On The Occasion of the 30th Anniversary of Jonestown (Part 3 of 3)
My final installment of the story of how I came to become a member of a cult, my most unortunate exit, and warning that I hope will be heard.
My story of the years of living as a member of Calvary Temple is certainly sad. I had it hard. The leadership was hard on me. They hectored me, they brow beat me, and they repressed me.
I was always a problem for them. Somehow, in spite of my sharp memory for scripture, I was never quite able to live up to all they wanted.
Since Calvary taught that all forms of dating were evil, I never had a girlfriend. Honestly there are better forms of courtship than dating; with that I must agree. Still, courtship was a difficult and awkward process for some of us. Calvary’s vague teachings about courtship were no help. In fact, they simply ridiculed us that so few of us every paired off and got married.
Worse, I was a man with manly desires, and I was always somehow dealing with the problem they call lust. Those matters were personally humiliating to me.
Countless sessions with my deacon to try and deal with these things seemed to go almost nowhere until, somehow, one day, I seemed to get past it.
For a while.
During those countless hours with my deacon I also figured out another tactic used by the church to break you into submission. Eventually, all of us betray what really matters to us. “Where your heart is” Jesus said “there you treasure will be also”. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”. Jesus was nothing if not a sagacious individual.
I know a thing or two about how the Rich Young Ruler in the Gospels must have felt, when Jesus told him to sell all he had, give it to the poor, take up his cross and follow him.
For me, I was a musician. I was a guitar player and a songwriter. All I ever wanted to do all my life.
Upon joining the church, I was informed that playing guitar was an idol for me which I would have to surrender, and yield to Jesus, in order that Jesus may sanctify this gift and return it to me to be used, not my way, but His way and for his glory.
None of use listened to secular music. It was thought of as sinful. This meant all forms of secular music, but since the most popular form was rock that was a big taboo. Instead, we listened to Christian Music (and even that was a little suspect).
After fighting a battle for a few years, having put my guitar down, sold it and trying to live life without music, I eventually began once more to play, this time choosing the path of a Christian Songwriter.
I do not know whatever happened to all that music I wrote. I simply threw it all away. It’s gone.
It was upon finding out how meaningful music was to me that the church used that to hold over my head. I was forbidden from participating in their worship band for many years, and even when the day came I was invited, I was always aware of somebody looking over my shoulder to proctor my behavior on stage.
Eventually they found a small excuse to kick me out (somehow they accused me of drawing attention to myself on stage). Somehow, they alleged, playing guitar became an idol to me again and I had to be disciplined.
I have always wondered what would have happened if I never joined the Church. Perhaps music would have been a bigger part of my life.
Though relaying my story brings a sense of sorrow over having lost ten years of my life, I become sadder still when I put things into perspective. Many in Calvary suffered emotional abuse far worse than I did. They were hard on me to be sure. Many observed it, feeling sorry for me that the Calvary leadership could be so mean-spirited. It hurt. But they were far worse to others.
Some teenagers were told to leave the care of their parents because their parents spoke against the leadership of the church. Some wives were told to divorce their husbands for being unbelievers. Some would be punished (for various and sundry reasons) by being told to leave the church for 30 days and fellowship nowhere else during that time. Stern punishment, since life outside of Calvary’s walls was said to be a wasteland and many of us (including myself) severed ties almost completely except for occasional contact with immediate family. This was the Calvary way. Thus, being Exiled like that was a frightening experience to many.
Anyone who has ever left that church is shunned by the members who remain. There are no exceptions to that rule. Speaking against the leadership of Calvary will get you called to the carpet, and perhaps even excommunicated. Frequently, Star Scott would “Mark” those who left the church . . . even if in leaving, they were simply following a career path, moving to another city or leaving on the best possible terms they could. No excuse was acceptable. Twisting the words of John in his first epistle, “they went out from among us because they were not of us”. Nobody who left Calvary Temple was allowed to speak to its members again. They were “persona non grata”. They were “anathema”.
While it does have to be said that Calvary summarily dismissed people who indeed were having issues with problems such as lust or something clearly mandated against in scripture, even when such people wished to truly atone for their wrongs were treated as outsiders until they contacted their former deacon with an apology. If they saw fit to allow them to return, Scott would announce from the pulpit it was safe to resume being on speaking terms with that individual.
That was how my life in Calvary ended.
It ended not because I had the courage to leave when I knew I was unhappy and that they were guilty of abuse. I only left because I became such a burden to them that they kicked me out.
My life in Calvary ended because I disclosed that I had carried on a 6-month long affair with a married woman, another member of Calvary. My interest in the disclosure was cry for help, and at first they seemed to offer it. But they felt I was not sufficiently repentant. Indeed, an affair is a terrible thing. It is painfully addictive, even when your conscience chides you to cut it off . . . it is painfully difficult.
I live to this day knowing that a woman with a troubled marriage was made to live an even worse life because I blundered into an affair with her.
I severed all contact with her. I can only pray that she and her husband reconciled and somehow got past what I’ve done. What hurts me however was the double-standard shown me by Calvary. They had pastors on staff that fell into longer affairs than I had done. They were given endeavors to receive forgiveness, counseling and eventually after being removed from staff, had their positions restored.
I was afforded no such endeavor. After my ouster, I did eventually come to my senses and break ties with that woman. It was late summer in 1998. I had been told by the Church “If you think you have repented of your sin, you may then contact us”.
I did that. I expressed that my sin was finally behind me, that the church discipline they met out was just, in fact biblical. I wanted to find out what I needed to do in order to discuss returning to the fellowship.
My deacon was the man I called. To this day, his words ring in my ears. With that whining quality a voice gets when sarcasm is uttered, he retorted “Why don’t we call you?”
The culling of the fold that I so frequently saw over the years, as Star Scott marked those he deemed unworthy, had happened to me.
Calvary was the only world I knew for 10 years. Now it was gone. They had treated me shamefully while I was there and when I myself became shameful, they were through with me. They dumped me overboard to tread water among the flotsam and jetsam that remained of my life.
For seven years after that experience, I refused to read a Bible.
However, I met a beautiful girl from Northern Virginia and we were married after a two-year long courtship.
After the events of September 11th, we decided to find a house we could actually afford, somewhere far away.
We moved to a little town called Culpeper. I met many a young Christian, who unlike Christians I had met in the past, seemed happy, well balanced and at peace.
I began attending services again at a Church sometime in 2004, but it was a brief courtship.
We would eventually leave for another town and another better house. We made stabs at attending church together but did not stick with it.
I met Christians who gave me hope that Church could be a positive experience, where Christians could love each other and be exemplars in their community.
Yet somehow, I find I have changed. My faith is gone. I used to be able to quote scripture like a walking talking Bible. That ability is gone. I have met people I consider friends, who are Christians. But I find I am no longer able to take the name “Christian” on my lips.
My faith is gone. I do not begrudge anybody their beliefs, but find my belief is weak at best. Yet I am not an atheist. If anything, I’m a terribly confused former Christian who wonders why the life of faith must be such a terrible burden.
I wonder if my faith has gone simply cold or if that light is gone forever. Calvary left its mark on many. Many have stories far sadder, and wear scars far deeper, than mine.
Yet the experience left me with a wish to appeal not to God, but reason for my guide. I have with precious few exceptions never seen from a Christian the love Jesus had for people. I have only seen in a rare glimpse the life of a Church where the good things they speak of take place. Calvary Temple was “Paradise” for some. It was not for me, and if they are the clearest, best example of life in the Church, I will have no part of it. Never.
As the years go by I meet many a former member of Calvary. Many shameful things took place after the years of my exit. Many more abuses at the hands of the leadership. Much of the leadership of the Church, aware of Scott’s unrepentant stance in a known transgression, left his staff for good. Still others left, relaying horror stories like my own. Some left behind family members. Wives. Husbands. Children. Siblings. Jesus said he would split families in two. He needn’t have bothered. Calvary would have done so for Him. Calvary continues to sever families and ruin people’s lives. It continues to shipwreck the faith of many, reducing them to human train wrecks.
Surprisingly, most I have met continue to make a profession of faith in Jesus and have found new Church homes. On some occasions however, I have heard stories form Calvary survivors who are wantonly bitter toward the faith and all the wounds they were dealt because of it.
I find myself somewhere in the middle. I no longer attend church regularly, but on some occasions. I have become acquainted with a Pastor in Culpeper who knows Church in America is in desperate need of reform and wishes to reach out to disenfranchised and disillusioned people of faith. He gives me a great deal of hope.
I am now 41. I have a 9 month old son. I never want him to live a life of faith, if living that life puts him through the things I experienced. I want him to grow wise. Have friends. Take a wife. Have a career. Play guitar like his Dad. And never, never trust another man to dictate his every thought and move. In short, I will do my best to insure that my son will never join a cult.
I Am afraid of many things. One of my fears is that this 30th Anniversary of Jonestown will come and go and still seem like something that happened only on television. That people will find the strange behavior of a cult something so bizarre that it deserves no attention.
I have lived with another fear now, one I have lived with for over 20 years. That one day, I will open up a newspaper, turn on the TV or find a webpage with the headline that every remaining member of Calvary Temple, in some far away location, for reasons known only to them, followed their blind leader to their own deaths. It must seem improbable since Calvary would seem to have made no such overtures in that direction. Yet, since Jonestown, there have been several cases around the world of bizarre cults whose ultimate end was the suicide of its members. With as much precedence as there is for a case of suicide, with Star Scotts behavior being nearly identical to the behavior of other past cult leaders, that likelihood seems in my opinion to be very real.
If someone will obey Star Scott in cutting off your family members and the outside world, if someone will watch him live a life of un-confessed sin and not speak out against it, if someone will allow him to take their money like Hophni and Phineas stole the offerings of the Children of Israel, what is to say that someone would not allow Scott to remove his congregations from their homes, move far away, live in a commune or eventually obey a suicide order?
“But” that person will say, “Calvary Temple has existed for almost 40 years and none of these activities you speak of have taken place”. Yet the Peoples Temple Christian Church was founded in 1956, with these kinds of prolonged abuses taking place under the nadir of their existence, the death of 913 of its members, took place in 1978. These things did not happen in one day, but in a decade’s long litany of abuse, repression, isolation and fear.
Like Jim Jones before him, Star Scott with each passing year grows more insular, paranoid and sequestered from the outside world. And dumb sheep after dumb sheep sits under his doctrine, year after year, never questioning the direction of their life or this church. Like dumb sheep, somebody is telling them “Lo, Here is Christ”. Jesus has urged them “Go not with him”, but the dumb sheep refuse to listen. In fact, whatever Star Scott tells them, they believe implicitly. After all, to question the leadership is to question God. The sheep will do no such thing.
My message to such a person’s is simple. Do not be dumb sheep. Study the scriptures. Consider history. Listen to reason before it is too late.