Life in a Cult: Memories From an Ex-Pentecostal
For much of my youth, I devoted myself to a faith in which grown men placed their hands on my shoulders and shouted in tongues.
Sometimes, when I least expect it, I’ll get hit with the feeling of having traveled back in time. The memory feels so fresh, it’s as if I’m sitting in the same body I had as a child.
The last time this happened, I had a memory of sitting inside the church in which I grew up. I smelled the wooden pews, the slight chlorine scent from the baptismal pool and an overwhelmingly thick coat of perfume and hairspray. It was too hot in there, always too hot. My skin felt clammy, even in the winter months.
My mom sat next to me, wearing her long black skirt, her flowy blouse buttoned up to the very top and her hair pulled up into a bun, with the front in an absolutely immaculate pouf. She looked like what I knew a woman was and should be—covered, feminine, makeup free, with her family. I would hold her hand and run my fingers across her perfectly cut, long nails thinking, “Wow, everything about her is so pretty. Do they know how pretty my mom is?” But as the music and crowd got louder, that quickly became unimportant and lost in the back of my brain.
Throughout the church service, the men always yelled, and the women openly wept. And I always stared at them for too long. Every Sunday, this happened on some level, and it always took me a few minutes to come out of the initial shock of seeing adults act like that. The noises they’d make were sad, and the words that came out of their mouths were words I hadn’t heard outside of church, and I honestly didn’t really understand what they meant.
I Never Experienced the Holy Spirit Like Other Parishioners
By the time I was eight or nine years old, though, it became something I wanted to be in the middle of. I’d venture up to the altar weekly—a huge part of being a good Christian—and repent for my sins. Even at a young age, I knew it was something I had to do to cleanse myself of any worldly influence I experienced during my week. It was supposed to be an act of freedom and love, and I always pictured it to be a feeling of warmth and holiness. This was incredibly exciting to me because that’s how everyone had described it to me my whole life.
So, every Sunday evening, I’d walk up there, desperately hoping that this was the moment I’d finally feel the Holy Ghost. That maybe I would get lucky and speak that strange language that I was told God gave us as a gift, when we were truly connected to him. I always hoped. I would stand there, my arms up and palms facing towards the ceiling. I would pray. I would say, “God, I know I am a sinner, but I repent and ask for your forgiveness.” I would say I love you’s and beg. I would cry so hard my lips would dry out and my nose would be stuffed up; my eyelids would be red and swollen. And he never said a word back to me.
I would let these grown men place their hands on my head and shoulders and shout their strange language into my face. Their breath was so hot on my skin it would make me sweat. Their grip was always too tight, and their intensity vibrated right through to my bones. This became an abusive cycle that I longed for. I would cry. I would repent. I would receive silence and ask myself, “Why wasn’t I worthy this time? Why does he think I am not ready?”
The Pentecostal Church Made Me Feel Unloved and Unworthy
This groomed me into the woman they thought was the true definition of someone feminine. I stayed small. I was his servant, always wishing for more, left hungry every week. Love became this wild bouquet of a transactional relationship. Love was following orders without a reward or relief. Love was being an idea I never created myself. And I was only as worthy as my partner—my leader, my God—made me.
A character was created and I dutifully continued acting it out. I found abusive men to mirror my relationship with God. I dreamt of being married and having a handful of kids, raising them in the church and continuing this cycle as well as I could. Isn’t that awful? I felt uncomfortable, unloved, unworthy and often invisible, and I still said, “Yes, this is what I want to continue and put my energy into.” But that’s the thing—when you’re in it, all you see is a black and white way of living; you see right and wrong very clearly. You know that you can’t trust yourself, and you do your best to work harder than that voice of the sinner inside you.
My life was a 24/7 battle with morality. It was fear of the rapture, demons and burning in hell. I had this part of me deep inside that screamed every day to get out, but I held that door shut as tight as I could. I didn’t want to fall victim to the ways of the world and spend my eternity in hell. It was simple. I must fight because that’s what being alive is: fighting and suffering to serve my Lord until the end.
My Trauma Reminds Me to Never Repeat the Past
But don’t worry, there is relief to this life in which I was raised. I grew. I stopped quieting the constant questions. I met someone who challenged that life with me and helped me find the strength to jump off that cliff into what the world really had to offer me.
I’ve become quite good at bringing myself back to this 32-year-old body, sitting in my religion-free house with my beautiful family. Back into a space where the love I give and receive flows freely, where prayer is sweet whispers between my loved ones and me, of all the hopes we share for each other.
There’s always a film left across my entire body, though. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to wash it off, but I’m starting to get used to the feeling. I’ve learned to walk around with it, like a cute little traumatic accessory unique to me. It gives me stories that I can share with people, and it reminds me of how I’ll never treat or raise my children. It is forever an example of what I never was and do not want to be. These are things I am thankful for.
And if God ever replies, I think I’ll just say, “No, thank you.”