White Wedding: Part Five of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College

Come on it’s a nice day for a white wedding. It’s a nice day to start again! (Billy Idol)

001One of the couples within the group, Ava & James, got married on March 16, 1996. They had become an official couple while in Narrowgate, and asked Liam to officiate the wedding ceremony. James was one of the junior members of leadership, and it was James’ house that we stayed at up in New York State when we went hiking a few months back. Pooky had always been fairly close with Ava, they hosted a radio show together on the college radio station for a brief while when they were both students at Messiah before Pooky, Ava & James quit college, as I mentioned in Part Two of this blog. I remember Pooky and I had conflicting emotions about the wedding – while we loved Ava & James like family and were happy for them, we had been dating for a while and were engaged before they became a couple. They went from being single, to being engaged, to being married in a rapid span of time. It brought up some complex emotions in that we were still dealing with the desire to get married sooner than expected, which fell through. Both Pooky and I were in the wedding, and have some awesome photos that I have to this day.

Something’s got to give now. Let the bodies hit the floor! Let the bodies hit the floor! (Drowning Pool)

During this time, we were still meeting on Sunday evenings in the nearby church that had somewhat taken us under their wing. Liam’s teaching started changing more, as Liam reacted to things in his sermons.  He sometimes reacted to other people, such as those on the outside who were against the group – especially towards threats (perceived or otherwise) to his authority in the group. He also reacted quite a bit to theologies that he disagreed with. During this time, he taught that studying the Bible was important, but listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit grew in importance too.  This marked a continuous drift towards personal revelation at the expense of the Bible and its teachings. The gifts of the Spirit were a large focus of every meeting, along with the Baptism in the Holy Ghost.  He laid hands on a lot of people, most of us from Narrowgate.  He seemed to like it when people fell down, and he would often push hard or yell loudly to get a response from people to get them to fall over.

Photo by Ashley Jurius on Unsplash

Liam began involving Noah a lot more in his sermons, usually as a demonstration. One time during a message (I believe it was on having faith), Liam asked Noah to come up front and line up in a football linebacker 3-point stance, which Noah did.  Liam then said that when he shouted “GO”, Noah was to give a war cry and run towards the far wall.  On “GO” Noah released a monstrous yell at the top of his lungs and charged ahead at full throttle. About 3/4 of the way towards the wall, Noah appeared to run into an invisible solid wall and bounced off it before landing flat on his back on the stage.  We were all flabbergasted, and to this day I still don’t know how this happened – to me, there is no explanation, short of the supernatural. Noah kind of became the wild one of the group, and he usually did the weird things that nobody else wanted to do.  It was kind of comical, we knew something funny was in store whenever Liam called Noah up front to join him at the pulpit.

the inside of the church where we met (photo from church website)

Liam changed the group’s name from Narrowgate to New Life Fellowship to fully break our core group’s ties from Messiah College.  James became in charge of the small bible study on campus that they wanted to keep going under the Narrowgate name, while Liam became the leader of the core “church”.  The elders of the church we rented wanted us to be more orderly and less theologically bizarre.  Liam apparently saw this as a threat to his authority over the group, and as a result the services got more and more disorderly.  Several meetings went by where there was nothing more than people running around the sanctuary while yelling and screaming and laughing.  I was very uncomfortable in these activities, and did not participate.  Pooky and I were at odds about this high level of disorder, as she was much more accepting of it than I was.  I was very upset one night when Liam taught about holy laughter, and everybody laughed all night.  As I sat in the pew and didn’t participate, Liam came over and sat on my lap and tried to get me to laugh.  I thought what he was doing was immature and manipulative, and walked out of the building to get some fresh air and clear my thoughts.  When I came back in, most of the group had surrounded Pooky and were goading her into responding.  They wanted her to let out all the bottled up emotions and feelings she had always repressed, and when she finally did let loose an ear splitting scream, they clapped and cheered loudly. They kept this going for a while, and I was very upset.  I felt that they had singled her out as a result of my lack of participation, and seized on the opportunity when I left. We argued a lot about the service in the car afterwards, and I didn’t see how screaming was doing God any good.  She was happy that she could finally release all the emotional rage and feelings she had inside about quitting college and the feeling that she had disappointed her parents and stuff like that. We had to agree to disagree on this, and moved on.

At this time, Liam had us tithing to him so he could stop working and focus on the group full time.  I disagreed totally with this and hardly ever gave money. Part of this was because I had precious little money to spare. And it really was demoralizing to give money to Liam, only to see it resurface as a new car, or as an expensive Thomas Kinkade painting hanging in their living room. One of the group’s junior members, Allison, had reportedly cashed out an insurance policy and given the money to Liam, who spent it on new furniture for their apartment. I never knew where the line was of oversight for the money given to Liam – should we just give, then let it go? It was a hard thing to do… we just couldn’t in good conscience give Liam money and watch him make what we thought were unwise decisions with it. There were times where Liam would be hands-off about money, and tell us that the Biblical model was to give joyfully when we felt led to give. But then Liam would then start pressing the group to give more, most likely because his bills were due – it was a see-saw of ups and downs.

A major teaching that came as a revelation “from God to Liam” was the topic of freedom.  We were free from sin, death, and all that stuff.  But we were also free from religious activities:  they should not have any hold on us.  Liam taught that we all did many things out of man-made religion, and those things needed to go.  Prayer became nothing more than you talking to God.  Going to church could be as simple as meeting with other group members, since we were the church, God’s chosen body of believers.  Worship was expanded as a pattern of life that we did at all times, not just singing songs together. Tithing was frowned upon since it was an act of religion, done out of obligation – but as I mentioned, that teaching came and went. The word “religion” became a dirty word, and much of what we were taught and how we subsequently acted were a direct reaction against what other people did.

the cemetery, and the McDonalds

One night there was an altar call to break off religious spirits that were controlling us. One of the girls later shared her experience that after she went to the altar, she believed she was still not set free of religious spirits because she had felt nothing happen. She went outside, and wound up running as she begged God to grant her freedom. In the distance, she saw the glow of the nearby McDonalds and felt a strong desire to get an order of quality McDonalds french fries. In that moment, she believed she was hearing God’s voice, but unfortunately she had not brought any money. But what is something as trivial as money, in comparison with the will of the Almighty God!? It was her fear of religion that prevented her from stepping out in faith to get those french fries, and so she believed that the Creator of the Universe was instructing her to just take those french fries as an act of faith to break off religion. And so she placed an order and when the employee handed her the french fries and gave her the total amount due, she ran out of the McDonalds across Trindle Road, and sought refuge in the quiet St John’s cemetery behind historic Peace Church. She tossed the french fries all over the cemetery, then joyfully ran back to the church where our service was still taking place. She then joyfully told us all about her adventure of how God had broken off religion and fear from her life.

Amelia & Lucas came to visit one weekend, and they were dumbfounded at how our group acted.  The three of us talked a lot about it out in the Narthex while people were yelling and laughing and running around inside the sanctuary.  They warned us that something was very very wrong with how the group was acting.  I agreed with them but felt too caught up in it to do anything. There was no denying that the Bible study they had attended with us some months ago was unrecognizable.

the entrance to Delbrook Manor Apartments

It was around this time that the “Narrowgate” Bible study that Liam and James were trying to restart on campus was discovered by campus leadership, and shut down.  I later learned that Liam was banned from coming onto campus except to attend classes. As he had already graduated from Messiah and had no more classes, this theoretically blocked him from the school. In addition, our core group finally broke ties with the church we were meeting in.  Liam told us it was because they were too controlling, and wanted our group to be just like them – religious.  So without any warning other than a phone call, we were now meeting in Emma & Liam’s apartment in Delbrook.  The teaching became even more focused on listening to the voice of God and less on the authority of the Scriptures.  Liam taught that if God told you to do something then you did it no matter what.  Breaking religion became a huge focus of the group, as we all strived to get more un-religious in our thinking.  According to Liam, the less you read the Bible the better – we did, after all, have the Author of the Bible who could speak to us directly.  And if something offended you, that was brought on by religious thinking that you needed to eliminate in your life. One practical example was if you were offended by someone speaking in tongues then that was an area that you needed to deal with:  your offense was brought on by religious thinking that needed to go.  At this time, I recall we stopped with the worship portion of our time together, since religious churches did that and we were going as far from that as possible in both theology and practice.

Notice here the rapid decomposition of key disciplines of the Christian faith, followed by Liam’s substitution of desired practices in their place. Our behavior was now being deliberately targeted and modified, based on the direction Liam received “from God.” Topics like tithing / giving came in and out of favor, based on Liam’s wants. We were effectively cut off from any outside influence – it was just us and Liam. In retrospect, I imagine that was just the way he wanted it.

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? (Fleetwood Mac)

We were now reaching the end of the school year in 1996 – and nearing our wedding date. Pooky and I met a few times with Emma & Liam to discuss the service. What did we want the service to be like? Wild and rowdy, or more traditional? There was some tension, as we didn’t want to freak our families out with bizarre activities… but our families were held in low regard, and religious activities were viewed with obvious disdain. They emphasized that it was our service, but there was undeniable pressure to make it more reflective of the new teachings of the group. There was also some pressure to make it similar to Ava & James’ wedding.

We bent in some areas, and not in others – Liam, Olivia and Noah were allowed to pray and prophesy over us during the ceremony. We planned for special music and singing, but no dancing during the ceremony. My best friend from high school was my best man. Two of my college room-mates were also in my groom party, along with Lucas, who was coming from out of town for the occasion. Pooky chose her best friend from high school as her maid of honor, and a mix of high school and college friends to be in the bridal party. Also in the bridal party was Olivia from Narrowgate. Amelia and Olivia were going to sing special music for our service. Mia was a very helpful Master of Ceremonies, and made sure people knew what to do and where to be. She also later made sure everyone signed the guest book during the service and reception. We chose the chapel on campus at Messiah for the ceremony, and a big celebration event at a nearby club for the reception.

There were infinite other details to line up, as well – as graduation from college came closer into focus, I needed a job and a place to live. I naively thought that a college degree would open amazing new doors of employment possibility. And with that sense of giddy optimism, I got a job as a Therapeutic Support Staff at a local group home. It paid slightly above minimum wage, and provided some medical benefits, so I was happy. This new job started giving me evening and weekend hours as I ramped up into the world of adulting. I quit my job at the local Toys R Us and focused on getting through my remaining finals and what not. I wrapped up my internship at the Harrisburg State Hospital, where I specialized in working with acute schizophrenics. My time there could be an entirely separate blog entry in and of itself, the hours spent there caused me think deeply on the relationship between the body, mind and spirit in mental health issues. During finals week, I nailed my “thesis” on biochemical factors in mental and psychological disorders which was obviously influenced a great deal by my time in working with acute schizophrenics. I also found a beautiful apartment near the college in downtown Mechanicsburg, and took care of the security deposit and all the financials so we would have a clear runway for our new life together. I still remember the smell of that little apartment, and how beautiful it was: Pooky did a masterful job at decorating the place in the time leading up to our wedding.

Our First Apartment in Mechanicsburg

During this time, I spent some alone time with a notebook while I wrote my vows to Pooky. I also spent some time writing a song for her, with the goal to sing it for her at our wedding. The song encompassed my deeply held belief that we were made for each other and that our hearts were made complete in our love. The chorus stated that “before the start of time, you were made for me and I was made for you. Before I knew your face, my heart just had one place – with you… only with you.” The rest of the lyrics fell into place as we drew closer to the wedding date. The bridge (for after all, it was a standard love song in Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus out format) was perhaps prophetic of things to come – “And I don’t know where we’ll be tomorrow… but I know one thing is true – that if I face uncertainty and sorrow, I know I’ll face it with you.” At this time, we were in a cult (though we were too blind to see this obvious fact) and though we were walking on shaky ground, we were determined to walk through it together.

EK_0012On Saturday May 11, 1996, I graduated from Messiah College with a Bachelors Degree in Psychology with a minor in Sociology. It was a fantastic sunny late Spring day, and much of my family drove into town for the event. All of my favorite people were there to celebrate, and I felt such a fantastic sense of accomplishment. I had done it – I graduated. I was deeply in student loan debt, but I did it. I was still somewhat close with my college friends and room-mates, though Narrowgate had been driving a thick wedge between us and anyone outside the group. The week between graduation and my wedding, I spent wrapping up last minute booking details for our honeymoon in Florida, as well as working as many hours as I could. Now that I had responsibilities, I was determined to shoulder the weight as a provider, bread winner, and all around swell guy.

The night before my wedding, we had a rehearsal at the on-campus chapel. After the rehearsal, we all went out to dinner at my local favorite Italian Restaurant, Pagliaros (may it rest in peace). They always had the most amazing gnocchi pomodoro… Mmmmm… The dinner was somewhat awkward, in that all the Narrowgate people sat somewhat by themselves at the far end of the table and didn’t interact much with everyone else. My Mom noticed this and commented later that though she was somewhat removed from my on-campus life and activities, she sensed that something wasn’t quite right with this group of people, my “church family.”

After the dinner, my friends took me out on the town, where we went to a pool hall and shot billiards for a few hours. After everyone else was tired out, my best man and I went to a local club and hung out for a while longer. I remember the local band Fuel was just starting to get widespread fame, and were playing at the club we visited. After that, we crashed at my new apartment and were up early for the big day.

Going the Chapel and we’re gonna get married! (The Dixie Cups)

It was a bright sunny day, and I was getting married to my best friend. Could anything I say be any more glorious than that?

Photo by Philippe Goulet on Unsplash

I remember so much about this day, most of it coming as little stabs of memory. So many friends and family came from far and wide for our wedding, when I watch our wedding video now it’s a surreal experience of seeing faces out of the past come into the sharp focus of memory. I remember being blown away that my Mom and Step-Mom called a truce from the icy crust of lifelong animosity, and had a cigarette together out in the parking lot. I remember having a horrendous pimple on my forehead that my Mom-in-law covered up with makeup. I remember standing around a lot outside with all my best friends, all of us in tuxedos, waiting for showtime. I remember it all happening slowly, like a dream. I remember the back doors opening, and my Pooky appearing like an angel – she seemed to radiate pure joy. I remember my best man turning to me and clapping me on the shoulder as Pooky came down the aisle, so happy for me. I remember holding Pooky’s hands and just staring at each other for the longest time while everyone and everything around us seemed to melt away. I remember being so hungry and enjoying finally sitting down at the reception to eat and how wonderful it was to be on the other side of all the planning. I remember dancing with my Pooky on the dance floor as Celine Dion crooned Because You Loved Me, watching the video of that moment still tears my eyes up – it was such a pure, beautiful, magical moment.

EK_0001What I don’t remember is probably a longer list, and includes all the worry about who would get along with who else, about cleaning up, about whether or not relatives would be disappointed at us not providing booze, and about all the details that I thought were so blasted important at the time. 23 years later, all the worrying and fretting and planning just took care of itself. I also don’t remember the things I was most worried about – how Liam would act, and about Olivia and Noah laying hands on us and prophesying over us what God was telling us. In retrospect, that was more of a general time of praying for us – there was no magical moment of telling us that the person sitting one row ahead of us on the airplane would be an albino Canadian who would give us the passcode that unlocks some secret vault containing the remains of Jimmy Hoffa. Nothing was predicted, and nothing came to pass other than just general well wishes for joy and peace and happiness. Was it prophesy? To this day, I have no idea. But our concept of what prophesy was had been so redefined from any Biblical standards by this point in our life.

All at once, after a whirlwind of a day, we changed out of our wedding clothes and left the reception in a flurry of bubbles and cheers to climb into Olivia and Noah’s car for the ride to the airport. The honeymoon – that glorious moment of total disconnection from everything else… just several days of my best friend and I. We stayed at a gorgeous bed and breakfast in Florida where we went shopping, ate at beautiful restaurants, rented a car and drove to the beach. It was glorious, and all too soon we were back on a plane heading home for Pennsylvania.

Back to the real world, with a full-time job and a wife and a cult. And though we did not know it at the time, there were now only nine months left before the end of everything.

(to be continued)

Next: Part Six

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