I’m working on some new cult stories to try to process the crazy. Here’s one of my favorite stories for you.
One of the first things I can think of that really should have been a red flag about the cult was the day the pastor (Did I ever give him a code name? Code name Ralph for this entry.) was taking those of us who had just graduated from high school out to dinner for a graduation present. We were sitting outside waiting for the youth pastor to get there, and somehow the conversation turned to Drew Barrymore. Ralph said something like, “She’s a fat pig and shouldn’t be in anything. I hate looking at her.”
Now, here I am, weighing probably 285 pounds, sitting in a group of three 18-year-old guys and my 40-year-old pastor, all of whom I considered friends and looked up to. I remember turning red and trying to change the subject when the guys all agreed with Ralph. The only thing I could think of all night is what they really thought of me.
A few other iffy things happened that night. Like some mafia-looking man sitting at the end of our table at the hibachi restaurant gave us money when he found out what we were celebrating. None of us ever saw that money, so I assume it went to Ralph’s truck payment or whatever. Oh, and Ralph throwing a mini-tantrum in the foyer of the movie theater because he decided on a whim we were going to see some movie I didn’t want to see at the last minute, but didn’t check the showtimes and didn’t want to wait however long until the next showing.
A few years later, I was a youth leader. We had three groups in our youth group, and I don’t even remember exactly how it was set up, but they were (from youngest to oldest) yellow, blue, and red teams. I was the leader of the red team, which was 11th-12th grade. In the summer, each team had a turn hosting the monthly big event. The youngest team decided on a pool party. My kids didn’t want to go, and I don’t really blame them for it. What 17- or 18-year-old wants to hang out in their bathing suit with 12-year-olds? I told the youth pastor’s wife about it, and she said she understood and it was fine. I was still planning to be there, but I ended up having really bad cramps, so I didn’t go. My sister, did, though. She was on that team, anyway. She was one of the 12-year-olds.
Ralph was absolutely furious when neither my team nor I showed up to the pool party, regardless of the fact that the youth pastor and his wife knew we wouldn’t be there. He bellowed at my sister (because that’s the only way he knows how to speak), “WHERE IS SIERRA? IS SHE AFRAID EVERYONE IS GOING TO LOOK AT HER FAT?”
Melina told me about it when she got home. I had never been so mad at him. Actually, I don’t think I had ever been mad at him at that point. I wasn’t even pissed that he called me fat. I was pissed that he basically told my sister I was fat.
The next week before youth group, someone had mentioned that Ralph was coming to have a meeting with the leaders because of the pool party attendance. I called the youth pastor’s wife, who was on her way to the church. She said this was the first she heard of it, and I could hear her rolling her eyes. Ralph is known for overreacting to everything.
The meeting’s overall message was about how some leaders aren’t pulling weight, and some leaders should think about stepping down, and some leaders should reconsider if they’re supposed to be in ministry, and some leaders need to get down on their knees and apologize/beg for forgiveness to the youth pastor, his wife, and Ralph for not forcing their kids to go to the pool party. All while never taking his eyes off of me.
This was the first time I ever had a panic attack. I was 20. I looked up to Ralph and the youth pastor/wife and other leaders so much. I just wanted them to accept me, and this crushed me, even though I knew how wrong he was. Remembering how loud and hard my heart was beating and how red my face was getting pisses me off, even almost eight years removed. I wish I would have walked out that night, but I obviously didn’t.
I think I had about two or three years until I actually left, and I left mostly because Ralph told me I was a “miserable old man” because I wasn’t rolling around on the floor speaking in tongues a handful of days after my best friend died, but that’s a different story.
The last few years I spent at that church, lots of people told me how ridiculous Ralph was for how he always treated me and talked about me to everyone there, but no one ever really stood up for me. Not that I know of, at least. I truly felt that God wanted me there, regardless. Or that’s what I told everyone, anyway. In reality, I didn’t know where else I would go. I had no friends and no real life outside of the realm of King Ralph — Excuse me. The Reverend Apostle Ralph. Eventually this was one of the deciding factors for going to college in Georgia, where I should have had a four-year scholarship for attending the First Church of Crazy, because the school and CoC were the same denominations. I only had it for my senior year because Ralphy wouldn’t fill out the paperwork, which was basically just an email saying, “Hey, Sierra goes to this church.” The year he finally did, when I came home on break, he told me (jokingnotjoking) that I owed him/the church 10% of my $5k scholarship. Right. That was one of my last Sundays there.