Breaking Away

A weekend retreat for former fundamentalists gives them strength to rebuild their lives.

Download Article PDF

As a kid, Kevin* was taught that everything in secular culture was evil. “Even the Care Bears were demonic,” he says. A native of Ottawa, he went to a Pentecostal church twice on Sundays and attended a mid-week youth program where he learned about good “Christian character.”

At age seven, he was evangelizing door-to-door. TV was forbidden, and the only acceptable songs were ones that praised God. “We were always taught to be on our guard because the devil was actively pursuing our soul.”

He learned to be frightened of hell, but nothing scared him more than the ever-present threat of the Rapture. He was told that true believers would be swept up into heaven during this great end-times event. Everyone else would be left behind to suffer the seven-year reign of terror, known as the tribulation, when the Antichrist would behead anyone who didn’t receive “the mark of the beast.”

Like a lot of Pentecostal kids, Kevin had watched A Thief in the Night, a 1972 film about a young woman who wakes up to a radio broadcast announcing the disappearance of millions. She finds that her family has gone to heaven without her. The movie’s apocalyptic theology played into every child’s worst fear of abandonment and has been credited with terrifying a generation of evangelical kids into accepting Jesus at altar calls strategically held right after screenings.

“I’m 44, and that film still bothers me,” says Kevin. He recalls a particularly stressful night as a young teenager when his parents were out late and he convinced himself the Rapture had occurred and he’d been left behind. “I got out the church directory and looked up the number of the family in our church who I thought was the most religious. When someone answered, I hung up. I was so relieved it hadn’t happened.”

Kevin is one of a dozen participants at Journey Free, a retreat held this past September in San Francisco. The four days are designed to help people recovering from authoritarian religions to shake off the shackles of guilt, shame and fear. The gathering is evenly divided between men and women who range in age from their 30s to 60s, and the setting is sublime - a stunning, multimillion-dollar home with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the bay. It’s owned by a tech-industry employee and former retreat participant who offered to play host.

Journey Free mainly attracts former evangelical Christians, but also ex-Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews. Some have just recently left the faith, but others departed decades ago and are still haunted by their past.

*Names and identifying details of all retreat participants have been altered at their request.

Download Article PDF