In the early 1980s I was in college, living on fraternity/sorority row. But it wasn't a sorority house. It was the local branch of Maranatha Christian Churches/Campus Ministries founded by Bob and Rose Weiner. As I have described here and here, Maranatha was a Christian group with strong authoritarian control. We lived in the Maranatha House and went to church in the meeting room of that house, and we slept on the sleeping porches on the third floor and tried to get our homework done or hold down our jobs, despite endless outreach meetings, prayer meetings and other Maranatha obligations.
On Labor Day this year, 29 years after gradating from college, I went to an annual get-together of a long-standing group of former Maranatha members from my college town. The ties I have with these people are very strong, indeed practically unbreakable. As we ate and talked, laughed and took pictures and caught up on one another's lives, I found myself wondering what it is that binds us together so closely, after almost 30 years.
It's certainly not because we still agree on everything the way we did back then, when we had all the right answers to all the right questions and knew how big a part our group of "God's Green Berets" was playing in the advance of God's "dominion mandate." It's not because we stayed physically close; though some members still live in the same city, some of us have been scattered long distances. And it's not because we spend our time together living in the past; in fact, I don't think the word "Maranatha" or our experiences there came up once in any of the conversations I had at the reunion this year.
No, the bonds run much deeper than that.
It probably helps that all of us in this group of former members somehow managed to stay married to the spouses we met in Maranatha (which seems a miracle in itself!), and that we all had kids and got jobs and watched the kids grow up-- in short, that we have lived basically similar middle-class lives. And we did all remain Christians. But those are really just general similarities-- and we have met at least once a year since our children were in infant carriers, and now most of those kids are in college or have finished school and moved out-- but we have not grown apart.
The thing is this. Even if we don't always talk about our shared histories, the fact is that for several intense years we lived together and ate and slept and washed together (though of course boys and girls chastely slept and showered in separated areas). We rotated the cooking and cleaning, and we played games in the dining/fireside room and helped each other with homework and gave each other Christmas presents.
We held car washes almost every Saturday of every summer to try to pay expenses for the house's upkeep. We saved as much as we could to buy oil for the ancient furnace. When school started, and again in the spring, we had six to eight weeks of meetings every night and were required to hand out flyers for these meetings on campus right after dinner. There were also shorter "outreach" periods (2-4 weeks each, with meetings 3-4 times a week) at other points during the year. Once a month we piled into cars and drove to Seattle for a "Maranatha Leadership Training Seminar." I'm really not sure why we didn't all flunk out of school!
Several times a year we fasted and prayed for up to three days, and sometimes we held all-night prayer meetings, joined via satellite to other Maranatha congregations all over the globe. (I remember one year the central leadership found out that it's better not to expect even young, strong college kids to pray all night and fast at the same time. After several kids collapsed, fasting and all-night prayer were never observed at the same time again! The leadership was actually lucky that no serious health problems resulted that they might have been held legally liable for.)
Whenever we could snatch any spare time, we'd go to movies together (if approved by the local leaders) or watch TV. One of the girls' favorite activities was to listen to me read stories aloud (Winnie the Pooh, or the Chronicles of Narnia), while they did embroidery or cross-stitch. (I was glad to be the reader because I loved to read aloud and secretly hated cross stitch, though as a woman I was supposed to like such things.)
We shared with each other the details of our lives and our troubles with parents or siblings. We bundled up together when the furnace broke down from advanced arthritis or stopped for lack of fuel. We swam together in the house's swimming pool when it was hot (I'm sure the car wash money helped pay for pool treatment chemicals too). We all knew what each of us looked like in the mornings before showers. We all knew what we looked like in the middle of the night without sleep.
All of this stays with us, even when we don't talk about it. We have talked about it, of course-- at great length, over the years. We walked with each other on our journeys out of authoritarian, spiritually abusive religion too. And it turns out that what we have done together is something pretty rare-- the fact that Maranatha Christian Churches voluntarily disbanded in the early 1990s meant that we could leave Maranatha without shunning or estrangement-- that we were able to come out together.
And though we don't necessarily all agree anymore except on foundational Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, Atonement and Resurrection, we have all, I think, learned certain things from that journey out.
What have we learned? I think it boils down to this: that ultimately, there is no value in trying to force one another, or ourselves, to conform to some cookie-cutter standard of who or what we're supposed to be. That each of us, in our own selves, is essentially and foundationally valuable. And that our relationships with one another are more important than any differences we might have.
If nothing else good came out of being in a spiritually abusive religious group, this did: that in reaction to authoritarian control, we let go, once and for all, of any desire to control one another. Instead, we simply love one another.
And that should last us another 30 years, and beyond.