Former Follower of Christ church member's advice: 'Just leave'

KATU TV, Oregon/December 17, 2010

Oregon City, Oregon - The simply-lettered white, rust-streaked sign on Molalla Avenue for the Followers of Christ Church sways in a cold December breeze, its simplicity masking the complex and contentious stories that have come out of the insular religous organization over the years.

The medically preventable deaths of children of church members and two high-profile trials about those parents' culpability - and indirectly, any blame that might fall to the church - has put a spotlight on the small congregation that believes only in faith healing when it comes to life-and-death situations.

Now, a former member of the church has come forward to shed some light on what church members' lives are like under the tight control church leaders exert over their followers.

Myra Cunningham grew up in the Followers of Christ Church, where her father is a member.

"They brainwash you into keeping you there," Myra told KATU News, "because if they didn't tell people from birth that if you leave that church you are going to go to Hell - why would you stay there?"

Following a near-death trauma during the birth of her second child, Cunningham split with the church. It also meant splitting with her family, possibly for life. Anyone who leaves the church to join outsiders - church members call them "worldlies" - is shunned by all church members, including family.

She says it's almost surreal to think she was ever a part of that little church in Oregon City.

"We [church members] were called "the kissers,"" Myra said, "because when the members of the church greet each other, they call it the holy kiss."

Myra said growing up, the church didn't make sense to here - especially when it came to medical care.

"We would go to the dentist," she recalled. "We would go have our eyes checked. Well, they're doctors - and the explanation would be ... "they aren't going to save your life.""

The life-and-death medical decisions were left up to God. No major medical treatment, including during childbirth, was allowed.

Myra started asking questions about church rules before she was a teenager - and a teenage bride. The answers were not forthcoming from her parents, especially her dad.

"I would always question my dad - and he would get upset -- because he couldn't show it to me in the bible," she recalled. "It was like "where did you get that from? Why do we do this? Where is that in the bible?" And [her father] couldn't show me."

She was also forbidden to play sports or take part in activities with anyone from outside the church. Myra said she believes church leader Walter White used fear tactics to keep members in line - and in the church.

The main tactic Myra says White used was the threat, or perhaps promise, that all those people outside the small church, the "worldlies," were going to Hell.

"I was actually scared of him," she says with a small laugh. "This little kid... with this big guy up there, talking from the pulpit."

She says White made sure women knew where they stood in the church. "Women couldn't even go to college. .. it's definitely discouraged, because you are out with the 'worldy' people as they call it."

Myra's problems really began after she got married and became pregnant at age 16. The delivery was complicated, but no doctors were present.

At 18, during the birth of her second child, Myra started bleeding. She said church midwives did nothing until she demanded help. "They would have just said that was God's will for me to die," she said. "No one was going to call an ambulance."

She said she fought to remain conscious in order to survive. Two years later, she made the difficult choice to leave the church, knowing she would be shunned by friends and family.

She remained quiet about her experience in the church for many years - until media reports of children dying from curable illnesses started making the news.

Myra, who went on to college, owns her own business and sent her children to college as well, said she hopes going public sends a message to church members - especially women - that it is never too late to leave.

"I would encourage them not to stay there ... just to leave. Stand up for themselves," she advises.

All attempts by to get church members to talk about medical policies in the church, shunning and other topics have been met with refusal to comment. Web Staff contributed to this report.

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