Gary Cummings, 29, was 5 years old when his parents joined the Mother of God community. He left when he was 26. He lives with his wife, Angie, in Fort Collins, Colo., where he is studying natural-resources management.

How did you become involved in the Mother of God community?

I grew up in the community. From an early age I went to community formation classes. Through all my years of growing up, I was taught that the community was a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit and that we were God's chosen people.

What were your earliest feelings about the community?

My feelings were mixed. As a child there, I got a lot of attention from certain members, and it was like a large, extended family. On the other hand, I went to a public school; most of the other kids knew about the community, and I was teased about being in this weird religious group. I remember wanting to be "normal." Kids like me were not allowed to mix much with outsiders or participate in school activities.

Once you had belonged for a while, did your feelings change, and how?

My whole time growing up there was a struggle. I would go through times of rebelling and then I would "repent." For a long time I thought I was the problem. I used to wish that my "hard heart" would be broken and I would finally be obedient. We were taught that our whole families had been called to Mother of God. I was supposed to participate fully, but often I didn't want to; I felt stuck. I went through some intense emotional struggles, and I just couldn't understand why growing up in the community was so difficult.

What was your best experience at Mother of God?

My best experience was working at a salvage yard for Mercedes Benz automobiles. It was owned by a member of the community. Other young men from Mother of God worked there, and we did have a lot of fun. I learned how to work hard. We were also able to use the place to work on our own cars, and I really enjoyed it.

What was your worst experience there?

My worst experience was simply coming of age in Mother of God. I was trying to figure out my true path in an environment where other people thought they had the right to make decisions for me. We were expected to submit every decision to a spiritual overseer called a "head." If I decided something on my own, I was chastised. My life was micromanaged by people who claimed to know God's will. Even when I was in my twenties, Mother of God tried to control my dating. I fell in love with a woman at work, and they put pressure on me to break up with her because she wasn't in the community. I eventually left the community and we got married, but both of us went through years of torment.

Why didn't you leave when you developed doubts about the group?

When I was about 19, I got really tired of living in the community and wanted to leave. During a prayer meeting, I went out to my car and was on the verge of driving away. But I kept thinking I would go to hell if I left, so I didn't. When I was 21, I did leave for a couple of years, but that made me an outcast in my own family. I couldn't deal with the emotional baggage, so I went back. I didn't make the final break until three years ago.

Did you come to feel you had been misled about Mother of God's real nature or purpose?

I love my parents, and I think they were trying to do what was best for our family when they moved to the community, but they were misled. The community wasn't what it seemed to be on the surface. I believe now that the community wasn't really about "living life in the spirit;" it was about controlling people's lives and using them for material gain. Ultimately the leaders cared only for themselves. I used to question Mother of God's "teachings," and I was told I was too spiritually immature to understand them. Now I know the teachings didn't make sense; they were a perversion of Christian ideals.

When and why did you finally leave?

I decided to leave in September 1994. Two years earlier, a friend of mine had tried to tell me about a time when a teacher in the community made sexual advances toward him. I didn't believe it then, but in 1994 I found out it was true. The community's leaders knew about this, and in my opinion they did not handle it well. The whole thing really disturbed me. Then I found out a family I was friends with had decided to leave the community, and I asked why. The father told me the leadership of the community was trying to control him and his family. On top of all the other stuff I had been through, that conversation helped open my eyes. I came to see that for all those years, I hadn't been the problem at all. The community was the problem. It was a corrupt system, and I wanted no part of it any more.

What's your opinion on whether the group was a cult?

I consider myself a cult survivor. From all the reading I have done, I definitely think the Mother of God community was a cult. When I first decided to leave, a friend of mine found a cult book that talked about the control and manipulation in groups like ours. The book's description exactly fit the situation I grew up in. Eventually some of us met with an "exit counselor" who gave us information about cults. She didn't pressure us; she just asked how well the information fit our own experience. I was amazed at what she was saying, because it fit all too well. I began to feel both angry and betrayed. I wanted to learn more, and to figure out how to deal with these emotions.

Drawing from your own experience, what's your best advice for other people who are thinking of joining unusual movements or religious groups?

When anybody approaches you with the key to happiness or the answer to life's problems, don't believe it. Walk away. Be leery of any scheme you are told will bring ultimate fulfillment. Cults can hold any kind of religious philosophy, but not all cults are religious. There are business cults, psychotherapy cults, political cults and others. The official philosophy of these groups is almost a distraction; the real issue is how they function below the surface. If you ever get invited to hear some special leader of a group speak, don't go alone. Cults use your being alone against you. If a group situation makes you uncomfortable, it's much easier to walk out if you're with a friend. Trust your instincts about the group. If you feel something is wrong, you're probably right. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If total strangers start showering you with affection, be on guard; that could be a cult tactic known as "love bombing." Don't be afraid to ask questions, and press for straight answers about a group. If questions are discouraged, that's a warning bell. Insist on seeing the group's financial statements -- the real ones, not pie charts and bar graphs. Inquire about the hierarchy of the group. Who is the leadership accountable to, and by what mechanism? If things don't seem right, move on. Remember, all of us are trying to figure out the complexities of life, and trying to be happy. Anybody who claims to have all the answers is lying.

Gary Cummings' e-mail address is garyc@doubt.com

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