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I grew up in Holland. My grandparents were Catholic, and I have a few early childhood memories left of Christmas Eve services in grand cathedrals, with many candles. These may very well belong to some of my best memories of Christianity.
When I was 4, my parents divorced. I consider myself lucky; I didn’t take it quite as hard as my older brother. I think I was mostly too young to fully comprehend it. We lived with our mother most of the time, and saw our father on most weekends. I see now that growing up without him around made my mom’s hold over me stronger than it should have been. She has a very strong personality, and this has cost me dearly.
Shortly after the divorce, one of her friends took her to an evangelical service, where she ended up “giving her life to the Lord”. Perhaps it gave her life meaning at this time, put the divorce in perspective, I don’t know. However, it was a turnaround for all of us. We started going to church every week, praying before supper, and reading from the children’s bible before bedtime. I didn’t care much, my mom seemed happier, and I liked the colourful stories. My mother remarried after a few years, and had another son when I was 9. Things took an interesting turn after that. We were a happy churchgoing family for a while, but the church didn’t seem to fulfill my mom’s “spiritual needs”. So we switched churches. And again. And again. For those of you who know anything about the number of denominations in Holland... there are many. I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen them all, except for maybe the Jehovah’s witnesses.
After several years we finally ended up in the Pentecostal region, where the congregation spoke in tongues during the worship, and where the manifestations of the Holy Spirit were more sought after than God himself. I have always had a vivid imagination. In fact, when playing to myself when I was younger, I would create characters around me and interact with them out loud, which undoubtedly helped me perceive this invisible God as real too. I still enjoyed going to church, but things at home were getting difficult. My mom and step dad started fighting a lot, mostly about Christianity and my mom’s past. (She claims that extremely traumatic events have occurred in her life. I can’t really judge this, because I wasn’t born yet. I do know however that she believes herself to be a victim of everything, and that her emotional glasses colour everything she sees.) I was only half involved in these fights (they would often include me), because my mind was on boys, homework, and my own future. Being a typical teenage girl, I just didn’t care much. It got worse when my mom tried to “commit suicide” at home a few times. She never succeeded, but she would lock herself up in the bathroom and scream her lungs out about killing herself. She saw many therapists and psychiatrists after this (of course only the God-fearing ones), but I don’t think any of them achieved much.
It’s been over 5 years since my initial struggle, and I am a little ashamed to say that only now do I dare call myself an atheist.Life went on, I was 17 at this point, and I guess we were back to being a semi-normal Christian family. Then my mother heard about these “amazing miracles” happening in a massive church in Africa, led by a man of God called the prophet. She became obsessed with it and ordered videos of the services, teachings, etc. To her, this was where the Holy Spirit was pouring out its power, and we had to be a part of it. At this point, my mom’s influence over me was as strong as it ever got. My younger brother and I were somehow trained to see everything her way. She wasn’t mentally unstable, no, she was merely misunderstood. We merely needed more of God in our lives. We needed to look out for her, because she was God’s special child, and God often spoke through her. I lived in fear, when I once kissed a guy my mother had a “prophetic dream” about it and confronted me about it. It scared the living daylights out of me. To me, my mother’s will was God’s will. Her opinion was God’s opinion. I even listened to sermons through her ears, and knew what parts she would approve of and disapprove of on the way home. But somehow this seemed natural to me. We were Christians, the world was against us, and there were so many misguided souls. If only we could all receive the power of the Holy Spirit like those people in Africa. We ended up visiting there for a week in the summer (they had an organized foreign visitor department). Impressionable as I was, and enjoying the difference in culture, I was very much intrigued. I saw several other young people who came there to be “disciples”, and who would spend a few months or years studying God’s Word in such a blessed environment. I had one more year of high school to go at this point, but I made a vow to myself that I would return there next summer, to give a year of my life to God, studying, serving and learning. Little did I know that this would be the decision I’ve regretted most in my life.
My mother came with me to drop me off the next year, and she stayed for a week. Unlike the nice accommodations I received as a visitor, the disciple bedroom was a plain room with about 80 bunk beds. All the women slept here, and the men had their own floor. I soon discovered that there were several married couples there, who were forced to sleep separately. The true face of the harsh African culture surfaced too. Parents beat their children on a daily basis, and thought nothing of it. People snapped at each other as a way of life. We had armed guards at the end of the property to “protect us”. I wasn’t quite prepared for this. I begged my mom to take me home with her after that first week, but she said I should give it a try, and if I absolutely hated it, I could always come home later. I surrendered to her wisdom.
And so the second chapter in my life began. I learned to live with only a handful of belongings from my suitcase, and with nothing to read but my bible and the prophet’s notes. I was only supposed to sleep 4-5 hours a night, and spend the rest of my time serving God. I found it strange that no one wanted to tell me about themselves. My fellow disciples would simply answer “The past does not matter. We must look to the future.” I, in turn, was also not supposed to answer any questions about myself when foreign visitors asked me. Not even what country I came from. I had to abandon everything my life was before, in order to find God’s true destiny for me. I was told that my parents didn’t matter anymore. They had fulfilled their purpose by bringing me into the world and letting me come here. This was God’s plan for me all along. My fellow disciples were my new family, and the prophet was our father. The encounters with the prophet were seen by many as encounters with God himself. I was intimidated by him, but I wanted his approval desperately, and worked hard. Church services were highly unorthodox, even compared to Pentecostals. There would be long prayer lines of people with illnesses, locals and foreigners, and most of them would vomit and spasm wildly when prayed for. This was seen as the demon leaving them and the Holy Spirit taking charge. It was widely accepted there that all sickness and negativity in this world comes from Satan, and that his demons would torment people. Demons would include homosexuality, stubbornness in children, barrenness, etc. Sometimes there would be mass prayers, chanting over and over “Holy Ghost Fire!” I did learn however, that God was apparently able to stay alive without the physical presence of my mother being there. I realized that my mother was not the only channel of God in this world, and that felt rather refreshing.
I stayed for eight months. I was now a new person, and completely brainwashed by this cult’s philosophy. I could only speak in bible verses or quotes from the prophet. I looked down on anyone who would do anything with their lives other than serve God 24/7. My parents had barely heard from me all this time and allegedly spent many sleepless nights hoping I was ok. In my mom’s defense, she has told me that she wishes she never let me go there. But at this point I couldn’t care less about her opinion. She was a minor servant in God’s kingdom, and I definitely outranked her at this point. When I came home to have my visa renewed, I was fully set on returning in a few weeks. But then my grandfather fell terminally ill. I had always been very close to him since the divorce. My family begged me to stay. They didn’t like the new person I had become (of course not, lesser minds always reject the chosen. The more opposition you encounter, the purer you are.) After a two week-long inner struggle with my old self and my new self, I decided that I could still do God’s work at home. I refused to stay though; I had to return at least for a few days to explain this to the prophet. So I went back, and sought a private audience with him. I explained the situation, and he simply said “you’re not going anywhere. You belong here.” Now I got scared. I was confused about God’s path for me. I didn’t sleep for a minute that night and went back to see the prophet in the morning. I cried in front of him (an emotion that was despised there, because it showed weakness) and begged to return home. He looked at me like I was a big disappointment. And with a wave of his hand, he dismissed me, and sent one of his drivers to take me to the airport. I ran to grab my stuff. Most of my fellow disciples never looked me in the eye again. I was now considered a betrayer, a deserter, and not worthy of their attention. On the flight home, I felt both liberated and heart-broken.
My grandfather died a few months thereafter. I know it meant a lot to him that I returned safely. Somehow shortly after his death, my mom and my widowed grandmother (her mom) had an extreme fight. About the past again, and my mom’s hurts, and about mourning. My mom pretty much said that my grandmother shouldn’t mourn his death because he was with Jesus now. Their bickering went on for a while, up to the point where they don’t talk anymore. (My mom has since moved away from my hometown, and forbids her youngest son to ever see his grandmother again.) I tried to stay out of this, but also refused to pick my mom’s side. I didn’t like how she called my grandmother a “witch” and a ‘blasphemer”. This was getting too crazy for me. Then I signed up for a Christian 5- month young adult course in Toronto. I needed to get away, I was very unhappy living at home again. However, the wounds from my cult experience were still fresh, and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else but “work for God.” This course was a step into a new direction for me, with much more focus on the Father’s Love, and less damnation.
And at this course I met the most amazing guy in my life. Of course dating was forbidden (it takes away from your focus on God) so we started sneaking around. He came from a very religious family in Canada himself, and had more questions and doubts than I ever dared phrase myself. For a while I felt very conflicted, here I was, in love with him, yet he didn’t seem fully committed to God. But his curiosity for the truth opened a door in the back of my mind. Looking back, for both of us, this course was the beginning of the end of our Christian lives. When the staff told us we couldn’t see each other again, I left before the course was over (the most rebellious thing I had ever done in my life!). Later that year I moved to Canada to attend college (with the support of my father, who was very happy to see me turn into a “normal lifestyle”). Interestingly enough, my boyfriend’s parents disapproved of me for the longest time, claiming I wasn’t a true Christian, not the right girl for him, and they blamed me for his lack of interest in God. In truth, it was him who pulled me out of the depths of Christianity’s claws. This rejection hurt a lot though, since my mother also fiercely rejected me for moving to Canada (and away from her). I realized how little approval from Christians really means. We started searching for reality, and seem to have finally found it.
It’s been over 5 years since my initial struggle, and I am a little ashamed to say that only now do I dare call myself an atheist. When so many lies and ideas are hammered into your mind, I suppose it takes time. It’s still a work in progress; I will catch myself once in a while living the Christian lie in one area of another. But I feel freer than ever, although I hate the amount of time I’ve wasted on this religion. Lesson learned I guess. I am grateful to have an amazing fiance who has been so patient with me all these years. We are now pretty close with his parents, and they seem to have mostly made their peace with our relationship and beliefs. I think his mom is still in denial, once in a while she'll ask us to pray for something. I suppose she can't bear the thought of her firstborn going to hell. My dad's side of the family has been a great help to me. They support us in our new life and are very excited about the upcoming wedding. The relationship with my mom has been very distant. We tried Skyping a few times, but I just end up feeling guilty and down afterwards. I don't think I'm strong enough to confront her yet, even after all this time. She has already told me that she will not attend our wedding, unless "something drastically changes."
I hope Christianity will not continue to dominate our families, but we’ll have to see... I know firsthand how deep these poisonous roots can go.
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