(This is the third of a four-part article)
Thus our big problem was our way-out beliefs. The truth is, we all need the various giftings God has put in the church, and God has appointed teachers and pastors in the Body of Christ to properly instruct young believers. But we had none of that – no teachers, and certainly no commentaries or theology books or volumes on basic biblical hermeneutics.
All we had was the distorted views of our leader. And like so many cults, he made it clear that we were about the only true Christians around. Sure, we kept looking for others who believed like we did – but they were very few and far between indeed. As with all cults, we did not “rightly divide” the Word of God.
We took things literally where we shouldn’t have. Our main sticking point was the Second Commandment which warns about not making any graven images. We figured it meant what it said – or what we thought it said. We believed it meant no pictures of any kind – no art, no symbols, no illustrations, no photographs, no drawings, no images – zippo.
So if we got a can of beans from the supermarket (not buying it from inside, but claiming it from their trash outside, where we got most of our food), we immediately tore off the wrapping with those ghastly images! Once my parents sent me a nice Bible while I was there, thinking that with my new-found faith I would enjoy it.
But of course it had those horrendous images inside of it – maps and other pictures, which I ripped out and threw away immediately. So all images of any kind were taboo, and anyone who thought such images were OK was not a real Christian. So as you can imagine, there were not too many other believers around which we could get along with.
So in true cult fashion it was us against everyone else; all because we were misinterpreting Scripture on a pretty basic level. We were twisting Scripture, which is the clear mark of a cult, as is an authoritarian leader who demands full allegiance.
However there was one very good thing our leader often told us: he said we should always keep praying to know the truth. That we did, and it led to the downfall of the cult.
I made two trips back to Wisconsin during this time. One was a brief trip to convince family and friends to forsake all and join us. Needless to say we were not very well received by most folks, but we did pick up a few more converts along the way.
While there I took all my belongings from my home which I then saw as being of the devil and got rid of them. Thus perhaps 300 albums and probably 400 books were all chucked into the city incinerator. I felt I needed to make a clean break with my past and get rid of any negative influences from my old way of life.
I guess I forgot about my guitar and amp – a second-hand silver Stratocaster and a small Epiphone amplifier. During my time away my parents despaired of ever seeing me again, so incredibly they sold both pieces for a measly $30 – some guy got the deal of a lifetime then!
On the way back to New Mexico I took an underage sister of Cheryl back with me to New Mexico. She was quite keen, but her parents sure weren’t. They figured I was brainwashing her and kidnapping her and they sent the FBI after us. She was returned home and I escaped a possible stay in prison. That trip was in late 1971.
A second trip in early 1972 would be my last – I would not be going back to New Mexico. We had traded a new convert’s VW Beetle for an old bread truck which we refitted. We had our weaving looms in the back, and even rigged up a wood-burning pot-belly stove in the back, complete with smokestack poking through the roof to keep us warm during those long winter drives. All quite illegal and unsafe I would now imagine.
We aimed for Plymouth, Wisconsin, a small town 15 miles west of Sheboygan. A number of our members had come from that area so we figured we would establish our second base of operations there. So we left the leader and a bunch of folks back in New Mexico while perhaps seven of us went to Wisconsin.
I recall a brief stay in Lincoln, Nebraska at the home of the guy who had the VW. His dad was a wealthy doctor and he had quite a spiffy place with even a spiffy indoor heated pool. His parents must have freaked out when he bought home us whacked out hippy cultists.
We stayed there a few days and probably drove them crazy. I remember once running out to the van to bring in a loom. With my lousy eyesight I got mixed up coming back, and went to the wrong house. There I was: a wild, long-haired hippy in the middle of a posh, conservative Lincoln suburb in the middle of winter with bare feet and my Indian leggings on and a large loom in my hands.
Needless to say the completely shocked housewife opened the door with a shotgun aimed at me. I apologised and made a very hasty exit from there, eventually finding the right home. This was just one of many very odd wrong paths along my journey!
A few miles outside of Plymouth was an old abandoned cheese factory where a few folks were living (or squatting in). That became our base of operations. Just like our Taos home, we had no electricity or running water. A nice big wood-burning stove was kept well stocked during the cold winter months.
Potty stops were done outside, even in the middle of winter with four-foot high snow drifts. So it was more communal living, more roughing it, and a sense of being just like the early disciples in terms of having just the most basic of amenities – plus the snow of course. Chopping downs trees for the wood stoves; milking goats; digging holes in the ice-covered river to get water, etc, was our daily lot.
And of course more foraging behind supermarkets to get food they had thrown out. Lotta good stuff is thrown out – fruit cans with dents, day-old breads and vegies, etc. Of course there was a lot of pretty dodgy stuff as well, such as meats which had gone off which we still tried to salvage and eat. I am amazed that we did not die from some of the things we actually ate. And doing lots of dope was still a part of our lives as well.
We set out evangelising and making disciples as best we could. Some young people joined us, while others heard us out. Our main mission was of course to tell one and all about Jesus, and get them to join us in our communes, either in Wisconsin or New Mexico.
Many more memorable events took place during this time. Let me recall just one. One night just I and another guy were in the cheese factory. All of a sudden a number of loud cracking noises went off, and my buddy shouted, “Hit the floor!” We were being shot at – so hitting the floor was a very good idea indeed.
After a while it stopped and the vehicle sped off. We were a bit shaken to say the least. We spent the night in town, after going to the police. We never did exactly find who it was, but a later event removed many doubts. A month or two later some farmers came around in a truck and offered us some bags of potatoes and stuff.
We sort of put two and two together and figured they were doing this to assuage some lingering feelings of guilt. They probably had been drinking that fateful night and decided they would shoot themselves some dirty hippies. Fortunately they had returned in a more amicable frame of mind.
But our sojourn there was quite significant for this reason: while away from our cult leader, we basically managed to de-program ourselves. Various little things along the way helped us to open our eyes and see we were actually part of a nefarious cult.
Perhaps the main thing that helped to turn us around was a nearby old farmer. This quite elderly farmer who was a Christian lived quietly on his farm, and he did things which we believed Christians were not supposed to do. For example, on the basis of 1 Cor. 11, we did not believe males should wear head coverings.
So even in the coldest winter days we guys did not wear hats. Yet, incredibly, this old farmer, when he was out milking the cows in the barn, wore a hat! And he still seemed to be a good and wise Christian man. How could this be? Even more staggering, he had pictures of Jesus hanging on his kitchen wall. Graven images no less!
So here were some other believers who seemed to be the real deal who did certain things differently than what we believed. Being away from our leader we talked and prayed about these and other matters. And always heeding our leader’s advice, we kept praying to know the truth.
So over a few months we did start getting truth. We realised that this was a cult, and that we had been brainwashed. The deprogramming we undertook amongst ourselves was slow, painful but cathartic. It led to a clean break from this group.
The trouble is, in such situations usually what happens is most folks end up simply going back to the world, and give up on Christianity altogether. Once burned, twice shy, I guess. And that indeed was the case: most of my friends just gave up on God and Jesus and faith and Christianity. But not me. I still knew Jesus was the way.
I knew I could not just go back to the world, and go back to my old life – that was a complete dead-end. So that determination to stay true to Jesus no matter what led to the next part of my journey.
Other wrong turns and false paths
One of the guys with me was from out west, and was going way over to Tacoma, Washington where his brother lived. He was going to hitchhike out there, and I decided to go with him; hopefully meeting other genuine Christians who I could get in touch with. So off it was on another trip – this time 1700 miles.
This trip and my time in Tacoma also proved to result in some dead ends and detours along the way. It seems every time I wanted to get to where God was really at, another false bend on the road would present itself. Indeed, even before heading out west this happened.
At the cheese factory as we were deprogramming ourselves, we started to listen to religious broadcasts on the radio. One sounded pretty good, so we soaked it up. The trouble is, that one turned out to be a cult as well! I refer to Herbert W. Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God.
His radio broadcasts sounded good, but he was actually teaching a number of heresies which we were unaware of at the time. (Of real interest, later on, in a rare occasion in church history, part of this group broke away and actually returned to orthodox Christianity.)
And on another occasion I was reading literature in an eye doctor’s office (more on that in a moment). It looked good to me, yet once again it also turned out to be not biblical Christianity, but a heretical cult – I believe it was the JW’s if I recall correctly. So traps and wrong turns kept cropping up along the way. And I kept praying to know the truth.
On the way out west we were somewhere in North Dakota with some people my friend knew. At a party there I was witnessing away to anyone who would listen. There things are pretty straight and conservative, so two guys with really long hair and weird clothing sort of stood out a bit – and some of the girls were especially attracted.
I recall sitting outside doing a very basic form of apologetics with one gal. Pointing to the stars (which I could barely see, as blind as I was with still no glasses), I said simple things like, “Hey man, there has to be a God – look at those far out stars”. And I said she should consider majestic mountains or wild sunsets. They all speak to a God who is there.
Arriving in Tacoma – perhaps sometime in May – I was still seriously seeking truth, and it was there that I would finally get on to the right path. Two episodes especially cemented all this.
The first had to do with a truck driver who picked me up as I was hitchhiking around the area. He gave me a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth which came out in 1970. Of course for the past year I had read very little at all, except for the Bible.
This was a book on biblical prophecy, stating that with the formation of the nation of Israel the prophetic clock was seriously ticking, and Jesus would soon be returning. Boy, that sure got my attention. It made me aware of the urgency of the hour, and the necessity to make sure I was right with God, and to alert my family to all this.
So during this period I prayed a prayer of commitment to Christ. I told him that I did not know if I was a Christian or not. If I was, I wanted to do a hardcore recommitment of my life to him. If I was not, I wanted to get saved then and there.
As to the book itself, it was a bestseller, and it had the same impact on many, many others. Whether or not one agrees with its eschatological point of view, it was greatly used by God to get me back on to the straight and narrow. So when I get to heaven I will certainly look him up and shake his hand heartily. (I actually did hear him speak once in Washington on a subsequent visit.)
Part 4 is here: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/27/coming-home-my-testimony-part-4/