James Kiernan, 40, joined the Mother of God community when he was 21 years old and spent 15 years there. He now works as a computer programmer in Piscataway, N.J. He and his wife, Valerie, are separated and have two children, ages 11 and 8.
Q. How did you become involved in the Mother of God community?
Before joining Mother of God, I had a profound experience of God's personal love for me. It happened while I was visiting a friend in Nashville and waiting alone in a car. Suddenly I had an overwhelming sense of God's presence, and I understood who God is. It was similar to being in a dark room and having a light turned on. Suddenly, I could see what was in the room. I became acutely aware that God had always existed and had no need of anything or anyone. He could have continued for all eternity without creating anything. The very fact of the universe and my own existence were sheer gifts of God's love. Soon afterward, I sought out the spiritual direction of a Roman Catholic (Carmelite) priest, who referred me to the Mother of God community. I saw other young people like myself who were Catholic and shared having a personal experience of God's love. I also was moved by the music of the community. After a few months, I began to think this was where God was "calling" me to live.
Q. What were your earliest feelings about the community?
I remember thinking the lifestyle was intense. I felt anxious and tired at the same time. There was always some meeting or activity I was expected to attend -- prayer meetings, household meetings, growth groups, Bible studies, Saturday morning work crew, folk group singing, personal prayer, religious reading and study of the community teachings. There was also "States of the Day" writing, in which you shared every intimate detail of your life with some authority. Every day and night I was occupied with a community activity. I hardly ever had a chance to breathe. A couple of times I remember thinking that if I stayed in the community, I would lose my mind.
Q. Once you had belonged for a while, did your feelings change, and how?
Yes. My feelings did change a few months after I joined. I began to dislike living in the community and doubt whether I should belong. Whatever issue I was dealing with, it was always raised to a spiritual dimension or plane. As I shared problems about the community with others, my spiritual adviser would instruct me that a spiritual warfare was taking place. "Fight or die," he would say. My sinful nature (the flesh) and the Devil were trying to take me away from God's call to the community. My adviser said my internal conflict was spiritual, which made it hard for me to debate concrete issues. I gradually underwent a change of thinking to see things on his spiritual dimension, a process I now realize was thought reform -- a characteristic of a cult. There was never anything wrong with the community, I was told, always with me.
Q. What was your best experience at Mother of God?
Community life was not all black and white. There were times when people were more relaxed and down to earth with each other. Mother of God members spent a lot of time performing for the leaders and each other, trying to live up to the community's ideals. But some of the community summer camping vacations in Pennsylvania and Virginia were fun. I developed friendships as we spent time hiking, fishing, [playing] tennis and singing around the campfire at night. I felt some people took off their masks and became real.
Q. What was your worst experience there?
For me it had to do with how single men and women related. Single men and women were only allowed to be together in groups, never alone. It was the community way of overprotecting us from the Devil and preventing us from sinning. We were taught that sexuality and sexual expression were only meant for marriage. Dating was allowed only when two people were considering marriage. I remember once going on a hiking trip to Old Rag in Virginia with a group of members. As I walked along the path talking to one of the women for a few minutes, one of the woman leaders came up to us and told us to separate, that we were spending too much time together. The control of dating was so strict that many couples barely knew each other before they got married. This eventually led to an arranged marriage for me. After 10 years of marriage, my wife Valerie and I separated in February of this year.
Q. Why didn't you leave when you developed doubts about the group?
My thinking underwent a heavy-duty process of thought reform. It became distorted and sick. I was led to believe that God had called me to the community, and that to leave was to turn my back on God. My advisers also told me that I would "lose my salvation" if I quit. Membership in Mother of God was elevated to the level of a sacrament. Also, I didn't leave because of the experience of God's love I mentioned earlier. That experience motivated me to be willing to suffer for God as a way of proving to God my love for Him because of His love for me.
Q. Did you come to feel you had been misled about Mother of God's real nature or purpose?
Yes. The Mother of God community presented itself as a Catholic organization. Catholic priests belonged, and other Catholic priests from around the world would visit for a spiritual retreats. Most members were Catholic. It published a magazine called The Word Among Us, which had the Catholic "imprimatur" in it. Many years later, the community underwent a review process by Cardinal Hickey of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., because it was requesting to be officially recognized by the Church as a Catholic lay organization. The Cardinal found many things in the community to be incompatible with Catholic teaching, pastoral practice and family life. From my experience, the Mother of God community was Catholic in name, but not in practice. Also, the community at first presented itself as a place to grow in holiness and to build genuine Christian relationships and community. A newcomer like me was "love bombed" and made to feel welcome. At some point I think the community lost its focus and stopped appreciating its members. Relationships and family life took a back seat to the leaders' grandiose mission of evangelizing and forming other Communities
When and why did you finally leave?
My decision to leave happened gradually in the years after I married Valerie. I pulled out slowly and stopped going to community activities. One specific event helped me to get on the path to leaving. Soon after I married, I wanted to purchase a house a few blocks away from where most other community members lived. My spiritual adviser told me it was too far away, that I should buy a house closer to the others. When I objected, he tried to impose his authority over me. I agonized for days over whether to be obedient to him (which was considered being obedient to God) or to do what I thought was the right thing to do. I finally broke with the control and decided to do what I wanted: I bought the house. The day I think I finally left the community was when I started reading and hearing other people speak about cults. Everything came into focus, and it became clear to me what I had been involved in.
What's your opinion on whether the group was a cult?
Scott Peck lists 10 characteristics of a cult in his book "Further Along the Road Less Traveled":
1) Idolatry of a single charismatic leader. Edith Difato was often quoted as prophesying or speaking directly for God. Members studied her words as doctrine.
2) A reverenced inner circle. Joe Difato, Jack Difato and a few other leaders were overly regarded above other rank-and-file members. People jealously sought their approval.
3) Secrecy of management. No pretense of accountability. Rather than admit they had erred, many Mother of God leaders left the community when Cardinal Hickey confronted them with some of the teachings that were not according to Catholic doctrine.
4) Financial evasiveness . While I was a member, there was never any financial accountability. I never knew how the leaders were spending money people tithed.
5) Dependency. Authoritarian leadership nurtures the dependency of the followers. Cults tend to discourage the capacity to think for themselves. I was often told by my spiritual head I couldn't trust myself. They always knew what was best for me. I was treated like they were the parent and I was the child.
6) Conformity. Obedience to one's spiritual head was equated with holiness.
7) Special language. The more closely the organization moves toward being a cult, the more special this internal language tends to become. We had new "buzz" words almost every week, which only other members could really understand. For example, "headship and submission," "the moral man," "the two Kingdoms."
8) Dogmatic doctrine. I was inundated with new teachings every week that I was supposed to study and pray about and later regurgitate.
9) Heresy. One of the heresies Cardinal Hickey confronted the leaders with was that human nature is depraved and lacking in any goodness or worth. Hickey said "the human person, though wounded by original sin, retains dignity and worth in the eyes of God."
10) God in captivity. Cults in one way or another feel they have God all sewn up. Often leaders and members would say in conversations with other members, particularly when there was a difference of opinion, "God told me … .''
I think the Mother of God community exhibited all 10 characteristics, and therefore you can guess what my answer is to the question.
Drawing from your own experience, what's your best advice for other people who are thinking of joining unusual movements or religious groups?
My best advice for someone thinking about joining a group like the Mother of God community is very simple: Don't. Or see your doctor about getting a lobotomy. Seriously, I think people need education about cults, especially young people. People in their teens or early 20s are very susceptible to getting pulled in because that is a time of tremendous anxiety and searching for meaning. In high school or freshman year in college, students should be required to take a course in cult education. Knowledge is the key to prevention.
Jim Kiernan's e-mail address is Jkiernan@pop.ieee.org.