Stories of Doubt is a Doubters Anonymous series featuring the reflections of members of the community. Stories are shared in a spirit of understanding and healing, and reflect the personal beliefs and experiences of the person sharing, not necessarily the group as a whole. We are always accepting new stories and would love to hear yours at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cult. I hated the word. The way the harsh sound of the initial “C” collided with the following letters sounded like a curse. I hated the way it rolled off my mother’s tongue, like poison, like fingernails on a blackboard, like a disease my immune system fought so hard to reject. Despite my mother’s constant accusations, I consistently denied them. I couldn’t be in a cult – no one was making me drink poison like you see on the news. I couldn’t be in a cult.
Believer: Someone who accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior and will spend eternity with Him in Heaven.
Unbeliever: Someone who does not know Jesus Christ, or knows him but does not receive him as a Savior, and will therefore spend eternity in Hell unless they accept Jesus prior to their death.
I lived inside these categories.
It started with free Chick-fil-A and live music, which seemed simple enough. Who wouldn’t say yes? I gathered my new friends and headed over to the terrace for the simple “hang out” and mini-church service hosted by the Christian group on campus celebrating the first week of school.
“Hi! My name is Taylor!” A bouncy brunette approached me and threw out her hand in an exuberant greeting.
“Hey, I’m Lauren,” I replied in my quiet and saccharine sweet tone reserved for those I didn’t know well. I needed to make a decent impression – unhealthy as it was, I thrived on people feeling I was the, “nicest person ever,” something I heard often. Taylor and I talked, small talk mostly, the same questions I had been asking and answering for most of orientation week – What is your major? Where are you from? Why did you come to this school?, etc. Taylor introduced herself as a junior and I was drawn to her superiority and the way she took me in so kindly.
The service started and I found a place sitting with friends. It was a beautiful and breezy evening and the words of the music spoke of love and of home. I closed my eyes and the lyrics and rhythms flooded into me, filling my soul with peace. After an emotionally charged sermon, they asked who wanted to accept Jesus, accept this new lifestyle of joy and belonging they had presented that night. I already had a relationship with Jesus, tumultuous as it was, but I was a ball of emotions and peace looked better than the anxiety I had been living with, so I said yes. I wrote my name on the heart shaped paper they handed out and I placed it on a board at the altar. I said yes.
Practically before that first night had even ended I received a follow up call, visits at my dorm. There were people, leaders, all like Taylor, older, and alluring in their wisdom and confidence, calling and asking to hang out, to get coffee. I belonged. They liked me. And I adored them.
They were chosen by God. They were self-proclaimed sinners just enough for the normal person to relate, but they were also forgiven, an elusive concept only people who believed what they did could attain.
A few months later, I was prostrate on the red velvet carpet of the chapel, pouring out my life to God. Bent at the elbows, my arms reached up to the sky and I sang in a guttural voice, tears of unspeakable emotions lacing every lyric, “Santo, santo, santo.” Holy, holy, holy. In the weeks that followed, I watched them, these group leaders, studying them like I was preparing for the most important exam of my life. I did what they did, I thought what they thought. They told me they saw potential. I knew if I faltered in just one step, I would turn from a peer, into a project that needed redemption and so I stayed on, carefully reframing my mind to fit the paradigm.
“Well, THEY certainly need the sexuality seminar,” a believer said in disgust one October Saturday evening. She glanced over to two women sitting together, chatting casually, but obviously involved in an intimate relationship with each other.
“Are they going?” I asked, not sure what else to say.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “We will pray for them.”
I was torn. I experienced a surge of excitement at the realization that I had finally become the “us,” made evident by my fellow believer pointing out the “them.” But I hated myself for it. In the back of my mind and the bottom of my heart – in places that were still mine – I had always found confusion about the cruel scrutiny aimed at those who found themselves attracted to the same sex. But by now I had given up so much of me to become them, that I wasn’t even sure how to turn back. It seemed the only way forward was through.
The group was like a factory, really, cranking out Christians like chocolate bunnies at Easter. Everything had a process. It was all recorded in a spreadsheet to document progress and efficiency. Lunch meeting, follow up, coffee meeting, follow up, religious talk, follow up, emotional candlelight service, follow up, prayer, accepting Jesus. Give or take a “follow up” here and there. And the beauty and the curse of it was that the subject never saw it coming – they merely thought you wanted to chat over lunch, never thinking that in a few weeks they would join you on the “mission field” going through the same process with somebody else. No sooner had I become the chocolate bunny, than I was also the machine.
I met with several prospects every day. Some individuals were in various stages of the evangelical conversion process, others needed to talk. I had made myself more than available, thrusting myself into every negative situation in any person’s life hoping that I would have the chance to validate myself as a good Christian mentor. From sun up till midnight, I ran, ran, ran. How many people could I see in one day? Passionate, I could not be stopped – not to sleep, not to eat, not for family, not for friends. My mission was to bring people to Christ. After all, it was truly a matter of life and death. If I didn’t reach them, they would go to Hell for not believing in Jesus. I had already lost my Jewish uncle to Hell, and if my parents died any time soon, I would lose them too – they didn’t say all the right things about Jesus, they weren’t in the right stage of Christianity, they thought I was in a cult for spreading the Word of the Lord. Unless I wanted to spend the rest of life and eternity alone, I couldn’t afford to lose anyone else to damnation.
Saving people from the eternal fire must have been a pretty good bonding mechanism because within weeks of first meeting the group, I became the best of friends with my fellow group members. I left behind my old friends and traded them for new – for people who truly understood my new passion and lifestyle, people who I didn’t have to worry about going to Heaven or not. These people, after all, were sure to get in.
For the rest of the semester, every morning the believers sat in their usual prayer circle. In between the, “Lord, please”s and the “thank you Jesus”s, names of everyone we knew were flying, alongside their most recent mistake. I couldn’t help but feel as though I was on an episode of Gossip Girl.
“Lord, please help Taylor. I know she told me she is going through a really difficult time with her Dad… God, please give guidance to Sam and Ella, I heard that they are spending nights together again…”
And everyone would nod and murmur “mmhmms,” and then next week everyone at prayer circle would ask Sam whether he had been able to successfully avoid spending the night with his girlfriend this week. They were only keeping him “accountable.”
A few months later, it was March. This time it wasn’t a coffee meeting. It was in the chapel. I walked in to find Rebecca, and Samuel, the adult leader of the group. They asked me how I was doing and as I had built a deep trust in them, I poured out my heart, relating some difficult stories of a difficult few months.
“Lauren, this is really hard to say. And I know this is going to be hard to hear,” Samuel started in slow, but I could hear the unsettling tone in his voice. “It really sounds like you have a lot going on right now.”
I nodded, expectantly. I was nervous about how big of a deal this seemed to be, but relieved that they noticed how much I was carrying and how much support I needed.
“We have prayed about this for a long time,” Samuel continued and Rebecca nodded in agreement. “We feel it is God’s will that you step down from the leadership team.”
The rest of Lauren’s story will be published here on June 28.