by Elise Bowerman
From the age of three I was raised in an extremely small religion. Although there are locations world-wide with four ecclesia’s (churches) in Southeast Michigan, it’s still unknown to most people.
Despite my brother and I growing up in the religion, we were often treated as outsiders. This treatment was a result of not being part of the multi-generational family which influenced much of the indoctrination and social activities.
Everything I talk about sounds silly when I talk to true “outsiders,” like my husband and friends. Then when I reconnect with other former participants I’m reminded I’m not alone.
Processing what we were taught, and how we lived seems vital for each former member. When we reminisce about our youth, what our parents must have been thinking, why we were taught about the Bible the way we were, and our reasons for leaving – or being disfellowshipped, a tight bond gets created with a whole new group I didn’t know existed until I left.
I wrote my disfellowship letter to the board of my church one month before I married “outside of the Truth.” He was “of the world,” so no one celebrated this union by throwing us a shower. It hurt my mom the most. She cried for years. She believed her friends - the women of the church, some being our literal neighbors for 18 years - would care for her family. They didn’t.
(Ironically, it was common to support women having shot-gun marriage showers because ‘she’ got pregnant. We even threw showers for people members of the church knew from work or what not, that no one else seemed to know.)
I left with my family. The four of us sticking together brought us closer. I am grateful my family was by my side. (This one incident was the catalyst for us to leave the church - and religion; not the whole reason.)
Being out of this religion for close to 10 years now has given me plenty of time to reflect. There have been great lessons and gifts growing up this way has provided me:
The friendships I made were so fun! I had friends from California, Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Toronto, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Australia, New Zealand – everywhere! It didn’t matter if it had been a day or a few years – when we met up again we picked up right where we left off.
Our house often hosted the neighborhood and anyone visiting the area. Pool parties, hanging out in our basement, and playing basketball or curb ball in the front yard was how we spent our summers. Us girls would talk about how our kids would be the best of friends, just like we were.
Never in a million years did I imagine not being in touch with them. I look back at old pictures with such happy memories. I’m forever grateful for those times.
But the hurt I felt from my life-long friendships dissolving away still breaks my heart. It was confusing. Bearing the coldness in the silence of no one calling to ask why, or simply reach out was unbelievable.
Having friends in the same religion gave most parents a lot of trust in the other parents. The moment I turned 16 I was driving to Canada and Chicago visiting friends regularly. We had sleepovers all the time. It wasn’t uncommon to take a long weekend to visit Pennsylvania or New Jersey. As teenagers, our lives depended on the weekend and who was visiting who.
Not many of my "school" friends put the miles on their cars as I did. One time I drove to Virginia in snowy December by myself. I am a confident and safe driver because of all the experience I had. A five hour trip is like nothing… except now I have kids, so that perspective has shifted!
Learning an Ancient Text
There are many ancient teachings, and one of the foundational practices of yoga is studying early texts. Having studied the Bible most of my life I have greater compassion for those who follow that belief system, and there's parts that still resonate with me.
Since this religion prided themselves on being ‘students of the Bible’ we had heavy teachings of the doctrine. Although I’m not a scholar by any means, it still gives me pleasure to look up a quote and school someone who’s taken it out of context.
Reading and understanding these early forms of survival/living provides insight to why people did and do certain things. It's a form of practicing non-judgement when one begins to see life from another perspective.
There was also a lot of refinement (some would say confinement) as women. Attention was emphasized on how we looked or behaved on the outside. Being told how to act and dress just seemed childish.
Since our neighbors were also in this religion my family was in the thick of seeing behind the veil.
Today I feel I am the best version of myself. If I had remained in it, I wouldn't be able to say that. I’m comfortable with my life, my relationship with God/the universe, my family, and who I am on the inside.
There’s quite a bit of bitter-sweetness as I write this. I am thankful for growing up the way I did. I am just as grateful for leaving.
Exiting helped me realize there’s more to me than what religion I adhere to. Plus, there’s a larger world out there with true friendships people would be willing to fight for.