I'm probably the least likely candidate to join a religious cult.
I'm headstrong, always going against the grain, anti-authoritarian, observant of my environment, and pride myself on being an independent thinker. I'm also agnostic.
So how did a strong, independent young woman like myself get sucked into a fundamentalist youth cult? Well, to explain that means I have to take you back to autumn of 2016, when I arrived to Texas A&M as a transfer student.
During those first couple weeks as I navigated around campus, fresh-eyed and friendless, I was approached on occasion by strangers who saw the intense desire for human connection in my eyes and sparked conversation. One of these strangers was a neighbor across the street from me, who I met one sunny afternoon while walking back home from the same bus stop. We seemed to click instantly. I sensed a warmth from her and accepted her invitation to a friend's ring dunk with gratefulness. It all seemed sudden, but not bizarre. At least not at first. The bizarreness didn't even set in when she introduced me to the rest of her friends -- all members of the same church -- at a ring dunk (a tradition that looked to me to be a very masochistic ritual). I assumed I had become inducted into a large, multicultural group of close-knit pals. I had gone from having just a few acquaintances from class and no weekend plans to becoming part of a family that accepted me with open arms and whose get-togethers filled up my social calendar.
At first, I was thankful to be lucky enough to find a welcoming group of friends who wanted to include me in all their plans. Every transfer student knows the feeling of being lost and alone without a social group to call "home." I didn’t question how conveniently this group had fell into my lap. But slowly, things started to come apart at the seams. My new friends wanted to meet for bible study and church gatherings multiple times a week. Eventually it dawned on me that they were not a casual friend group and in fact part of church (which they called their "Kingdom"). Desperate for friends, I shrugged my shoulders and went along with the program despite knowing deep down I was agnostic and not likely to change. However, these religious gatherings eventually moved beyond suggestions and became mandatory events I had to make room in my calendar for--unless I wanted to incur the wrath of their passive aggressive judgement. I felt pressured not only to attend these meetings, but to also "show" that my beliefs were changing and that I was indeed becoming evangelized through their tactics. I didn't mind these gatherings at first --I grew up in a Christian household--but over time their literalist interpretations of the Bible made me incredibly uncomfortable. Between being told to be submissive to men and warned that everyone who was not baptized the proper way was destined to hell, I knew my beliefs did not align at all with theirs. If I decided to miss a Bible study meeting to study for my classes, I was told that I was neglecting God and the Kingdom. I was badgered into giving up all my sins in all the intimate, humiliating details as I watched them get written down in a notepad. At night I was haunted with images of a fiery inferno that me or my loved ones would surely burn in. The last straw was when they attempted to pressure me into getting baptized in an outdoor pool in the freezing cold of December, without my family to even witness.
As the disillusionment set in, I wanted to know if others had been through the same tormenting experience. I googled the church name and found that their campus organization is part of a larger organization that's structured essentially like a pyramid scheme. I perused forums and Facebook recovery groups and found that my ordeal was nearly identical to many others. One after another, there were stories of emotional and at times physical abuse from unsuspecting ex-members who had joined this cult believing it was their ticket to salvation. Many lonely, vulnerable people looking for a social network to belong to had been ensnared in their manipulative web through a very effective tactic called "love bombing." In this process they ingratiate you through praise, acceptance, and sycophantic levels of friendly gestures, but it's all temporary and deceptive. Past the initial phase, the acceptance and friendly gestures get replaced with cold disinterest and mounting pressure to conform. It was a painful realization that all the friendships I thought I made were only surface-level, and I had come to learn that the warm, gracious girl who first brought me into this group was actually functioning as my "discipler" --a term in the church for people who evangelize through a mentoring process.
Once I decided to break away from the cult, I was instantly cut off from every member within it. The invites to socials, random drop-bys at my house, and constant benevolent texts to check on my well-being had all abruptly stopped. Whereas before the ostracization would have shattered me, I felt a sense of freedom from my departure from the cult that invigorated me. It was disappointing to lose all the bonds I had made, but if there's something that being part of a cult had taught me, it is that nothing is worth sacrificing who you are and what you believe to gain the acceptance of others.