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Former members say Calvary Temple splits families. What happens to those who leave?

Former members say Calvary Temple in Virginia pressures people to banish loved ones. What happens to those who leave?

June 25, 2018 at 10:08 AM

One Thursday evening in 1998, when Cynthia Azat was 15, her mother picked her up from her after-school job and told her she had to leave home. Sarah Azat had become concerned that her church — Calvary Temple, in Sterling, Va. — regarded Cynthia as a bad influence on her sister, then 13. And so Sarah decided to send Cynthia away. “She wouldn’t look at me,” Cynthia recalls. “I could tell she was remorseful.” Two days later, along with most of her clothes and two hamsters that Sarah bought her as a farewell present, Cynthia moved in with her grandparents in Rockville, Md. When Cynthia’s aunt picked her up that Saturday morning, Sarah stayed inside the house, watching from a window and crying. Cynthia refused to look back.

Sarah had brought the Azats into Calvary years before. In 1986, when she and her husband were having marital problems, she reached out to family for support. A distant cousin in their tightknit community of Palestinian Americans guided Sarah’s conversion from Greek Orthodox to Pentecostal Christianity and introduced her to Calvary, where the cousin is still a church leader. Calvary seemed like a godsend, especially five years later when Sarah’s husband, John, was imprisoned on fraud charges. The church had originally belonged to the Pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination, and like most Pentecostal churches it focused on energetic demonstrations of God’s presence in daily life: music and dancing, as well as faith healings and speaking in tongues. It was a warm and family-friendly community where Sarah, who started working at Hair Cuttery when her husband went to prison, was able to get after-school care for her daughters in exchange for offering free hair appointments to other church members. “She was searching for something more meaningful and something that was going to be beneficial for her and her kids,” Cynthia told me. “And she got kind of drawn in.”

When the Azats joined Calvary in the mid-1980s, its charismatic pastor, Star Robert Scott, had been there for over a decade, starting as youth pastor at what was then the Herndon Assembly of God in 1973, according to former congregants. Within a couple of years, he became head pastor. In June 1984, the church moved to a larger building in Sterling and changed its name to Calvary Temple. Over the next two decades, Scott turned Calvary into a mini-empire. According to former members, Scott’s grasp on his congregants tightened so gradually that many who were loyal to the Assemblies of God were able to ignore it. (For this story, I spoke to two dozen former members, as well as numerous other people with connections to the church.) “Nobody just jumps right into a fire. The frog that comes from the refrigerator and is slowly warmed up — that’s different,” says Jonathan Ernst, a former pastor who left in the 1990s.

In the early 1980s, membership was at its peak of more than 1,000, former congregants estimate, and Calvary’s annual income exceeded $1 million, according to a 1983 church newsletter written by Scott. The church built a new sanctuary and school buildings. And Scott started a racecar ministry that, to this day, holds shows to display his collection of expensive cars and motorcycles. Around the same time, he led the church leadership to vote for independence from Assemblies of God, which had required that pastors tithe to the umbrella organization. Scott then rewrote the Calvary constitution to eliminate the traditional voting process and end financial transparency, according to several former members. “The church constitution was changed to meet Biblical standards,” Scott wrote in the newsletter. Congregants were still expected to tithe 10 percent of their income. But Scott began to request additional donations, for instance for a building project that never materialized.

Under Scott’s leadership, former members say, Calvary Temple also began requiring that they send their children to the church school, a non-accredited K-12 institution in a brown building attached to the church. Virginia banned corporal punishment in public schools in 1989. But at Calvary, “spare the rod and spoil the child” ruled. Cynthia said she started there in third grade and was beaten regularly by her teachers. In accounts that closely match others from more than 20 school alumni, volunteer staff and parents, Cynthia described being taken into a storage room “where there was a paddle as well as a metal folding chair,” then told to hold the chair and bend over for three to five spankings. “If you moved at all, you’d get additional spanks,” she said. By some accounts, nearly all the families at Calvary owned a paddle like this, carving it themselves or obtaining one from a member with carpentry skills. They were wooden, about two feet long, and some were drilled with holes to minimize air resistance. Former students reported being hit with the paddle as young as 6 years old and as many as nine times in succession, sometimes on the same buttock to increase the pain. Kids were hit for missing homework, talking in class, getting poor grades and, in one case reported by two former teachers’ aides, for symptoms later diagnosed as autism. I asked Cynthia, now 34, what the beatings felt like, and she was momentarily at a loss for words. “I don’t — I can’t, I can’t,” she said. “It’s degrading, I can tell you that much. … We were told we were absolutely worthless. Half the time I didn’t even know why I was being punished.”

Cynthia, who has exercise-induced asthma, also said her cheerleading coach denied her the use of her inhaler during practice and forced her to run laps even when she ended up breathless and vomiting. When Cynthia told her mother that she was being mistreated at school, Sarah spoke to Cynthia’s teachers, who, both mother and daughter recall, told Sarah that her daughter was a liar. For the most part, Sarah believed them. “I believed with all my heart this is a good church that teaches the word of God,” she told me. “I trusted them to care for my children, so I didn’t ask any questions.”

Cynthia, however, knew that what was happening to her was wrong. “I don’t think that I was ever going to fully accept being told what to do with every aspect of my life,” she said. Early on, a friend of hers was expelled from Calvary. For Cynthia, that fate started to look attractive compared with staying put. So in seventh grade she began a tacit protest by spending more time with her cousins and neighborhood friends, whom the church considered “heathens.” As her disobedience increased, so did the beatings, until she was being hit, she estimates, once a day. After two years, when she was just beginning ninth grade, Cynthia’s teachers told her she was not a Christian and couldn’t attend school.

A year later, Sarah found out that a deacon’s wife had questioned her younger daughter: How was Cynthia behaving? Was she causing trouble? Sarah knew, from the experiences of others, that these questions often preceded a church attempt to divide a family. She was conflicted, but that night she told Cynthia she had to leave. “My heart was breaking,” Sarah told me. “I didn’t want to do it, but I felt like I had no choice.”

Former members estimate that over the past 20 years, hundreds of children and adults have left Calvary Temple — either kicked out, like Cynthia, or by quitting. After someone left or was “put out” (in church jargon), family members were often expected to shun them: ignore phone calls, turn away if they met in the grocery store, treat them “as if they were dead,” as one former member put it. Because of this practice, the costs of leaving are steep. Marsha Foster says she has never met her three grandchildren because her daughter still belongs and won’t let her speak to them. Patty Simoneau says she has barely spoken to one of her sons in 10 years, since she left the church. Her two grandchildren live three miles away from her in Sterling, but she says she has met them only a few times. The four of Molly Fitch’s five children who remain at Calvary ignore the cards she leaves and the messages she writes in chalk on their driveways, Fitch says.

Despite the pain of losing family, these ex-CTers, as they call themselves, have fought back mightily. Over the past several years, they’ve publicized allegations of sexual assault by church leadership, including by Star Scott himself, to try to jump-start investigations by local, state and federal authorities. Today, they still don’t know whether the church they believe brutalized them will ever be held accountable. But whatever happens to the church, many remain scarred by their experiences. How are they and their families to heal — not just from the wounds they say that Calvary inflicted on them, but from the wounds they inflicted on one another while in the church?

In 2002, Calvary members learned that Scott’s wife, Janet, was dying — and in her final days, had told her husband, then 55, to remarry. Just over two weeks after her death, according to several former members who were present and a published transcript of the sermon, Scott claimed from the pulpit that the book of Leviticus forbade “high priests” to mourn; instead, they were to “take a wife in her virginity.” Toward the end of that sermon, Scott produced a candidate from the congregation: 20-year-old Greer Parker, who joined him onstage dressed demurely in a suit, her blond hair newly bobbed. They married a week later.

The event unsettled many congregants. Marsha Foster’s husband, Gary Foster, who had belonged to the church since the 1960s, called Scott’s second marriage “the beginning of the end”; the only true high priest, for Christians, is Jesus. Another turning point came in April 2008 when Scott’s son, Star Scott Jr., and his then-wife sent an explosive email to Scott Sr., and passed it around among a number of congregants. The email alleged that Scott Sr. had molested his two young nieces for years, starting when he was a youth pastor at Greenfield Assembly of God Church in Bakersfield, Calif., and continuing into his Herndon days in the early ’70s. “THEY WERE JUST INNOCENT CHILDREN AND YOU ABUSED YOUR POWER AND AUTHORITY,” the email said.

According to Scott Jr.’s former wife, the couple also reported the allegations to the Herndon Police Department. (Scott Jr. did not respond to messages sent through intermediaries seeking comment.) In a partially redacted copy of a 2008 police report that I obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, one of the nieces, Lori Upshaw, confirmed the story. The report said that Virginia prosecutors declined to pursue the case and suggested the victim press charges in California. But she ultimately decided not to do so. Reached by phone, Upshaw, who was a Greenfield congregant, said her uncle began molesting her regularly when she was 11 and continued until she was 15. Upshaw said she forgot these events and recovered them when she was 28. (The Washington Post does not usually name alleged victims of sexual assault, but Upshaw agreed to be identified.) Sheryl Carr, a childhood friend of Upshaw’s who was also a member of Scott’s youth group at Greenfield and daughter of Greenfield’s late pastor, said in a phone interview that Upshaw did not confide in her about the abuse at the time. However, Carr said her father had forced Scott to resign as youth pastor in Bakersfield over his interactions with young girls. “He wanted to talk about sex all the time. All the time,” Carr said. “It just got to be inappropriate.”

In 2014, Andrew Lawrence, a Calvary member who later left, secretly recorded a conversation with Scott about the accusations. In the recording, which was widely circulated among former members, Scott says that his son and daughter-in-law’s email was full of “inaccuracies” and “gossip.” But he never directly denies the molestation charges. “The facts that only three people on earth really know — if those three people are reconciled and things are fine with them, then what problem is it with anyone else?” Scott says. (Upshaw told me, “I have forgiven him, but I haven’t forgotten.” Lawrence declined to comment on the recording.)

Scott did not respond to emails or phone messages seeking comment for this story. In March, I visited a Sunday service but was politely asked to leave before I could speak to him. In April, the church held a well-attended car show in its parking lot, featuring several vintage Corvettes that are part of a larger collection Scott has assembled for his Finish the Race Ministries. Christian rock played on loudspeakers and kids played cornhole as church members in neon-yellow shirts signed in visitor after visitor, collecting names, phone numbers and email addresses. When I approached Scott in the parking lot, he told me I wasn’t “welcome” on church property. I asked for comment on the sexual abuse allegations, and he snapped, “Did you just hear what I said?” and walked away. Two men wearing earpieces hovered nearby as I talked to Scott, then watched as I walked off church grounds.

As church members left, an increasing number of ex-CTers began to band together to try to regain their families and prevent others from joining. In 2008, a relative of a former member approached Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter at The Post, leading to the first investigative story about Calvary’s operations and separation of families; at the time, former members said, about 400 people were still very active in the church. In 2015, the Loudoun Times-Mirror published a months-long investigation into multiple sexual abuse allegations against church leadership. Chassadi Thompson told the Times-Mirror that a deacon in the church molested her repeatedly starting when she was about 12. Church authorities learned of the allegations in 2003 and, in Thompson’s recollection, reported them to Child Protective Services and to the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, where they were at least initially handled by a sergeant who belonged to Calvary. He has since retired, according to the sheriff’s office. The case went nowhere, and that same year, Thompson was put out at age 14 — dropped at a gas station to wait for the father she hadn’t lived with since she was 4, “with the clothes on my back and a paper bag with a couple of maxi pads,” she told me.

Around when the Times-Mirror story was published, the sheriff’s office launched a new investigation into sexual abuse charges within the church. It was a hopeful time for ex-CTers. Several created blogs to keep church abuses in the public light. A group began to protest outside the church every Sunday, confronting family members and friends on their way to services. But from the beginning, there were divides within the ex-CT community, particularly between those who tried to cut all connections and move on and those who stayed preoccupied with the church, often because they still had family on the inside. “They’re broken people,” says a former member who preferred to remain anonymous. “And broken people — when we’re all dealing with our brokenness, it’s tough. You need to be around people who aren’t broken to bring you out of that.”

In March, I drove with Molly Fitch to the homes of her four adult children who remain in Calvary. We stopped first to visit her 30-year-old daughter, who lives in a quiet Sterling neighborhood of large yards and stand-alone homes. The daughter’s house, which was being completely renovated, was little more than tarp-covered walls and a concrete foundation, with a play set and chicken coop in the back. To Fitch’s surprise, her daughter and young grandson were there, both wearing muddy galoshes, pushing a wheelbarrow across the yard. Fitch rushed over to her daughter and hugged her while I waited by the car. After a brief conversation, Fitch returned and collapsed into the driver’s seat, sitting with her back turned to me for a long moment. “This is the most talking she’s ever done,” she finally said. As we drove away, Fitch waved and blew kisses out the car window. Her daughter stood to watch us go, face impassive, hands wrapped around a shovel.

Fitch makes this pilgrimage about every six weeks or so, driving down to Sterling from her home in Upstate New York. But she hasn’t had an extended conversation with her four children who remain in Calvary since her family kicked her out on Christmas Day 2011. (Fitch’s fifth child, Gretel, was put out four or five months before her mother, and the two are still close. Fitch’s other children did not respond to calls for comment or declined to speak.) Usually during these visits, Fitch’s children are either not home or don’t respond to the doorbell. On the few occasions they have spoken to her — they don’t let her in — they ask her to repent and then tell her she must leave. (In a later encounter, one of Fitch’s sons told her to repent before calling the police on her and a Post videographer-photographer. The photographer and Fitch were served with no-trespassing orders, meaning that Fitch can stand on the sidewalk but can no longer leave notes or presents on cars or her son’s property. I called to speak with the son later; he did not return my call.)

LEFT: Accompanied by grandson Noah, Fitch tries to visit the home of one of her children. During that visit, the son called police on Fitch and a videographer-photographer for The Post. RIGHT: Joshua Drahos of the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office talks with Fitch.

Some Calvary members left voluntarily, despite the cost. Former member Erica packed up all her things, wrapped them in a sheet and climbed out the window of her parents’ house in the middle of the night in 2013, when she was 22. (Erica asked that only her first name be used because she fears association with Calvary would harm her employment prospects.) Since she left, Erica has spoken to her parents only once, when they tried to get her to come back to the church. The loss haunts her. “I’ve dived under things because I thought [I saw] them in public,” she says. “And then you just want to cry, and then you go home and you dream about them, and you wake up and you just cry.”

Putting people out, however, destroys families on another level. And former members say that church leaders carried out these separations in a systematic fashion. The church required regular “family meetings,” in which all members had to open up about their spiritual and moral well-being to church deacons — who then reported everything back to Scott. If Scott and other pastors decided someone was a problem, according to several former members who endured that process, that person and their family would be called in for a meeting in the back offices of Calvary Temple. Scott often quoted a Deuteronomy verse about a “stubborn and rebellious son” who was thrown out and stoned. “[We were] told, since we couldn’t actually take them to the gate and stone them to death, to treat our boys as if they were dead,” says Michelle Freeman, whose 15-year-old son left in 2006 with a group of friends.

These meetings were agonizing for spouses or parents. But everyone knew what would happen if they didn’t obey church orders, former members say. People could be put out themselves if they refused to put out a family member, while the rest of the family, including minor children, would be intimidated into staying, as Sarah Azat feared her younger daughter would be. (The younger daughter declined to comment for this story.) The choice wasn’t between harm to yourself and harm to your child or spouse, in other words. It was between harm to one family member and potential devastation of the entire family.

Marsha and Gary Foster were told to put out their son Rob in 2006, and they did — for two months. “God gave us these kids; they’re ours,” says Gary. “So we said, ‘That’s not right. We’re bringing him home.’ ” Less than a year later, the Fosters themselves were kicked out. Their other son and daughter stayed in the church and shunned them for years; the son, Michael, finally left in 2014, but the daughter remains, along with her three children.

Some who put out their family members tried to convince themselves that shunning them was the will of God. “I ran into [my sister] a few times and I treated her terribly,” Erica says of the six years after her older sister left and before she herself left. “I would either tell her she was going to hell or just completely ignore her. … I felt justified and like I was in the right.” For anyone who doubted, Scott reinforced the godliness of shunning from the pulpit, describing exiles as children of Satan. He exaggerated their struggles outside the church to instill fear in those who remained. “Bob used to say, look at the people who leave: Their lives are shipwrecked, they get divorced, they get cancer,” says Ellen Kusar, who left Calvary in 2008.

While Scott’s accounts were skewed or inaccurate, many former Calvary members did report experiencing severe disorientation after leaving, at least at first. Erica recalls: “I wanted to die for a while. I didn’t really see the point of living. I lived with this guilt that if any moment I died I’d go to hell.” Gretel Fitch, Molly’s daughter, left multiple times. “I just jumped full in,” she says. “I drank for the first time, I smoked pot for the first time. And it didn’t matter. To them … once you’ve done it, it doesn’t matter how many times you do it.”

Cynthia Azat, too, floundered at first. “As a kid, when you’re constantly being berated, you’re going to believe it,” she says. “So for years into my adulthood I have believed that I was ugly and fat and stupid and worthless.” Her grades shot up in her new public high school, but she failed two classes, coming within a whisker’s breadth of not graduating. After graduation, she took scattered classes and worked a series of retail jobs to support herself. She suffered through a binge-eating disorder and an abusive boyfriend who wrecked her credit. “I hated myself. I didn’t know why I was alive on this planet,” she says.

During this time, she was partially estranged from her family. (She stayed in touch more than most. She returned to live with them occasionally and as an adult rejoined the church for about a year and a half.) “I was really angry with [my mother],” Cynthia says. “I didn’t know they were basically threatening to take my sister away.” For Sarah Azat, this was the hardest period of her life. She had to give up custody to Cynthia’s grandparents so that Cynthia could start high school where they lived, which “killed me inside.” And after John, who left prison in 1999, started saying he wanted to leave the church, Sarah’s life at Calvary grew tense and unhappy. “If someone wanted to leave the church, they made your life hell,” she says. “We wanted to leave on good terms, but there’s no leaving. You’re not allowed to leave.”

Cynthia’s relationship with her father was particularly difficult after he returned home, something she attributes to the church’s teachings on gender roles. In Scott’s book “Adam’s Rib,” which he required all marrying couples to read, he writes, “Wives, you should be staying at home raising the children, keeping and guarding the home … to do anything less is sin.” Men were told they must dominate their wives and children, that a failure to do so represented an essential failure to be a godly man. John Azat absorbed these lessons, Cynthia felt, to a toxic degree. “With Calvary telling him the man is supposed to be the head of the household and you’re supposed to be able to have control over your wife and children — that made it very difficult for my dad to be a good dad,” she says. “I was a little more aggressive when I was at Calvary,” John admitted to me.

At times, the same conflicts that afflicted families split by the church overtook the ex-CT community as well. In 2015, on a secret Facebook page for ex-CTers, a younger ex-member began posting what multiple readers described as inflammatory messages. Some asked him to stop, others leaped to his defense, and the conflict escalated from there. “I think things have gotten a little out of hand which is easy when wounds are still raw,” one group member wrote in November 2015. “I know we are all on the same side but I think we have to remember we are all at different stages of dealing with CT.” Online conversations revealed other divides as well, including on the question of religion. Some people left Calvary and went directly into other churches, finding a great deal of healing there. For others, even just entering a church can trigger panic. And there are some — especially among the younger generation — who reject organized religion altogether. When members posted prayers and biblical verses, it upset those who were less religious.

On different sides, people saw echoes of the old Calvary mind-set. “Really, the rift came about because the loudest, most active ex-members of the FB group make their support conditional — meaning they will only truly support you if you live your life by the same ‘rules’ they do,” Erin, a participant in the group, wrote me in an email. “Sadly, they say they are better than CT, but they still act a lot like CT.” Michelle Freeman, who is an administrator of the group, says, “It was a whole back-and-forth, like you would see going on in Calvary.” Many people left the group, and it has quieted significantly. The protests also dwindled after about a year, as people grew exhausted and some moved away. And members have felt frustrated as investigations into Calvary have dragged on for three years with no result.

Last spring, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives raided an apartment belonging to the church, seizing a number of firearms and computers. But some ex-CTers have grown cynical about the investigation, speculating that Scott’s local influence and wealth have played a role in its slow progress. According to property records, the church now owns about a dozen properties that together are valued around $10 million, of which $6 million is the church’s main property.

There are ex-CTers who worry that even if some abusers are charged, it won’t be enough to take down the organization — which has after all existed in plain sight in upscale Loudoun County for decades, its alleged crimes well known to community members and police. Those with children or grandchildren still attending the church school feel a particular urgency, and some hopelessness as well. “I watched ‘Spotlight.’ Great movie. But the thing that struck me the most out of it was: What’s really gone wrong for the Catholic Church?” says the anonymous former member. “Scientology, the same thing. Of all the things that have come out, what’s really happening to them?”

In 2009, Cynthia’s sister, then in her early 20s, finally left the church. Freed from their fear of losing her, Sarah and John left two months later. Both had been troubled by Scott’s application of Scripture and the sense that he was more invested in serving himself than serving God. When they first called Cynthia to let her know they were leaving Calvary, she didn’t believe them. “I just didn’t know what to think about it,” she says. “At that point I had only known my parents a certain way.”

Scott began many of his sermons with an exhortation — which some former members considered a subtle threat — not to forsake “the assembling of ourselves together.” Attempting to reassemble their family together, Sarah and John soon learned that as difficult as their relationship with Cynthia had been before they left, they faced serious challenges on the outside. That first Christmas after Sarah and John left the church, Cynthia was decorating the family’s tree when her mother asked to know everything she’d endured at Calvary. Cynthia was anxious at first, worried that her mother wasn’t ready to hear the whole story. “I didn’t know how she was going to react, and I didn’t really want to see her cry,” she says. But Sarah pressed her. “I wanted to hear exactly what happened, how she felt,” Sarah, now 55, told me. As time went on, their conversations deepened and became more comfortable. John Azat, too, labored to show Cynthia he wasn’t the domineering father he’d been inside Calvary. “We had to reinvent ourselves,” he says.

People who leave what some psychologists refer to as “high-demand” groups (defined as being exploitive, manipulative, oppressive) sometimes struggle to forgive themselves — and find forgiveness — for actions they took under the group’s influence, says psychologist Michael Langone. Younger survivors may remain angry toward the parents who brought them in and then stayed, long after it became clear that the group was hurting children.

Michelle Freeman obeyed the order to treat her son as if he were dead in 2006. Although she lasted only a week and a half, and left the church herself nearly two years later, he still has not forgiven her for bringing him up in Calvary, she says, and they haven’t spoken in four years. Her marriage also ended in divorce because her husband wanted her to leave Calvary well before she was ready. “I am the person who was responsible for bringing us [to Calvary], and for all intents and purposes, I am responsible for the demise of the family,” she told me, in tears.

Freeman and others have found the long campaign to expose wrongdoing at Calvary healing in itself — and none of the dozens of people I spoke to regretted leaving the church, despite the cost. “I feel like a completely different person,” Erica said, describing how she has found peace through a new relationship, a reunion with her older sister, and long-distance running. “I used to be so scared of the world. Now I’m like, ‘Hey, stranger!’ ” Even with the gaping absence of her son and grandchildren, Patty Simoneau said, “At the end of the day, knowing what I know to be true, I would leave again and do everything the same.” Molly Fitch believes firmly that Scott will be punished one day — before God if not before man — and that her children will return to her. “Truth crushed to the ground does rise again. It just does,” she said, in her gently passionate manner. In her research about abuse, Fitch read about Jews who survived the Holocaust. “The people who tried to cover up the atrocities they endured — they did not do well,” she said. “But the ones who openly acknowledged what they went through, that fought [anti-Semitism], that told their story … they seemed to thrive.”

On a sunny day in March, I drove to Cynthia’s parents’ house in Sterling. After returning from prison, John Azat, now 59, began a successful career as a builder, and he built the family home, a spacious and warm house with a large open kitchen, a living room that houses the family’s collections of old China and vintage typewriters, and a pool and hot tub out back. The house has a separate entrance for Sarah Azat’s private hair salon. When I visited, Cynthia, Sarah, John and Sarah’s mother, as well as Sarah’s aunt — wearing a black cape, her hair and eyebrows marinating in foamy dye — sat together eating meat and spiced rice at a long farm-style table in the kitchen. I asked Sarah how she felt after putting Cynthia out, and she said: “I know I felt guilty. I know I felt hurt. There was no peace in it. [It’s] not what I wanted to do.” Across the table, Cynthia quirked a dark eyebrow. “Kinda what you did do, there, Sarah,” she said. “Kinda what you did do.”

The Azats have come through some painful moments in the effort to reassemble their family. In 2014, Cynthia was diagnosed with a rare Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a nightmarish experience, but one that drew the family together. Both of Cynthia’s parents drove her to appointments, her mother researched her medical options, and her dad would drop off groceries when she wasn’t feeling well. “It’s definitely made me have to rely on them for things that I would normally not have,” Cynthia said as her parents both listened with pained half smiles. Today, Cynthia is cancer-free. She recently earned a master’s in social work and plans to become a therapist working with, among other traumatized groups, cult-abuse survivors. Last year, to celebrate Cynthia’s graduation from her master’s program, the Azats took a family vacation to Las Vegas, and a couple of years before that they went on an Alaskan cruise. They share a sarcastic sense of humor, particularly John and Cynthia, and they bantered and laughed uproariously at the kitchen table.

And yet, despite this progress, the family has had to confront some painful truths, including the possibility that Calvary may have inflicted permanent damage on their relationships. Sarah and John have apologized repeatedly to Cynthia for what happened, coming to see themselves as responsible for her suffering. “We are the culprits,” John told me. “We don’t dismiss our responsibility. Even though we were part of a victimized group, we’re not the victim. We’re part of the problem.” I asked John and Sarah how they arrived at that point of knowing they needed to ask Cynthia for forgiveness. Both described the influence of a new pastor in Sterling who helped them understand the forgiving nature of God. Sarah said she apologized to Cynthia immediately. But John told me he struggled because of his “prideful nature.” Plus, he added, in a rueful voice, “she wasn’t willing to receive it.”

“No, I wasn’t,” Cynthia said. John gave her a theatrically mournful look and said, “The offer’s still on the table.” Cynthia laughed, friendly but dry. “I’m still going to refuse it,” she said.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington.


May-Ying Lam is a photo editor at The Washington Post.

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