UI student shunned by 'cult' for sake of education

Daily Illini, University of Illinois Urbana-Chapaign/February 24, 2009

Jennifer Hanson, senior in AHS, was raised as a member of a fundamentalist sect called "The Truth." She broke away from the group to attend Illinois and was subsequently ostracized and harassed. She is breaking her silence to help others who are struggling with oppression.

Jennifer Hanson's life has been difficult, and, at times, downright heartbreaking.

She will graduate this semester with a degree in Human Communications Science, and although her diploma will be a huge personal victory, it will also serve as a bittersweet reminder of how far she has come - a permanent, tangible reminder of her decision to break away from a religious sect that many have declared a cult, including Hanson's own sister and many disenfranchised members who use Internet forums to share their discontent with their former religion.

Because Hanson chose an education and personal fulfillment over her faith, she has been ostracized and shunned by her immediate family and the people she had grown up with. Her choice has been traumatic, ultimately leading to a formal diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For the first time in her life, Hanson has decided to come forward with her story, with the hope of inspiring other students - particularly women - to find their own voices and pursue their educational and personal aspirations. Until this point, Hanson has lived in fear of retribution and harassment to the point that she has voluntarily had her personal information suppressed by the University. To anyone looking for her, she simply didn't exist.

"My dad was trying to track me down, and he was saying crazy things and was trying to find out where I lived," Hanson said. "Former members were trying to find out where I lived so they could come talk to me, so I decided to utilize U of I as a safe place."

Hanson said she had read "horrible stories" of other young members who tried to leave what outsiders have labeled "The Truth," and was afraid for her own safety. University counselors were a crucial element in protecting her identity, and they provided counseling resources that helped Hanson adapt to her new life.

"(With abuse), women are more apt to try to be strong and to remain quiet," said Hanson. "Until you realize that you are facing abuse, then you are suppressing your own potential."

In Hanson's former religion, women are expected to wear reserved female clothing and marry within their own sect. Because there are so few members in the surrounding population, statewide events are organized to connect teenagers with their future lifelong mates. Having a relationship outside of the sect is strictly forbidden.

That is what got Hanson in trouble. When she was in high school, she had a secret liaison with a boy outside of the group, which caused her a great deal of stress. She decided to attend college, setting off a chain of events that caused her to completely redefine her life.

Hanson had to put herself through college completely on her own, work multiple jobs and apply for loans and independent financial aid status to make her dream of higher education come true. She had to receive letters from a lawyer, psychologist and high school counselor to corroborate that she was living entirely on her own.

Hanson belonged to a sect that claims to have no name, even though it has been called "The Truth" by others. They are also reclusive and secretive; none of the University professors of religion contacted had heard of Hanson's former group. Although primarily known as "The Truth," the group has also been called the "Two by Twos," the "Church with no name," the "Cooneyites," "The Secret Sect" and the "Black Stockings," among many others.

The sect may be mysterious, but it is very real. Hanson estimates that there are around 2,000 members in Illinois alone, and there are members spread around the United States. Unlike other close-knit religious communities that keep strict records of their members, Hanson's former religious affiliation has very little public information about their membership.

"They are also called the 'Two by Twos' because of the 'workers' who go out in pairs to teach interpersonally with families that they stay with," said Hanson. "They live with the members of the sect, and travel in pairs of men or women."

"Workers," or ministers of their faith, are labeled as homeless, chaste missionaries who travel from family to family, living in the different homes, ensuring that members follow the religion's strict tenets and rules, and preaching the Bible, using only the King James version.

Clothing for all members is very modest and, for women, somewhat resembles a cross between Mennonite and Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. Hanson had to keep her hair long and her legs covered with a skirt - no pants or jeans. She was not allowed to wear jewelry or makeup. Men must be clean-shaven with short haircuts. Access to television and the Internet is closely monitored, and in some cases, forbidden. Hanson resorted to shoving magazines under her mattress, and noticed that some families would hide their televisions whenever a pair of workers would stop by for a visit.

"Radios were even discouraged, and workers don't even read the newspaper and things like that," Hanson said.

According to the Ontario Religious Consultants on Religious Tolerance, "The Truth forbids smoking, drinking, dancing, attending movies and watching television."

In spite of the strict guidelines, the ultimate price for disregarding the rules of "The Truth" is shunning - or banishment from the home and family. Hanson's price for freedom was extremely high.

Robert McKim, head of the Department of Religion at the University, said that although he doesn't have any expertise in Hanson's case, he believes that the public has an entitlement to make up their own mind on matters of religious significance and finds a fault in this particular sect.

"There is something deeply wrong with religious groups of any sort that make it difficult for people to exit them," said McKim.

The Ontario Religious Consultants also note that "The Truth" was officially founded by William Irvine in 1901 in either Scotland or Ireland, although present-day members vehemently claim that it is as old as the Bible. There are current Web sites that have the exclusive purpose of reaching out to current members of "The Truth" to show them historical documents arguing that "The Truth" is only about 100 years old, and founded by a man with strict ideologies extracted from the Bible.

Members are reluctant to speak of their faith. Out of several families contacted, only one couple, Eric and Jennifer Spencer of Champaign, spoke of their religion and in a limited capacity.

"We regard ourselves as a fellowship and not an organization," Eric Spencer said. "We don't really study any other (religious) material other than the Bible."

Spencer declined to answer most questions, instead referring them to be answered by a worker, or minister. As of press time, no minister had returned any press inquiries.

"The Bible refers to those who follow truth as believers. That's probably where 'The Truth' comes from," Spencer said.

Part of the reason why "The Truth" is not a well-known organization is primarily because they do not proselytize - or openly attempt to convert other people's opinions to their own.

"The Truth members believe that they are God's chosen ones, so they won't go out and try to convert anyone," said Hanson. "They believe that if people are meant to know 'The Truth,' then people will come to them."

Spencer also pointed out that on occasion workers hold public gospel meetings to pray and share God's word from the Bible.

"The gospel meetings aren't widely publicized, and they're more like a sign above a door," Hanson said.

Although by many accounts members practice good will and familial fellowship, and while there are many industrious and well-meaning members of the organization, there is a dark side, exemplified by the personal tragedy of Hanson's experience.

"I think 'The Truth' overall can provide something to someone," said Hanson. "It can provide peace to someone, it can provide security to someone, but it can also take away a lot of things."

Hanson believes that because the boundaries of "The Truth" aren't explored, the atmosphere can create a volatile and stunting effect on younger members, particularly girls.

"They take a lot of power and equity away from women, and that overall hurts the society within 'The Truth,' but no one wants to openly recognize that, especially women," Hanson said.

For instance, some female members do go to college, but only for professions domestically associated with women, such as nursing. Men are allowed to maintain positions of power and individuality, and they pursue lofty educations, including studies in the fields of engineering and journalism.

Jonathan Ebel, assistant professor of religion at the University, who was also unaware of the presence of "The Truth" before hearing of Hanson's story, noted that if the history of the sect's age is accurate, then it follows a historical pattern common throughout the era.

"I'd say about a hundred years ago, our country was right in the middle of Protestant birth of fringe religious movements," Ebel said. "From what I recently read, in a limited capacity, I'm amazed how closely 'The Truth,' as other people call them, have held on to their original beliefs."

Ebel also noted that others should look at "The Truth" from the perspective of the members.

"From their point of view, it can be tough to lose a member of their organization," said Ebel. "Essentially they are watching someone, a family member perhaps, lose their only chance for salvation, and a soul is lost."

Ebel expressed caution on labeling The Truth as a cult.

"The term is complicated and gets used in lots of ways, a lot of them not especially constructive," said Ebel. "A cult is a stand-alone group or sub-group characterized by intense devotion to a figure, idea, or deity, well-established and often ecstatic patterns of worship, and a well-developed sense of their difference from those outside their group."

Regardless of any moniker applied to "The Truth," one fact remains: Jennifer Hanson escaped from the bonds of her personal enslavement to pursue an education at the University. And she wants other women to know that self-empowerment can be a hard road - religion notwithstanding. There are many cases in which young adults are restricted from choosing a path in life that they feel a calling for, and Hanson has a piece of advice for anyone in a position of personal or mental enslavement:

"I was outspoken, and that scared them," she said.

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