I am now 49 years old. When I was 2, my parents joined Worldwide Church of God. Before that my father was a deacon in a Pentecostal “holy roller” church. At the time he was seeking a more substantial church. He and my mother were always godly people. The message of HWA resonated with them and they eagerly absorbed the doctrines of “the church.” My father had been married before and to his credit he told the elders that his earlier marriage had been annulled so that they wouldn’t make my parents separate. My father loved my mother deeply. It wasn’t until 30 years later that I learned the truth that his prior marriage lasted 10 years and ended in divorce. I am thankful that he wasn’t willing to throw his marriage to my mother away. I knew several families in the WCG that had been separated, and their lives and their children’s lives devastated, because of this doctrine in the WCG. I’m sure he felt great guilt having lied to them.
The next 18 years of my life was miserable to say the least. Even though I always felt love from my parents, they were duty-bound to raise me according to church standards. I always felt that I was an outsider at school. Having to sit outside in the hall while my schoolmates were participating in Christmas and Easter activities or celebrating birthdays was humiliating. None of my schoolmates could understand how I could call myself a Christian yet not celebrate Christmas. Being a light to the world outwardly quenched my sense of self. I was a slave to the WCG’s doctrine. My self pity only caused great pangs of guilt to well up inside of me.
It was impossible to measure up to expectations. I tried very hard to be the little boy that my parents wanted me to be but I always fell short. Some of worst memories of my childhood were the spankings. I was spanked on a near daily basis for what were sometimes the most trivial of transgressions. I recall the horror, when I was about 8, of sitting in church listening to a sermon by Dennis (Fresno, CA). He was preaching that children needed to be spanked daily, and with vigor, to make sure we had the fear of God in us. I was already getting spanked regularly but now the sessions became more intense. Shortly afterward, my father spanked me for 30 minutes because I had missed one leaf while raking the backyard. I know my father felt bad about the beatings he was giving me, but he was doing what he was told. After all–the elders knew better than the lowly lay-persons what was best. I dealt with all this abuse by burying my emotions deep within. I grew up thinking that I was evil beyond hope and that I wouldn’t amount to anything. I also developed a deep-seated distrust and fear of all authority figures whether within the WCG or in the world. I still avoid conflicts with nearly everyone at all costs. I inevitably viewed God as vindictive looking to punish me for every bad deed or thought. The concept of a loving God was not just a foreign idea–it never even entered my mind.
I learned that to survive you had to do as you were told. As I grew older, I buried my dreams deep within and cultivated an outward persona that allowed me to survive within the WCG. As a teenager I became the Y.O.U. president of our congregation and went to two retreats [S. E. P. summer camps; i. e., SEP] to Big Sandy, Texas. I don’t remember much about these retreats except meeting lots of other teens that were much like me. I had quit paying much attention to the teachings. I think I intuitively knew that there was something wrong here, but the fear of the lake of fire and of embarrassing my parents kept me in the WCG. The only friends I had were a few from my congregation that had similar stories. Although we never spoke of the hardships amongst ourselves, we shared this common bond. Occasionally one of us couldn’t take it anymore and turned to drugs or illicit sexual activities in rebellion. Inevitably these teens were kicked out of “the church.” One of my best friends got so heavily into drugs that she was shipped away back east to live with her grandmother so as not to be an embarrassment to her family. When she returned about a year later she was just a shell of a person. I tried to connect with her but she was so deeply depressed that I could barely get her to talk. About a month later she took a gun and shot herself in the head. She was just 16 years old. Others just drifted away never to be heard from again.
When I was 18 or 19 (1975 or 1976) we started hearing rumblings of dissention amongst the leadership.1 The elders were vigilant about keeping it under wraps, but we knew something was going on. My father started reading some of the dissenting literature and decided to leave the WCG about the time I turned 20. My mother, for fear of the lake of fire, wouldn’t leave and stayed in the WCG until her death in 2003. After my father left, and without giving it much thought, one Saturday I decided to just not to go to church. And I haven’t been back since.
My entire childhood was sacrificed to the WCG and I was eager to build a life outside the group. It was a task that I was not equal to. I did go to school and get a degree and a good job but the underlying anger and resentment could not be shaken. I was able to forgive my father, but I couldn’t forgive the WCG. I was afraid to get married and raise a family because I didn’t know what a “normal” family was–or even if I could function within one. I eventually married a Jewish woman. She wasn’t a godly women, but I could relate to her Jewish traditions. We had two children together. I was not a good husband. I was loyal to her, but I couldn’t give myself to her emotionally. Whenever there was conflict with her, or with others, I would just shut down and go back into my shell. The outward persona that I had built was just a house of cards that came tumbling down. We were divorced when our children were 7 and 4. I have managed to be a good father and have vowed not to inflict on them the horrors of my childhood.
I spent the first 28 years since I left the WCG calling myself an agnostic because I didn’t know what to believe. Over the years, my father tried repeatedly to share the gospel with me in person and through letters and tapes. I never listened to him and the letters went un-opened and the tapes un-listened to. I would never again let a man tell me what to believe and I didn’t know where to turn.
As a child, we had spent most of our feasts in Squaw Valley, CA. It was here in this beautiful setting that I developed a love of nature. Years later I would go to the mountains and see God in the intricate beauty of nature. I knew there was a God, but I didn’t know how to relate to him. As my life deteriorated on so many different levels, I continually found solace in my relationship with my children and with nature. Still I knew that there was a hole in my being that needed to be filled. I took up nature photography to give myself motivation to get out into nature as much as possible. I was seeking God in the only place I knew where to look. I could see His handiwork but I still didn’t know Him. Out of desperation, a little more than a year ago, I prayed for the first time in as long as I can remember. I simply asked God to show me who He really was.
About 6 months later, while at a nature photographer’s convention in Denver, I met a Christian woman. I was totally blown away by her sincere faith. We made a date to get together at home in Southern California after the conference. I asked her about her faith and shared some of my experiences with the WCG with her. She recognized right away that the WCG was a cult. She attends a non-denominational Bible believing and teaching church. She showed me in the Bible that God is a loving God and that we can’t be saved through works, but only by grace. This was such a foreign concept to me that I had to learn more. With the help of a few well chosen study guides, I opened the Bible and read it for myself. No elders telling me what to believe. I proved for myself that the Bible is the Word of God. I proved that Jesus was God in the flesh and that He gave Himself as a sacrifice for all of our sins and He rose from the dead. I asked if I could attend church services with her. I was amazed at the amount of love I felt within the congregation. Except for the occasional wedding, this was the first church I had stepped into for 28 years. On Easter Sunday [i. e., Resurrection Sunday] 2006, I gave my life to the Lord.
I am convinced that God brought this wonderful woman into my life as an answer to my simple prayer to please show me who He truly is. God’s timing is glorious. At any other time in my past I would have run from anyone professing to be a Christian. We both were not planning to go to this conference, but changed our minds at the last minute. My son begged me to go until I relented and her best friend gave her $1,000 for Christmas so that she could attend. We both thank God that He brought the two of us together. And I am especially thankful that I can now have a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior.
I still have to fight these feelings that I am unworthy to come before God. And it still amazes me that our God is a loving God that wants to have a relationship with me. I have a long way to go to heal the wounds, but with God’s help and the strength I find in the Word, I am getting there. I never could have researched the WCG without the strength of the Lord helping me to try to forgive. My biggest regret at this point is that my children were raised without knowing Jesus. I pray that their hearts are open to the truth and that they would be like the Bereans–not take any man’s word, but to prove all things for themselves in the Scriptures.
By Neil Donaldson (real name used with permission) – Child survivor of WCG
Footnotes by ESN:
1 For more info on this period of time, read: Worldwide Church of God History.