Hilary Faye: Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus, he loves you. Mary: You don't know the first thing about love. Hilary Faye: [throws a Bible at Mary] I am FILLED with Christ's love! You are just jealous of my success in the Lord. Mary: [holds up the Bible] This is not a weapon! You idiot.
Remember that movie "Saved," with Mandy Moore and Jena Malone, from a few years ago? Mandy plays Hilary Faye (and is so deliciously good at it), the ringleader of the Christian Jewels, girls who lead the way Mean Girls-style, expect it's all in the name of JC. Jena plays the unsaved Mary, Hilary's latest project. The movie is supposed to be a PARODY of extreme religionism and the holier-than-thou, you-poor-heathen-sinner-you mentality.
When I saw this movie, it was very familiar. In fact, it was just a perfect portrayal of that time in college that I accidentally joined a cult.
The Mandy Moore of my college cult experience was petite, half Asian and strikingly pretty, and a bit more subtle in her communication of others' sins and the general "awesomeness of the Lord's love!" She (I'll call her Hilary) talked in a lilting singsong voice, and while she never actually threw Bibles at anyone, she did caress hers lovingly almost ALL the time.
But it was that innocent demeanor that made it difficult to discern (at least for naive, college freshman me) that everything she said boiled down to this: I am the perfect Christian girl, and I'm here to save you. In retrospect, it was all the meanness Mandy Moore so perfectly portrayed, but sugarcoated.
I'll tell you one thing: I had never PLANNED to join a cult.
Let me back up by explaining why becoming engulfed in a cult for over two years even happened. My family is Hindu, but as a born-and-raised-in-America girl, I obviously saw and knew about the practices of many religions around me. I wasn't about to accept ANY religion without questioning it, and although I went to temple every now and then, I still didn't know what exactly I believed. And I really wanted to.
So yeah, as a teenager, way before I'd even enrolled in college, I was on a quest to figure out spiritual truth, confused, and in a sense, lost. I don't mean in the haven't-found-Jesus-way lost (although fundamental Christians might disagree). No, I mean I wanted to be certain about my religious beliefs, not in some uncertain limbo where I just celebrated every holiday because it was a holiday. I really wanted to get the significance of it!
God Doesn't Like Straight-A Students
Growing up in the south, the lure of Christianity as the answer to my religious questions was inevitable. When I was a college freshman and spiritually curious as ever, I met the group of little zealots of which 'Hilary,’ a sophomore, was the queen bee. She immediately took an interest in me. And as all of my close friends from high school had gone on to different colleges, it was pure bad luck that this was the first big group of peers I called friends.
In real life, groups akin to the Hollywood-concocted Christian Jewels are hardly so black and white in their single-minded intentions. No, they're so much more sophisticated and calculating. Hilary was actually my friend for awhile, as were other members of the group, and it would be about six months of casual get-togethers and outings where religion was seldom discussed before the weirdness began.
I was a straight-A student in high school, and I took my studies pretty seriously, determined to keep a perfect GPA. So when my evening schedule sophomore year started filling up with more meetings, Bible discussions, dinners, and even worship dance team practices (it's not ALWAYS a red flag if there's a dance team, but it might be if people start crying because they're so overcome with "love for the Lord"), I couldn't give as much attention to my heavy courseload.
It's a given that in college, you complain about your courseload. So one evening when Hilary and I were walking back to our apartments and I was worrying out loud about my homework, Hilary had this to say (with a smile) as we went our respective ways:
"Pam, just remember one thing: don't let your homework become your Egypt!"
I still don't really understand the religious allegory, that apparently the promised land had become an "idol" to Moses that prevented him from having a perfect relationship with God. (Cults use "idol" a LOT. It's almost like how everyone else uses the word "like.")
So, to be an exemplar Christian, I couldn't worry about my grades. They didn't matter, I was told. The Lord would take care of my grades!
I didn't stop studying that day (or ever) but it was the beginning of an existential crisis that would haunt me for years. I remember trying to study for finals my sophomore year and not being able to focus on my tasks down here on earth. I'd spent much of my life wanting a feeling of purpose, but I was still a college student... where did He want me? If everything that wasn't singlemindedly done to Him was "idolatry" and every single success was due to blessings and not my own hard work, then what was the point of anything?
"Your purpose is to spread the joy of salvation to others while on this earth," Hilary and others said.
So my whole life was about proving that the creator of the universe created me, and that I was joyful? I tried to make sense of that. The cult's lexicon had started infiltrating my brain, and I tried to find the meaning in EVERYTHING.
The Pastor's "Little Asian Superstar"
Over the rest of my sophomore and part of my junior year, I would slowly realize that Hilary and her cohorts weren't really my friends. Every time I couldn't make it to an event, I'd get the cult version of snide remarks, like, "So, how's your quiet time going?" (Another favorite, "quiet time" represented your personal prayers, which apparently weren't so personal.)
I started having a LOT of mixed emotions. I had become involved in the group due to a genuine interest in Christianity. They provided direction in that arena that I so wanted, and were my (crappy) friends.
During a spring retreat, one of the last outings I participated in, we were all made to sign a one-year promise to NOT get romantically involved with anyone.
I could see how dating could be a distraction. Heck, looking back from the graveyard of my less-than-stellar relationships, I am so relieved that I DIDN'T date anyone sooner than I did. Still, at 19, the future train wrecks were still in the future, and having never had a boyfriend but plenty of intense crushes, I didn't like the idea of WILLINGLY committing to being single.
This sucks, I thought.
Meanwhile, the pastor kept chatting about what a holy thing we were doing. It wouldn't be easy, he said. Just that week alone, he said, he'd fielded three requests from guys who wanted to "court" Hilary. ("Courting" in this group meant dating with a purpose of possible marriage rather than for fun; not a bad concept, but in reality the success rate astonishingly resembled that of the heathen practice of "dating".) Hilary blushed and attempted to look humble.
"My little Asian superstar!" he said fondly.
Seeing the pastor (and all the males in the room) faun at Hilary's feet suddenly made me wanna do one thing: run as far away as possible. All the younger girls around me (the retreat included high school kids too) wanted to BE Hilary. They wanted to have righteous guys clamoring for their hand. Hey, who doesn't? But I felt disgusted. The righteous guys seemed to represent a reward for holiness...what kind of fucked up Disney fairy tale was I in?
For days when I still sort of believe, these are on my nightstand: two prayer medallions and one bell.
"Tell me all your secrets"
I slowly distanced myself from the group over the next six months. In the winter of my junior year, Hilary asked me to become a member of her "cell group." (An accountability group of 12 led by a "spiritually mature" person, patterned after Jesus and his 12 disciples.) She was to be my Jesus, and I would be her disciple.
"I don't know if I feel comfortable with that," I said on the phone. Hilary assured me that it would be a great opportunity for "growth in the Lord." But did I want to be like Hilary?
I paused, and then she added that if I were to commit, I couldn't keep any secrets from her, and I'd even have to reveal the names of any guys for whom I had romantic feelings, so she could pray about it.
"I'm gonna have to say no," I said. I don't remember what I said next, but I hung up the phone, and I never did go to any other group events.
When it came down to it, Hilary's holy mask was just a guise for a power trip she didn't get anywhere else. When later that year, all the leaders of the cell groups would be honored with an awards ceremony for their role in saving souls (I'm not kidding...there were trophies), I couldn't help but wonder how the "disciples" all felt.
How did they feel when, as I also heard, there would be an award given to the person with the "best prayer life"? Would they see that, within this group, the spiritual life, which is supposed to be an internal battle, had become another meritocracy judged by flawed humans? Or, would they simply focus even less on their grades and more on group prayer sessions, where their holiness (and award candidacy) could be observed?
To me, religion is a deeply personal, spiritual experience. And there was no longer anything holy about this group of college students (and pastors) coming together to bask in their own righteousness, blindly labeling anything different as "lost", or using their religious experiences to attain a sense of superiority.
Ten Years Later
The most harmful effect of any cult is its subtle infiltration of your consciousness and your way of interacting. Most detrimental to me was how deeply the experience made me question my own importance.
If something good happened to me, I needed to attribute it to God. If something bad happened, it was either due to "Satan" or human sinfulness. Somewhere within that equation, I had stopped factoring in at all. Instead of feeling a holy oneness, for years I just wondered why, if I had no choice, was I even here?
I probably should have seen the red flags sooner, but I was a blank slate. I was an outsider with a lifelong curiosity about God, needing to learn about a centuries-old religion from those who practiced it.
Today, I still haven't reconciled all my existential worries that were churned up years ago. I still believe in God. I even considered becoming Catholic a year ago, but shirked at the commitment and absolute faith required even to attend the classes. Does devotion always have to lead to extremes? The certainty and depth of my faith now are day to day.
I remember how great it felt to speak my mind to Hilary and end my association with the group, to start trusting my intuition and valuing MY opinions again. Doubts aren't the best thing to have, but they are my own and ones I let linger, and until I really do figure it all out for myself, that's good enough for me.