I was born in the 1970s, and the only memories I have about the first 26 years of my life are completely dominated by the Worldwide Church of God and Philadelphia Church of God. It was my mother who had been “searching for the truth” for most of her life and after tasting varying denominations and flavours of Christianity (and discarding them) stumbled across the writings of Herbert W. Armstrong and decided “Finally, here’s what I’ve been looking for!” and became a member of the WCG. She, like so many others, was unshakably convinced that she was one of the specially “called, elect of God,” attending the “one true church on earth,” and gave HWA and his ministers an almost unnatural reverence as the vessels through which “God’s” revelation was delivered.
Before long, we were all being bundled into the car and taken down to the local school hall every Saturday morning to be “privileged” enough to begin our spiritual education. I think I was about five or six years old, and my siblings a year older, and three years younger. To say that our lives would be forever impacted by my mother’s decision is an understatement of celestial magnitude!
My younger years are still a little hazy. I only have fragmented images in my mind of at one time hunting in the garden for brightly-colored eggs, opening birthday presents and looking at the images on our TV every December of a jolly person in a red and white suit, and being filled with an overwhelming sense of excitement and wonder. These images and memories, and of course the feelings associated with them, would soon dissipate and vanish like vapour on a hot afternoon. What would replace them would be feelings of confusion, isolation, self-loathing, but most of all fear.
Going to “church” every Saturday as a young child was simply torturous! There were about 400 in attendance in our local congregation, and I remember looking around at all the stern, somber faces of the adults, as they dutifully took notes and listened to the minister droning on, thinking that this was something I should some day aspire to. What about the other children in the congregation? I dare not look at them during the sermon lest we start making faces at each other, or engage in any other activity to make the two plus hours go by, which might distract either the minister from speaking, or the adults from writing. Having children who misbehaved was, of course, an enormous stigma for any parent who would be reprimanded by the minister for having a less than iron-grip control on their kids, and so the threat of retribution by a publicly embarrassed parent was always high! I remember my mother didn’t even allow us to go to the toilet during the sermon lest it reflect badly on her parenting skills. So sometimes we just had to sit there trembling with a full-to-bursting bladder until at least the closing hymns.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized that these restless children weren’t being naughty, they were just doing what children do to keep themselves amused–I mean, how much coloring can one kid do before he gets bored?
Once the sermon was finally over, the fellowship time afterwards was hardly a write-home-about event! We, of course, still had to conduct ourselves in a godly manner considering we were still in “God’s house”–definitely no playing or running around. Unsurprisingly, the only friends I had as a child were those of my own age at services, and I only got to see them once a week. What a shame I couldn’t play with them. Tea and coffee was served, including juice and cookies for the children–which we eagerly lined up for, but woe betide anyone who had the audacity to line up for seconds! That was left for the adults. I remember thinking that the best thing about going to services was the juice and cookies, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
When it was time to go home (which seemed almost never at times as there seemed to be some sort of competition among the adults as to who could stay at services the longest), we had to endure lectures from our mother as to how naughty we’d been, and how she’d never been so embarrassed, etc., and we’d all say sorry, and promise to be good next week. (For years to come, I would engage myself in a fruitless enterprise of trying to be as “perfect” as “God’s” ministers were, and make my mother proud of me). Arriving back at home provided no reprieve, because it was still the Sabbath (until sunset) and we couldn’t go and play outside, or sit down in front of the TV–but we could busy ourselves with completing our Y.E.S. [Youth Educational Services] and later Y.O.U. Bible lessons. Exciting stuff! Protesting made no difference, as more often than not the only reply forthcoming was, “You want to end up in the lake of fire, do you?” Words fail me to describe what the threat of such unimaginable suffering does to the mind of an impressionable youth!
As if the weekly Sabbath wasn’t enough, there were the annual Sabbaths. More “church” that lasts all day??!! At least you got a decent lunch, but of course nothing with even the hint of anything that’s been anywhere near a pig, shellfish, or non cud-chewing-cloven-hoofed beast during its lifetime. Many of us succumbed to our “evil, selfish, human natures” and ate too much during these feast days (more shame for Mom) and could barely keep awake during the afternoon service (more embarrassment, more threats). This was another area in which there appeared to be some competition among the members who could bake the most elaborate and delicious dishes and desserts. (You could imagine the prestige if the minister picked the desert you brought over everyone else’s!) This kind of attitude was somehow not considered pride, however, as it was expected that you presented your best effort to “please God!” The least favorite annual Sabbaths were always going to be Day of Atonement (who wants to go hungry for 24 hours?) and the opposite, Days of Unleavened Bread (where you get to eat nothing but “plywood” for a week and the pleasure of two holy days to look forward to).
Then there were the difficulties of being alienated from your peers at school and certainly members of your extended family who cut off all further contact for your strange unorthodox beliefs. No Easter, no Christmas, no bragging rights as far as birthday presents were concerned, being away from school so many times to go to “church” so often, eating strange lunches (more “plywood”); not being able to show interest in any sport, musical or other extra curricular activities because these were all just “worldly pursuits,” which didn’t matter because we’re all going to a place of safety soon anyway. Soon? How soon? –Just soon.
One became acclimatized to one’s environment after awhile–a “there’s no sense fighting it, cause you won’t win” mentality infiltrated its way into one’s mind sooner or later, so you didn’t fight, or think, or reason or anything really. You cocooned yourself off from everyone and everything with no ambitions and no desires, waiting for that magical phone call: “Time for everyone to flee folks. I know some of you have been waiting for a very long time. Thanks for being so patient.” I guess I gave up waiting for that phone call.
I couldn’t imagine the financial burden the WCG would come to exact on our family. My Dad didn’t go to services, but he was a man who loved his wife very much and would support the decisions she made regarding our spiritual upbringing, It was turning us into obedient, compliant, respectful people after all–no wonder, with the amount of exposure to the “church” we had. No point complaining to him about our reservations because he would support her, reminding us that children were supposed to “obey your mother and father.” Secretly though, he hated the WCG with every fiber of his being, seeing that he also had to miss out on Christmas, birthdays, Easter etc. My mother worked very hard, but didn’t earn much money, so after her tithes were paid, there wasn’t much left. Poor Dad, time for him to spend more money he didn’t really have, time to take out yet another extension on the mortgage, so that we could travel to the Feast of Tabernacles site each year. They eventually sold their house, I think to try and get ahead and started renting. That was fifteen years ago now, they’re still renting and don’t have a cent to their name.
I did my utmost to be inconspicuous and blend in during High School, not draw any more attention to myself than was absolutely necessary–very difficult when there was to be no dating, no discos or balls, no recognition of any sporting prowess. I guess I wasn’t bad looking, but the only way I could cope with any interest that anyone of the opposite sex showed me was to completely ignore it, so they of course gave up after awhile. I only had one good friend at school who wasn’t in the WCG and who did his very best to try and understand my lifestyle and beliefs. But eventually we drifted apart and haven’t spoken to each other in a long time. I had a pretty sharp mind, and most subjects seemed relatively easy to me. Years and years of disciplined note taking and study habits in services paid off, and I got pretty good grades. Every year, however, I had to work twice as hard to catch up on all the material I had missed while away at the FOT. I never considered the possibility that University would be an option for me because, for a start, it wasn’t Ambassador College, and how would I cope with doing exams if they were on a Saturday? I had a very logical and scientific mind, loved chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics at High School, but a lot of the lab classes at University were on a Friday night, which was the Sabbath, which was “God’s time,” so that was out of the question.
I was completely resigned to my fate–all or nothing. My entire life was the “church,” and there was absolutely no compromise. All I saw of my life was going to services week after week, my once curious mind sitting in some state of limbo, waiting, waiting, waiting–there would be no end. And then something extraordinary happened. People at services were whispering about some book called Malachi’s Message, and soon after my life was going to change quite dramatically–or so I thought.
I must admit it was like a breath of cool, crisp, fresh, sweet air to a drowning man. After stagnating at WCG services week after week, year after year, something dramatic was happening, suddenly I felt alive, as if all those years were finally going to mean something, and I grabbed onto it with all the strength and enthusiasm I could muster. Somewhere in the fog in my mind I must have latched on to the different direction the doctrine in the WCG was heading and it really didn’t sit well with me. So when Gerald Flurry came along and labeled the WCG as “Laodicean,” in some twisted way it made sense to me–well, I guess it made sense to my mother first. There had always been a rebellious element in our local WCG congregation (as inevitably there should be) who were enjoying the more relaxed attitude in rules that were being exhibited by our local minister, and my mother was always commenting about this or that person’s attitude and admonishing me not to associate with them. So it seemed the most logical thing for me to join the PCG to “earnestly content for the faith once delivered to the saints” and “stay faithful to the trunk of the tree” and other such buzz-phrases. So I made the decision to leave all of my WCG friends behind, people I had known my whole life, as I wanted to be part of the “very elect” and definitely not one of the “Laodiceans.”
Unfortunately, two of my siblings did not share my convictions and were quite happy to stay in the WCG, which, of course, divided my family right down the middle. It was after the split in the WCG that people I had once associated with for years, now crossed the road to avoid “accidentally” bumping into me, and my father’s hatred for the WCG seemed to grow a hundred fold. I remember quite clearly the many arguments he had with my mother about how evil an organisation was that pitted family member against family member, and pleaded with her to leave, but we were by that stage completely institutionalized [mind-controlled], and would not listen.
The local PCG congregation I now fellowshipped with was reduced to 90% of which I was accustomed to only a week before and consisted mostly of adults and people in their 70s or over. There was only one other person there the same age as me. I didn’t mind because I was content in the knowledge that I was among the very “elect” and it felt good–as long as I didn’t think too long about all the people I’d left behind, including my brother and sister. I continued to go to services every week, kept the annual Sabbaths (the fare at lunchtime now was only a shadow of what it used to be) and the FOT. I heard the sermons, and kept my notes–books and books and books of notes–about “time no longer,” “the last hour,” “king of the south” and on and on it went. Exciting stuff! But as time went on, the excitement that I felt when there seemed to be plenty of action began to dwindle. My local congregation grew a little at first, but shrank year after year as people either lost interest, or moved overseas. I was finding it increasingly difficult to talk to people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, as obviously we had differing interests. More and more frequently I was hearing about how much deeper we had to reach into our pockets with our holy day offerings to help fund the final warning work. I had a mediocre job, which remained mediocre because of my insistence of being unavailable to work on Friday nights, or Saturdays, and didn’t earn much money. I still lived with my parents who charged me rent to help pay their bills. I couldn’t move out and find a place of my own because I couldn’t afford it, nor could I leave home and rent an apartment with local PCG people. There were none my own age, and I also could not move in with worldly people. That would be “sin through association.” Every cent I managed to save seemed to be spent towards FOT–accommodation costs, meals, airfares, entertainment–not just for me, but my mother as well, because she never had any money. I guess I did waste some of my money, but I was a young man in my early 20s and didn’t have anything really important to spend my money on.
As a teenager, I had normal teenage desires and wants. I wanted the girlfriend, the popularity, the social calendar. These were normal desires for a person of my age. I instead steered clear of these things because of my upbringing in the “church.” There used to be plenty of people of the opposite sex in my local congregation, none of which I had ever considered one day marrying and having a family with. Firstly, because since I had grown up with these people, I considered them more my sisters, rather than potential mates, and secondly, dating and relationships was a subject that was almost never discussed, or given sermons, or direction about. There always seemed to be an unspoken rule: “You want to date? Don’t even think about it! We’re watching you teens closely. You can’t be trusted, you’re not baptized and even if you are, you will need permission and counselling. Then you may hold hands, but that’s it!”
As the years went by in the PCG, the mystery and beauty surrounding marriage, sex and children seemed something that would be forever out of my grasp. To meet someone I could one day marry meant that I would have to travel abroad to larger congregations, which I could really only do by traveling to a FOT site somewhere and hope that a spark be ignited by spending a little over a week there (which I couldn’t afford to do anyway, so why bother?). I was resigned to my fate once more and settled comfortably in the stupor of meek compliance.
And then something happened–another life changing event. I did an internet search on the PCG and stumbled upon a very interesting site and began to read.
In the end, I was tired. Tired of the continual sacrifice, tired of wanting and never getting, tired of waiting for something that we were assured would happen in “a short time,” and it appearing always around the next bend. Luckily for me, my long dormant, logical brain began to spark into life once more. What started as a smoldering ember of frustration eventually built to a crescendo of all consuming white-hot rage!
These days, when I think about it, I utterly despise what the WCG and PCG did to my mother, my family and me (and my dad) and continue to do to other families around the world, and also continue to do to the minds to those who still attend, blindly dedicated to a lost cause. When I read stories on the ESN pages of people who have been impacted by the WCG, PCG, etc., my heart truly breaks for them, for what they have suffered, and rekindles every time the fury I have for such an exploitive organization. My faith, as a result, has been irreparably disintegrated.
Writing my own testimony to you completes my own personal road to recovery, and in advance I thank you for taking the time to read it.
By Brandon – Child survivor of WCG