Oliver’s Tale: Part Sixteen of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College
Editor Note: This is Oliver’s story. It includes his journal which was written in February of 1997, as well as his personal journey over the past 25 years. This was written in his own words and shared with his permission.
My account of the surreal week in Feb 1997 when the Narrowgate cult disintegrated. It was written down Feb 23 & 24, 1997, and I’ve edited it slightly for this post. I went back and forth on whether to keep a lot of the “God told me” notes, eventually deciding to include them. This was the mindset of the group (and myself), and it gives the reader a glimpse into just how far we had drifted into the batshit crazy alternate reality of “The Answer”.
Precursor to these events: I had been renting an apartment with Mason. However, with the house shuffling that had been going on (Mason had moved to Dom and Pooky’s house, Part 10), I had recently ended up staying at Emma and Liam’s apartment at Delbrook. At this point, Mia had also been staying there for a while. (Part 9)
Wed, Feb. 19, 1997
Something breaks inside me and I become convinced that God wants me to marry Mia.
(Note: re-read Dom’s excellent “aside” in Part 13 regarding the 80s Christian-cultural fad of “demons everywhere”. My teenage years were filled with consumption of this belief system through books and video, and it had become ingrained in me.)
This narrative picks up with the events at the end of Dom’s Part 12.
Benjamin and Isabella are at Emma & Liam’s apartment, not wanting to leave until they are sure they are right with God. Liam is ministering to Isabella and starts speaking in tongues, then screams “Get out of there” – Isabella has demons cast out. At about the same time, Elijah and Dom walk in. Immediately I know they should leave, they will get hurt if they stay. After a minute, I tell them and they leave. Benjamin is still being ministered to by Mason. Shortly thereafter, Mason’s parents come and want to talk with Mason. They have a flat tire and need assistance. After a bit, they come in and talk with Mason. Later they leave.
Emma had gotten out of bed and was crying; Mia went to minister to her. I sensed that the trouble was that Liam had not been there the past few nights. When Mia came back, she said she felt something was wrong. I didn’t think much about that.
Liam came by and asked Mia to come with him to Shippensburg to take care of the rent for the house in Wellsville (something that had been planned earlier, evidently). They left.
Thus begins the most surreal 24 hours of my life…
I invited a friend from work to come over to Delbrook. Isabella was there and we talked about her deliverance from demons the night before. Robert and a few other people were there. Then Emma walks in screaming that Liam has totally gone out of his mind and wants to divorce her. She and Pooky leave to go to Liam’s parents’ house, while I sit stunned. After a long while, Dom and I go to his house.
At Dom’s house, God reveals the source of this sudden change of events. The demons that were cast out of Isabella. I called her and she listed Confusion, Pride, Hatred, Jealousy, Lust, and Control. They fit perfectly. Isabella thought James should be told so he wouldn’t be alone. She called him, and he drove to Dom’s house. When he arrived, we filled him in and he said that we should go confront the people at Enola (where we had learned everyone was that was with Liam). We were in agreement.
We went and on the way were totally receiving from God. God told me to rebuke the six demons and to tell Liam to repent. (“Repent, Liam, Repent! Do not continue any longer to try to destroy My kingdom! I hold you responsible for this, not Mia, not anybody else. Do not think that I am too weak to remove you from your position. Repent, Liam, receive, and be restored!”)
Some time after midnight…
We arrived with anticipation. We walked in and I rebuked the demons. But they received us with seemingly peaceful composures. Liam invited us to sit down and listen to their story, not rumors. I did not tell Liam what God had told me. We sat down in silence and listened to their doctrine. Immediately I was engulfed in confusion as I tried to figure everything out. I started quoting scriptures but only got more and more frustrated. James started agreeing with what they were saying.
After a while, Dom left. Eventually James also left. I sat there for a while in confusion and eventually thought I heard God say to go back to Delbrook. Mia went with me. On the way I was totally convinced that the six demons were actually controlling me and were reasons that I didn’t want to accept the doctrine. When we got there, Mia said she was going to see Ashley but would be back later. I went in and mulled over some scriptures, still in confusion. I lay down on the bed and went to sleep.
I was woken by Dom and Mason coming in. Dom told me I was listening to confusion and asked me when the last time I heard God was. Right before we went into Enola, I knew. He then got out “Repentance” and I read it. I repented of disobeying God and listening to confusion. Immediately I knew for certain that there was something wrong with the Enola doctrine, although I still didn’t know what. About that time, Mia came in and started trying to convince me that I wasn’t hearing from God. I told her that every time I repent, receive, restored, I know there is something wrong. Mason looks at Mia’s eyes and says that there is something different. Mason tells Mia to leave and tries to wrestle her out the door. Eventually they know that isn’t getting anywhere, Dom says they are leaving and says it’s up to me if I stay or not. I know I need to leave.
We go to Benjamin & Isabella’s house and talk about the events, then we go to Dom’s house. God shows me how to disable my truck so that it won’t start, and I also take the keys inside. Dom leaves to go somewhere and I lay on the couch and fall asleep.
I hear a knock at the door. I have my glasses off and ask God, before I even know who it is, do You want me to answer the door? He says No. I put my glasses on and see Liam and Elijah. I lay back down, feeling like an attacker is trying to get me. About this time Dom shows up and eventually Liam & Elijah leave. Dom and I call Annette and Isabella to warn them that Liam is coming around and not to open the door. I have a sense that Liam is acting like a puppy going around looking for attention. Pathetic.
I go to work in the truck. God tells me to get pizza and I will have it with hot sauce. I say that’s crazy, my hot sauces were thrown away. God says they are within reach in the back of the truck. Sure enough! I marveled at God’s love at even small things. It’s busy at work and God tells me he’s going to give me understanding of the situation. I am pretty useless at work but I learn a lot from God. God reveals exactly what is wrong with the Enola doctrine – Word of God: “Marriage is My gift to two people. It is pure and clean. They are calling my gift unclean. What God calls clean, let no man call unclean. They think they are giving everything to Me. Instead, they are mocking Me.” God tells me some things to tell Mia: The only voice you’ve heard the past few days is confusion. Right now, I am the only voice of God you’re hearing. Then the whole explanation of the false doctrine, and finally to tell her that they all have been totally raped and mutilated by the enemy and they don’t know who they are – but God is coming in after you! God tells me to call my parents and let them know what has happened to me the past two weeks and assure them that I am alright.
God tells me to go to Benjamin & Isabella’s. I go there and find no one there. I figure I must be crazy and drive off to find Dom’s place, which I figure is only a few blocks away, having only been there for the first time just the day before (it ended up being about 3 miles away. Another utterly bizarre night). After a futile search, I remember that I was not in any confusion when God told me Benjamin & Isabella’s, so I return there. After ringing the doorbell, God tells me to shut up and listen to him. He says walk to Dom’s. I say, great, it’s a nice night. God knows the way. As I start off, God says that I’m walking because I need the exercise and also so He would have time to talk to me. God tells me which way to turn and I start walking… and walking… after a while I figure Satan must totally have me out of commission that night, walking aimlessly around in the dark. Finally, I get to where God told me to turn and recognize where I am, and my confidence is totally restored.
Some of the things God showed me on the walk to Dom’s: To give my personal bond for the people involved (especially Mia) to Him. That I needn’t worry, He has the entire situation under control. That we are not missing God, that He is removing confusion from His church, and we will hear from Him crystal clear. That we won’t lose anyone in the battle. He restores intimacy with me and I am in total bliss by the time I arrive at Dom’s.
Dom is alone and awake. He tells me that everyone else is at Robert and Annette’s house in Shippensburg, and that Mason’s dad is outside and wonders should we let him in. God says certainly so we let him in. He begins sharing with us how they totally felt an evil on Wednesday night and are sure Mason hates them. We share all the things God has been doing in the past day, and he is restored. I call my parents and my dad “happens” to be awake. Then we call Robert & Annette’s place to find out how the rest of the church is doing. Mason’s dad calls Mason and he comes to Dom’s. They both leave in separate cars to go somewhere.
After work I go to Benjamin & Isabella’s. Robert, Dom, and Isabella are there. We share the things God is doing and everything is total confirmation. Isabella mentions that every step is a life or death situation.
Mason’s mom calls and says that they are removing him from a cult, that they are taking him to a Christian psychiatric clinic in Leesburg, VA. I try to talk but she hangs up.
I start panicking, I call Robert and he thinks he & Dom should go visit Mason’s parents. I call Dom & let him know of the situation. Then God tells me to go to Carlisle. On the way there Petra Praise and Beyond Belief are in the tape deck and I am restored – “The battle belongs to the Lord!” I leave Carlisle & God said that I went there just so I could be restored on the way. I then go to Delbrook to get the rest of my clothes and a few food items. Then to Benjamin & Isabella’s where God tells me to get the truck insurance from the garbage and pay it. Back to Dom’s. Mason calls about 2:00 and says he is in Dillsburg and will be at Dom’s in 20 minutes to get his wallet and keys. I immediately call Dom and ask him to come over, then I call Robert and ask him the same. Dom gets home and soon after Mason arrives with his parents.
God had showed me that they were doing this out of fear – they had been involved in this war for whatever reason and they have been attacked at the very outset. I knew the only option was to stand and fight, not run.
Mason and his dad come in and I ask that his mom come in so we could talk. She comes in. Dom asks me to sit down but I refuse. I start telling them what God had showed me about the situation. I told them they were letting fear grip them, and Mason’s mom got very agitated saying they are doing this to help Mason. She says we are being consumed by darkness. I tell confusion to leave. At this point she becomes very controlling over Mason saying that she is his mother, etc. etc. All this time, Mason has a very blank stare on his face. I try to talk to him and remind him what changes God truly effected in his life lately but to no avail. Finally Mason’s mom drags him out of the house and they leave.
I go to Benjamin & Isabella’s because I thought Mason’s parents might go there to see if there were any of Mason’s belongings in the truck. They weren’t there so I talk to Isabella. I then came back to Dom’s where Robert and Annette had showed up. Robert reminds us that God is bigger than our mistakes, that He’s promised no casualties, and that everything will be in His hands even though the situation looks grim. I leave for work.
All day I had been somewhat confused – I repented of all that I could think of, but still wasn’t hearing God clearly. After work I began to go to Shippensburg but God had me go by Dom’s. People are there so I stop in.
Robert, Annette, James, Ava, and Rose are there. We talked about the things that had been happening. Then Robert and I took some of Mason’s things to Delbrook. There, Robert ministered to me – “Be still and know that I am God”, “I WILL do the will of my Father” I realized what I really needed to repent of was my self-pity for my mistakes, which I did and was restored.
Sunday night I stayed at Dom’s house and begin writing this.
Pooky called and said that she and Emma will be back tonight at 8:00. Ava called and said Mason’s mom wants to get back the Honda and will they meet? I go over to Isabella & Benjamin’s where Ava and Isabella are. They are also not sure exactly what to do about going to trade cars with Mason’s parents. I learn Emma has called a meeting at 9:00 pm at Robert & Annette’s house, God’s been showing her some things. I also feel we need a meeting, to restore unity and closeness with God – not to get battle-weary.
— END OF MY NARRATIVE WRITTEN FEB 1997 —
A week or two after these events, Mia left the group at Enola. We talked and decided it was God’s plan for us to be together. We went to see my parents, declaring we were “married” in God’s eyes. Needless to say, they were not too happy about that. They had received a copy of a paper that had been compiled by Mia’s parents and some of the other parents detailing some of the things that had happened.
A month later we decided to get a civil marriage license at a justice of the peace. During this time period we stayed with Benjamin & Isabella and their kids. We were all reeling from everything that had happened. Soon after we got legally married, we moved to Philadelphia, as a way to distance ourselves from everything (but we drove back to visit Benjamin & Isabella and Robert & Annette many weekends. They remained our closest friends, we had all lived through the same tragedy and we shared a bond similar to soldiers who fought in a war). Another guy who had been involved in Narrowgate early on but had graduated college and left, also lived in Philly, and it was good to talk with him to help steady ourselves and get perspective. But we remained “lost in the wilderness” for years, not wanting to have any contact with Church.
After several years, we moved back to the Harrisburg area and joined a large nondenominational charismatic church. At the time it felt safe because it was large and well respected locally. But looking back it was probably because it felt familiar, too familiar… They had “prophets”, faith healing, God speaking to you and through you, etc. We joined small groups, and eventually became small group leaders.
And they, along with the rest of Evangelical Christianity, believed in the “sanctity of marriage”.
Ten years later: Catch-22
“You can’t see beyond a decision you don’t understand” – The Oracle
The following section is excerpted from emails I (Oliver) exchanged with a few of my most trusted friends a little over ten years after the events of that February. I found myself wrestling with a Catch-22 situation – where the choices all lead to negative outcomes at some level or another – “damned if I do, damned if I don’t”.
To understand why it took 10 years to get to this point, you need to understand that in the Christian culture that I grew up in, and continued to live in once moving back to Harrisburg, marriage is SACRED. It is to be protected at all costs. This is drilled into you from the time you are little. Marriage is God’s Institution.
So, given that, and what you have read up to this point, here goes…
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” – Morpheus
About six years ago I began a journey – swallowed the red pill – to see how deep the rabbit hole went. My awakening did not hit as immediately or dramatically as with Neo. It happened slowly over years but there was a steady pull to not cringe, not back off, to be willing to see things as they were.
For the past two years I have been wrestling with this decision almost constantly. It has occupied my thought life throughout the day, it has virtually paralyzed me because I see no good solution.
This is my anguish: Ten years ago I was deceived into marrying someone I should not have. I have finally admitted this truth to myself. And I am weary of living a lie, an illusion, pretending to be someone I am not.
If I would have fully come to this realization six years ago, I would not be struggling with the impossible scenarios I am. Unfortunately, six years ago, I was just beginning this journey. And we decided to have kids.
I love my kids and they mean the world to me. I have a responsibility for their well being. I want the best for them, I do not want to hurt them in any way.
I also cannot bear the thought of being married to Mia for another ten years, or for a lifetime.
So now you see my dilemma: my happiness or my kids’ happiness.
Wait, you say. There is a third way.
That is what I would love to believe. I have always believed that there is another option in any conflict, one that may not be immediately obvious but would result in a win/win scenario.
That option would be for me to work at my marriage and learn to love Mia.
That option is what I have tried to live, with all that is within me, for the past decade.
I am spent. I have nothing left. No matter what marriage techniques, what communication skills, ad infinitum, we apply, it will not change the fundamental reality: I never had a foundation to stand on.
The fact that we got married was the product of human sin – manipulation, coercion, deception.
What should be the most intimate relationship was based on betrayal of what a marriage covenant should be – the mutual willful decision to become partners in life. A covenant like this cannot be made under coercion and manipulation.
Ten years ago, I was involved in a group at college that became… very cult-like. Uh, actually, it became a cult. At the time I was not able to see this fact, as I lacked the perspective that comes from hindsight. They were very big on God “telling” you his will for your life… and eventually… others’ lives. There was someone in the group that got a “revelation” that I was to be her husband. Now at the time I did not think so as I was not in any way attracted to her and I eventually told her so. Then I went out West for a summer. Everything would have dropped right there, except I came back to PA and got involved with the group again. In the meantime, Mia dropped any direct insinuation that we should be married. However, there was an underlying assumption by most people in the group that we should be together.
A few months after I returned to PA, things got out of hand in the cult, and the group split apart. But during this time there were very strong influences that overcame my better judgment and I convinced myself that it was God’s will for me to marry Mia.
After the cult broke apart, we moved to Philly. During this time, we were both “in the wilderness” recovering from the events and hurts of early ’97. I was still in the mindset that since our marriage was “God’s will”, there must be a reason for it and I tried to make our marriage work.
After four years we moved back to Harrisburg and decided to have kids. We also went to Christian marriage seminars, read marriage books, etc. During this time, I began to really “soul search”. I began a deliberate, painful process of evaluating what I believed… who I was. Slowly, over a year or two, I admitted to myself the truth of what happened – that I allowed myself – against what I knew to be wrong – to let others convince me what God’s will was for my life – that I never had a desire to be in a relationship with Mia, that I had believed a lie. I had been deceived, and in a way that had far reaching consequences. I then began to work through what the implications were. However, I now had two sons to take care and love – and they are very precious to me, they mean the world to me.
So, here I am. I can no longer pretend to be someone I am not. I can no longer live a lie. The big question is, what are the implications of the decision? What is best for my two precious boys? What is best for Mia, and what is best for me?
In the long term, will it be better for the children to live with two separate parents, or with two parents together who do not love each other the way husband and wife should?
I am at a crossroads. I try to ask myself, in ten years, what will I wish I would have done? Standing here, I cannot bear the thought of ten more years, of a lifetime spent with someone I am a stranger to and do not have any desire to be married to. And the rub is that despite all this, I still care about her well-being and have nothing against her as a person.
Is the failure of a marriage really a failure, or is there something beyond? I have been learning in several ways – failure is OK. I don’t need to be “perfect”. Learn from mistakes and failures, move on, and grow because of them.
This is where I am, this is my Catch-22.
I do not believe the world is just a predetermined sequence of events that God has scripted and everything is fated to play out exactly as planned. We have choices and those choices affect the future. There are events that happen beyond our control that affect our lives. Just because something happens does not mean it was “supposed to” happen or that God orchestrated it that way. That is my belief anyway.
I don’t believe this decision has to do with my “redemption” or that this is all a set-up just to see what I will decide. This place in life has been brought about by actions and decisions in the past by people (myself included) who believed they were doing God’s Will but were in fact living in deception – calling good evil and evil good. I do not for a second believe otherwise. This struggle with identifying what really happened, coming to terms with it, and the decisions that understanding entails have been painful but necessary.
In 1996, several groups of climbers attempted to summit Everest. Rob Hall was a very experienced mountaineer who had summited Everest previously. He was climbing with a client, Doug Hansen. Rob had previously given instructions that anyone not summiting by 2 pm should turn around. On the summit attempt they were moving slower than a lot of other climbers and still had a long way to go by 2 pm. Climbers coming back down warned of an impending storm. But they pressed onward. They had invested so much in this attempt. They were so close to their goal. They in fact made it to the summit. On the way down they were caught in the storm and froze to death.
Sometimes, despite the planning and investment and drive to push ahead, it is wiser to retreat and live to try again. It is a judgment call. Some continue and obtain victory; others retreat and perish. The best of the best make decisions that end up costing dearly. There is not always a Right answer.
One of the responses from a wise friend was:
One thing to consider is that your emotional state is going to rub off on your kids, so in a way your own happiness level and satisfaction with your life is actually inter-relational with your kids emotional development. It’s really a both / and situation, not either / or. An unhappy parent is an unhappy parent, married or not. And a happy parent is a happy parent, married or not.
So finally, after years of internal struggle, I made a decision:
“Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny my faith and everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try to bend that far, I will break! On the other hand…NO! there is no other hand!” -Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof
Tevye goes through several periods of stretching, of bending, of accepting his daughters’ choices. Was the conclusion of his final struggle justified? Whether or not we are sitting in our chairs looking in can judge if it was or not, it ultimately comes down to one thing. We are not in Tevye’s shoes. We do not live his life. Every person has a limit, a breaking point, a line they cannot cross. It may be a much different line than we may think when we are young, but it is there none the less. What defines ME at the core? Who am I?
I have been through my own personal hell, debating an excruciating question back and forth for almost three years. Like Tevye, I have considered the other hand, and the other hand, and the other hand. This is the most difficult thing I have ever dealt with. And the struggle itself has shaped who I am today.
All this to say… I have considered the Other Hand. I have looked at the pros and cons. And I have finally come to say… “NO! There is no other hand”. I do not think it is fair to myself or to Mia, and not in the best interest of either of us or the long-term interest of our children, for us to stay married. This is not an easy decision or one that has been taken lightly. I believe the long-term effects on the children would be different but every bit as negative, possibly more so, if we stay together. And the older they get, the harder it would be for them. To stay together would be to invite significant risk to my (and her) emotional well-being; I would go so far as to say it would destroy me. And this kind of family situation would hurt the kids in significant ways. There is a lot I have left unsaid, a lot that is not necessary here. But you know enough to understand the situation. Like I’ve said before, there are no good options. There are only choices between bad and worse.
But I also have hope for the future. I do believe in the long term it will work out for the best. Time will only tell.
Twenty years later: The Red Pill, Reloaded
Robert, Annette, Rose and I met up with Mason in 2006. We reminisced and walked around the Messiah campus. At that point Mason seemed to be doing OK. It was difficult hearing of his suicide 9 years later. The what-ifs always remain elusive.
Mia and I separated then divorced. We continue to co-parent our two sons.
The rabbit hole went deeper than I ever could have imagined. After wrestling with the question of marital status, there was one other question that would not go away. Like Indiana Jones taking a step into nothingness, I gulped and took the step. And found solid footing, where many others had before me. “The answer” to the question was simpler and more freeing than I could have imagined. Four little words. “There is no god.”
“And that’s Jenga” – Paul
Sometimes I wish I had a time machine to go back to 1997 and punch myself in the face. Slap myself, try to wake myself up. But as the saying goes, wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. You can’t change the past, but you can decide to build a better future. How would my life have been different had I known the answers to my questions back then? I’ll never know. But for the answers I found, back then the questions hadn’t even formed in my mind, and I wouldn’t have been ready to consider them even if they had. Though the experiences were painful, I am who I am today because of them, and because of the journey taken since then. I am glad for that. Humanity is defined by its stories. I hope this story has been worth telling.
I’ll wrap up my narrative here. This is Dom’s blog, and I won’t impose any longer. I will continue the story on my own blog, you can follow along if you wish.
There’s also a great resource where you can read stories of others who have taken journeys of “letting go”.
(to be continued)
Narrowgate Blog Series: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen; Part Seventeen