery could begin. One afternoon I was walking penniless and hungry when I saw a few church people loading up leftover food into their SUVs. I asked one of the ladies for a muffin, and she introduced me to the pastor (I politely complied for food). The pastor had just moved far across the country, and he provided shelter and bought clothes for me. I stayed with him for a couple of weeks and opened up a little to some of the housemates. I was shocked by genuine charity—never would’ve happened at WCG! Eventually I was able to move back into my sister’s house until getting on my feet.
Eventually, I found two supportive friends and had a couple of professional counselors to chip away at the wall of pain. I learned how to become honest with myself and to a couple of select people. I finally learned what close friendship really is.
After being free from the cult for over a decade, I’m still struggling with wanting a close relationship with a personal God and spiritual Father. Depending on the day, hearing the word “Jesus” will illicit various degrees of uneasiness. I live in the Bible Belt so joining a church is expected but I don’t want the phoniness and pain of churchianity. Years of introspection has taught me the difference of Jesus’ teachings and “church.”
I lost my childhood because of my autism and the cult. I have recovered from autism so that no one would know, and I am gaining power back that I lost as a result of the cult. Most people will never know the degree of isolation from both obstacles! I am more afraid of being unlovable than lonely. I have had a life journey with struggles and detours, but I realized that I am a miracle!
I wish I had found this website a decade ago, and I’m really glad it’s available for survivors like myself! I have worked through most of the pain. My relationship with God has had its ups and downs (more intense downs with abandonment/unworthiness issues), but this website is an answer to a prayer from a couple of weeks ago. I felt compelled to write my story as a part of my own therapy and finding “the place of safety” of others who survived WCG also.
By Jarrett — Child survivor of WCG