I was in a cult. Well, sort of. In 1995 I was in a period of transition, in myriad ways. I wasn’t going to school but I still spent the majority of my time on campus, playing the student. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I only knew I didn’t want to end up drifting. And yet, that’s exactly what I did in 1995 — I drifted. So I was ripe for picking, and two gentlemen in bow ties did exactly that — they picked me.
I guess I was low-hanging fruit, truth be told. I had just divorced myself from the only religion I had ever known, and it was not amicable. I was confused when it came to any kind of god right then as I sat there behind the circulation desk in the campus library, waiting to check out books.
“Have you met Jesus?” the one guy asked me. They were both smiling like jack-o-lanterns, wide and kind of disconcerting, but their eyes told me they spoke some kind of truth. That’s the thing about cults. Their eyes drag you in. Do the research. That’s the first thing people who have escaped from cults say about their captors.
“Have you met Jesus?” he asked me that first time, and I didn’t know what to say. Theoretically I could have said yes, I guess, although the Jesus I thought I knew wasn’t the same Jesus he was asking me about. I could tell that right away. So then my answer would have been no, but that didn’t seem entirely truthful either.
“Is he that new kid from Cambodia?” I said instead. Comedy is my defense mechanism. But they weren’t deterred from their mission. They were obviously missionaries, and their smiles didn’t slip in the least. They also did not laugh, though.
“Jesus is our Lord and Savior,” the one guy said, and the other one nodded frantically like he was on speed. In retrospect, that should have been my first clue. He slipped me a card with his name on one side and a number on the side opposite. It said Jesus is the Way above his name, which was Wayne. Wayne, the cultist, the cultivator, the cult man.
“You should totally join us on Sunday at church,” the second one chimed in with a shrill voice that could probably cut glass. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”
I was tempted to tell him that I’ve seen everything he could possibly throw at me, but I was worried his head would pop off like a defective bobble head doll if I was so bold.
“Church is church,” I told him instead, and his smile slipped for a second before returning brighter than ever.
“Just come with us on Sunday, and you’ll experience the difference,” the first guy said. “Give me your number and we’ll call you before we come pick you up.”
I gave him my number. To this day I’m still not quite sure why. I guess now I know why pretty girls sometimes give douchebags their number. Sometimes our brains just ooze out our heads, and guys like this take advantage, with their plastic smiles and their bow tied innocence. So I gave him my number, and he promised they would pick me up on that Sunday. He promised me that my mind would be blown.
And it was. I got into their car on Sunday morning and we pulled up to an elementary school. The parking lot was full of cars of all makes and models, packed to the gills like my trunk when I’m headed down South. Inside was no different. That elementary school gym was full of singing, and shouting, and proselytizing from every single corner. It was definitely like no other church service I’d ever been to, even aside from it being in an elementary school gym.
I was dragged to the front of the giant room and introduced to the cult’s leader, a charismatic man named David. David, if it was possible, was even more smiley than the two I had met in the library, a man in the mold of so many dictators who snowed so many people for so long, you know, like Bill Clinton. I was immediately put off by him, but I smiled back. Because that’s what you do when you’re in a cult. Well, sort of.
Wayne told me about baptism in the car on the way back to my house. They were already pushing for it. They said I made a good first impression, and I was proud in spite of myself. They liked me. They really really liked me! I was going to be the next big thing in that cult. Who was I to stop momentum like that. So I signed up for Bible class, even though I already knew the Bible backwards and forwards. I let them rope me into giving up my Tuesday and Thursday nights to sit in a room with others who were looking forward to baptism. It was all very shady, but I signed up, and I did it.
It all came to a head, though, three days before I was to be lowered into that watery grave. I expressed concerns for the first time, about the cult, about its leader, and about what I was about to do. I realized there was no going back from it, that I would be adopted into the cult forever, that there was no escape. I panicked. I mean, I had a full scale panic attack the size of which was huge even for my standards. Wayne said it was normal as he patted me on the back, but I saw his real emotion in the back of his eyes.
Because more people meant more money…
Because for him it was all about the numbers. The reason the parking lot was packed was because these “missionaries” went out and dragged huge numbers of people out. They lassoed them in like cowboys hogtying cattle, and they didn’t let them slip away. Because more people meant more money being funneled along to the leaders, which meant more converts who could then be missionaries too, and lead others to the cult and it’s cultish ways. What a dynamic system.
And I wanted out. Wayne was panicking, and I wanted out. I told him I wasn’t going to be baptized. I told him I didn’t want to go through with it, not in that kind of rush. He said all the right things, but he was agitated. For the first time I saw a simmering anger in him that didn’t bode well for the so-called religion or anything it stood for. I told David on that final Bible study session that I wasn’t going to do it, not right then, that I needed more time.
He washed his hands of me. When he grew tired of trying to convince me that baptism was for me, he washed his hands of me. Not then. He said all the right things, just like Wayne had, but after that night I was persona non grata. It was like they lost my number, and when I saw those two around campus from then on they pretended they didn’t even know me. That’s when I finally exhaled. Because somehow I had escaped the clutches of the cult by being brutally honest.
Who would have thought?