This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of “Jane” and her family’s involvement with The Way International, a Christian cult.
I have two brothers, 2 and 4 years younger than me, and a mom and a dad who are still together. When I was a kid my dad owned his own printing business and my mom worked as a nurse. Until I was 8 we lived in Miami, Florida. Even though we live in Kentucky now I’ll probably always say I’m a Florida girl. As far as personality, my dad is gregarious and likes active conversation but values his alone time. My mom is incredibly sweet and has been actively fighting shyness her whole life. She’s always searching for ways to be more sociable.For those of us who don’t know, can you tell us a bit about The Way International?
The Way International started in the mid 1900s by Dr. Victor Paul Weirwille. I grew up with a picture of him displayed prominently in the house. He was a priest or minister for a church and I was taught that he discovered that what he was teaching was incorrect and because the church leaders told him to shut up and not teach what he learned through his own research he left and started his own religious group. From what I understand about Christianity (I’ve never attended church) we were taught basic Christian tenets.
The main differences seem to be that we separated Jesus (Son) and God (Father) and did not view Mary as a deity. We were also taught that Hell did not exist, though a temporary lake of fire would exist for awhile. And of course traditional religion was pure evil and the work of the Devil corrupting, over generations, people who genuinely wanted to learn the truth. That idea? Terrifying to a small child, that the devil could trick you and you would NO idea and think you were doing right. I still struggle with that idea: I think I’m doing right, but really I’m doing evil? How am I supposed to tell the difference? What if I’ve been taken in? What if I think I’m smart but I’m really nothing but a gullible lump of clay?
The official website is here. The Wikipedia page seems accurate and is another good source if you’re curious.
How old were you when your family became involved? How involved was your family?
My parents became involved when they were both in their early to mid 20s. They completed a training and education program called Power for Abundant Living and were WAY Ambassadors, which means they were assigned places to live and their main purpose was to teach people in the community. I don’t know much at all about that time in their lives, but I know that they met while involved in this program.
There was a big emphasis on small community and family. Meetings were held in “believers” homes multiple times a week – the “church” was considered the people, not a building. The idea was to recreate as closely as possible the early church, around the time of Jesus. The meetings were simple: prayer, singing, teaching from the Bible, speaking in tongues, and snacks. My parents were leaders, which meant they hosted meetings in their home. We usually had a Sunday morning meeting and a Wednesday evening meeting, but sometimes we met more often (ie: Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday).
My parents gave a lot of money to TWI. I don’t know how much, but I can tell you that even small children (toddlers) were expected to tithe, or give 10% of what they had at each meeting. My mom recently admitted that when she was in her late twenties TWI convinced her to give them her life savings. We were taught that it was better to be poor; being rich was evil because it meant you weren’t helping others.
There is a headquarters in Ohio, Weirwille’s converted farm, but we never lived there. We used to attend Rock of Ages, a yearly festival, there, and when we moved to Kentucky we tried to go to the Sunday morning meetings every week.
As a child, what were your feelings about the organization?It was just life for me. I wasn’t really aware that it was possible to live any other way. I told friends at school a little about what I learned sometimes, but never tried to minister to or convert anyone. Sometimes I didn’t want to go to the meetings because they were boring.
How did The Way effect your family’s daily life?
It seemed like every part of life was directly linked with the WAY. We prayed before each meal, of course (referring to God as “Father”), and we were constantly memorizing Bible verses, commenting on the wonder that God was or had made, preparing for meetings or cleaning up from them. My parents spent a lot of time doing research, and as I reached adolescence I started doing more of my own reading and research. If somebody broke a rule, for instance speeding on the highway, it was linked to God somehow. If we saw an accident we prayed for the victims. I wasn’t allowed to read Goosebumps books or watch MTV because these things were “devilish.”
When and why did your family break away from The Way?
In 1997, when I was 12, I was just finishing my first time through the Power for Abundant Living class. We were required to speak in tongues in front of everyone, and I was so shy I couldn’t do it. The man hosting the class (which was taught via video by this point) put his face very close to mine and essentially bullied me into speaking in tongues. My parents were standing across the room, visibly uncomfortable with what was happening. I was crying and the man was inches from my face and he was using language of love in the most terrifying, bullying way.
During the same time we were planning a trip to the Grand Canyon. We were not given permission to go, and given how bad things had become my parents decided to go anyway. That’s how we left. We were not allowed to come back to meetings or talk to anyone from The Way again. We were labeled “Mark and Avoid.”
Has the experience effected your relationship with faith as an adult?
I don’t trust religion. I struggle with the idea of faith. As I mentioned above, how am I supposed to know what’s right? If I was involved in something dangerous I thought was good, and organized religion is evil, and determining your own beliefs without guidance is dangerous and evil then what’s good? I realized recently that I’ve become agnostic. I LOVE the idea of God, but I’m not able to trust others or myself when it comes to my beliefs.My family and I no longer discuss faith or God in any capacity, and we haven’t for over a decade. This silence has contributed to my level of discomfort with the topic.
What advice would you give to someone whose family or friends are involved with a similar organization?
First of all, they should find a support group made up of people who are not involved. When we left my parents had to stop contact with most of their friends and acquaintances, and if we had family involved we would not have been allowed to see them anymore.Beyond that, unfortunately I’m not sure what advice I can give. If they are happy with their life it seems wrong to try to change it for them. If it’s dangerous, and you’ve seen the effects, you’ll have to somehow make the one involved see all of that.
It will be hard. It will take time. They will probably think you’re trying to keep them from truth and beauty and salvation and all that. I would seek contact with people who used to be involved but left of their own accord. Since I was a child when I was involved I was shielded from a lot and don’t feel comfortable giving specific advice.
Have any of you ever experienced anything like this? Any questions for “Jane”?