I have so many emotions as I read and hear statements coming from the leadership and members of my former church. I'm not known for brevity and I feel like I could write an entire book on my experiences. I don't know how to encapsulate my memories, my past and present emotions, or the stand I have taken into a short post. That would be impossible for me.

I grew up in CGT from birth. I moved to TN from CA with the church because I did not want to be separated from lifelong friends. My sister-in-law, Cheryl, is a victim and litigant. My brother, Todd, is a trustee of the church. There are many people in CGT that I love, including family, whom I will continue to love till the day I die. I don't wish them harm. I don't enjoy their suffering. Yes, there are many good people there. But their church history is also my church history, as I left just under six years ago. I know how I was raised and taught. And many statements that have been made recently to refute the control over lives and the things we were taught boggle my mind, as they do not in any way coincide with my experiences and my memories. I could deal with this better, I think, if not for their constant use of the word "transparent." Every time I hear that word in conjunction with their accounts of the past, I feel a physical reaction.

Nobody, to my knowledge, has alleged that every member of the church (or any member for that matter) "condones" child abuse. I have never experienced this kind of abuse. But what I have witnessed, as an observer over many years, is that victims have never merited the same value as the image of the church. When the most recent allegation of abuse was reported by a close friend of mine to the pastor (in 2004) he did not handle it as though it was "deplorable." In my opinion, he actively protected the image of the church to the detriment of the victim and the victim's family. The victim's family was treated as an enemy because they no longer attended the church. Rumors circulated as to the validity of the claim. In most people's minds, it was just dismissed as a lie. Is that compassion? Where was the compassion for my friend and her child? There was none; only contempt.

Long before I left, I observed how the situations I knew of personally were handled. Since I was still choosing to be there, it caused me a lot of inner turmoil. Some victims were even treated as participants, though they had clearly suffered abuse and blatant exploitation. It wasn't only that the abuse wasn't reported or properly dealt with. There was such a lack of care or nurturing or any kind of help for the victims I knew of. That was what troubled me most.

I know of many instances of abuse that occurred in my lifetime. A number of victims have confided their stories in me over the years, though I was never aware of any abuse at the time it was happening. I am not at liberty to share those individual stories, as they are not mine to tell. But they extend far beyond one family. I don't claim abuse was "condoned" or encouraged or thought to be okay there. But I do know that many victims did not have support in confronting the abuse. They were encouraged not to talk about it to anyone. That sends a message to a victim that they have something to be ashamed of or have done something wrong. And please believe me when I tell you that how the abuse is handled can inflict a lifetime of emotional struggles and consequences, on top of the actual abuse, because of this shame. A victim needs help in dealing with this shame because it is common for them to impose it upon themselves without any outside help in doing so. When their complete lack of responsibility is not vigorously emphasized through words and actions, there is often a lifetime of consequences in one form or another.

You might ask why I continued to stay, or why I would move across the country to stay with this church. That is a fair question. I had been taught all my life that we (the group of people originating from William Sowders) were "the" body of Christ and had the truths the rest of Christianity lacked. All other Christians were considered "the religious world" by our church as long as I was there. If this has changed, it is recent. But the current pastor says the church has not drastically changed. So something is amiss either way. If it has not changed, then they still believe what I was taught all my life, but won't admit it. If they say, as some have, that we were never taught that, it's a lie. I want to believe that some have effectively rewritten history already in their minds and are not willfully misrepresenting the truth. My mind does not want to accept that any of them would intentionally lie.

I did not think I could leave this church and be right with God for most of my life. It wasn't even about heaven for me. I didn't think I would ever go to heaven even if I stayed because I was taught that the only people who went to heaven were those who reached perfection and "moved out a live soul" when their bodies died. All other (imperfect) believers would remain dead, neither in heaven nor hell, for a thousand years and then resurrect to complete their process of attaining perfection. But nobody would have eternal life unless they overcame all sin in this life (or in the resurrection) just as Jesus did. I never believed I would be able to accomplish this. Sometimes I felt like there must be something wrong with me because others in the church clearly believed they could.

Since I had been conditioned my whole life to believe I could not truly serve God outside this group we called "the body," I felt I couldn't possibly just leave and go to church elsewhere. I was afraid God would be upset with me. I equated leaving my church with leaving God. I finally had so many questions and doubts about who we were that I did leave. But even then, I was not sure God was pleased with me. I suffered from bouts of anxiety over whether or not I had left "the true church" for a couple of years after I left. My husband (who was never part of this church) witnessed it and I talked to him about it many times. He, as well as my current pastor, helped me to see the deception of my past. I didn't dream up that fear and anxiety. It was instilled in me by going to church four times a week. Until the last couple of years, I have never believed that I was going to heaven.

I would sincerely like to know "Have these teachings changed or have they not?" While their beliefs are not the subject at hand (re: the lawsuits), I am attempting to explain the hold this church had over me and others, affecting every life decision we made. I cannot believe anyone would deny the truth of this. And yet I have read it in print. I try to use words other than cult, simply because it's such an inflammatory word and I don't want to hurt people. But one of the marks of a controlling group is that they all claim special knowledge or truth about God that cannot be found outside the group. That is a major factor in why people do not leave. I experienced the effects of this even after I left.

I am standing up for the victims. These are some of the reasons why it's the only stand I can take. I know there will be a personal cost for my stand and I accept that. The question I have asked myself over and over for years is why the current pastor could not just acknowledge the wrongs of the past with no analogies that minimized them. I still don't understand why he could not just say these things were wrong, repent openly to those who have been harmed, and THEN go forward with a fresh start. So much healing could have resulted from that. If transparency is the goal, I don't understand the need for a PR man.

I have said in the recent past that I don't understand how people can stay and support this. But that makes me a hypocrite because I stayed even after I saw so many things that were wrong and inconsistent. I stayed because I didn't know where to go or how to leave. It felt like I was leaving my family. I moved across the country to stay with these people. How can anyone think I would realistically just get my feelings hurt or get mad and decide to find a new church? Does that make any sense?

Those of us who have left are often described as angry, disgruntled ex-members of the church. I would pose this question: Why is it that nearly everyone who leaves is unable to just walk away and feels such strong emotion for so many years after leaving? People change churches every day. It's because we didn't just leave a church. We left a way of life. And that life will always be a part of us, whether we want that or not. If they want to rewrite their history, they can try. But they cannot rewrite mine for me.

In conclusion, I want to state publicly that I attended the July 1, 2004 meeting on abuse. I also spoke in this meeting. And I would have no problem with anybody hearing what I said.


Eric Brenton said…

Your words have compelled me to do something I’ve thought about many times, but have always seemed to find an excuse not to. In short, to give thanks and praise God publicly for those souls who have been able to come out from under the yoke of spiritual oppression that follows all those that embrace the William Sowders teachings and doctrine. It was this doctrine that caused my family and I to part company with our brothers and sisters at CGT. Many times I’ve imagined the amazing new life and musical ministry that might have been for us in Tennessee had this doctrine not existed.

Our hearts ache for you and your family. It is my belief that at the root of all the issues that have plagued CGT is their refusal to confess that Jesus is LORD and their errant teachings on grace and salvation. I continue to pray that our small part in this story may someday bring an explosion of the true gospel of Christ to CGT and a restoration of the families and friends involved in this sadness.

With love, Eric Brenton and family
Shari said…

Thank you so much for these words. Although I never had the honor of meeting you and your family in person while you were here in TN, you and Ann have become the dearest of friends to me. I agree with your comments 100% about the root of all the problems. And your prayers is my prayer as well. Ever since we talked for the first time, I have believed with all my heart that God had a purpose in your family's experience. A bigger purpose. And I also believe He had a purpose in our never meeting while you were here. There were no outside influences in your convictions not to stay. And only much later did we find each other and become friends. I will continue to look forward to the day when we can be together in person for a visit. That will be a very special day for me!

Much love to you guys!