I thought leaving the Exclusive Brethren was the end, but it was just the beginning

Fairfax Media, New Zealand/September 9, 2016

By Donna Corway

Life was bleak, dark, gloomy and dull. I grew up in an atmosphere of death.

I was raised in an Exclusive Plymouth Brethren home.

Joy was sucked out of every occasion and experience. It was an environment void of love and kindness.

We attended meetings (church services) five times every week, three times on Sunday.

The harsh, stern environment of Brethren encompassed our whole life. It spilled over into our home and ruled it. Every decision was made with Brethren in mind.

We were like robots; wound up, going about our lives, following our programmed rules.

We were fearful of thinking for ourselves, worried we might do or think something that Brethren would disapprove of and cause a swift, harsh response from Brethren leaders. Fear played a major part of our lives.

I was fearful of being severely punished again, of disappointing my parents again, fear of failure and fear of the cold, harsh disapproval from parents at home and the Brethren hierarchy at meetings.

Brethren taught us that we were to keep ourselves separate from the world around us, so we would please God. The Lord God was only with Brethren. God wasn't in the other churches around town.

Brethren were not allowed any outside influence. I was not allowed to associate with neighbour children or non-Brethren family. I had to come straight home after school and could not join any extra activities. I could not take part in the school Christmas concert and spent that day alone in the classroom. There were no Christmas celebrations, no birthday parties, no shopping in a department store until I was older and had left home. We never ate in restaurants, couldn’t do anything that children would enjoy.

Brethren did not allow television, radio, newspapers or magazines.

It was difficult to complete school assignments correctly because I didn't know what was happening on the world outside of Brethren walls. Often, I was unable to relate to what teachers and classmates were discussing as I couldn't listen to the news. I was unable to read the books assigned to me at school; as a result, my marks were low.

Cold, dark winter mornings were torture when we were awakened to have Bible study with my father. I often missed the school bus and had to walk a far distance to junior high school in the bitter cold with a skirt on because I wasn't allowed to wear pants. I arrived at school nearly frozen and was sometimes late.

Life was mostly lived in silence.

Our home was so quiet it was uncomfortable. I lived life in anxious anticipation of the next traumatic event. I remember my baby brother sitting in his high chair, whacked across his little hands with a stick for making noise during the prayer before supper.

At meetings, noise of any kind echoed through the silence, rewarding us with intense frowns and scowls from the Brethren leaders, whether it was from clearing one’s throat, coughing or a restless child.

They were fierce looking like snarling dogs, lacking compassion or understanding. They would strut around like gods, given divine rights to control and dictate to the Brethren beneath them.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a favourite Bible verse highly upheld by Brethren. It was common for children to be taken out of meeting several times to be punished for being restless during the nearly two hour service. Everyone could hear the wailing child as they were spanked.

At home we were spanked with belts and sticks sometimes more than once a day. I went to school with bruises on my legs.

Trying to explain my behaviour or opinion was not allowed. It was seen as rebellion against authority. Making mistakes was unpardonable. This brought harsh, swift reprimand.

Love was distorted by Brethren and used to explain their harsh behaviour.

We were spanked severely because they loved us.

We were kept separate from the world because they loved us.

I was dropped off to walk two miles to high school because they loved me.

Affection was withheld so we wouldn't get spoiled, because they loved us.

Our parents wanted to create saints not sinners.

I ran away from home when I was eight years old. When I was brought back home, my parents never asked me why I ran away. I promised myself I would leave someday and, when I was 17, I did and refused to return home.

I became pregnant and was shunned by Brethren. A leader stands up after a Sunday morning meeting and announces to Brethren members that I had sinned and was no longer a welcome member. No longer welcome in Brethren homes or at any social event. My few Brethren friends no longer associated with me. My parents backed away from me.

I felt thrown away. Thrown right out into the world I was taught to stay apart from. Everything I was use to was ripped out from under me.

I felt so alone. Loneliness so deep it turned to hopelessness and despair. I was so sheltered growing up I was now stumbling around in a fog, incapable of knowing what direction to go in.

When I returned to a meeting hoping for reconciliation, none was offered.

I then turned to another path. What choice did I have?

Brethren kept me locked in a box. I only knew God through their narrow and distorted perspective of Him. When released from that Brethren box, I discovered what God is really like. I found much compassion, mercy and quick forgiveness. Help with my shortcomings and help to get through each day.

Jesus doesn't expect perfection like Brethren through rigid rules.

He helps us, He doesn't reject us.

I'm now on a journey of life, not death.

My release from Brethren was meant as a punishment but God turned it into one long road of blessing.

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