Eleven months after weight-loss cult leader Gwen Shamblin died in a plane crash, survivors of her Tennessee church are coming forward to share horrifying details of the stringent starvation diets and brainwashing they faced - which led one former member to attempt suicide and left another with irreparable damage to her kidneys.
'Gwen broke my family and the only thing I can do is pick up the pieces, because that's what she left,' says Mindy Alvarez, a former member of the Remnant Fellowship Church, in the explosive two-part finale HBO Max docuseries The Way Down, which lifts the lid on the organization and the lasting trauma suffered by many of its members.
For Shamblin, dieting was divine.
Standing in stripper heels, a skin tight dress with stick thin legs and trademark frosted blonde six-inch bouffant - Shamblin was a charismatic church leader who created a Christian diet plan that became its own religion.
Every Saturday and Sunday, she took to the blue backlit stage of Remnant Fellowship under the auspices of God to preach to her 1,500 member flock the way 'to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down to Him.'
Members were expected to pledge unshakable devotion to the cause. Should anyone question the controversial doctrine that rejected the Holy Trinity - or worse - gain weight, the consequences were punitive.
Her reign of Remnant Fellowship came to an abrupt end on May 29, 2021, when her plane, also carrying six high-ranking church members, crashed into a shallow lake on their way to a MAGA rally.
At the time of the accident, the finishing touches were being put on 'The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin' which chronicled her rise from weight-loss guru with 'the Weigh Down Diet' plan - to fame, power and money with the founding of Remnant Fellowship in 1999.
Now the streaming network is releasing a two-episode coda to The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin, which originally aired in October 2021. The second installment explores the fallout from the cult leader's death—and how the insular Christian sect punished people for gaining weight, forced them to starve, urged parents to beat their children into submission, and enforced loyalty to the cause.
Sitting with filmmakers six months later, former member Ge'cobi Pittman says, 'I think I was nervous to speak up for years because Gwen was quick to seek legal action, but I just can't remain silent.'
'It's time that we heal, its time that our voices matter,' Laura Alvarez says. 'Even if it's for one person.'
Raised in the ultra-strict Church of Christ, Shamblin was a trained dietician who started her Weigh Down Workshops in the 1980s. The Weigh Down Workshops were held in churches and as word of mouth spread, grew to more than 250,000 subscribers in over 14,000 churches in 70 countries.
She expanded her business throughout the 1990s with a merchandise, t-shirts, hats and a slew of books such as: What would Jesus eat?, The Divine Diet and Body by God. Her 1997 juggernaut was a book she published titled The Weigh Down Diet.
Shamblin and her Weigh Down Diet were a 'massive media hit,' Rev. Rafael Martinez, a cult interventionist said. The book sold over 400,000 copies and Shamblin was seen everywhere from 20/20 to Larry King on CNN. She also embarked on national tours where followers would appear onstage holding up their larger clothes for a cheering audience: 'God has taken 86 pounds off of me!'
Putting a biblical spin on her approach, Shamblin taught people to 'Honor God within your body.'
'Every time you reach for food, 15 to 20 times a day, run to God instead,' she'd say.
In reality, her weight-loss approach was a dressed up version of intuitive eating, a decades-old practice of only eating when you're hungry. Martinez said: 'To her, it was divine revelation.'
Terasseee Morris said that she started losing weight immediately. 'I mean like within two months, I had lost 27 pounds. So the program itself works and it's simply proportion control.'
In 1999, Shamblin founded Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tennessee, with the emphasis on 'helping people turn away from the love of food and toward a love of God.'
Morris, who lost 138 pounds in 18 months, said that she was told to stop eating to lose more weight. If people didn't lose more than two pounds that week, they were instructed to fast. 'The faster you do it, the holier you are,' she said.
Soon thereafter, Shamblin began preaching that her weight-loss creed was effective at curing all the other perceived ills of the world, touting that Remnant members were able to break 'free from slavery, to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, overeating and overspending.'
'I got counselled that, 'You need to loose about four pounds a week in order to be in God's good will,'' said Laura Alvarez, in the second installment of The Way Down.
'So then they put me at 10-bites-a-day,' she says. She was also told to fast every other month with absolutely no food, except for a few sips of broth.
The extreme starvation diet caused so much damage to Alvarez's body that she got sick when she was pregnant for the first time. When doctors performed a biopsy, they asked if she struggled with bulimia or anorexia. 'I said, 'I starve myself,' and they said, 'Your body ate away its kidneys, that's what it does when you go through starvation.''
Defending her draconian dieting dogma to Larry King once, Shamblin said: 'How, in the Holocaust, did you have all these people getting down real skinny? They ate less food.'
According to their website at the time, the church had 150 congregations located all over the world, with more than 1,500 acolytes worldwide, its membership 'has a combined weight loss of 30,000 pounds.'
It described itself as a community where 'leaders are PURE...Husbands are kind like Christ, women are submissive, and children obey their parents'.
'How members of Remnant behave is bit like the Handmaid's Tale and Stepford Wives,' said Glen Wingerd, whose daughter Delaney married into the church.
Their ultra-disciplined children were dressed in strangely old-fashioned clothing: 'I would say turn of the century ruffles,' says one ex-member, 'and lots of lace. The little boys looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy.' Shamblin's teachings came to focus increasingly on controlling those children.
Gradually, ex-members claim in the doc, church members became more brainwashed by Shamblin's teachings, which grew ever more outrageous.
If a congregant fell ill with cancer, gained weight, or had disobedient children, Shamblin declared that it was 'god's judgment.'
She told her followers that 'They had to repent for bad things they had done, if bad things were happening to them,' explained ex-member Gina Wilson in the doc. 'But they never held that same standard to themselves.'
Another tenant of the Shamblin doctrine was the harsh punishment and treatment of disobedient children. Her fellowship has been accused of inflicting corporal punishment with glue sticks, if they misbehaved.
Two members, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were convicted of murdering their eight-year-old son Josef Smith in 2007.
He died after his parents put him a wicker box, Eleanor Odom, assistant district attorney for Cobb County in Georgia who tried the case, said in The Way Down. Josef kept popping up his head so his parents tied up the box with bungee cord so he couldn't get out, she said. 'At the end of the worship service, they didn't hear anything inside the box so they untied the box with the bungee cords and that's when they found Josef nonresponsive.'
The EMTS who first responded talked about it being such a bad case, she said, and Josef had injuries pretty much everywhere except for the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet.
Ge'cobi Pittman joined The Weigh Down with her mother when she was 14-years-old. 'Perfection was always the goal,' she said. Despite being a valedictorian with full-ride offers to Ivy League schools, she was pressured to move to Tennessee. 'I picked a small school in Nashville because I wanted to be closer to the church.'
The ex-Shamblin devotee said she 'hit a breaking point' during her sophomore year and walked away from her scholarship. 'I was trying to be a perfect Division 1 athlete, a perfect student experiencing college for the first time, and then all the pressure to do everything the church wanted me to do while starving myself.'
Pittman recalled having one last conversation with Shamblin before leaving the church in 2015: 'I saw the darkness in her [Shamblin's] eyes finally when she realized that she wasn't able to get me to stay.' Adding, 'I had never seen her like that.'
'One way that cults control people's thinking, it's really simple, they teach you to minimize parts of the story that don't fit, they teach you to deny parts of the story that don't fit,' says cult expert, Adam Brooks. 'Minimize, denial, rewrite the narrative.'
Shamblin reigned with impunity by instilling guilt and fear into her congregants.
'She keeps a list of curses of people that happen to leave the church,' explains Pittman, who was pregnant at the time she quit Remnant. 'I was told that I would be cursed.' When she later suffered a miscarriage, she told HBO: 'I was fully convinced that I was cursed because of my disobedience.'
It's taken years for Pittman to recover from the trauma and brainwashing she experienced in the Remnant Fellowship. 'Let's just say I'm happy to be here today because I almost took action a couple times to end the pain.'
Hawking Jesus and a diet plan made Shamblin fabulously wealthy. According to the documentary, she accrued $20million in real estate assets all over the country. She drove a Porsche, and lived in a pre-Civil War plantation home known as Ashlawn.
After divorcing her husband of 40 years, Shamblin got remarried in 2018 to Joe Lara, a man best known for a 1989 TV movie Tarzan in Manhattan and the 1990s Tarzan TV series. One former member called him an 'escort' by a former church member in the series.
Among the many expensive gifts that Shamblin lavished on her boy-toy were flight lessons. 'When he met Gwen he started to renew his pilot's license because he hadn't flown in seven and a half years until about 2017 when Gwen paid for it,' Natasha Pavlovich, Joe Lara's ex-girlfriend said in the finale of the doc. 'In a very short time, I'd say in a year, he got multiple new flight ratings and he also got a helicopter license.'
Lara was piloting the Cessna 501 when it crashed into Percy Priest Lake on May 21, 2021, immediately killing all seven passengers on board, including his wife.
The second half of The Weigh Down series features the haunting moment air traffic control tried desperately in vain to contact the plane.
Shamblin afforded the high-life on the backs of her congregants. Within Remnant Fellowship, there were real estate and financial planning companies. Exodus Industries, which is the business arm of the church, built custom homes and provide plumbing, electrical work and air conditioning work.
'Everyone worked for free,' said Mindy Alvarez in the second installment of The Way Down. 'She would tell them 'You're doing it for God.'
'Everybody in the church, the congregation - were the workers, were cooks, there was daycare, there was everything, while they're making their money.'
As a Spanish speaker, Mindy spearheaded The Weigh Down method to the Latin community in Arizona. 'Before I moved to Nashville they offered me a job,' she tells HBO. 'They offered to meet my pay, which at that time was probably $21 -$22 an hour.' When Mindy got her first paycheck for $8-an-hour, she asked Shamblin about the discrepancy. 'And I'll never forget this, she said, 'Mindy you need to humble yourself. This is your pay and never ever expect a raise.'
'I was sorry because I thought that I wasn't humble, and I shouldn't ask for more and that I should be content.'
Mindy was also expected to work on the weekends, but because it was officially considered 'church time,' she never got paid for those days.'
Her daughter Laura, who also speaks in the finale of the series, says, 'she never saw her kids.'
'Gwen broke my family, and the only thing I can do is pick up the pieces because that's what she left,' Mindy told HBO.
Shamblin promoted the notion that great things came to those who bowed before God, and that bad events were the consequence of unfaithfulness. Thus, her untimely demise, was an enormous complication for the church that sent them into an identity crises tailspin.
'When bad things happen, its God's judgement so if he takes seven of your leaders out at the same time, what other message could have been sent?' According them, this is gods judgment,' says Helen Byrd, an ex-devotee.
'A lot of what cults often do in situations like this is very Orwellian,' explained cult expert Adam Brooks. 'It will be almost ignored because it doesn't fit their narrative, that their leader was struck down in an accident that god could have protected her from.'
Since The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin first premiered in late 2021, the Remnant Fellowship has countered the negative publicity in a series of promotional videos that encourage inclusivity and emphasize their 'family friendly' values.
In one snip, a man wearing a white doctor's coat and goofy smile named Otis Rickman says, 'One of the things I'd like to touch on as we talk about people loosing weight or gaining weight is everyone is different. God made us all different so we have big sturdy muscular people, we have thin wispy people, we have just all kinds of people.'
'Otis Rickman put out this video that everybody's body is different right? And that nobody gets shunned or shamed or whatever when his wife was sat out of the church because she had gained wait, so that's a lie,' says Helen Byrd. 'It's the God**** remix!'
As far as the future of the church without its dolled-up preacher, only time will tell.
But the series offers some insights into the future of Shamblin's ministry without her guiding the way. While her daughter, Elizabeth Hannah, is expected to be heir-apparent, she has yet to officially take over the reigns. Instead, she's become more of a spectral Oz character, who patches in from behind the scenes over the loud speaker during service on the weekend.
Elizabeth's husband, Brandon was one of the seven victims of the plane crash.
'I know that a lot of you have wondered how I'm doing, and if I'm throwing in the towel,' she says while speaking to her followers over the sound system from seclusion. 'Considering what has just happened I am doing very well, and I am very strong and my children are very strong. I just want to keep letting everybody know that even though I haven't been there recently, the precious leadership has allowed me to have a little time off.'
Ex-member, Gina Wilson tells HBO: 'I don't know how Elizabeth is going to be able to do it, she's lost her husband, her mother and her best friend, but she was trained mightily by Gwen to be her mockingbird.'
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