I’ve been occupying an odd head space lately: reading a great deal about cults, and pondering my general resistance to going to church. I didn’t think they were connected, but it recently occurred to me that perhaps they are. Enter Youth With a Mission (Or YWAM, pronounced “Why-wham.”)
Youth With a Mission was founded by Loren Cunningham in the sixties, and is one of the largest evangelistic organizations in the world. I joined YWAM fresh out of a tumultuous four years in high school, and (like many YWAMers) entered the organization out of a desperation for direction and stability. I was 18, impressionable, artsy, dramatic, and very, very gay.
Entering YWAM was like entering another world; I practically vanished from the real world – from family, jobs, friends, school – and I entered an alternate dimension: the huge network of YWAM bases. It felt like an hidden web. Within this vast, insular web, I was nurtured. The base leaders were kind, receptive, and caring. I had a strict daily structure: wake up at 7 AM, an hour of silence for prayer, worship and lectures every morning and early afternoon, duties around the base (mine was in the kitchen) and then free time in late afternoon and evening.
The idea of it being cult-like was not on my radar. The Discipleship Training School (DTS for short) is the entry level 6 month program that all YWAMers must complete in order to enter the vast web of YWAM. My DTS was a bright spot of happiness in my otherwise tumultuous youth. I was just happy to find a place of temporary stability. Despite the rapturous happiness I felt at the base, however, I also found myself experiencing abysmal depression. I would find myself so debilitatingly depressed I couldn’t speak, or couldn’t get out of bed. The highs were very high, the lows were very, very low.
Encased in an insular religious environment, every single tiny thing became laced with spiritual meaning. The world took on a hallucinogenic quality, in which all emotions and experience were heightened. It was a giddy experience – meaning infused everything. A tattoo, an ear ring, a gift from a friend, a breakfast, worship, a passage in the Bible – they all became omens of inexpressible import. And it wasn’t just me who experienced this high, this incredible quality to life: it was all of us. Most of us felt that we had found a deeper reality, an intoxicating realm of meaning. I still find myself missing YWAM and aching for it, despite myself, and despite all the skepticism I’ve accumulated over the years. I still have dreams in which I’m reunited with the organization. I will still astonish myself with a deep, aching yearning for such a sense of community, purpose, and spirituality.
The first sign of trouble for me came at the very end of my DTS, when I was considering leaving the base and moving to another YWAM base elsewhere in the country. The leadership of my base pushed back very, very strongly.
“You need to stay here,” said the base leader, “you need more spiritual healing.” The leadership of the base seemed to feel that I was an unfinished project, and that I wasn’t permitted to leave until I was finished, until I was completely fixed. I don’t know what their intentions were – I was eighteen, and like all eighteen year olds I was a master of interpreting the intentions of adults in the least charitable light – but the message was clear to me: we are the only ones who can help you.
“It takes just as much prayer and discernment to leave YWAM as it does to enter it,” they told me. “It is just as serious to leave as it is to enter.” And they made their opinion obvious to me: I would be wrong and disobedient to leave the base.
This disturbed me, and I left the base. I transferred to the Denver base, which turned into an unrelenting nightmare.
First, there’s the fact that I’m gay. At both bases I was stationed, ex-gay thinking was deeply ingrained. I believed everything I was told: that being gay is a sexualized pathology, and that I am just a wounded and confused heterosexual who needs healing from past traumas. I was taught that I did not receive appropriate love from men or, worse, was sexually abused, which distorted my sexual growth. I had to heal the abuse, or the wounding, in order to finally be whole. I had to wait for God’s healing touch, the way a person dying of thirst must wait for rain.
By the time I got to Denver, my ex-gay honeymoon was coming to an end. At the previous base, I’d had transcendent mystical experiences of God calling me out of the Egypt of homosexuality – I’d heard His voice, felt conviction, and blindly followed. But in Denver, the spell started to wear thin. I realized that I hadn’t changed. That nobody had changed. That all my ex-gay leaders and mentors were still as gay as they were at the age of 18. I plummeted into the pitch black night of depression.
Denver was lonely. Suffocatingly, miserably lonely. The highs and lows, from thunderous spiritual ecstasy to abysmal, black despair, became more pronounced. And then, at the very end of my 3 month stint, a gunman came to the Denver base and killed 2 people. I was in the hallway when it happened. The shooting ended the YWAM season of my life, and I left for good.
In the aftermath of my YWAM experience, other stories started to emerge. Friends of mine who were also YWAMers would come home from their bases traumatized shadows of their former selves. I would ask them what happened, and they would tell stories of spiritual abuse and manipulation, or they would say nothing at all, completely unwilling to revisit whatever it was that happened when they were in the organization. However, it must also be said that I knew just as many YWAMers who returned home with wonderful experiences or, like me, came home with ambivalent feelings about the organization, but there were enough stories of trauma to give me pause.
I started to realize that my own story of manipulative leaders, incredible spiritual highs and horrible depressive lows was not rare. It was widespread. I encountered more and more people who had been traumatized or abused by their time in YWAM, and I listened intently to their stories. My story was mild compared to the abuse they experienced. Mine was uncomfortable, theirs were nightmarish.
My disillusionment with YWAM grew, and as it did my trust in spirituality, the voice of God, and religion as a whole started to crack. I’m now resistant to groups of any kind, and I’d rather float on the outside, like a cat watching from the periphery, instead of being enmeshed on the inside. That distrust has followed me throughout my life. The seed of skepticism is alive and well inside of me, and though I am still a Christian, I struggle with it daily.
Is YWAM a cult? I don’t know. It depends on who you ask. I’ve been searching for an answer, trying to find a black and white way to cast my experience. Parts of their program are undoutedly cult-like: leaders who demand obedience, the cloistering away from the world, putting in hours and hours of work for almost zero pay. But in other ways, the program was wonderful. It complicated my life, but it also enriched it. Are all cults fully wicked? And are all organizations that have cult-like symptoms fully cults? Could it be that YWAM – and many organizations – inhabit an interstitial space somewhere in the middle, with the potential for great good and great evil?
All I’m left with is an uncomfortable middle ground of loving and hating my history in YWAM, and by default loving and hating anything that resembles that religious groupishness. Despite my Christian faith, I struggle with complex feelings every time I step foot into a church or Christian community, and too often those feelings have gone unexamined, pushing me to the outer fringe. The religious inside, to me, is dangerous, and it always has been. And I can’t help but feel that many others (especially of my generation) have the same suspicion of religious community: that, for all it’s redemptive qualities, it’s a thinly veiled prison.