A bit about the time I was in a cult.
I won’t go into huge depth here because this story could be a long one if I did. So I’m just going to relay a few of my experiences while I was involved with Youth With A Mission (referred to as YWAM from now on) in a tiny little town called Oxford just outside of Christchurch, New Zealand.
Now I should start off by giving a little background about YWAM. It’s not technically a cult. It can’t be. YWAM is a huge organisation with over 1100 schools (known as “bases”) in 180 countries. It’s very, very broad and not only do the people who are involved come from a wide range of backgrounds and (christian) denominations, but the bases will change leadership and students every 3-6 months, with only a few who have dedicated years to one place left behind. Some of these schools have been wonderful experiences for those who have attended. But a quick Google search will reveal hundreds upon hundreds of tales of spiritual abuse*. Of which mine is just a drop in the pond.
Although these bases come under the unifying flag of YWAM, they are largely autonomous, very rarely will leaders be asked to step down. The one I was involved in had been overseen by a middle aged couple for about 20 years. There is a couple of reasons I will refer to this one as a cult and I will expand on that soon.
I joined YWAM after meeting some of the previous schools students (each one lasts for 6 months, 3 of those months spent in Oxford, referred to as The Lecture Phase and 3 overseas, which is called The Outreach Phase). Each school, of which there are 4 each year have a different demographic. The one I did was geared towards snowboarders so everyone was around 18-21 and the majority were middle class and Canadian or American. I wasn’t a christian at the time I first met them but felt lost for a cause at the time. Lonely. I don’t know. I was just very vulnerable to this stuff. They were incredibly loving, accepting, generous, warm, kind. I didn’t realize that this was a part of the culture rather than them really liking me. I am still to this day naturally naive to things like that. They weren’t liars or sneaky people. Just hopped up on this incredibly weird culture that they themselves had been living in, very intensely, for the last few weeks. That’s one thing about this. Everything becomes so important, so life and death, so strongly emotional. It doesn’t last though. You feel so fucking alive for a while and then the YWAM bubble pops (we totally called it this), and you are faced with re-entry depression, anxiety, hopelessness, not feeling connected to normal folk etc. Also they were hot and charming. I fell for it all so hard. I don’t think I regret it though. It was hard and crazy and messy, but I believe I turned it all into self-development.
Here are some of the indicators largely agreed upon for defining something as a cult and ones that I believe YWAM as a whole is susceptible to and that the base I lived at definitely engaged in.
1.Questioning leaders/ideas, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
2. Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess.
3.The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (rules around dating, clothing etc)
4.The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
5.The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
6.Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
7.The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
8.The group is preoccupied with making money.
9. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
10. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
11. The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
1a: OK so first on the list. When I was involved there was a boy of 17 who admitted that his family had sent him from LA to Oxford to “straighten him out”, he didn’t really believe in God and being a missionary wasn’t something that he really wanted to do with his life. Being a minor, he had little choice. He wasn’t savvy enough to “shut-up, keep up”, so he outed himself as an unbeliever during one of our “lectures”. For two hours we were kept there praying for this poor boy. A room full of essentially strangers begging and pleading with him to come over to their side. I’m having trouble trying to express the oppressive feel in that room that day. Imagine not knowing anyone, being thousands of miles from home and everything you know. Being stuck in a room with strange acting people who are crying over your lost soul. He took two hours to crack and then he was like putty for the next few months. I used to sneak off to smoke with him though. He hadn’t had a massive change of ideas, he just learned that he didn’t want to be back in that room again.
2a: This filled up a lot of our time so I’m just going to give a few examples that stand out in my mind the most. On my first week there all of the women (just remember, we hardly knew each other) were asked to stand up on the stage and all of the men got down on their knees and asked our forgiveness for the things the men in our lives had done to us. It was incredibly forced and awkward. The head leader of my school, an intense young English guy looked into my eyes the whole time. I wanted to run so far away, but you can’t in those situations. Just give in and wait till it’s over. Thing like this cause a simultaneously fragile and intimate bond between people due to the shared humiliation. It’s a relatively common tactic in cults. About two weeks later we were in the lecture room again and a wooden cross was up the front. We were instructed to write the things we were ashamed of and then one by one we were told to walk up to the cross and nail that piece of paper to it. The sound of the hammer nailing our shame to that fucking piece of wood rang out through the high ceiling-ed room. I know it sounds silly, but there was sad music playing, we were all very tired and hungry, embarrassed and ashamed. When you also add believing Jesus was there watching and experiencing this it became too much. I believed my shame was responsible for his death and I felt as though I was physically harming a loved one with each blow of that hammer. Afterwards I felt elated, but it wasn’t because I felt forgiven or had forgiven myself, but because I felt I had suffered a bit for my sins. Another time in a similar situation we were asked to put our “idols” into a bin in the center of the room. These could be anything, some people put in passports, cigarettes, a fake baggie, some just wrote it on paper. Except after this exercise we all took turns saying what we had put in and why. We weren’t told this was going to happen at the start. I think the lecturer had decided that we weren’t pushing ourselves enough. He was the type of person who loved to push others psychologically. There were poor young guys who with red faces admitted to watching porn and masturbating. Then everyone would hover over them and pray for the persons sins. I had struggled with self-harm due to side effects from some medication I had been on and tearfully admitted this to the people around me. I was already so ashamed, then this lecturer looked at me with disgust and announced to the room that I was infected by a spirit of self-pity. I was humiliated. I cried and wished a hole would swallow me.
3a: I didn’t experience a lot of this really. Except for being treated like a child I would do mostly as I pleased. Which I “paid for” later. But no one was allowed to date while on the school. Many people broke up with people back home to “focus on Gods plan”. I have known people who have had much more control placed on their lives, but I won’t try and tell their stories. This happens a lot though.
4a: YWAM is autonomous. Although they can be held to account by others, no one can really do anything. Bases are left to their own devices. No accountability = absolute authority. Not all bases are like this but Oxford was isolated from other bases mostly. We also discussed in length, how to evade authorities in countries where evangelizing is illegal. Things like,“pray while walking with someone else, it looks like talking”. Many students were placed in extreme danger because of this evasion of law.
5a: See 2a.
6a: A lot of the people on my school, including myself were constantly hearing this message of leaving our old lives, dying to ourselves and taking up Gods will. What that will was, none of us knew. We made massive life plans based of “words from god” that others had received or over interpreting situations or things we’d read as clues of what we were destined for. There was a lot of pressure to try and figure out what our personal mission was.
7a: Every friday night we were sent out in van loads to “outreach” in the city and try to get people to come to know our “joy”. It was hard and humbling. I ended up doing to others what those guys I had met a year ago did to me. Without really realising for years. This would go on for several hours and we would usually get back to the base around 1 or 2am in winter, then have to be up at 7 or miss breakfast. (food was only supplied at certain times and most of us had little money left after paying for the school)
8a: The cost of my school for 6 months was $10000, which sounds like a fair deal for living expenses for 6 months. But I know, from later revelations that it only cost about 75% of that, sometimes less. Unless parents had aid for it, most of us were constantly trying to get funds and financial support from people back home. Hundred of emails and calls were sent out. Special emotional videos were sent to churches. I got kicked out because I didn’t have enough money in time. I had it, just not in enough time so they kept $6000.
9a: before 8:30am we were expected to dress, wash, eat, spend at least 30 min in prayer and do any chores we had (most of those could take at least an hour. Most people were up by 6. I couldn’t be fucked with that so I got up at 8, quickly dressed and grabbed coffee then walked down to the church for lectures. These would go for 5-6 hours a day with lunch in between. Mon-Thursday. Friday we would finish at lunch and have work duties for a few hours before heading into Christchurch for outreach that lasted anywhere from 6 to 9 hours. We had 2 hours free time after lectures and before dinner. After dinner we would have some sort of service for 4-6 hours and then fell into bed. Saturday was generally a free day. Sunday we spent going to several church services.
10a: Communication was rationed. There was one phone and limited internet access. Communication with friends and family was not discouraged per-se. I would often go and see friends on Friday nights and felt as though I was doing something wrong. A lot of questions would be asked and no one seemed too happy about it.
11a: I actually know a few people who stopped living ordinary lives after our DTS. They became career missionaries. None of them seem very happy, and they are constantly putting themselves down. Not only that but their peers change every three months so they have these intensive, weird relationships with others. Most of us ended up being pretty fucked up for a year or so. Trying really hard to try and live life after our minds had been washed. It was pretty hard to reconcile what I had been taught with real life. I ended up having a breakdown about 9 months later, dropping out of tertiary education and living inside my room all day every day for 3 months. I started going to a new church and met some really supportive, healthy people who dragged me out of that headspace lovingly and patiently. I still dearly love these people and see then when I can. I consider them real friends, even though we no longer share a faith. One of my friends had almost been forced into a marriage by another YWAM base and may have been had not his parents become involved. It was a huge learning cerb. Some of it is still embarrassing, lot of it I can’t really talk about. But eventually you get on with it. You just don’t think that at the start,
Thank you for reading this really long post.
I’m going to end by saying not all of it was bad. This thing:
This thing was awesome. We called it the Free Box and each school would leave things in it that they couldn’t take home, or didn’t want anymore and each new school would raid the shit out of it when they first arrived. Once we had a Letter “P” costume party on base and we mostly found those costumes here. My bunk mate found a green sleeping bag and went as a pickle and I found a brown one….