Well, this is a slight departure from the usual themes that I like to touch upon in this website. But I thought it would be interesting to describe a first-hand experience that we had, a few years ago.
As spiritual seekers, we often try out new spiritual fads, new currents of thinking, non-conventional religious models and, why not, alternative ways of living. So it might occasionally happen, that we get the opportunity to set foot inside a real, live sect, and catch a glimpse of what everyday life is like in these hermetically sealed environments.
I'm amazed that anyone could just accept sect doctrine as if it were scripture and believe in it with all their heart and that anything anyone else says is wrong or evil. Especially people born and raised outside this community (in the "real, normal" world). I find it hard to believe that they could ever accept what the doctrine teaches as the one and only truth, and reject everything they had ever been taught in their pre-sect life.
But I'll tell you later what doctrines and dogmas this group of people teaches them. First, our visit!
We went to see my friend who had joined the sect because she invited us. I'd talked quite a few times on the phone with her and she kept insisting that we come to see for ourselves what her new life was like. She kept referring to the place where she lived as an "ecological village". An ecological village is a trend that is becoming more and more fashionable here in Spain lately, something similar to "homesteading" or "back to the land" in the States, I guess.
An ecological village is a group of people who try to be as ecological and green as possible, grow their own food as much as possible and make handicrafts and artistic work to sell in order to make money to buy the things that they can't produce for themselves. They are into renewable energy sources like solar panels too.
And often (but not always) they will settle down into an abandoned rural village in order to restore the houses in it to live in them.
So from what my friend was telling me, it sounded interesting. After all, I am all in favour of "going green" and being ecological. I mean, in these times, who isn't?
I might add that after I left my friend, having refused to join the "commune", their members no longer let me have contact with her, and she also made no effort to contact me. Every time I called her up, they would give me some excuse as to why she couldn't come to the phone ("She's sick and has a very high fever and can't get out of bed." "She's beat and decided to call it an early night." "She's out in the fields working."). I tried calling at different hours, but I always got the same response.
In the end the community packed up and moved away to some other part of the country. I managed to call them up once before they moved, and they informed me that my friend had moved to a different commune in Spain (which was also run by the same sect). I tried calling her up there, but turns out (or so they claimed) that there were a number of people with the same name as my friend there, and if I tried to describe my friend, the person would inevitably pass me to someone who was not my friend. Whenever this someone told me that they would go and look for my friend, instead of putting me on hold they would hang up. If I called back again, the phone would be busy, or no one would answer.
In the end I lost the phone number (because I changed mobile phones several times and therefore I changed the agenda too), and I decided that, if my friend was that hard to get a hold of, she probably didn't want to talk to me anyways. I occasionally asked some mutual friends if they knew anything about her, and they all said that the last that they heard, our friend continued living in the sect.
As for this thing about names, whenever a person formally enters this pseudo-religious organization, they turned in all their identity documents (ID card, Social Security card, driver's license, passport, etc.) to the sect leaders and chose a new identity and a new name. They chose this new name from the list of names to be found in the Old Testament. Thus my friend's new name became Tamar (not her "real", new name).
The reason they chose their new names from the Old Testament was because their doctrine was that they were supposed to live like the first Christians in Israel. The first Christians in Israel hadn't as yet invented a lot of the rituals that Christian churches possess today and since they were all people who used to be Jewish and had converted to Christianity, they supposedly still followed most of the Jewish ritual. Thus these people still kept the Shabat on Saturday (but they didn't refrain from "working" in the strict, Orthodox Jewish sense, for example, they still cooked, lit fires, wrote, etc. on Saturdays).
So, since the sacred Shabat actually begins on Friday night, they also began the festivities on Friday night, and they like to invite visitors to the "commune" on that day. As visitors, we were greeted with a lively and festive banquet. There were tons and tons of tasty dishes to eat, and lots of dancing and singing.
Of course, all the words to the songs reflected sect doctrine and had been written by the members.
After the party, we were given nice accommodation in a mobile home. At that moment most of the sect members were temporarily living in mobile homes since they were in the process of building a larger building in order to accommodate all the members. The mobile home was comfortable and not too cold at night, considering it was April and taking into account that temperatures on the southern coast of Spain are quite mild.
However, my friend told me that in the middle of winter, they had a space heater which was all they needed in their mobile home. She shared a mobile home with another girl, and they had the space very nicely set up to reflect their current interests.
The next morning people woke us up with guitars and drums, singing songs that, of course, reflected sect doctrine. We were told to gather in the great meeting hall, which was also the dining-room, because that is what all the members do each morning. They also informed us that on Saturdays members got one extra hour of sleep as opposed to other days of the week. My son, who was around nine at the time (I'm not too sure exactly what age he was) was very sleepy and didn't want to get up, so my friend told me to let him sleep and wake him up when it was time for breakfast.
I later found out, however, that all children over a certain age, I believe five or six, were required to attend all morning "meetings" and couldn't sleep in.
At the morning meeting, we didn't eat. They served some sort of herbal tea and spent about an hour-an hour and a half dictating sect doctrine, reading from their bible and "training" (ie. brainwashing) the children. They asked the children to volunteer some anecdote about something that they had learnt lately. I remember one girl of perhaps nine years of age explained: "I learnt yesterday that we must always wear clean clothes because clean clothes reflect pure souls, and we must always keep our souls as pure and immaculate as our clothes."
And speaking about the children, these were the strangest children you ever could see. They didn't run or jump or scream or talk out of turn, not a single one of them. Even little children of around five obeyed these rules. Regardless of their age, they all sat very still and looked down into their laps, even little boys that would normally have been rambunctious and full of energy and even the desire to be disobedient.
Only the very smallest babies cried when they felt like crying, and then their mothers usually took them out of the room to take care of whatever necessity they were clamouring for.
Anyways, after about an hour and a half of starvation, sermonizing and singing, we were released to have breakfast. So I went to call my son. I don't remember what we ate for breakfast on Saturday, but Sunday's breakfast was notable because we were all handed just a small bowl of millet cooked with garlic, and that was all we could eat. All the members were expected to carry out tough physical labour on the land fueled only by a small bowl of millet the whole morning long, which was about six hours, because here in Spain, lunchtime is at 2 o'clock in the afternoon.
In addition, we had to eat the millet with chopsticks! All of the sect members handled the chopsticks with aplomb, you could see that they all had plenty of practice. Those of us who were not so adept with chopsticks, well, we ate a little more slowly (or ended up shovelling the food into our mouths with our hands because we were so hungry lol!).
After breakfast my friend gave me a tour of the grounds and explained what life was like. She said that they grew most of the fruits and vegetables that they ate, as well as sewing and making handicraft to sell in hippy markets and handicraft fairs in order to finance sect (er, I mean, as my friend called it, community) activities. They also owned a few small businesses, which sect members took turns to run. At that moment they owned a café in the centre of town, which was doing well as it catered mostly to foreign tourists.
They had well-nourished gardens, where they grew the most common vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers, as well as more exotic foodstuffs such as bananas and avocados. Every day sect (er, I mean, community) members tended to these crops. Most of the foodstuffs grown there would be eaten by the community, but if anything was left over, they would sell it in local markets.
All of the plants, they explained, were organic and natural, so no harmful chemicals or synthetic anythings, of course.
The community members sewed all of their own clothes. The ladies who knew how to sew had taken charge of teaching this skill to many young girls. There was no set uniform required, but all clothes had to be "modest". That is, women wore dresses, men wore trousers. The dresses had to be long and buttoned up high. Members were allowed to bring their own clothes from their former "homes", as long as these clothes conformed to the standards of modesty.
Bathing in public was also allowed. The members had designed tasteful bathing suits, which they sewed themselves, that covered people where they were supposed to be covered: down the arms to the elbows and down the legs to the knees. The comfort of the bathers was always kept in mind, thus the bathing suits were made of neoprene or other typical materials used for beach wear.
Normally, unmarried girls didn't have to cover their hair. However, married women at all times, and all grown women at the daily "brainwashing" meetings, were required to wear a head scarf called a "babushka".
My friend also showed me her mobile home and her latest interests. She said that the community was completely self-sufficient, and people were free to develop their interests and talents. She showed me several books on art and learning how to sketch, draw and paint, and said that since joining the sect, er, group, she had discovered a passion for drawing and painting that she had never known that she possessed. Sect leaders encouraged these sorts of pursuits, and they had purchased these books as well as sketchbooks and artistic materials for her.
She said that, since sect (er, community) members came from all walks of life, they had a variety of talents to share with other members, and everyone could learn from everyone else. So people who knew how to play a musical instrument, would teach this knowledge to people who wanted to learn. People who wanted to learn a new language could do so. So she was being taught how to draw by a member who had been an artist.
She said, before joining the sect, she had never had time for anything, being a stressed-out lawyer with tons of cases to work on all the time. But now, she had time to devote to herself.
I asked her about music, art and books on the commune. She explained that no artwork, books or music from outside the community was allowed into the commune. So before entering the sect, new members have to either hand in their music and books to sect leaders, or do away with them some other way.
I said, then how could people appreciate the work of great artists like Beethoven or Van Gogh? She replied that, even though their artwork was great, they were not great people, since they had not been pious people in their lives and they were surely now in hell!
She said she didn't miss any of the music or books from the outside world, because community members created such beautiful works of art for their own, and it was all she needed.
She also explained that before entering the sect, I mean, religious organization, she had donated all her belongings (including all her savings and her home) to the sect leaders, and that all people were required to do that before joining the community.
I then asked her, why
would the sect leaders be interested in someone like me, who owned nothing,
joining their community, then, if I had nothing to donate to them? She said that
they didn't welcome new members for money. Of course. So their arms were open to everyone rich and poor.
I wondered who the "sect leaders" were and where they got their instructions from. She said that, actually, she herself had never personally met the sect leaders (called community leaders, of course). Their identities were only known to a few select veteran members, who acted as liaison between the leaders and the rest of the community, and communicated the desires of the leaders to the remaining members.
However, supposedly, the sect leaders received their instructions by channelling them directly from G-d, which was why no one was ever supposed to question or disobey orders from the leaders, because if they did, weren't they disobeying G-d?
I asked her why she didn't just talk with G-d herself, directly, or with her own spirit guides. She told me that that was blasphemous, that ordinary mortals couldn't commune with G-d, only specially chosen individuals possessed that power and privilege.
She also explained (as do all sects around the globe) that all people who didn't belong to the community were evil and they would all go to hell, and the only way to gain your passage to heaven was by joining the sect.
After these very informative conversations, we went for lunch. Once again, I don't remember what we ate for lunch on Saturday, but Sunday's lunch stands out in my memory, once again, for its sparcity. My friend told me that since she had joined the community her hair had started to fall out and it had also changed colour, but she assumed that that was perhaps because of age or something else.
I asked her if she wasn't hungry all the time. She said at first she was hungry, but after a while she got used to the amount of food she was allowed to eat, and she was no longer hungry anymore. Another woman informed me that when people who are very fat go there, they soon acquire a "healthy weight". Of course, since they are all starved!
But I was talking about Sunday's lunch. It consisted mainly of an enorrrmous plate of salad ("all organic and grown by commune members"). That was it. No bread, cereals or other grains. After that, for dessert, a small bowl of yoghurt. And then it was back to toiling in the fields again!
I was interested in how children were educated there, having two of my own. My kids were having problems at school at that time because they didn't like being dumped there with a bunch of strangers and left all alone there until lunchtime and not being able to see me during all those long hours.
My friend told me that in the commune, they didn't have that problem. All children were educated around the dining table, the same place that they associated with nourishing food, and their teacher was an older sect member that they all knew well. Their secular curriculum followed what was required by the Spanish government up till the eighth grade, at which point they were usually "fostered" out to other communities (this sect has communities all around the world) in order to complete their education and learn a trade.
If they didn't wish to leave their natal community, and they could learn their chosen trade "at home", then they could remain "at home", of course.
Many of the kids chose to leave the community at this point, however (ah, the urge to "see the world" is still universal and can't be repressed even with repressive rules and domineering leaders) and move to another community, run by the same sect, often in another country.
For example, a woman had an older son who was an adult, he was sent by the sect leaders to live and work in another community of the same sect in another country. I asked the woman if she didn't miss her son or keep in contact with him. She said no, she trusted the organization and she knew that if they said he was in a community in Germany, she trusted that he was there and doing well. After all life is the same in all the communities that this sect runs around the world.
The sect leaders could control what happened to people and where they went or got sent to. And they didn't let members keep in touch with people in other communities not even their own family members.
I asked my friend if
they ever hit children and she said of course not. But all the kids there
seemed terrified of the adults. I read in articles on the sect on the internet
that they DO hit kids there and they punish them very hard for anything. The
parents don't do the punishing, the sect leaders do the punishing. However,
usually the parents are willing to let the leaders punish their kids, because
they idolize the leaders. (I don't know whether these articles are still
available on the internet today, this was several years ago and I am only
reciting what I believe that I remember.)
Then they never let you sleep. That's one of the ways that they get mind control over people they are trying to recruit. They have sermons and chanting until very late at night, during which they chant sect doctrine over and over again. Then very early in the morning they wake you up and you have to go and listen to more sermons with sect doctrine and chant some more sect doctrine.
Another way that they control members was, as I mentioned before, by withholding food and controlling the amount that you were allowed to eat. They told me that the reason they ate with chopsticks was out of respect to all the nations on earth including the Oriental ones. Thus, they said, they adopted customs from different peoples from around the world, and the custom they had decided to adopt from Asia was to eat with chopsticks.
However, I later read that, in fact, using chopsticks was one way to control how much food people ate. It takes a long time to eat with chopsticks, so by the time you finished eating your little portion, the eating time was up so you couldn't ask for seconds and you had to go back to work.
The result was that people were too tired and hungry to rebel or question the doctrine that they are spoon-fed every day.
And I suppose you might be wondering about the phone use and whether the community had computers. Well, they don't completely reject the modern world. Of course they don't have televisions, but sect leaders, presumably, did possess said gadgets in order to "keep up with what was going on in the world". The community also owned a computer, which they used to run their own website (filled with propaganda glorifying the community and their way of life) and their businesses.
Of course, since people could run wild surfing on the net, permitted websites were carefully controlled.
There was one telephone for communal use, which was what my friend had used to call me. She told me the leaders didn't prohibit her from talking with her close family members on the outside, like her mother. In fact, her mother was even allowed to visit her. However, she added, now her mother, much as she loved her, was not really her mother anymore, and although she enjoyed her visits, her mother's destiny was really not of much concern to her anymore.
Things would change, of course, she said, if her mother were to decide to join her on the commune. But since her mother hadn't made that choice, she still remained in contact with her, out of respect and love, but she had it clear that her true family was the other members of the community. The other young ladies in the community were her real sisters, and the older ladies were her new mothers.
One very strange thing was that children were prohibited from engaging in games of fantasy, make-believe and pretend. They were taught from a very early age that the real world was the real world, and anything else was forbidden. They were punished very severely if anyone ever caught them playing pretend or fantasy games.
My son, being at that time still of an age to fantasize, at one point decided to pretend that...... well, I don't remember what he pretended exactly, something about pretending that a stick was really a snake and it was about to attack him, and he had to fight it off (and, of course, triumph in the end, why not? if it was his fantasy, right?). Well, that little, harmless game of his provoked a great hullaballoo among community members.
They pulled me aside and informed me in no uncertain terms that if I wished to remain on good terms with them, I would have to make sure that my son never made such an improper display again or played such games anymore.
I asked what was wrong with that?
They practically screamed at me: "Because with games of fantasy and pretend you are teaching children that the world is lovely and that they can always win if they want to, but the truth is very different! In REAL life, you don't usually win! Real life is tough! Most people and things in real life are not lovely but mean and bad, and the sooner they get that into their heads, the better it will be for them!"
One veteran member added, "When I was a little girl, my parents encouraged me to fantasize and daydream. So when I grew up and discovered that in reality, in the real world, most people are mean and cruel, I was so disappointed and disillusioned that I was mad at my parents for a long time, because they hadn't shown me what the real world was like. Here we make sure that that doesn't happen to our kids."
I wondered how they "made sure that that didn't happen" to their kids. From reading on the internet later on, I found out that generally they achieve that by the sect leaders hitting and beating the offending kids.
No wonder the kids didn't dare to move a muscle or say a word without permission.
We only stayed the weekend, because it was all the time I could get away. It's a sect that welcomes visitors because they try to recruit everyone who goes to visit them. They try to persuade visitors to stay for 3 days because they boast that it only takes them 3 days to brainwash people so that they want to stay forever.
But I couldn't stay any longer. So I said good-bye to my friend and she invited me to return one day. She took me down to town, where we caught an evening bus home on Sunday, and that was the last I ever heard of her.
A couple of years later, by chance, as we trekked along the river near the town, I was able to
revisit the land where all of this adventure had taken place. There was nothing
left, only empty fields. They had simply vanished, as if they were ghosts.
After returning home, I did some research on the sect. There are some harrowing stories out there, about fathers forced to steal their children away in the middle of the night, mothers abandoning their children in order to return to the sect or join it for the first time.
Apparently, what keeps people chained to the sect most of all is the terror of eternal damnation if they ever leave or disobey. If you happen to be plagued by this fear of "what happens after we die", you can read up about the afterlife here in this article: Guided Tour of the Afterlife.
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