It was the only thing generations of her family had ever known but, at 19, one woman revealed how one simple act led her to cut all ties with the fundamentalist sect she had grown up in.
Laura McConnell, now 43, said she grew up in an incredibly conservative, fundamentalist Christian group in rural New South Wales that “pretends it doesn’t have a name”.
However, there are several names for the group such as The Truth, Two by Twos or Workers and Friends.
“Think of the most conservative Christian group you can, and go a little bit further to the right,” she told news.com.au.
“There were controlled appearances, controlled language. We were taught to fear the outside world and believe that our [way of living] was the only true way to get into Heaven.”
She said despite following the King James Bible there were other doctrines about sexuality and gender roles.
Laura said she never felt as though she belonged, but it came to a head when people began to get married in their late teens and early 20s while she decided to go to university.
“I was a reasonably intelligent girl who asked a lot of questions and was curious and there wasn’t space for me to exist in that group with that personality,” she said.
“As early as I can remember, I never felt like it quite worked for me. I just didn’t know you could leave.”
She tried to twist herself to fit but knew she couldn’t commit to going through the rituals needed to become a fully fledged member of the group.
Laura moved to Melbourne to continue her education and connected with other members of the fundamentalist group while there.
She found herself ostracised as she was doing things that wouldn’t fit their lifestyle and her frustration was mounting.
It wasn’t until one small act after a church service pushed her over the edge and prompted her to never go back.
“I was just standing at the tram stop after one of our church services,” she recalled.
“It was raining, and they were all just driving past me [while I stood] in the rain. And I thought, ‘If these are God’s people, if we’re the chosen ones and we’re the ones who are going to get into Heaven, why are they pretending they can’t see me at the tram stop, why none of them stopping to give me a lift?’,” she said.
“It just didn’t feel right. So I just decided that day that I was never going back,” she said, adding she didn’t think the people in the group were “good people”.
However, she said she was a bit naive to the consequences and was shunned by her entire family as a result.
The then-19-year-old had no money or family support, and people would cross the street in her hometown to avoid interacting with her.
“I had people say that the devil had gotten into my spirit and that I was going to die and go to hell,” she said.
“I had people leaving threatening notes on my windshield or my tires go flat on my car. There’s a lot of fallout.”
She said early on she knew she’d made the right decision, particularly after an internet search left her feeling lied to when she found out what outsiders thought of the group.
Laura finished university, securing herself a double degree, before going to work in a consulting firm in finance and accounting for close to two decades.
Despite coming from a very different background to those she worked with, it allowed her to meet people outside of the sect.
However, for two decades she didn’t speak about her upbringing as she was ashamed, embarrassed and felt like she didn’t have the words. Her conservative career path also made it difficult.
Five years ago, that all changed as she began to climb the ladder to leadership positions, with Laura realising what motivated her wasn’t the same as others.
“I started realising I’m quite traumatised from the things that have happened to me and I’m a bit tired of staying quiet about them,” she said.
“And I started to be penalised because I wasn’t somebody with the same background as these people.”
While the group claims to have no leadership or name, it’s estimated there are 200,000 members around the world.
The sect has also been accused of alleged sexual abuse against children, with some resulting in convictions.
In 2011, Ernest Barry, involved in a Victorian and Tasmanian sect of Two by Two was convicted of five indecent assault charges on a minor dating back to the 1970s.
In 2014, Chris Chandler, who died in 2020, pleaded guilty to child sex charges against three different girls – some as young as 12. He was jailed for a year.
Laura said that knowledge validates her experience she’s had, and urges more people to speak out about it.
“The sheer fact is there is barely a woman in my family who hasn’t experienced some kind of abuse,” she said.
“Financial abuse, emotional abuse and spiritual abuse is ride. And, in my family, sexual abuse is rife. It’s rife, and there is a very big problem with it inside the religion.”
She said many cults and sects in Australia haven’t signed up to the Australian Institutional Sexual Abuse Redress Scheme, calling it distressing for survivors.
“The government didn’t anticipate that these groups don’t care about charity status or deregistration, and the scheme doesn’t pay out unless the organisation is signed up to it,” she said.
“For me, and my other survivors, we have gotten nothing from the govt redress scheme, (we) have gone through trauma of making submissions, and do not get any compensation.
“The reason I raise that is it’s often not picked up by media and news outlets, that many of us from cult and sect backgrounds have not been able to get redress. I hope that shaming them publicly and naming the groups like the one I came from that they will eventually pay out.”
No one sets out to join a fundamentalist religious sect, and Laura said she spent many years trying to work out how it all happened.
But, at the end of the day, she knows people join because they are looking for meaning, and they’re vulnerable and taken advantage of.
“The first people who joined in my family were people who had lost a baby through SIDS, people who had been bankrupt and lost everything,” she said.
“They were people who were going through great loss, loss of home loss of farm, lots of money, loss of status. And these groups prey on them.
“And I think as a society, and as individuals and people we don’t we don’t support people enough who are going through difficult things and they become fodder for groups like the one I came from.”
She said leaving was hard, and advised those who may be finding themselves in the same position to seek therapy, as the decision will impact every aspect of their life.
She also said that it can be harder depending on what stage of your life you leave.
Laura added that groups like this are able to completely operate under the radar and legislation fails to pick them up, describing them as “cunning”.
“I think the reality is, each and every one of us as individuals, and as groups as a society need to get better at just making sure these groups don’t exist,” she said, adding that more resources need to be put into financial support and mental health services.
Now, Laura has her own family, and has co-founded her own social enterprise called Go Kindly, an online bedding store which donates 50 per cent of its profit to support women experiencing housing stress.
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