New Jersey -- Beth Davies was 30 before she cashed her first pay check, opened a bank account, lived in her own apartment, or even chose when to purchase new clothes.
That's because for 12 years she lived in a Manhattan community run by a Bible-based cult, which did not permit her such freedoms. Marriage within the group is frowned upon, except in the case of the leader, and members are expected to spend free time soliciting donations and attending all-night meetings where they ridicule one another for not living up to the group's expectations.
Ten years after leaving the cult, the Midland Park resident still recalls the painful experience of trying to make a fresh start on her own. With her experience in mind, she founded the Cult Recovery Ministry through Hawthorne Gospel Church four years ago.
"It was like I'd been dropped from the moon," said Davies of those first few months on her own. "I started the ministry because I realized people shouldn't have to go through this alone. I wanted them to know they would survive, they would learn to trust again, and things would get better."
A life rebuilt
Indeed, things are much better for Davies now. She works as an adminstrative assistant for a Manhattan shipping company and takes business-management courses at night. And she speaks enthusiastically of the great relationship she has with her parents, of her many strong friendships, and the peace she has found at Hawthorne Gospel Church.
The Cult Recovery Ministry has allowed Davies to reach hundreds of people -- through a monthly support group at her house, one-on-one counseling sessions with individuals and families, and lectures to Sunday school classes. And Davies has acted as a resource for cult experts; her personal experiences were recorded in two books, "Recovering From Churches That Abuse" and "Churches That Abuse," by Dr. Ronald M. Enroth.
Anne and Henry Johnson (not their real names) felt totally lost when they sought Davies' help after leaving a New Jersey-based Christian cult 4 1/2 years ago.
"The only way I can describe the feeling when I came out of the cult was of being spiritually raped," said Anne Johnson. "Much the same as someone who has been physically raped, you begin to think it was your fault and you could have done something about it. What you need to realize is it wasn't your fault and you're going to recover."
After speaking with Davies on the phone, Johnson and her husband gained enough confidence to attend the support group.
"Beth really helped, I think, because of her own testimony -- the fact that she'd been in ... [the cult] for such a long time and has been able to pick up the pieces and go on," Johnson said. "When we heard Beth speak, we realized it was exactly what we had been through. ... At this support group, you're talking to people who have been there."
Survivors of Bible cults
The support group is made up mostly of people who come from Bible-based cults; most have been out of the cults between one and three years. Meetings generally draw between eight and 10 people.
The Rev. Ken MacGillivray, director of Christian nurture at Hawthorne Gospel, said the Cult Support Ministry offers a guiding light to many.
"I think most people are searching for God ... and during that search many get taken advantage of by others," MacGillivray said. "Because of her own personal experience, Beth has a keen eye for communal and abusive churches that might engage in cultic activities -- institutions led by charismatic leaders who deliberately try to separate people from their families."
Frequent contact needed
Davies said that when people first leave a cult or abusive church, they need frequent one-on-one contact with someone who will listen.
Late-night calls to Davies gave Margarie, a New Jersey resident, a place to let out her feelings after she left an abusive charismatic group 2 1/2 years ago.
"I was so confused. I didn't know what was going on," Margarie said. "When you exit a cultic or spiritually abusive group in a bad way, you feel you've committed a sin. When I told the pastor I wanted to leave, he said: 'You can't leave until I release you; otherwise it's not biblical.' "
Added to that guilt was the sense of loss because friends and family who remain in the cult shun the person who has left. Usually, that person is denounced by leaders. In Margarie's case, members were told she had to leave because she had expressed a sexual interest in the pastor.
Margarie said she found sharing in the support group to be very healing.
"They were my eyes when I was confused and couldn't see the way on my own," she added.
The support group usually opens with a prayer, followed by longtime members talking about the abuse they experienced in cults. This gives new members the courage to share feelings and receive support as they work through their anger and pain.
A lot of ex-cult members have been so scarred they will never want to go near a church again, Davies said. But with the passage of time, many will begin searching for a new spiritual community.
MacGillivray said that's where the Cult Recovery Ministry can play a big role.
Reconnection with faith
"A group like Beth's that's loosely connected with the church is a good place for these people to start reconnecting with Christianity," he said.
Even while helping cult survivors find a new spiritual home, Davies hasn't forgotten the people still trapped in the group she left. She makes numerous visits to the cult's women's facilities in Manhattan.
"These women ... have been told they can't survive outside the group," Davies said, "but I go in and can say: 'See, my life is testimony that you can live a good Christian life outside' of the group."
One woman who left the cult and did accept help from Davies was slow to attend the support group because she wanted to forget the abusive experience. Knowing that the only way the woman could heal was by talking it out, Davies finally convinced the ex-member to attend.
"It's hard to talk about what you've been through when you first come out of a cult, because often people will say: 'That's too bad, but you're out now. Forget about it and get on with your life,' " Davies said. "But recovery doesn't work like that. The more we talk about it, the more we realize it was pretty weird . . . how we were programmed never to process any negative thoughts we might be having about the group or about the leader."
Counseling is not the only help ex-cult members need. Most have no money, no job, and no place to live when they leave. Davies and other ex-members come to their rescue by raising funds to help get the newcomers on their feet.
For instance, Davies and her fellow cult survivors raised money to set up an apartment for a couple who left an abusive group after 2O years, paid for another couple to spend two weeks at a recovery center, and raised enough money for a young man to complete high school after he left a cult. On one occasion, Davies opened her home to a young woman for three months while raising money to get the former cult member her own apartment.
Reaching out to fellow cult survivors is important to Davies, but it's not her only priority.
"I want to get married, so I'm active in singles groups," she said. "You can be concerned and talking about these issues and still [be] working on other things. I try to keep my life balanced."