Did you or someone you know grow up in an ultra-strict religious community? You may have felt weighed down, abused, or even afraid for your safety. Recently on Huffington Post Live, Nate Phelps told the story how he escaped from his father, Fred Phelps, who runs the hate group Westboro Baptist Church. Others also shared their stories of escaping from high-control religious organizations. Many of our own ordained ministers will relate to the struggles of these brave, determined individuals, having fled similar circumstances themselves.
Phelps began his story by recounting his father’s extreme, doctrinaire parenting methods. Early on he was bombarded with guilt, and the abuse came to a head in his teenage years. “[M]y father was convinced that I was evil,” he said, adding that his father “was constantly telling me that I was going to hell.” He went on to describe the constant physical violence he suffered at his father’s hands. By 16 he had grown weary of his father’s abuse, and on his 18th birthday left the situation, driving away in the middle of the night, but he was forced to spend three nights sleeping in a gas station washroom before finding proper shelter. Determined to start life anew, however, Phelps traveled to California and eventually to Calgary, where he now works as an LGBT advocate.
Sharing many elements of Phelps’s experience, James Schwartz told his story about growing up gay in an Amish community. Living in a small, insular group with its own strict, set-in-stone rules of conduct weighed heavily on the young man, who explained the Amish way of life: “…everything is by the book, very black-and-white. There’s no room for discussion, so if an Amish youth comes out to his parents and says, ‘I’m gay,’ then they really don’t have any choice. They’re going to have to leave.” People who become an ordained pastor in the Universal Life Church come from many different backgrounds; some may once have belonged to religious sects like the Amish, but left because it no longer served their needs.
In addition to homophobia, people leave religious groups because of patriarchy. Libby Anne shared her experience growing up in the evangelical Christian ministry Vision Forum, which advocates the home-schooling principles of the Quiverfull movement. “Quiverfull” alludes to a Biblical verse which states, “[b]lessed is the man whose quiver is full of children,” a metaphor describing children as arrows to be shot forth into the world to spread Christianity. In the Quiverfull philosophy, she notes, men rule over women, and the only acceptable roles for women are domestic pursuits like home-making and home-schooling.
The stories of people like Nate Phelps, James Schwartz, and Libby Anne should draw our attention to the harm caused by fundamentalist, high-control religious sects. While the Universal Life Church Monastery recognizes the positive contributions of all religions, it also recognizes that religion can be used to control people and enslave their minds, which is why we believe each person should be allowed to pursue their own spiritual (or non-spiritual) quest. Perhaps you have fled abuse from a highly controlling religious group. If so, we would like to hear your story. How did you escape, and what was the response from your friends, family, and faith community?