Of Isolation and Community: Jeri Lofland’s Story, Part Two
I took the bus to Willow Hill Elementary for kindergarten and first grade. At recess my friends and I would play hopscotch, jump rope, explore, or make-believe together. Occasionally, they would invite me to their homes to play or for a birthday party. I was active in Sunday School, too. Though I was too shy to say much to them, I knew many adults at church and in my neighborhood. My parents were part of a small fellowship group and the families did lots of things together: picnics, fireworks, a hayride, swimming at the lake.
When my parents became homeschoolers, our social circle tightened. Mom was afraid the state might “take us away” if anyone reported us. One sunny morning she hauled all of us to the grocery store at what seemed like the crack of dawn to get her shopping done before “school hours”. I still played with the kids next door, but only on designated “play days”. We had the same church friends for a while, and I looked up to my Sunday School teachers, but we left our church because some people there were displeasing God. Yes, it was confusing. I rarely attended Sunday School (or youth group) after that, even when we were in churches with other kids my age. Most of my socialization now was with other homeschoolers: sledding parties, picnics, occasional field trips and converging on fields and orchards to glean free produce.
As homeschooling gained popularity, we became less concerned about being put in foster care. But then my parents joined a new group: ATIA. The Advanced Training Institute (of America) was an elite level of membership for followers of Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles (formerly Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts). My parents had attended his seminars for years. Now his homeschooling program offered a way to get the loyal, loving, godly family you always wanted. Financial freedom, stronger character, better health, and fulfilling family relationships included! Plus, all the educational materials, from math to language arts, were based directly on the Bible!
We moved across town that summer, to a farmhouse in the country. My dad started his own business: it was different to have him working from home all day. And we embarked on the new ATI adventure. Our social circled narrowed even more from that point, consisting of church acquaintances (we changed churches every few years) and conservative homeschooling friends. We saw my grandparents twice a year at most; while skeptical of many of our religious quirks, they tried not to rock the boat or criticize my parents to us kids. There were no trusted adults in my life that didn’t defend my parents’ beliefs and lifestyle choices.
We joined a larger evangelical church and my parents were admired for their dedication. With six children now, we could really fill up a pew. Now in my mid-teens, I longed to make friends but had little in common with my peers there. Many of their activities (movies, concerts, parties, sports, even jobs) were forbidden in my family. There were hardly any other homeschoolers. I looked forward to ATI conferences where I could meet others my age that dressed, behaved, and thought like I did. A few became penpals and are still friends today.
Later, we moved to even more conservative churches where homeschooling was the norm. At home, there were babies to change, toddlers to feed, and children to educate; my help was sorely needed, and often appreciated. I had a friend at church, and meeting for lunch together was a rare and special treat. There were no boyfriends, no dates. St. Paul said we should be content with food and clothing. I had a bed and three meals a day and could earn a little spending money from my dad besides. Now in my 20’s, I tried to use my loneliness to push me closer to God. I tried to mentally prepare for a life of singleness if necessary, while yearning for a soulmate of my own.
I was 22 when I moved out of state to work (unpaid) for one of Gothard’s “ministries”. My social network was limited to other cult members (we attended only churches that had been “approved” by the leadership and shopping outings were on an as-needed basis). Chores at the center were mandatory, as was scripture memory and attendance of daily morning Bible studies. Still, I made new friends from all over the country and savored the chance to live and work with peers.
After six months of volunteering for room and board, the law dictated that the Institute put me on the payroll. With only $13 left in my checking account, I was relieved to hear this! I was a minimum-wage employee for one year, moving from the Oklahoma center to the Indianapolis compound to the “Headquarters” campus in Illinois, working in three different departments before I was summarily fired because Gothard felt my 20-year-old brother threatened his authority. My parents called me late one night to tell me that Bill Gothard wanted them to pick me up the next morning and take me home to Michigan. He didn’t tell me himself, nor did my boss. Being ignorant of life “on the outside”, I had no idea how abnormal this was, but it hurt like hell. I started packing my belongings. My dad arrived at noon, I shook hands with the man I would marry two years later, and we headed “home”.
After a year and a half of full-blown work for the cult, this trip was surreal—like going back in time. I sipped my Arby’s Jamocha shake and tried to sort out what was happening. I felt discarded, displaced, separated from friends without a chance to say goodbye. For weeks, I cried myself to sleep. I was in a place I did not want to be, and I’d had no say in the decision. In my grief, I found comfort in stroking one of the new barn kittens; it died. My mom miscarried what would have been a 12th baby. We heard that another young man who had also been exiled from the cult had drowned on the Fourth of July. The ATI director left his wife for his secretary. The whole world was going crazy and it was taking me with it.
Over the next year, I started taking more responsibility for my own life. I had my first job interview, worked part-time, visited other church groups, began to consider college courses, and applied for short-term placement with an overseas missions organization (Wycliffe Bible Translators). I spent a summer studying linguistics at the University of North Dakota and meeting all kinds of cool people from around the world. I loved college, even the exams! Away from my parents and the cult for the first time in my life, I bought my first pair of jeans, my first pair of shorts. I went to the movie theater with friends! I had my first sip of wine, my first taste of beer. I explored different churches, and enjoyed music that had once been forbidden. I spent time with guys who intrigued me, and turned down a guy who didn’t. I played my heart out on the piano. When my parents tried to exert control over my [male] friendships from hundreds of miles away, I was conflicted. I cried, but I complied.
In the fall, I flew to the Philippines where I spent ten difficult yet glorious months learning from the best mentors I could have asked for. The Wycliffe base at Nasuli was a humming multi-cultural haven set in a natural paradise. Though I assisted the missionary-linguists in their work, mostly I was being healed. From the security of friends and coworkers who loved and accepted me, I began dissecting my past and daring to think for myself. Tentatively, then with greater confidence, I let myself question the cult. I let go of deeply-embedded fears. I allowed myself to grieve over my experience with the Institute. I saw what a respectful, caring community looked like.
Nasuli was so unlike the churches and training centers I’d been part of. Here, individuality was valued; the group drew strength from diversity of opinion and expression. Instead of pasting a smile on the surface, these men and women spoke honestly of their emotional experience, both positive and negative. Rather than demanding perfection and informing on those who failed to measure up, these people tolerated each other, quirks and all, often making excuses for a neighbor’s idiosyncrasies. And nobody ever minded having fun.