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.