Words by Lyric Aquino

Note: Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

At a dark time when I needed God in my life I found myself a part of what I believe to be a religious cult.

As I look back on my now-ending college career, I can’t help but reminisce on the simpler times. Memories creep back into my mind, resurfacing from drunken nights, sleepovers with friends I no longer have and late nights at the library studying ancient tools. I think of them often, my friends. The ones I gained, the ones I lost and everyone stuck in between. I never thought I would have been caught up in a modern day battle of religion, especially my own, let alone with what I now believe is a religious cult.

It was September 2016, my sophomore year in college, and I found myself to be quite lonely. I did have a solid group of friends and the five of us seemed to spend nearly every day together.  My class schedule of 18 hours was split into six classes. The days were long, difficult and stressful. Seeing my friends just wasn’t enough for me; I knew I was missing something. The depression I’ve battled with since the age of 12 seemed to settle in once again as I felt emptiness surrounding me, encompassing me in a dark void. I longed for a higher power to guide me and to pray to in an effort to escape the surrounding loneliness. It was my emptiness that led me back to my roots.

I went home for a weekend to clear my head, see my family and rejuvenate my mind after several weeks of intense work. On Sunday, I wound up in church in the same pew singing the same hymns I’ve been singing since I was a child. The light beaming through the brightly colored stained glass windows, striking my face and embracing me like a warm hug. Unfortunately, my peace didn’t last long as the thoughts I tried so hard to suppress wrapped around my neck, constricting like a snake until I was dizzy with fear.  

I was still trying to figure out who I was and get used to the responsibility of being my own person. Looking back, part of me knew I needed to find my way back to God. I started to grow my personal relationship with Him and was hoping to strengthen our relationship by joining a religious group on campus that was Christian and matched my liberal views on the world. I couldn’t find one that I enjoyed, and to be honest, I don’t think I was trying too hard after the first few. Some groups were anti-LGBTQ, pro-life or even blatantly sexist. It seemed as though every group and church I tried had something wrong with it that I just couldn’t look past. I knew there had to be others out there like me.

One church, which currently operates on Kent State’s campus, was founded in Columbus in 1970. Today, there are more than 5,500 adult members in 70 home churches. These “home churches” are smaller congregations of members who gather for Bible studies, teachings, etc. The first Northeast Ohio group from this church was formed at Kent State in 2001 and later created an on-campus organization.

My friend Sarah told me about this group during my religious crisis and she was a member. They seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I was hesitant because of my other experiences, but I knew they couldn’t have been so bad because, like me, Sarah is a member of the LGBTQ community and has a similarly liberal mindset.

She explained to me where they met on campus and how the group provided snacks and had a social hour before the bible teaching. There was also a hangout session after which eventually lead to “the apartments” (where unmarried members of the group live) and later a bonfire at the apartments for all six home churches at Kent State.

After a short walk from my dorm, we arrived to where the group met. It was a room filled with more than 20 people Laughs boomed throughout the gathering and snacks were spread onto a table. Everyone smiled; they looked friendly and seemed normal, yet I was so unaware of what was to come.

I was immediately surrounded by Sarah’s other friends – Jessica, Brie, Elise and Chelsea – who hugged her as she introduced me. I was receiving so much attention, like a shiny new toy on Christmas morning. Everyone wanted to know where I came from, where I got my shoes, how I did my makeup, my religious beliefs, my ethnicity… I was bombarded with kindness, smiles and offers to hang out and have religious conversations.  

After socialising, we found seats among the others and waited for the teaching to begin. I looked around and noticed everyone brought their own Bibles, notepads and pens. The teaching began and I hung onto every word the speakers said about the Lord. This is what I had wanted for so long. It wasn’t a stuffy surmon filled with judgement and direct orders. The teachings that night were about love and light, two of the things I craved so badly in my life. I was asked what brought me to the group and what I thought of the teaching. I was thrilled to engage with so many people and have thought-provoking, real and meaningful conversations about God and the Bible. I needed guidance. I needed strength. I needed the support of this group.

Over the next three months, I dove head first into everything with the church. I went to a girls-only bible study on Mondays called Cell. It was a time to get away from the boys, support other women, have snacks and discuss the Bible. Cell lasted hours as games and pranks were played, food ordered and another reason was found to continue laughing on the red, second hand couch. On Tuesdays I went to teachings. These were open for everyone we wanted to bring. I begged my best friend Kim to come with me even though she wasn’t religious. She found the same comfort I did and joined the group as well.

After Kim joined, my new friends always wanted me to bring my other friends to home church. “I’d love to meet them,” Jessica said. Her face would light up when she talked about meeting my other friends. It never occured to me that I could’ve set up a separate time and place for all of my friends to meet. I didn’t think of the teachings on Tuesdays as a religious activity because I was just hanging out with all of my friends.

According to Goodreads, cults use manipulation or coercion to recruit and teach new members, discourage doubt or dissent and try to prevent members from leaving. Throughout my time in this church, I was isolated from people who weren’t in it. If I was friends with someone who wasn’t in it, they would use me as a way to bring them to meetings.

And so I pressured my friends Dana and Eric to come to the meetings because there was free food and it was a laid-back Christian group, it wasn’t uptight like all of the others.

When I told my Nana about the group she looked at me sternly and said, “You better be sure it’s not a cult.” When she said that I brushed it off — what did she know about my friends? About the trips to grocery stores in the middle of the night? The movie marathons? Or what about when tragedies struck and we all banded together to support friends, to care for them, to let them know we were always going to be there for one another? She didn’t know about any of that.

Dana decided the group wasn’t for her and I took it as a sense of betrayal. I couldn’t fathom that Dana thought she was better than them, than me, than Him.

She told me she was “too busy” to be part of the group and I scoffed at her. Pathetic. I wanted her to give me a real reason. All we had to do was go to Cell for at least three hours on Monday, go to teachings on Tuesdays for four or more hours, go to other prayer events throughout the rest of the week and go to central teachings with all the home churches on Saturday.

Goodreads also says cults claim to offer the only path to salvation. My church claimed they were different than other groups as they read the Bible closely so they had a better chance at salvation, and it seemed that way for a while.

I didn’t get to spend much time with Dana anymore, and as Eric and I grew closer, they wanted to meet him and get to know him especially because they all thought he was going to be my boyfriend. Eric liked me and valued our friendship, so he went.

He started making appearances here and there, but his schedule didn’t really line up with the group and although he attended the meetings, he was skeptical. He would take smoke breaks with some of the members outside, but didn’t go to our Cell group for the guys and didn’t go to the Saturday central teachings unless I went.

This pattern seemed to please everyone. I often shared our problems with the group because they were my friends. I opened up to them about his issues in religion and they concluded he was lost, sad and needed a strong support system to help him. I agreed that he did need more support, more friends and overall new outlook on life. He needed to see how much people cared about him, how blessed he was.

Spring semester I was once again taking 18 credit hours, only this time, I had beat reporting. You’re supposed to take this class with a light course load, but because I’m double majoring, I have to take at least 18 credit hours every semester to graduate on time. Naturally, I didn’t have as much time to dedicate to the church group. Mondays were the only day I could dedicate and even then it wasn’t constant. As I had gotten more comfortable with my group, I figured they’d understand if I didn’t go to as many events. But instead they were upset and concerned about my relationship with God.

At this point in time, my family was sick of the useless stories I kept telling about my friends. They were all I wanted to talk about. I wanted their approval with everything I did. I wanted to make sure my girls thought my decisions were smart because if they didn’t have my back, who did?

Because of my hectic schedule, I started to see myself get invited to fewer and fewer activities, but I always felt included. Whenever I was on the verge of a breakdown, my girls would ask me, “What can I do to help you?” Although I knew they couldn’t do anything, the offer of support made me feel like they cared. Throughout the semester they read all of my articles, cheered me on and made me feel loved. I barely finished the spring semester with any brain cells, but when I did my girls were waiting for me, proud and ready to celebrate.

My friends and I spent the summer drenched in sunscreen and prayer and I moved home to Lorain. Sarah and I would take trips to see our friends when we weren’t working, and sometimes Kim would come with us. We kept the friendships alive and even spent a few days at Sarah’s cottage on at Chippewa Lake.

It was here I had my first doubts. Sarah, Kim and I genuinely believed there was a ghost in the cottage. At one point the three of us screamed in unison out of terror. When we were trying to share our thoughts with Brie, Elise, Chelsea and Jessica, they waved us off. “Ghosts don’t exist because they aren’t in the Bible. If it was something, it would’ve been a demon and if it were a demon we’d be a lot worse off than we are now.” We were shot down, embarrassed by how quickly our friends snapped at us.

When fall semester rolled around I was taking my usual 18 credit hours but was also working two jobs, had a radio show and was dabbling as a news anchor. My schedule became even more strict and I was limited to short social hangouts. I didn’t have free time for intense, long bible studies. I was dedicated to the Lord, but it bothered some of my friends that I was having premarital sex. By that point, I had been having sex for over a year, so I didn’t understand why it suddenly mattered. I didn’t care what they thought about my choices. I was 20, a grown woman and I could have sex with who I wanted. I refused to feel judged for taking part in something so natural.

I was slipping back into depression. I was stressed, and my friends knew it, so they came to my defense. They asked the elders of the group to aid in helping me. The elders were significantly older members of the group and dictated who dated who, who was allowed to have leadership roles and who could live together, among other things.

Cults tend to live together and marry within the group in order to adhere to the polarization of relationships, according to an article by Empowered By Christ. In the church I was with, group members only date within it, so you’re essentially dating your friend’s ex. The group dominates the apartments they live in and live with two-to-seven members per housing unit. Members live in these apartments until they’re married and then settle in homes close by so they’re always around. At one point, I was considering moving in to the apartments with everyone else. Kim found herself having to move there, and still lives there.

Jessica told me the elders advised to pray my depression away. With hard work, and a strong support system, I should be able to pray it away along with the aid of my escitalopram. I was appalled, especially because an elder was a member of Kent State’s psychology faculty. I knew this was ridiculous and downright disrespectful, but I couldn’t help but think they actually tried to help me.

They discouraged my doubt in God curing my depression and that things in life would “just work out,” another tactic cults use, according to Goodreads.

I wasn’t able to go to Cell, Tuesday teachings or central teachings, and though I still studied the Bible on my own and tried to hang out, I could start to see a shift in paradigm of our friendship.

I was planning on traveling to New Mexico to see my TehTeh (grandfather) and go through the ceremonial rites of passage to become a woman in my tribe. When I told the girls, they seemed excited for me and I told them as much as I was allowed to about my reservation, family and culture. I was beaming with pride because my indigenous heritage makes up a large component of who I am. I sat on the red couch, faces staring at me in awe, waiting to hear all about this foreign way of life. At the end of the conversation I was informed that taking part in my Native culture was deemed a “sin” against God. Any indication of spirits or ceremonial dances were not seen as holy.

Jessica, the leader, looked at me, brown eyes steady as she softened her face to make the blow easier and said, “It just doesn’t align with the Bible. It’s a sin. I hope you understand.”

They all knew how much this meant to me. How much I had saved and planned for this trip and no one said anything. Not even Kim, my best friend of six and a half years. I played it off, nodded and excused myself. I carried on for the rest of the night like it was normal and eventually went home for the evening.

Weeks passed and I decide to overlook that comment but it still stung. I was getting invited to fewer events and when I asked why my girls were bailing on me, Jessica told me that she loved being friends with me but church events are meant for people in the church. I saw Sarah’s new friends in pictures at parties and events where I used to be. She took my spot. I was angry and I was frustrated.

It seemed like every party, dinner and activity they had was a church event. It began to dawn on me that there was no separation between this group and life. It was their life. I was able to see a separation of friends who were in the group and those who weren’t: I could go to dinner with my friends and not call it a “pre-Cell dinner.”

I eventually gave up on the group as a whole. I cut all ties with everyone. After several weeks of calling, texting and me skipping out on plans, they finally took the hint. Jessica even got word from one of the elders to try to bring me back with prayer. Jessica texted me and asked if I wanted to get dinner and read the Bible because she missed me. She wanted me to come to the apartment, hang out and talk about life. I opened the messages and never replied. Jessica, Brie and Elise would text me, but I was a new person. I wasn’t interested in being part of a group of manipulative people who shut someone down for not following their guidelines.

Once they knew I was leaving for good, they tried everything to get me back in the group.

This church raises people to be within its community over every stage of life. Members stay until they become elders and from there the cycle continues.

The elders in the group dictate what goes on and control the lives of every member like marionettes. They kicked Elise out, forced her to move out of her apartment even though she was on the lease and ceased all contact with her. Sarah was kicked out for being a lesbian despite already knowing this and pretending to accept her for two years. They expressed disappointment in certain couples and if a couple had sex, the elders would tell them they should take time apart as a sort of “time-out” punishment.

Even though we aren’t friends anymore, I still worry about Kim. She’s been in the group for almost three years and I’m afraid she may never leave. When I (her best friend of six years) left, she said nothing. When Sarah got kicked out and showed up to Kim’s room crying and saying goodbye, they couldn’t talk anymore. I still have faith she might come around, I hope she realizes what they’ve done to all of us.

This church, this group, sucked me in for over a year. They demanded a large devotion of my time, isolated me, were obsessed with growth and prospective members and shunned those who left or were kicked out. And yet, I don’t regret it. They showed me I was able to stick to my guns, to have the strength to overcome losing nearly all of my friends at once. But they also gave me unforgettable memories that made college worthwhile. They gave me so much laughter, joy and fun experiences. Sometimes, when I think of them, I almost want to go back.

But this isn’t the first religious cult and it won’t be the last. Getting sucked into the facade is easy, but leaving is so much harder. Today, there are plenty of forums, websites and support groups dedicated to the eradication of the church I went to because of their cult-like behavior. I may join one —  or maybe I’ll just pray on it.

Lyric Aquino | laquino@kent.edu