Soon after graduating from high school I joined a cult. I didn't know it was a cult at the time. I thought I was dedicating my life to Jesus, bringing others into the Christian fold, and helping feed starving children in an orphanage in Haiti. I thought I was making the best decision of my life.
At the time I had no idea that our pastor, Stewart Traill, was living a lavish lifestyle, engaging in sexual improprieties with the "sisters"--they were half his age--and neglecting the orphanage in Haiti. By all appearances, Stewart was one of us. He dressed in fatigues, wore his hair long and unkempt, drove around in church vehicles--usually used, dented up Pontiacs--carried Bibles with him, and spoke only of God. He also had an uncanny way of "seeing the spirit in you." One almost felt naked in his presence, like he could see the sin we didn't even know we were hiding, the sin that was standing between us and God. Most of us believed he channeled the spirit of Elijah or John the Baptist, prophets heralding the return of the Messiah.
So why did I leave? Why do others stay? The cult I was in didn't chain its devotees to their bunks or stalk them after they left; they didn't have to. Most members who physically left returned within a week on hands and knees begging to be forgiven and taken back as "prodigal sons." Many members never left. They have been in the cult for over forty years now. They have no families, no sex life outside of Stewart, reject their biological families, maintain an underfunded orphanage that has had its license revoked by the Haitian government, and they do all this while supporting a leader who lives luxuriously in a multi-million dollar, tax-exempt mansion in Florida. I can't answer for them. I can only say that I stayed because I believed that I was serving God with all my heart and soul. I didn't realize that the proceeds of my labor were going to support an overweight false-messiah, belly-floating in his personal swimming pool somewhere in Florida.
When I walked away two years later I had two dollars to my name, a bag stuffed with all my possessions, and the spiritual conviction that I was making the worst decision of my life.