Georgian experts discuss cult behaviors and scope
Following last month’s FBI raid, former members of Georgia-based House of Prayer Christian churches disclosed alleged cult-like behavior they allegedly witnessed while at the church.
Religious extremism experts from across Georgia gave their thoughts on the manipulation and control that can occur at the hands of various organized groups, not just religious outfits, and why many can become so devoted to them.
Former followers have told the USA Today Network that House of Prayer has subjected its congregations to emotional and financial abuse, including aggressive tithing and inappropriate influence over their personal finances. Members who were veterans or active-duty military said they were pressured to use GI Bill funding to attend the church’s unaccredited seminary. Former members have also spoken of routine humiliation, isolation and coercion.
Read more:FBI raids Georgia churches near military bases; sources say church targeted soldiers
Related: Former members talk about life at the House of Prayer Christian Church
For Erika Van Meir, a therapist who treated former cult members in Decatur, Georgia, and now lives in Alabama, said it’s too easy for abusive organizations to trick people.
“It’s a mistake to judge them or to assume that only a certain type of person would join a group,” she said. “Under the right circumstances, I think most of us could be tricked into joining something that we thought was consistent with our beliefs, but turns out to be something more sinister.”
What is a cult?
Scholars have many different definitions for cults.
Jeff Patterson, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, who studies religious and political extremism, argues that cults are groups dedicated to the study of a particular belief system, generally without clear direction or doctrine.
These groups, he said, are not always abusive. For Patterson, sectarian abuse stems from unequal power dynamics, which can also occur in established churches and secular groups.
“So take this recent high profile case of child abuse within the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is not a cult, but you find these behaviors abusive because of the structure that authorizes them,” a he declared.
What we know:House of Prayer churches near military bases in Georgia looted by FBI
Van Meir agrees with this assessment.
“It’s a very problematic group structure, usually with a very controlling person at the top, and it usually claims to have the formula for how people should live,” she said. “Often there’s black and white thinking, inner lingo and language that gets very loaded, and a tendency to see anyone on the outside as the enemy.”
Dr. Jackie Johnson, a self-proclaimed former cult member and Savannah-based cult recovery specialist, also noted that cult abuse can take place in any setting.
“A book club can be a cult. An equestrian center can be cult,” she said.
The characteristics that set it apart can often seem benign: the group may be intent on meeting new members, it may consider itself to be very close-knit, or perhaps its members simply seem very zealous about their beliefs. But for Johnson, these groups and the abuses within them amount to a social crisis.
“If a group manages to control our most primal urges, like our sex life and sexual identity and avoid your own children, they can really do anything else to you,” she said.
Who joins cults?
Often, experts say, the people most susceptible to sectarian abuse are simply looking to belong. Sometimes there is a major life change: a move, a new job or the death of a loved one. People experiencing isolation or loneliness are more likely to join, especially with the promise of a loving community.
“It’s often during times of transition that people are most likely to get involved in something of this nature,” Van Meir said.
Former House of Prayer followers have told USA Today Network reporters in previous reports that the church specifically targets military service members, setting up seminaries near six different military bases across the United States. Patterson believes these allegations fit typical cult recruiting tactics.
“It certainly fits the pattern when you think about it,” Patterson said. “Military personnel, especially if they live on base, probably don’t live near or with their families. They may not have many other social connections outside of the group.
For many, the realization of what they are really involved in comes too late.
“Nobody really wakes up and says, ‘I want to join a cult today,'” Van Meir said. “And often by the time they realize there are issues, they’re so in over their heads that there’s a ton at stake to leave.”
The road to healing
It is deeply difficult for members to leave a cult.
“Despite all the terrible things they went through, there was usually something positive that drew them to them in the first place,” Van Meir said. “There are relationships, memories and a sense of being part of something they thought would make the world a better place.”
Johnson agrees. After many unsuccessful attempts, she left an abusive sect for good at the age of 52. Although she had a background in therapy, she found that few of her peers understood sectarian violence.
It was through her own research that she found the International Cultic Studies Association, a network of scholars and survivors of sectarian abuse. Through CAHI, she was able to connect with other survivors and better understand the path to recovery – for her patients and for herself.
Still, it is a difficult path. Survivors often arrive with little familiarity with the outside world. They often struggle to establish healthy boundaries and establish an identity outside of the cult. Dealing with their abuse – emotional, financial, sexual, etc. – can be debilitating.
“[Patients] come to therapy with a lot of shame, because they don’t understand how this group has manipulated and exploited them,” she said. “They feel stupid. ‘How could I fall for this? How could I do this? »
Although there is a wider public interest in cult abuses, she finds herself frustrated by the persistent misconceptions about cults. Johnson thinks we could do less sensationalism and more education about abuse.
“Cult involvement is a public safety issue,” she said. “It absolutely traumatizes people and damages their health in all areas of life.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note that Erika Van Meir no longer lives in Georgia.