Setting the Bait

Mujer Non-Grata: An Ongoing Series on Life in a Cult, Healing from Religious Trauma Syndrome, and Navigating Life After Religion

Maria Elena* was the new president of the college Catholic youth group. After a long night of praise and worship and then patiently waiting around, the ballots were finally counted and she was announced the winner for our senior year—but 24 hours later, when we should have been celebrating, we were instead sitting in a nearby adoration chapel, both silently weeping.

Shortly after the announcement of her win, Maria Elena had unexpectedly been asked to step down and not accept the president position. In shock and wanting company, she asked me to accompany her as she prayed about what to do next. She weeped quietly, valiantly stifling sobs that threatened to overtake her small frame. Maria Elena was not the type of woman to cry. A born leader, she was notoriously stiff upper lipped and nothing kept her down for very long. But this was different. The rejection from the youth group leadership cut deep, echoing rejection she had felt throughout her life. This was bigger than just an election.

Maria Elena had been open with her close friends about how her faith had alienated her from friends and family in her younger years. After becoming involved in a high school youth group, she had been shunned and mocked by the people closest to her, including family members. She often said her “conversion” had left her without a home, isolated and rejected as a devout woman in a secular world. This was nothing new for those of us in the youth group. In our circles, it was a badge of honor—to be rejected by those “in the world”—including loved ones. It meant we were doing something right. But underneath all of the learned language about sacrifice, I could tell Maria Elena was shaken. Recently, she had opened up about how she felt that she had always been judged for being “too much. She was too pious, too charitable, too sure of herself, too modest, too involved, too dominant, too forward, too feminine or not feminine enough. While all women struggle with these societal impositions—they are amplified to a deafening roar in patriarchal and authoritative groups where female submission is key to being a woman. One youth group leader loved saying “The road to sainthood is full of suffering and loneliness.” This mantra, accompanied by the ever cliché story of footprints in the sand, was meant as encouragement for those, like Maria Elena, who felt alienated and hurt in a world that did not understand theirs.

Some background:

However lonely and painful Maria Elena's childhood may have been, she was not "homeless" when we met. She had found a home at FSU, within the walls of the local Catholic cathedral—an imposing building that overlooked campus like the Great Sept of Baelor in Game of Thrones. She had joined the Catholic Student Union, a charismatic Catholic youth group run by a relatively young male religious order named The Brotherhood of Hope. The Brotherhood came from a Catholic Covenant Community in New Jersey called The People of Hope. One of the many charismatic communities that popped up during the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the 80s, The People of Hope is and was a controversial community whose main focus was the gifts of the spirit. They gained some infamy by referring to single women within the community as handmaidens—reminiscent of and rumored to have inspired Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. For the average Catholics saying to themselves, “What is the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement or what is a Covenant Community? What are you talking about?” Exactly. I didn’t know about any of this either. It’s only recently through my PhD research and my efforts to work through my own religious trauma that I have begun to learn about these groups--the irony being that I was in one for years.

If I was to try and explain our group’s theology without going into some serious academic discourse, I would say that it mimicked a historically Pentecostal language and understanding of charismatic practices and gifts: an obsession with speaking in tongues, an environment that promoted communal healing exercises and exorcisms performed by untrained laity on mostly the mentally ill—not the possessed, a mission to grow and develop new covenant communities that would live out “authentic Christian lives” under the principles of the Sword of the Spirit—a movement within the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement that is a mixture of “orthodox” Catholic interpretations of family and gender with a heavy dose of Quiverfull sexual repression. If you want to mental picture--we were those people in the WOW 2000 Worship CD commercials on Nick at Night, but much less happy and, though hard to imagine, even more white.

The Brothers left the People of Hope as a newly celibate order to focus on evangelizing youth on college campuses in the spirit of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, ultimately hoping to evangelize more laity into new covenant communities. When it comes to forming a covenant community in Tallahassee—they have succeeded. One has already popped up (think of a Juniper creek styled community with less polygamy but more homeschooling and just as many children). The aim of these communities is to grow and grow (and grow and grow—remember, contraception is a mortal sin in Catholicism), bringing new life (literally) into young communities and, by the nature of large families, new brothers for The Brotherhood of Hope. You could say The Brothers are the door to door Mormons of Catholic college campus evangelization efforts. And for a while, I was the one of the girl cheerfully singing, “Hello!”, while also shamefully praying outside a Planned Parenthood.

It’s easy to make snarky comments now, but I have had years to process my experiences. It wasn’t always easy to make light of what really was a very toxic environment. As part of the evangelization efforts of The Brotherhood of Hope, I participated in many things I am not proud of today. But it was me and I have been working through the guilt for years.

I promise to give a better breakdown of these communities in a future post (and how they tie into the current political climate—including where their money is coming from), but for this first post I wanted you, the reader, to have enough context to set the scene for the world Maria Elena and I lived in.

Within The Brotherhood of Hope and their Catholic Student Union (CSU), Maria Elena found students and friends who welcomed her with open arms and a community that was more than excited to have another soul on fire. Instead of being chastised or bullied for her devotion to her faith, she was praised and admired. She was the perfect example of a young orthodox Catholic woman “seeking holiness”. She mentored incoming freshmen, helping them to navigate the complicated theology most freshmen had never heard of, even if they had gone to CCD and/or Catholic school their entire lives. She held weekly bible studies. She gave free rides to adoration. She explained what adoration was to those she gave rides to. She knew every praise and worship song by heart and sang with such joy that nobody ever noticed she was tone deaf—and I say this with love because she didn’t care. She praised because it brought her joy, not because she wanted to impress anyone. And while for some of us, myself included, trying to live up to the type of CSUer Maria Elena was seemed daunting and almost impossible, she was exactly the type of woman we were supposed to become.

So why were we here? Why would The Brothers not want Maria Elena as President of CSU? This was not a big job—she wasn’t writing canon law or putting out new Church teachings. At most, she would occasionally be called on to invite students during Sunday mass to our get togethers and retreats. She would meet with the rest of the leadership to make trivial decisions about social events, and she would pray for the community. These posts were mostly courtesy posts to already established leaders in the community. So, what was going on?

I watched as Maria Elena wrote in her journal, tear drops staining the stark white pages with wet black splotches. Sitting next to her, wrapping my arm around her shoulders, I assured her there had obviously been a mistake.

But nothing I said soothed her broken heart. She had internalized The Brother’s rejection and pressure, now doubting her community--wondering if they also wanted her to step down. Her hurt was beyond me and beyond simple words of comfort. It touched on past trauma, ricocheting inside her brain, hitting all of the insecurities she had held on to since she was a little girl. And these were insecurities the Brothers knew about—most community members met with a brother for weekly spiritual direction (we were encouraged to do so as part of our spiritual development), the equivalent of a weekly therapy session with an untrained man. Sobbing, Maria Elena kept repeating, “I’m not pretty enough. I am not popular enough. I am not smart enough. I am not good enough. Matthew or Christian (two men who were also elected to the leadership team) would have better for the position. Why did I run?” This hellish litany of self-destruction went on for days both internally and externally—a back and forth between her, her self-doubt, her perseverance, and the powers at the Church.

In the end, she and the Brothers reached some sort of an agreement—or stalemate. Maria Elena stayed on as President, though the damage was done. Staying on, even if she didn’t realize it, was an act of defiance--an extremely transgressive act in a very strict community with very clear language on dissent and submission (particularly when it came to causing scandal within the community). It was infuriating to see some of the more influential members of the community openly discussing how she should have stepped down—their cruelty validated by the actions of The Brothers. Her insecurities became her truth and she spent an entire year trying to prove everybody wrong, fighting to win the communities approval. She fought that battle and she fought it hard. She did everything at 110%—but as most of us know, battles like that leave scars and scars take a long time to heal.

And then there were those of us who knew what had happened and became restless. Never one to just let things go (clearly), I eventually asked a brother, Brother Henry, if we could take a walk around campus and talk. He knew what I wanted to talk about. I had been angry and vocal about my disgust for the way the entire Maria Elena situation had been handled.

However, before I could even get a word in, Brother Henry stopped me on our walk and said, “Marci, look around, what do you see?”

We were stopped at the Student Union, one of the most active spaces on our sprawling campus. Every type of student and student group was represented at small tables--flyers and students campaigning for everyone’s attention and identity. I could see our own CSU table across the way.

“Students," I said. “I see students—and fake purses for sale.” His question caught me off guard.

“I see souls that need saving—souls lost in this world that need to come to know Jesus and his mother.”

His voice was steady and calm. He wasn’t even looking at me. His eyes were closed.

“And Maria Elena?” I said, my voice shriller than I wanted—a ball of anger settling in my throat, threatening to make itself known. “She couldn’t help bring these students to the Catholic Student Union?”

I was tired of the delicate dance that so often happened in spiritual direction. I wanted to get to the point.

“You tell me,” he said, his eyes now focused on my face, his mouth twisted into a forced smile. “Would you have stopped at her table? Or would Maria Elena have turned you off?”

I will admit, I was not prepared for his response. I had been ready to get on my usual soapbox about how it was disgraceful to sideline women from leadership—assuming the problem with Maria Elena was that she lacked certain prized genitals for leadership. This had been the most logical explanation in my mind for their campaign against her and I was ready for that argument.

“I stopped at the table,” I said defiantly. “I mean, I eventually stopped--not during orientation with my parents, but I did. Once I got tired of drinking and partying, I stopped. I am here because of people like Maria Elena. Ryan and Toby were at the table with Brother Sandor. I talked to them here. And then I ran into them at the cafeteria and they sat with me and invited me to come to daily mass and Spirit Night and the rest is history.”

I dig my finger into my chest. “I am here because of people like Maria Elena.”

His smile grew, as if he had played a winning chess move. I felt my hands shaking, my anger rising unexpectedly.

“Why are you smiling?” I said, through gritted teeth.

“Ryan and Toby were at the Student Union when you stopped by?”

“Yes,” I said, “That is what I said.”

“And tell me—what is the difference between Ryan and Toby at the table versus Maria Elena?”

And suddenly it hit me. I understood what he was getting at—and I felt sick to my stomach. Maria Elena was not being sidelined for being a woman. She was being sidelined for being Maria Elena. Even though she was who we were supposed to become eventually, she was not and was never going to be the person they wanted at a Student Union table.

“You think I only stopped because Toby looks like…”

“You stopped because he looked like someone you would want to get to know—someone you would go to a bar with on a Friday night.”

I feel the blood rising to my cheeks. I feel ashamed. I could not argue with him--because he was right. My friend Kristopher and I had only stopped at the CSU table because Kristopher had been obsessing over Toby for months—his surfer blond curls and bible a siren call that Kristopher eventually decided we should stop to entertain.

“Long jean skirts and bible verse t-shirts make for good wives and mothers, but they do not appeal to those walking through this union. They do not appeal to those who happen to be at a Sunday mass when we make an announcement about an upcoming retreat or bible study. You are smart. You understand. We have to slowly bring people to Jesus. Everyone has their strengths—but not everyone is meant to evangelize on a college campus.”

I shake my head, taking a step back.

“So, some of us are bait?” I spit out, disgusted at the implication. I had been asked to be at the table in the Student Union numerous times. I had made announcements at mass.

“Bait is a disgusting term, Marci. Don’t be so dramatic.” He signals that we are done talking and should begin walking back to the cathedral. I follow—not even aware that I could have walked away. “This is the Lord’s work,” he says quietly as we walk back towards the cathedral.

“But that doesn’t mean it does not require strategy. You forget we are at war.”

I start with this anecdote because the most common question I get when I talk about toxic religious environments or having been in a cult is:

“But how did you end up in a cult? ”

That question is exhausting (though well-meaning, I know—but damn it gets harder and harder to answer). I wonder—what do people think I am going to say?

“Oh, I was bored and I love authoritarian patriarchal communities? I love a big heavy red yoke?”

Or maybe, “I was super into the Hailey’s Comet group in the 90s—and I needed a new pair of white Nikes anyway.”

No.

There is no simple answer because pretty much no one knows they are in a cult until they get out. And even then, it takes time to process--if you ever do. And to be honest, it’s a million tiny reasons and none at all. None of it really ever makes sense. But this memory of Maria Elena reminds me that there are recruitment tactics. I won't break down the ins and outs of why I was a prime target and personality type for this type of cult, at least not now. But what I can tell you is that some of us were actually recruited. Some sought it out on their own. Some happened to end up there by chance. But as I reflect back, those that were not recruited or useful to the community were usually treated pretty poorly. I realize now that it was because they got in the way of the mission. They were a liability. Maria Elena—by virtue of becoming exactly the type of woman The Brothers was trying to cultivate, became a liability. She could scare people off or make them uncomfortable by being so “on brand” she became “off brand.”

While watching a documentary on Netflix on The Family, a prominent cult in the 70s that is still around today, I had this strange “ah-ha” moment watching, realizing that CSU was not alone in their recruitment tactics. It is a common red flag for cults. In the documentary, an ex-member recounted being part of a recruitment tactic called “Flirty Fishing”. It involved members of the community sending out their most charismatic and attractive members to “fish” as bait for new recruits. They would go to bars and discos and bring recruits back to the community. They would lure them in with harmless group activities and targeted flirtation, slowly introducing and integrating them into the community and their practices. By the time these recruits even realized they had taken the bait, they had been in for 20 years.

This memory of Brother Henry acknowledging that we were bait has stayed with me longer than most of my now foggy memories from my time at CSU. This exchange is a reminder that, regardless of what type of gaslighting and opposition I come up against when I talk about my experiences with The Brothers and their type of community, we were a means to an end, not souls to save. We were a commodity. Evangelization was a numbers game, and The Brotherhood were not in it to lose.

And all in the name of God’s love…

Authors Note:

When thinking about writing for The Engaged Gaze, I had this nagging idea—the type of idea that you sit with and convince yourself is stupid, but you keep coming back to it again and again. I knew I wanted to write about toxic religious environments—but I also wanted to write about my own personal experiences within a cult. I wanted to talk about what it takes to heal from those experiences and how hard it is to leave. I wanted to acknowledge how hard your community will fight you leaving, how you will deal with the trauma for years and struggle to find words to make sense of it all.

…but I kept holding back. I kept finding reasons not to write. But then a mentor of mine said, “Just write. Dare to be adequate. You have been sitting with this for ten years. Just get it out.”

And so here we are. Ten years later. I am going to dare to be adequate and just write. I will be the first to admit--this is not an academic paper or expose. It is simply my reflections on my own experiences. All people’s names have been changed, though not the organizations. I made the tough decision to keep those in for the sake of transparency and accountability.

Also, this is tough shit to write about, so I plan to include gifs because they are my love language and I love them, ok?

This is not all I will write about. I am a pop-culture theologian (technically a feminist and liberation theologian by trade) and you can expect to see me write about comic books, movies, and TV very soon, but this series is also a part of who I am and it is one of the ways I am actively resisting.

For any survivors of trauma, religious or other, it takes quite a bit of time to feel comfortable enough and self-assured enough in your own voice, agency, and experience to begin to speak about it with others—if you ever do. In my own experience, using the dreaded “c” word has been one of the hardest steps—because it can often lead to very loud push back and often vitriol from people you considered friends, mentors, and family (waves to everyone who is already frothing at the mouth to silence me). But, as an absolutely awful priest once told me, “Truth is truth is truth.”

So, This is my truth.

Ten years ago, I was in a cult.

I left this cult seven years ago and this is the first time I am writing it, other than in snarky passive aggressive comments on my social media when “Darksi” gets the best of me. And for those wondering what the definition of a cult is—especially those of you who will inevitably argue with me that *we* were not in a cult, I could give several solid academic definitions. I have them. They fit. But I won’t.

I prefer to refer to the popular culture anecdote of “How do we define pornography?"

“Well, you know it when you see it.”

And it is as simple as that. I was a cult.

How do I know?

Because I was there—and I know what I saw.

-M

*all names of individuals have been changed.

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