My Story

Part 1. IFB Cult

(*Trigger Warning - Topics of depression, trauma, abuse and suicidal ideation)

 

Hello, my name is Andrew Pledger, and this is my story of religious trauma from two cults. My story is long and complex which is why I’ve been working on a memoir. This entry will leave out many details and cover the general overview of my experiences, and help people understand how I got here. 

 

 

"Religious trauma is similar in symptoms to Complex-PTSD. Symptoms of RT 

Negative beliefs about others 

Low self-esteem 

Struggle with emotional regulation 

Depression, anxiety, grief, and anger 

Nightmares

Disassociation, flashbacks 

Lack of pleasure

Feeling isolated 

Feeling empty, lost, or directionless 

Reduced critical thinking 

Feeling out of place or like you don’t belong 

 

According to Restoration Counseling, Religious Trauma Syndrome is often caused for several reasons by different people. Many people experience RTS as a result of an authoritarian religion or faith community. Individuals suffering from RTS may be struggling with black-and-white thinking, irrational beliefs, difficulty trusting themselves, low self-esteem, or feeling indebted to a group of people. Skewed views of sex, discipline, emotional regulation, relationships, and self-expression are usually present in toxic religious environments" (Source: Restoration Counseling).

 

 

Let’s start in the very beginning, long before I was born. My parents were both devout fundamentalist Christians. My maternal grandparents raised my mom Methodist until they converted to fundamentalist Christianity. My paternal grandmother was a fundamentalist Christian and my grandpa eventually converted. 

    My parents met at Hyles Anderson College in the late 80s. This college was known for being a strict fundamentalist school. My dad was studying to be a pastor and my mom was going to be an English teacher. This college was unaccredited which meant she would only be qualified to teach in a Christian school. After graduation, they got married in the early 90s and were excited to have children. 

   To their dismay, they struggled to have kids. After 6-7 years of being a childless family, they began considering adoption. They had prayed for years to have children and it just wasn’t happening until it finally did. They had three boys and I was the middle child. They interpreted this as an answer to prayer and wanted to dedicate their children to the God of Christianity. Homeschooling was popular among fundamentalist Christians because of the separation from the world and outside influences. It was honestly all about control of their children’s lives. My whole life I was homeschooled and indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity. At eight years old, I converted to Christianity after hearing a horrific sermon on the terrors and demons of hell. I had many sleepless nights and nightmares sometimes having doubts about being saved. It was faith with a foundation of fear, shame, and manipulation. Little did I know the messaging I received in my developing years would affect me for the rest of my life. I was told I had nothing good inside of me, and "God" saw me as dirty and wicked. I was taught to not trust myself because my heart was deceitful and that the "devil" could plant thoughts in my mind. Shame and fear were used to bring people to the altar of the church. There were times in my childhood when I was told by my parents that I deserved to burn in hell. I was usually told this when I tried to seek praise for honorable deeds and said I deserved something. I learned to never ask for praise, but that conforming to fundamentalist Christianity was the only way to get love. 


   I grew up in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, IFB cult, at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Walkertown, NC. The IFB made their own churches to avoid accountability and isolate from the outside world. This movement is known for its stance that the KJV Bible is the only legitimate word of 'God,' and all other versions are false and from 'Satan.' They take an extreme literal approach to the Bible and teaches that the world is between 6,000-10,000 years old. You were expected to avoid any information that contradicted their beliefs. You were not allowed to have friends outside of the belief system, and authority was never to be questioned. You had no hope outside of the group because of how evil the outside world was. They have the truth and questioning that was questioning 'God' and doubting meant eternal damnation. You could not listen to secular music, attend the movie theater, no dancing, no cards, no Harry Potter, ect. IFB preachers are known for their authoritarian preaching style, and hateful rhetoric. It was all about fearing anything that went against their teachings and clinging to certainty. The cult I grew up in expected all the members to give 10% of their income. We were told 'God' would not bless us if we did not. The group's leader was Bobby Robertson who led it for many decades until he died in 2018. Gospel Light was one of the larger IFB churches in the US. It was known for its large bus ministry that brought in thousands of kids every week. My parents idolized Bro. Bobby and acted like he was Jesus Christ himself. As I became older, I realized the cult-like obsession my church had with my pastor. I’ll never forget hearing a church member pray in the pulpit and said, “Dear God, help us to be more like Bro. Bobby.” What?! What about being like Jesus?! What a slap in the face to God! Independent Fundamental Baptist churches across the US knew who Bro. Bobby was and how honored his congregation was to be in his presence. People would overreact whenever anyone said his name. He was a celebrity in fundamentalist Christianity. He knew John R. Rice and Jack Hyles who were big figures in the fundamentalist movement.


The most psychologically damaging was the hateful sermons on the LGBTQ+ community.

Growing up gay in fundamentalist Christianity was tough because I was taught very hateful things about queer people. My church painted an ugly picture by describing and generalizing gay people as all perverts going around raping people and hurting children. When I was finally able to meet other gay people, I realized it wasn’t true. The nicest people I have ever met are gay. 

Even knowing this did not stop internalized homophobia. All the years of brainwashing to despise gay people began to strongly affect me. All the years of hearing my family say hateful things about queer people were deep in my mind. I was angry because of the lies the church told me and because of the damage to my self-worth.

The self-hatred became so unbearable that my mind started to develop a different identity. This was my mind’s way of coping with the trauma. Adding on to this trauma was being a child sexual assault survivor and keeping this a secret. I felt shame for my assault and hearing how I deserved nothing good made me believe I deserved it.


 As I got older the identity faded away as I learned to love myself. Which was a really challenging thing to do. Loving yourself is difficult when you feel like the closest to you find you unacceptable.

 As a result of all the years of emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of the church, I fell into a deep depression when I was 16. I stopped eating, my body ached, and I mainly stayed in bed. When I tried to eat, I just couldn’t do it. My dad would yell at me angrily to eat as if I was just a piece of shit. The last thing a mentally ill person needs is someone yelling at them to get over it. My parents would not take me to a doctor or a psychiatrist. In two weeks, I lost 20 pounds. I felt like I was dying. I don’t remember how I recovered from the depression, but I somehow managed to recover. 

  I was extremely hurt that the people who were supposed to take care of me denied me healthcare. All my trust in my parents was forever destroyed, and I became ultra-independent because I felt I could trust no one. 

 

I slowly moved away from Gospel Light and attended another church regarding youth activities. Before long, I was shunned from that church because of my perceived sexual orientation. I was all alone, and no one knew what I was going through. I had been suffering in silence for years. Eventually, I decided to get away from fundamentalist Christianity by getting a job. I desperately needed social skills and life skills in general because I was so helpless and dependent on my parents. I worked at Chick-Fil-A and thankfully I was able to find love and acceptance there. I worked there to save money for college. My parents would not support me going to a secular school. I had to attend a fundamentalist college. The college I ended up attending was Bob Jones University...

Part 2. BJU Cult

Overview of the environment

BJU is an authoritarian system of control whose sole purpose is to break you down and build you back up into their image. You are supposed to follow the rules and obey authority no matter what. Questioning authority was equivalent to questioning God because all authority in your life is conveniently placed in it by God. If you questioned, this might be a sign you are not saved and headed on a path to eternal damnation. There’s so much to lose to question and a psychological and spiritual weight that comes with questioning. You could not question their teachings because it's seen as absolute truth. They have the right interpretation of scripture; they have all the answers and everyone else is wrong. They do not have faith, they have certainty. If you didn't agree with BJU's teachings/theology completely, then you were seen as being wrong with God. There's an assumption at BJU that if you are 'saved,' you will automatically agree with their interpretation and application of 'Biblical principles.'.


This environment is devoid of any real spirituality, it's all about outward appearance. The anxiety and shame of trying to meet impossible standards are unbearable. If their formula isn’t working for you, and if you communicate that it’s harming you, then you are blamed and shamed. You are at fault, you’re not spiritual enough, or you’re a moral failure. It’s never the system, it’s never the leaders or the teachings, they can never be at fault. It is always on you. It’s a narcissistic institution. Anyone that veers from the BJU mold is sniffed out and removed from that university. Difference equals danger in this environment. This kind of environment was created as a reaction to liberal ideas, and the gray that exists in the world. They decided to be the exact opposite and create a culture where gray does not exist in hopes of creating a utopia, but it’s anything, but that. Fundamentalism seems to be rooted in fear of what lies in your psyche and fear of any kind of social uprising. It’s authoritarian so they prioritize order at the cost of students' mental health. You are taught that there is nothing good inside of you and that you have to get rid of yourself and put on the identity they want. This is mind control, and it is so subtle that people do not know what is happening to them. It’s a slow process. Being given an identity can be attractive for a lot of people. You do not have to take the time or effort to form an identity, they have it ready for you to put on. It is purposely set up this way because you are nothing without the group. It’s your whole identity. This is one way they keep you locked into fundamentalism for life.

They provide certainty, structure, purpose, and community, but at the cost of your individuality and autonomy. As humans, we’ve always been searching for answers to life’s biggest questions. This is one of many things of why cults are so attractive, they give you all the answers. You don’t have to think or question just obey the rules and teachings. They make you feel so much shame for not conforming to their ideology, and this keeps people in line. They give you the problem, and then they give you the solution. It’s so manipulative, and abusive. The core of the psychological impact is they destroy any sense of self-trust so that you will depend on everyone outside of yourself, which are these authoritarian leaders. If you don’t trust yourself and you don’t know yourself, they can mold your mind into what they want. These leaders project their issues onto other people because of their internal struggles of trying to be perfect which is impossible, so it creates this cycle of shame and repentance that never ends. They are addicted to internal and external absolute control. 


There’s a snitching system where you will get into trouble if it’s found out you did not report someone. You always feel like you are being watched. It rips you of your humanity and turns you into a robotic kind of person. If you have a relationship with Jesus, it’s assumed you will believe exactly as BJU teaches, if you stray from BJU’s interpretation then you are not right with God. They talk about love and compassion, but they don’t practice it. They twist the word love in that environment. Telling someone they’re going to hell is loving because you’re trying to save them from eternal damnation. Harsh discipline that’s emotionally, verbally, and psychologically abusive is presented as love because they claim it’s for 'your best' and they're trying to help you grow spiritually.


You can't experience things like anger and sadness. This environment leads students on a path of isolation. You can’t connect with people if you can’t authentically express what you are feeling and thinking. Brene Brown said that the opposite of connection is control, and this environment does everything it can to control you. When I produced the 'Surviving Bob Jones University Podcast', I was surprised that I did not find podcasts on other Christian colleges. Countless Christian colleges across the US operate just like BJU. I’ve honestly been disappointed about how many people who have never experienced this environment don’t care about what’s happening in these institutions. I’ve seen many comments that blame students for attending these schools, but most people don’t know that many of these people do not have a choice.


My BJU Story (overview)

I was not happy about attending Bob Jones University. Internally, I wanted to leave fundamentalism, but I had no connections on the outside. I was honestly terrified of the outside world. I tried to convince myself that it was fine and that it was only four more years until freedom. I feared the prejudice and bigotry I would experience at BJU. I was bullied and harassed at college during my first year for my perceived sexuality. I decided to start writing my life experiences, and what it was like attending BJU. This document would turn into the first draft of my upcoming memoir. I had already experienced two depressive episodes and I was falling into my third. What I did not know at the time was that I was struggling with repressed emotions, sexuality, and trauma. At BJU, you were forced to live on their compound all four years, if you attended out-of-state. Each of their dormitories had a hierarchical leadership system where you were monitored, and the rooms were regularly checked. The school had a snitching culture where you felt constantly watched. It made you question all of your behavior to make sure you were conforming. They controlled the movies, books, TV, and music we had access to. They controlled romantic relationships by demonizing any human touch. You were required to read their rulebook and sign a covenant that you would follow it.

Towards the end of the first year, I nearly committed suicide, but I managed to call Trevor hotline. I told no one at BJU because I was terrified of what they would do. I saw no way to escape my personal hell of fundamentalist Christianity. I eventually found the courage to explore outside the fold and find a community. I found an affirming church and met a wonderful family who lived within walking distance of BJU. They gave me a key to their house so I could escape BJU when needed. They were my haven. 

 The pandemic started in 2020 and we were all separated. I did not want to go back to an unaccepting home, but there was no option when everything shut down in the US. The summer of 2020 was when I fell into my fourth and worst episode of major depression. There were deep psychological issues I was not dealing with, but I had no education in psychology or mental health. I had to fight to go to the doctor so I could get on antidepressants. That summer I discovered the term religious trauma, and I was relieved to know the issue, but I was overwhelmed and wondered if it was possible to heal. This episode lasted 7 months and I did not dig deeper into my religious trauma because I was afraid of it. I did not know where to start and I was busy with college.

   The religious trauma was going nowhere, and I underestimated the power of trauma. I ended up struggling with suicidal ideation my Junior year and I had no options except for Biblical Counseling. After pouring my heart out to this counselor about how I was mistreated growing up and he said I was paying for my sin. He basically said I deserved what happened to me because I existed. Just for existing, I deserved terrible things to happen to me. This was too much to handle with my depression. This was the moment I decided to leave fundamentalist Christianity. It was not going to be easy after all the years of mind control and lack of resources. Eventually, I was doing one-on-one discipleship with this counselor, and it turned into conversion therapy, thankfully I was able to get out of this situation.


In my senior year, I began working on my trauma by digging into psychology. I decided for my photography internship to create an art photo series about religious trauma. This pushed me to explore my trauma on a deep level and to tell my story through photography. I reached out to Josh Harris (Kissed Dating Goodbye, author) to talk about my photo series on his Instagram Live. He was excited to have me on and I was nervous because I decided for the first time in my life to be authentic. I had acknowledged so much of my trauma in the last few months that I was ready to tell my story. I knew I risked being expelled from BJU for this opportunity, but it was worth it to me. Ten days after the release of the video I was expelled from BJU in January of 2022. I now live with the family that took me in my first year. I’ve been working on my personal growth through reading and healing my trauma in therapy. I’m currently writing my memoir as I continue to process my past. I’ve become a social media activist to bring awareness to cults, fundamentalism, and religious trauma. I continue to share my story with many podcasts and publications to bring awareness. In April of 2022, I was hired by a cult expert, who is Rachel Bernstein LMFT. I help her with social media marketing for her podcast "IndoctriNation." I’m now on a mission of pursuing psychology to help other cult survivors. This story is far from over. 


- Andrew Pledger