When Leaving Toxic Religion, Make Friends

“Remember the revivals?” my friend Dee asks me.

We are drinking iced coffee on a Sunday morning in the small town we met, the town of our fiery Pentecostal days. The last time I was at this coffee shop, I was a teenager, sipping a strawberry smoothie and listening to my youth pastor talk about how I need to Press In to God more consistently to see the release of miracles in my life.

Everything has changed since then. Today, I have come to this coffee shop to unpack the damage of those Pressing In days.

“Remember those scary camp altar calls, how everyone would convulse and shriek and thrash on the floor for hours?” I say.

Of course, she remembers.

I remember when Dee stopped coming to church. There were whispers and rumors at Youth Group about her backslidden state. She was flirting with serious sin, they said, and it all started with a hardened heart toward her leaders. We were warned, in hushed voices, to pray for her, but keep our distance.

We all knew backsliding was contagious.

When I walked away a few years later, for the same and different reasons as Dee, I wrestled through my grief and anger and questions alone. I didn’t talk to Dee—or anyone else from that time of my life—for years. I tried to bury that part of my story, until it rotted underneath the surface and stunk up everything in my life and I had no choice but to deal with it. As I slowly found my voice, as I finally worked up the guts to process my feelings for those confusing, screwed-up church years, I found a friend in Dee.

“Remember being forced to groan before God?” she asks.

I don’t remember this, specifically, but as Dee tells the story, I feel like I am there.  Kneeling in a circle at a prayer meeting, she says, the Pastor commanded the Youth Group to audibly groan before the Lord, or else they would be asked to leave.

“That was borderline cult stuff,” she says.

“It was a borderline cult,” I say, shaking my head. “It so, so was.”

This sounds so natural and true coming off my tongue now, but the process of realizing and admitting it to myself took years of painful work. We pause for a moment.

With this truth uttered between us, conversation flows to effortlessly to travel, children, God, anxiety, and therapy. There is a shared understanding between us in many things because we remember.

We are two backslidden women—to reclaim the cruel label they gave to us—sharing life with each other, laughing, remembering, and working toward wholeness and peace. We are happy.

“I never thought my life would end up this good,” Dee says.

///

My friends are made up of people all over the religious and nonreligious spectrum. I love hearing perspectives of people who grew up entirely secular, or zen Buddhist, or whatever. But there’s a special camaraderie with my friends who have come from a similar background as me. These friendships got me through the hardest years of leaving the faith.

If you are in the process of leaving a toxic religion, find others who are deconstructing as well. If you don’t know anyone in real life, find them on the Internet. There is a Facebook group for recovering members of every kind of cult imaginable. Join those groups, hear their stories. Share yours.

If you can’t meet with them on a Sunday morning for iced coffee, chat with them on Twitter instead. Find your people. You’re going to need each other.

For Those Of You Who Have Fallen Away From a Charismatic Faith

This one is for those who have fallen away from a charismatic faith.

Do you remember the days?

The days the Holy Spirit was an intimate force in your life that spoke to you. Sometimes it whispered for you to approach a stranger and bless them with a few dollars. Other times it quietly, but firmly asked you to turn off the TV and intercede for someone you knew.

The days the presence of Jesus felt so strong during worship, you could almost taste him.

The days you saw a breakthrough, or the release of spiritual bondage. The days you put demons in their place with your heaven-quaking spiritual language.

The days you believed with all your heart that with faith the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains.

Those were the days, weren’t they?

Oh, but they came with a price.

They were the days you lived in constant fear of grieving the Holy Spirit. You needed to do everything that voice said, lest you fall away from God.

They were the days you lived for those euphoric moments with Jesus, those emotional connections with the divine. You chased after them while your worldly friends were getting drunk and high. You were addicted to spiritual experiences – the tingly feelings of the Lord’s presence, and cathartic sobs at the altar.

All those spiritual breakthroughs and tingly feelings and cathartic sobs got exhausting after awhile.

You remember the price. You get worked up talking about it. You know how damaged this kind of theology left you, and you’re still working through all the shit. The rest of your life may be a process of undoing what was done during those Holy Ghost years.

Yet lately, out of nowhere, you have this kind of longing for those days. It’s probably just nostalgia popping up out of nowhere to gloss over the sickness of those years and paint them as romantic, as nostalgia always loves to do.

Or is it a little more than that? Nostalgia is at play, you’re sure, but is it something else? Your old charismatic friends would tell you it’s the Holy Spirit prodding you back into the fold.

You know you can never go back.

So what, then? Do you keep talking about the damage and denying the way you used to know God? There was a time you could explain almost all of it away as emotionalism, brainwashing, and psychological plays by those in control. You thought by now you would be able to explain all of it away and 100 percent reject it with a clear conscience. That was the plan.

But that tiny bit is still there, pulling at you, and you are beginning to wonder why.

Don’t run back into the arms of your old dysfunctional faith because of that one stubborn piece, whatever it is for you. But don’t try to dig it out, tear it apart, and dispose of it either. Just let it be. Answers will come when they come, or maybe they never will. In the meantime, just breath deep with the rest of us who have fallen away.

Those were the days. Oh, but they came with a price. Do you remember?

September 27-29: Central Coast Writers Conference Offers Memoir Writing Workshop

Memoir Writing Workshop and Book Signing, Sept. 27-29 at the Central Coast Writers Conference in San Luis Obispo.

The Cuesta College Central Coast Writers Conference is an essential annual destination for writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers. Each year writers join our community for three days of insightful dialogue, networking, and unrivaled access to our staff.

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