Escaping Fundamentalism: An Interview with Charlene L. Edge (Part II)

By Maria Moss

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After last week’s intro­duc­tion to the seduc­tive pow­er of the fun­da­men­tal­ist cult “The Way Inter­na­tion­al” and the prac­tice of speak­ing in tongues, in this install­ment, read­ers will find out more about both Char­lene Edge’s “fad­ed scars” as well as mem­o­ries of hap­pi­er times while serv­ing The Way. Char­lene also shares insid­er per­spec­tives on The Way’s teach­ings and com­ments on her rela­tion­ship to reli­gion and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty today. One of this tal­ent­ed memoirist’s great­est pas­sions has become her mis­sion to warn peo­ple about The Way, a non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that not only con­trols all aspects of its mem­bers’ lives, but also their purse strings.

Maria Moss: I am flab­ber­gast­ed at how much mon­ey orga­ni­za­tions like The Way made. You men­tioned that every­one had to ‘donate’ mon­ey. Is that kind of mon­ey the main source of income for such organizations?

Char­lene L. Edge: Yes, non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions in the U.S., like The Way Inter­na­tion­al, depend on dona­tions to keep them in busi­ness. Because of the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment does not give any mon­ey to church­es. The Inter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice eval­u­ates groups to deter­mine whether they meet cer­tain require­ments for non-prof­it sta­tus. Because of its claim to being a reli­gious orga­ni­za­tion, The Way qual­i­fies as a reli­gious non-prof­it. Over the years, The Way has received mil­lions of dol­lars from its fol­low­ers. When I was involved, I knew of some mon­ey that came from people’s trust funds and sales of prop­er­ty. Wier­wille (The Way International’s founder) paid spe­cial atten­tion to fel­low­ships in towns known for their wealthy cit­i­zens and ben­e­fit­ed from their lav­ish dona­tions. To jus­ti­fy ask­ing for dona­tions, The Way (like reg­u­lar church­es) cites Bible vers­es that men­tion tithing. Tithing means giv­ing ten per­cent of your wealth to reli­gious lead­ers. Today, that usu­al­ly means donat­ing ten per­cent of your income to the church you join. Wier­wille would say Jesus Christ gave his life for us, so ten per­cent of our income was the min­i­mum amount we should give to. He encour­aged us to increase the amount to at least fif­teen per­cent, promis­ing that we’d receive more abun­dance from God in return. That’s the con, of course, and oth­er reli­gious groups do it, too.

MM: Towards the end of your book you write, “For the rest of our lives, we will car­ry what­ev­er Way expe­ri­ences we had – good and bad and unend­ing in their com­pli­ca­tions – like fad­ed scars on our backs.” What are some of the expe­ri­ences you still car­ry around with you?

CLE: Many expe­ri­ences, both good and bad, affect­ed me deeply. Some caused emo­tion­al or spir­i­tu­al harm. In Under­tow, one of the inci­dents I describe is when Wier­wille ordered me to meet with him alone in the bib­li­cal research cen­ter and humil­i­at­ed me, accus­ing me of spir­i­tu­al fail­ure. I had just returned from vol­un­teer­ing to recruit in near­by Tole­do, Ohio, with my girl­friend. While there, a local Way believ­er told us that the Tole­do fel­low­ship leader had returned to smok­ing pot and was steal­ing mon­ey donat­ed to The Way. Wier­wille blamed my girl­friend and me for not know­ing that Satan had tricked that leader into these errors. When I met with Wier­wille, he com­mand­ed me to sit on the floor at his feet and railed at me like a rude fac­to­ry boss, inter­ro­gat­ing me as to whether I’d smoked pot with the leader or had sex with any of the guys there. I had not, but in my fear and con­fu­sion, I acqui­esced. To this day, I occa­sion­al­ly have bad dreams about Wierwille.

On the oth­er hand, one of the best expe­ri­ences dur­ing those years was the birth of my daugh­ter Rachel. Although my mar­riage to a Way-ordained cler­gy­man proved to be a poor match (to say the least), Rachel was the great­est gift from my expe­ri­ences in The Way. I’m thrilled I became the moth­er of a healthy, lov­ing, beau­ti­ful child. Twelve years lat­er, thank good­ness, oppor­tu­ni­ties opened for me to escape Way head­quar­ters and take my child with me before she, too, fell under the mind con­trol efforts of The Way.

MM: Is there any­thing in The Way that you remem­ber with fondness?

CLE: Sure. Besides hav­ing my baby, oth­er love­ly things hap­pened dur­ing those years, too, and I cher­ish those mem­o­ries. A major one was the gen­uine com­radery we enjoyed in the bib­li­cal research depart­ment – before the ter­ri­ble events occurred that I describe in Under­tow. When I start­ed there in 1984, I was hap­py work­ing with that team. A few of us were fin­ish­ing the pro­duc­tion of a ref­er­ence book, our Aramaic/English con­cor­dance for the New Tes­ta­ment. (A con­cor­dance is sim­i­lar to a dic­tio­nary. For every word that occurs in the Bible, a con­cor­dance lists all the vers­es in which that word appears.) I became good friends with a few of those folks, like Joe, the one who Way lead­ers even­tu­al­ly fired for ‘being too aca­d­e­m­ic.’ Can you imag­ine that? Any­way, before Joe left, he sug­gest­ed I resume my uni­ver­si­ty stud­ies, and I can nev­er thank him enough for point­ing me in that direc­tion. I fol­lowed his advice and final­ly com­plet­ed my uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion in 1994, which was one of the best things I ever did. Oth­er fond mem­o­ries include times I spent teach­ing children’s fel­low­ships. That put me in touch with many sweet, enter­tain­ing kids and their unend­ing curios­i­ty. Their inno­cence often kept me sane.

MM: In your book, many Way’s lead­ers speak Eng­lish incor­rect­ly or use very col­lo­qui­al Eng­lish. Were they so une­d­u­cat­ed and, if yes, wasn’t that a turn-off for you as an Eng­lish major?

CLE: Well, yes, it was a turn-off, but remem­ber, I was only eigh­teen years old when I got into The Way. For instance, I didn’t think about his incor­rect and/or quirky speech pat­terns much, but when I did notice them, I ratio­nal­ized them as just his way of being down-to-earth, his attempt to not sound snooty. I think we were will­ing to brush off his mis­takes because we real­ly believed we should keep our focus on God’s Word, not Wierwille’s human errors. How­ev­er, I know edi­tors who tore out their hair try­ing to fix Wierwille’s tran­scribed ser­mons, mak­ing them pre­sentable to print in The Way Mag­a­zine and in Way books. In gen­er­al, we didn’t want to appear too sophis­ti­cat­ed because Wier­wille often scoffed at edu­cat­ed peo­ple, accus­ing them of being on ego trips.

MM: In the last chap­ter, “Turn­ing the Tide,” you write about the denial of feel­ings that had become so preva­lent in The Way’s teach­ings. Could you please elab­o­rate on that aspect?

CLE: One of Wierwille’s pet phras­es was “Feel­ings come and go, but the Word of God liveth and abideth for­ev­er.” What he meant was that we were not to trust our feel­ings because they change all the time. And because they change, Wier­wille told us they were unre­li­able sources for truth about our­selves. When our feel­ings con­tra­dict­ed Wier­wille, we were trained to reject those feel­ings. One impor­tant exam­ple of this from my own life is in Under­tow: Even when my gut feel­ings told me that the man I mar­ried had betrayed me and was not good for me, I was sup­posed to rec­on­cile with him because the Bible said to forgive.

MM: In Under­tow, you write “I felt rebel­lious about read­ing a nov­el.” Could you please com­ment on The Way’s rela­tion­ship to fiction?

CLE: While there was no offi­cial pub­lished posi­tion on the val­ue of fic­tion, Wierwille’s neg­a­tive atti­tude towards it influ­enced us. Like Luther, we believed that the Bible was our only source for truth; there­fore, we should spend most of our time read­ing it, although Wier­wille direct­ed us to learn and obey his Bible teach­ings which we believed gave us the accu­ra­cy of the Bible. That belief eclipsed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we could learn any­thing of val­ue about the human con­di­tion from a work of fic­tion. In fact, a work of fic­tion qual­i­fied as a ‘lie’ because it orig­i­nat­ed from a writer’s imag­i­na­tion only.

MM: And final­ly, do you con­sid­er your­self a reli­gious per­son? Do you still attend church?

CLE: I’m one of those peo­ple who says they have a spir­i­tu­al life but aren’t reli­gious. For me, being out in nature, espe­cial­ly at the beach, is my des­ig­nat­ed con­tem­pla­tive time that I call spir­i­tu­al. Also, I prac­tice yoga as well as a lit­tle bit of med­i­ta­tion. While today I no longer sub­scribe to any one reli­gion, my leav­ing orga­nized reli­gion didn’t hap­pen imme­di­ate­ly after escap­ing The Way. When I returned to Flori­da, I attend­ed Catholic mass to get back to my child­hood reli­gious roots a few times, but I no longer felt I belonged there. So, I guess you can say I am no longer a reli­gious per­son, but I val­ue hav­ing a very per­son­al spir­i­tu­al life.

After spend­ing sev­en­teen years with “The Way Inter­na­tion­al,” Char­lene L. Edge earned a B.A. in Eng­lish from Rollins Col­lege and became a pub­lished poet and prose writer. She is a mem­ber of the Flori­da Writ­ers Asso­ci­a­tion and the Authors Guild. This year, the Flori­da Authors and Pub­lish­ers Asso­ci­a­tion award­ed the gold medal to Charlene’s mem­oir, Under­tow, in the cat­e­go­ry of Autobiography/Memoir.

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