Anyone who has been kicked out of the only community they’ve ever known can confirm that it hurts. But sometimes, that’s for the better.
This was the case for Breanna and Peter Phipps, who were raised in the Word of Life Tabernacle church in Sherwood Park, Alberta, until they were kicked out in 2018. Breanna was 26 at the time, and both she and her husband had been born and raised in the church, marrying at 19 and having five kids together. Like their parents, the kids had been taught such hateful doctrine from birth, so we can all collectively breathe a sigh of relief that they made it out with so much of their lives ahead of them.
This video from April, courtesy of CityNews Edmonton, describes their ordeal:
What was so bad about the church? Well, Breanna’s descriptions of it raise a lot of red flags as far as signs of cults go. When analyzing the Church of God Restoration last month, I gave an extensive (but not exhaustive) list of some of the attributes of Steve Hassan‘s BITE Model that describe cults. (Check that out for a more in-depth look at cult characteristics.) For now, here are some of the most alarming things Breanna experienced at Word of Life:
- The church had a fence with 3 layers of barbed wire surrounding it
- Members who left the church were excommunicated and unable to speak to family members still in it
- There was a very detailed dress code for women, including:
- No pants, only “skirts that were below [their] knees, sitting or standing”
- Sleeves that come past the shoulder [Note: We assume that means no tank tops]
- Not being allowed to cut your hair, as it is “a symbol of submission to your husband”
- No makeup
- No heels above three inches
- No words across your shirt
- TVs were forbidden
- Children had to attend a church-run school
- Leaders “had the ultimate say over what she wore, how she raised her children and whom she befriended”
- Members could not befriend anyone outside of the church, visit movie theaters, or attend concerts
- The leader’s sermons were treated as the word of God, as he claimed to be Jesus’ vessel for communicating with the world
- The church took “every chance of a free, critical thought away from their members”
Of course it must have been terrifying for them all when they had to leave everything and everyone they had ever known. And at first, Breanna did “[cry] and [feel] helpless… but she quickly realized she was ready to leave the community behind.”
While many of us have learned not take things like festivals, concerts, and movie theaters for granted after COVID lockdowns, this renewed wonder at going out into the world was compounded for Breanna and her family, as explained by the CBC:
In December, Breanna Phipps plans to attend her first concert. Not her first post-pandemic concert — her first-ever concert.
She’s also excited to be able to travel the world and “[see] the world through the eyes of community and love” instead of “judgment and hate,” with the mindset of “I’m the only one going to heaven, not you.” Sometimes this ability to think freely is even more wonderful than the newfound freedom to pick out your own clothes.
Some of these broken barriers, however, were difficult for Breanna. When your mind has essentially been controlled for your whole life, the shame of even simple things can take years to overcome. She at first felt “wrong” and “dirty” when trying on her first pairs of jeans at the store after being “accustomed to wearing clothes two sizes too big, to disguise her figure.” She also felt very uncomfortable the first time she went to a movie theater, feeling…
… like [her] oxygen had been turned off… [she] thought the movie theater was going to blow up because [she] was disobeying what [she] was told [her] entire life, but [they] sat and watched the entire movie, had popcorn and left, and [they] were fine.
But the most empowering thing may have been one of the simplest:
She also had her hair cut for the first time, an experience she found cathartic.
“I will never forget how it made me feel to make a choice for myself, by myself.”
The great irony here is, while she did not need his permission, her husband didn’t even mind.
Now an atheist who raises awareness about the “horror movie-like” culture at Word of Life, Breanna blogs at Reset-ish about her life journey with her husband, their five children and their dog.
(Thanks to Lorne for the link)