How growing up in a cult shaped my entire life…

“In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal.”
– Wikipedia

I grew up in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), now rebranded as Grace Communion, an American fundamentalist religion which celebrates Jewish Holy Days and has a strict doctrine for everyday life. On the rare occasions that I tell people I grew up in a cult, no one believes me. They think a cult only includes those where you live on a compound unable to access the outside world. But a cult can include the sorts of brain washing and exploitation where the members are free to engage with the outside, case in point is NXIVM the famous self improvement group.

WCG was a doomsday cult and focused heavily on the “end of Days”, they taught us that when these times soon came, we, who were the “choosen” ones, would be taken away to a safe place until Jesus returned and took us to Heaven.

The God I knew as a child was angry, unkind and vengeful. He constantly challenged your faith in Him and turned people who didnt obey Him to salt or struck down the firstborn children. I was definitely scared of him and what he might do to me or my family.

In the WCG, Christmas and Easter were seen as pagan holidays and forbidden. I remember my aunt bringing my sister and I Easter eggs only to have my mum refuse them in front of us. There was no Christmas, no Santa, no presents, no lights, no stocking, no turkey. Christmas Day was just an ordinary day. At school we were often outsiders and I remember clearly how embarrassing it was to have to sit out of Nativity plays and Carol singing rehearsals at school because it was forbidden in our religion to join in with those celebrations. It was even worse when my sister was sent to a special school for children with learning difficulties because then we were each alone in our weirdness.

It’s the Christmas holidays again and this is a time that I have often found very difficult, overwhelming and alienating because of my upbringing. It is really hard for me to engage in the stress, unnecessary extravagance and the pressure to have ‘the perfect day’. For me, it is a commercial, economy driven holiday.

And what exactly is there to celebrate? Some people might say the birth of “Jesus” but he was actually born around September time. So that’s null and void. People might say “family” but can’t we celebrate our family anytime of year? Are we so bad at organising a family time that it must be an “enforced” day? And what if you don’t want to see your family? This actually creates a lot of pressure on those people in society who are forgotten, homeless, poor, elderly or have no family. It can be very lonely and isolating. It can also lead to masses of debt with that social media induced pressure to appear to be having a “perfect” Christmas. Lots of people might think that it is not normal to have grown up without Christmas but for me it is entirely normal. It is much weirder now that I am part of other people’s Christmas celebrations than it is to not celebrate at all.

The WCG was created by Herbert Armstrong, a talented ad writer who used his skills to run an international religious radio, TV and publishing empire. He funded much of his operation by persuading WCG members into giving a massive 30% tithe of their gross incomes.

Based heavily on Old Testament laws and teachings, including the Law of Moses (more often called Mosaic Law) which refers to the Torah or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Armstrong was also influenced by British Israelism which was the theory that the British people are “genetically, racially, and linguistically the direct descendants” (Brackney, William H) of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel. He used this theory to explain and predict tragic world events in relation to Biblical prophecies.

Recruits were gained on a peer-to-peer basis which is why existing members had to be be allowed into the outside world. Recruitment into the church was by invitation only so it did seem ‘special’ and ‘elite’ to be priviledged enough to be asked to join. It was very exclusive and this in itself lured people in. They would be introduced to the “Truth” which was a mighty secret that only the WCG had the answers to.

Every year, we would have to miss a week of school to attend the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot), a holy festival commemorating the 40-year journey of the Israelites in the wilderness. The church had millions of followers and at this Feast we would meet fellow WCG members from every corner of the world. Although this might sound like it would be really interesting, it wasn’t, because every single day, most of the day, of that entire week we would be sitting silently in sermons. However, I did learn the deaf alphabet whilst at one of the Feasts and remember it to this day.

We celebrated Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. This was a month long fast from leavened bread (bread with yeast). This was a difficult time for my sister and I because we could only eat crispbread for the entire month. It was hard to do especially in the late eighties when there wasn’t as much choice as there is today. In Northern Ireland we eat a lot of different breads and buns so this was a real time of restriction in our daily diet.

We also had general diet restrictions, we were forbidden to eat unclean meats such as any pig flesh and shellfish and fat had to be cut from all meats, as was instructed in the Bible. There are long long passages about what you should and shouldn’t eat but here is a part of one:
“And every beast that parteth the hoof, and cleaveth the cleft into two claws, and cheweth the cud among the beasts, that ye shall eat. Nevertheless these ye shall not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the cloven hoof; as the camel, and the hare, and the coney: for they chew the cud, but divide not the hoof; therefore they are unclean unto you.”
Deuteronomy 14

There were many other rituals in the WCG. One was that the adults knelt to wash each others feet. This was a symbol of humility and love. Now I wash the feet of my parents in remembrance of this custom and to show my honour and respect to them.

As a young child I was intensely bored during the two+ hour seventh-day Saturday Sabbath sermons, toys and talking were forbidden. I hated going to church and as I got older I rebelled and often times barricaded myself in my bedroom. But this experience was a stepping stone for me, I questioned everything, I doubted all religions and eventually saw them all as cults (or methods of control), I started to see the world in different lights and that has taken me through a real roller coaster of knowledge and experiences that I might not have had otherwise. Books were my freedom, expression and safe place — I read every day and more often than not stayed up late, under the covers with a light.

But life in the WCG was good in so many ways. We were part of a extremely friendly family with charismatic leaders and an involved community with many social events, music nights, dinners and gatherings. That sense of a supportive community is something I hold in high regard in my life even now. So many Protestant churches I’ve been to since then just didn’t cut it in this regard, with gossipy jealous women and quiet dull men, these churches were more of a social event to discuss what a neighbour was up to than anything with real meaning. At WCG we were united in our ideas and beliefs.

In the WCG, the brainwashing was understated and sapient and the brokeness of the entire religion was under a veneer of union. There was none of the stereotypical cultish behaviour such as speaking in tonugues, hippy chants, weird sexual or occult rites.

It was never my choice to be a part of a cult. It was my parents’ choice: I was a baby when I entered the WCG and around 14 when the church fractured and disintegrated and my parents decided to leave. This was a time of confusion and my parents found it really difficult to find a new place to worship because they’d become so alienated and lost from the traditional religions they grew up in.

Our extended family, on both my parents sides, had disowned us and this negatively impacted my life much more than belonging to WCG ever did. To be cut off, ignored, ridiculed and disregarded by your aunts, uncles and cousins and to be without the support of your family is much more damaging than having a different religion. It shows you how unloving and distainful your blood relations can be if you don’t conform. My parents still struggle with their families and community even now 23 years after they’ve left WCG. As a result I have choosen to be, for the most part, totally divorced from my extended family.

I am so grateful to have grown up in a non-mainstream religion. My experience made me independent, strong willed, different, with a determination to question “norms” and a strong sense of freedom from what is expected of me. I am very sensitive to manipulation, narcissistic behaviours and of seeing the many many cultish aspects present in contemporary life.

These are some of the life lessons I learned:
– No culture, religion or customs are sacred. These are all just ideas or stories that have been presented and absorbed by individual societies over time. You could just as easily have been brought up to believe in another story, in another country or with another religion. Learn to trust in your own sense of what feels right or wrong for you. Don’t just blindly obey. Question everything.

– Try not to let anyone dictate how you “should” feel or act or do. Everyone has their own sense of what is acceptable. And try to understand other people’s actions too. Everyone has their own history, experiences and reasons for acting in certain ways.

– Be wary of people who seem to have superior knowledge. And beware of bullshitters, arrogant and egoistical people. Sharpen your senses to cultish behaviours and elitist groups. It’s easy to get taken in if you meet the “right” person.

– Celebrations should be celebrated in a positive way. It doesn’t mean there is any right or wrong way to celebrate. If you prefer a solo or alternative birthday or Christmas then that is okay. If you want to go all out then do (but maybe don’t cripple yourself with debt just for the sake of one day!). You don’t have to succumb to the pressure of your culture or another persons ideal. And you certainly don’t have to be guilted into buying, giving or receiving presents if you’re just not into it or can’t afford it.

Interested in learning more about the Worldwide Church of God?
Netflix docu-series ‘Haunted’

‘The Kingdom of the Cults-Worldwide Church of God’

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