This Alberta woman spent 26 years in a religious community. She now considers it a cult

Breanna Phipps and her husband were kicked out of Word of Life Tabernacle in 2018

CBC News/June 27, 2021

By Madeleine Cummings

Breanna Phipps spent 26 years attending Word of Life Tabernacle in Sherwood Park. She and her husband were forced out of the group three years ago and she now considers her former community a cult. (Joanna Whyte Photography)

In December, Breanna Phipps plans to attend her first concert. Not her first post-pandemic concert — her first-ever concert.

Now 29, Phipps spent the first 26 years of her life as a member of the Word of Life Tabernacle church in Sherwood Park, Alta., just outside Edmonton.

Three years after her family was pushed out of the tight-knit community, she now considers the church a cult.

She says life inside the community was dictated by seven male leaders who had the ultimate say over what she wore, how she raised her children and whom she befriended.

Women who conformed to the church's "way of life" had to wear long skirts and shoulder-covering tops, Phipps said.

They could not cut their hair, a symbol of submission to their husbands.

Children, she said, did not attend public or private schools; instead, they attended school on the church grounds. She said owning a TV, getting to know people from outside the community, visiting movie theatres and attending concerts were all off-limits.

"That's why we call it a cult," Phipps said in a recent interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"They take every chance of a free, critical thought away from their members."

CBC News contacted Word of Life Tabernacle by telephone on Tuesday and has not received a response.

Kicked out in 2018

Phipps and her husband, Peter Phipps, grew up attending the church. They met as children, got married when she was 19, and have had five children together.

Phipps said she and her husband were kicked out of the church in March 2018, after its leadership learned Peter had written a cheque without sufficient funds to cover it, in order to pay his employees before Christmas.

She said they were told they were no longer welcome as the Scripture said not to make fellowship with a wrongdoer.

Phipps recalled crying and feeling helpless — she considered the church to be her entire life — but she quickly realized she was ready to leave the community behind.

"And for the last three years, we have, as a family, been taking steps to live a free life," she said.

One of her first steps was trying on blue jeans at Winners.

Accustomed to wearing clothes two sizes too big, to disguise her figure, she said wearing jeans for the first time felt "wrong" and "dirty," but she bought them anyway.

She also had her hair cut for the first time, an experience she found cathartic.

"I will never forget how it made me feel to make a choice for myself, by myself."

What distinguishes a cult from a church?

Steve Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, specializes in the study of alternative religions.

Though he has not studied the Word of Life Tabernacle church specifically, Kent said he has received calls over the years about followers of William Branham, a 20th-century evangelist whose teachings Phipps and her family followed.

Groups that follow Branham have a reputation of having strict rules and regulations, especially toward women, he said.

Kent defines a cult as a group that uses undue influence to create obedience and dependency.

"From what Breanna described, a number of harmful and certainly manipulative behaviors go on in this group that led her, and I think a lot of others, to call it a cult," Kent told CBC News on Wednesday.

Many people are reluctant to speak out after leaving controversial religious groups, for a number of reasons, he said. Often they have family who are still members.

"And even though these groups prohibit defectors from having contact with family members, the defectors often hold out the hope that they will have some sort of relationship."

People also may avoid speaking out because they blame themselves or fear threats, spiritual or physical, Kent said.

Since sharing her story on her blog and with other media outlets, Phipps has received hate mail and threats.

People have condemned her to death and called her "Satan's right-hand woman," she said.

She estimates about 50 people have either left the church or been kicked out, but some do not feel comfortable speaking publicly about their experiences.

"You are conditioned that when you leave, you don't say anything because you're born and raised to believe that it's the right way," she said.

She and other former members have shared stories and cried together, she said.

Kent said connections between former members of similar groups can be empowering.

"They get empowered when they realize that it isn't just them, that their experiences are widespread and that other people are trying to figure out what happened to them, just as they are trying to figure out what happened to themselves," he said.

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