Ex-fundamentalists find peace at retreat

Contra Costa Times/May 16, 2007
By Rebecca Rosen Lum

Walnut Creek, California -- The graphic imagery from an end-times movie forms one of Michelle Lyerly's most vivid - and most horrifying - memories.

The hellfire-and-brimstone Christian high school she attended in North Carolina screened "A Thief in the Night," in which the forces of the Anti-Christ push a college student from a bridge to her death because she failed to convert in time for the Rapture.

"You can imagine a bunch of 12-year-olds," Lyerly said. "This could happen tonight! This was ingrained in us."

Lyerly and former fundamentalists from five states flew into Oakland, Calif., recently for a workshop, "Release and Reclaim."

They're losing their religion.

The three-day event offered role-playing, sharing of personal histories and guided imagery - tools to develop a sense of self and bonds of support.

Their God was a capricious, vindictive, punishing figure. Now, they need help learning to trust themselves, said the workshop leader, Berkeley psychologist Marlene Winell.

Fundamentalism encompasses evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic faiths. They share a belief in original sin, a final judgment day, and reliance on the Bible as the literal word of God.

The percentage of people who believe the Bible is the actual word of God has shrunk from 34 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2006, according to a Gallup poll.

But more than 60 percent of born-again Christians in this country believe they will suffer negative consequences if they disobey their religion, according to a 2003 survey by the University of Rochester and Zogby International.

That's a damaging belief, Winell said.

Those who leave punitive faiths struggle with confusion, grief, anxiety and anger, she writes in "Leaving the Fold," an autobiography and guidebook on letting go.

Winell knows this world from the inside out. As a high-school senior, she chose UC Irvine over Oral Roberts University, knowing the public school promised more souls in need of saving.

Today, Winell performs a different kind of rescue.

Helping children learn to articulate their ideas and feelings is "the psychological food parents are supposed to give their children," she said.

But in the fundamentalist world, "before they have the cognitive ability to process it, they are given these images of a bloody Christ on the cross and told they are responsible."

She spurns the combat metaphor fundamentalist leaders employ in place of a loving God. And she calls on the helping professions to study and treat the recovering adherents as they do other traumas and addictions.

At one time or another during the workshop, each participant broke down in tears. All spoke about guilt, shame and fear.

Common touchstones, like witnessing, salvation, speaking in tongues, and "Christian counselor" resonated - and spurred laughter.

"If you have doubts about the faith, going to a Christian counselor wouldn't help at all," Winell said. "Doubting is defined as sin."

In one exercise, they paired up and related bits of wisdom they had developed. Winell calls that "remedial nourishment."

They took turns sporting a headband with a mischievous pair of red sparkly devil's horns.

"There ain't no atheist like a former fundamentalist," said participant Geraldine D'Arc.

Today, Valerie Tarico is the successful author of "The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth."

But as a fundamentalist, she struggled with suicidal feelings - the result, she said, of evangelical beliefs.

She suffered from an eating disorder, and "according to my spiritual guides, I should have been able to get rid of those horrible, sneaky, deceitful, humiliating behaviors through prayer - if only I had faith the size of a mustard seed."

It didn't work.

"The last straw for me was working at Children's Hospital in Seattle and listening to all of the self-serving rationalizations used by believers to justify the suffering of innocents," she said. "I just couldn't hold the moral and rational contradictions together anymore."

It took several years for Deborah Thornley to make a break. Thornley embraced fundamentalism at 18. "I had my fill of `us' and `them.' I walked out of Sunday school one day and I never went back. I went cold turkey."

Over the years, Lyerly's spiritual leaders trained her not to trust her own instincts. There were no mistakes, no errors in judgment, no missteps - only sin.

The way out of eternal damnation: Pray. Harder.

Lyerly would later fall in with an end-of-the-world Y2K cult. But Y2K came and went, and the predicted end-time never came to pass. Her faith crumbled.

"The whole time I was terrified," she said. "There were a lot of feelings of betrayal. A lot of hurt."

She later earned two master's degrees; celebrated Episcopal Bishop John Spong praised her book, "From Rapture to Revelation."

Still, she struggles, but "I'm not as alone as I thought," she said.

Winell, who will hold another workshop in September, asked her charges to bring items of a sensory nature: a joke or funny story, something they find beautiful, and a favorite piece of music.

And she asked them to write a note to someone who is taking baby steps away from an authoritarian faith.

"Just get yourself to this retreat," wrote one. "Get yourself to the retreat and much else will fall into place."

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