I'm not sure how to write this post. It may go through many iterations and lose these first lines. It's not often I have an experience leaves me with confused emotions that can't quite sort through right away. But that is me, now. I got (figuratively) socked in the solar plexus last weekend, and I'm still sucking air.
The weekend itself was very good. My high school class met for our 40-year reunion. It was a bit of a shock to my system to stroll by the homecoming game and realize that my own children are all far too old to have been playing in that game. But, chagrin at the passage of time aside, it was very good to connect with the people who share memories with me that no one else holds. "Roz at 15" is nothing I particularly want to put up on display, but it is part of me, and the connection with my cohort, and particularly some old friends, was a good thing.
The dismay comes from encountering a friend's experience of those 40 years and realizing the brush I myself had with calamity.
Chris wasn't a particularly close friend; I didn't travel in the sphere of cheerleaders and Homecoming Court candidates. But she was bubbly, likable, and kind. We might chat if we had a class together, but that was about it. In the fall of our senior year, she and a number of other girls from my high school began to get involved in a religious group whose focus was keeping kids off drugs and getting to know Jesus. Though reared a Catholic, I hadn't paid much attention to my faith since I was confirmed and was of the opinion that the evidence for the truth of Christianity was pretty thin. But when one of the girls, someone who wouldn't normally go out of her way to talk to me, invited me to go to one of the meetings, I agreed.
I found an extremely warm and dynamic group of the most non-loser type of teens I'd ever met. They were enthusiastic, prone to shaking hands with vigor, and they talked about Jesus as if he was personally the most exciting thing that had ever happened to them. To say I was intrigued is an understatement.
We sat cross-legged on the linoleum tile floor of a small church of a denomination I'd never heard of. At the front of the room were four guys who looked to be in their 20s, scruffy enough to be credible to teens in 1969. One of them was a good guitarist—people sang songs I have no memory of now. You'd think I could remember what actually went on at the meetings, but I don't. There was talk about scripture and what it meant (occasionally including a super-spiritualized interpretation of a single verse out of context), talk about how God really will speak to us today, etc. I liked it a lot. The part of me who was seeking for God, love, connection and meaning responded. I began to lean into believing.
I still struggled with a rational basis for belief. I asked questions about specific scriptures—I remember that people took the time to answer me, but I don't remember feeling completely satisfied. Do I really remember the process in my faith and my emotions? No I don't. I can only guess from what I remember of my actions.
There was one meeting when we came to what normally was the end of the activities. A lot of people got up and left, but some of us stuck around, probably because the guys in front were still sitting on the table. One of them said that, since they hadn't actually announced the end of the meeting, the Lord must have meant those other people to leave and us to stay because he had something big in store that was intended for those who remained. I guess we prayed for a while, then one of the leaders began to utter a message in tongues. I don't remember whether I was freaked out by that, but then he or another guy began to speak what he said was an interpretation of what had been said. He addressed individual messages to people in the room. It went on for about 20 minutes. Here and there, a girl began to cry audibly. I was struck by it, but likely my primary emotion was that I felt left out because I wasn't mentioned—I don't know.
More and more, as I hung around with friends from the group, the more dedicated ones would talk about listening to tapes of talks or getting rebaptized. They were thrilled. I was hesitant. I began to back away and eventually stopped going.
About ten years after I graduated, a series of disturbing articles appeared in my hometown newspaper. That group hadn't dissolved; in fact, it had deepened its impact on its members. Many had moved to New Mexico and broken contact with their families. The leader was elusive, members wouldn't talk to the press. There were scattered reports of suicides of people who had left or been expelled from the group. Distraught parents were quoted. On the front page were the smiling senior pictures of seven area women who were among those who had dropped from sight. One of them was Chris.
I was heartsick. I hadn't known her well, but I had been fond of her. Even so, it surprised me to realize how distressed the news made me. Apparently, (I don't recall this), I wrote Chris a letter addressed to the ski resort they'd turned into their enclave. Of course I never got a reply. I prayed for Chris consistently, if not particularly frequently, for the next 30 years. I continue to this day.
I spoke with Chris at the reunion. She left the group (which has apparently since dissolved) in 1998. She goes by another name. They all changed their names several times, coinciding with moving to new locations, and it was too much trouble to go back to her birth name. She remembers with gratitude the letter I wrote her, apologizing that she hadn't been allowed to respond. She is married, apparently happily, and says that she's experienced a huge amount of healing from her experience in what turned into a serious and destructive cult. She has an alive and vibrant faith and is active with her husband in their church.
After I returned home, I pulled out my trust toolbox and looked for more information. I found the series of newspaper articles of which I'd only seen the first one. I found information on web sites concerning indie bands with which that good guitarist had played. I found accounts written by former members. I spent a whole day in front of my computer, absorbing the enormity of the travesty that had been foisted upon men and women who were beloved children of God.
One of the accounts was written by a young man who had been ejected from the group in the mid-1970s. His reports of the rapid deterioration of spiritual sanity and psychological health during the few years he was involved make me dread learning more about what happened in the 20-odd subsequent years that Chris remained and rose to leadership. How can anyone not remain deeply scarred by the deep betrayal of self that would have been necessary? Yet -- God's mercy and power transcends all things. I realize that I don't understand. I'm concerned. I'm not in charge or even directly involved. I trust God.
Until last weekend, when I spoke with Chris and then started learning more, it was all just a vague memory. Now, it feels like present trauma, as if a sniper's bullet had picked off the person standing behind me in line at the bank. In high school, I wanted what Chris wanted -- and more. I wanted to have friends, to be included by people who were more attractive and successful than I, to experience love and acceptance, to know God, to be part of something significant. Chris became trapped -- or trapped herself. I went free, relatively speaking, to an encounter with God and a freshening of faith a mere year or two later.
It could have been me. It wasn't me. I feel a kinship with anyone who was in the World Trade Center on September 10, 2001.
I'm grateful. I'm sad. I'm confused. I'm overjoyed that God delivered Chris and allowed me to be in touch with her again. I'm glad to have another friend Ann whose experience was like mine, so I can talk about it with her. I'm profoundly grateful that my husband cares deeply and is a good listener.
I guess my next steps are to sit with this, allow God to speak to me, and do what I know will help me process it. One of them is writing about it here. Thanks for listening.
David Bentley Hart Grapples….
3 hours ago