I introduced Racquel and Ashley to my friend Cynthia Jeub shortly before they left the church. Here is her perspective.
Mouth shut like a locket
Like you’ve nothing to say
Speak your mind up,
Come on, baby, free yourself…
Don’t let nobody try and take your soul
You’re the original. -Switchfoot
I met Racquel over the phone. She explained that her best friend, Ashley, was being kept from attending her college classes, and her parents had taken away all contact to the outside world – no Internet, no cell phone, and she couldn’t drive.
“We can get her a cheap cellphone,” I said, “One she can hide, and use in case of an emergency. It’s dangerous if she won’t be able to contact anyone.”
Racquel hesitated. “I’m not sure if it’s really that big of a deal. They’ve only done it a few times, and it made her get behind at school, but I really trust our pastor.”
It would be several weeks before we met in person. We had an argument. Her church was a large congregation of Protestants who spent most of their Sunday meeting time meditating and speaking in tongues. She told me that the pastor could always tell if your spirit was in the right place or not, based on his communication with the Holy Spirit. I asked if the pastor had any accountability, but she found it unthinkable that he’d say anything that wasn’t true.
Racquel said that though she loved horses, she wasn’t allowed to enter any competitions. She agreed with the church doctrine, she said, because it kept people humble. Winning competitions, or even trying to be good at something or to look good, was distracting from drawing attention toward God and away from oneself.
That conversation bothered me because it was so backwards: I was taught to pursue excellence, because it brought glory to God, and I was a living sacrifice.
We lived on two sides of the same degrading self-deception.
It was early 2013, and I drove an hour to the airport to pick up my dad from one of his events. He asked about school and life, and I confided about the exciting things going on: I was rescuing abused adults from cult-like fundamentalist families.
The first person who got out was Eleanor.
I wasn’t there when she moved into her first apartment, but I was part of the group of friends that gave her support as she adjusted to life away from home for the first time in her early twenties. After that, Eleanor did most of the networking for what we first called the “Underground Railroad.”
She didn’t go looking for these people, she just found them everywhere – in her classes and at work, she found people in the many cult-like churches of Colorado Springs, adults still living at home, adults with weakened self-confidence, adults with limited skills and resources, all trying to get out, all trapped and afraid.
In our little group, I earned the title of “the logical one.”
Eleanor, and another girl named Cynthia Barram, turned to me as the no-nonsense anchor. When Eleanor found someone who was in a bad situation with their church or family, she’d connect them with me, and I’d check the facts. Then we’d find small solutions – things like helping people get a car, cellphone, job, or place to live. Many people were trapped because their parents wouldn’t even let them get a driver’s license.
I networked with the homeschool families I already knew, and asked them if they could provide “stations” in our “railroad.” I wanted parents who were good homeschoolers, not abusive, who had experience with adoption, and could demonstrate that homeschooling could be done in a way that wasn’t harmful. If such parents had a guest bedroom, we could send homeschooled alum there to pay rent, while still having parental figures who could provide support without the intense control their own parents used.
The homeschooling community could respond, I thought. They could prove to those who’d been abused that it wasn’t all this bad.
It surprised me to find so few homeschooling parents who were willing to help.
I related all of this to my dad, and he quickly shut me down.
“Don’t get between rebellious kids and their parents,” he said. “I do not support this. You don’t know the families and the full stories. You shouldn’t get involved with this at all.”
“Daddy, I think these situations are…different. There are some rebellious kids…”
I didn’t say Alicia, because my older sister’s name was so taboo in our family that it was always implied, and I didn’t want to hurt my father’s feelings.
“But there are also some very controlling churches and families, and they don’t ever let their kids, especially daughters, grow up. Even if they’re adults.”
He grunted severe disapproval, signaling that the conversation was over. That was the most we ever argued, because I always succumbed. I turned up some of the classic rock music he’d introduced me to, and let it drown out any awkwardness in the car. I decided I cared too much for those girls I’d met to just leave them in those suffocating situations. This was just one more thing I’d stop talking to my dad about.
Eleanor and our little crew kept working to help people.
We helped a girl escape from an arranged marriage, and gave resources to people whose parents kept them from contact with the outside world. Mostly we talked to our friends who were in cults about their aspirations and personalities, and helped them see their controlling churches as obstacles to what they wanted out of life.
The common theme was that we all had our own problems to sort. I thought there weren’t any problems with my family, but then I needed to fall back on our group more than once. Our friend Aaron supported me when I got drunk for the first time in my life, a few days after my parents kicked me out. Eleanor was frustrated with how Racquel and Ashley couldn’t see that their church was a cult, but she still kept in touch with her own overbearing parents.
We’d all lost the trusted older-generation adults in our lives, so we leaned on each other, but we were still young and inexperienced and unstable.
I posted an article on the Huffington Post about my frustration with freeing people. I couldn’t control them, but I also knew they wouldn’t stand up for themselves. I was tired of waiting.
I found out later that Ashley used a code name when she talked about me to her mother, because she was afraid her parents might find my writings and deduce that she was planning to leave.
In December, Eleanor sent out a distress signal to the group.
Ashley’s father discovered she was dating a guy outside the church and said he was kicking her out.
Around 6 a.m. on December 16, 2013, Ashley’s father texted her that he was dumping her possessions out at 3 p.m. Eleanor and Racquel left with Ashley to collect her things in Cynthia Barram’s van while her parents were at work.
When Aaron and I arrived, her bedroom furnishings were strewn about.
Racquel drew our attention to the picture frames. Her father had removed the family photos with Ashley from the walls and laid them face down in a corner, a symbol that her family had already disowned her for rebelling against the church.
Her father had also damaged the car she drove by tearing off the rubber lining in the door. And dumped out her purse in the car.
Racquel’s parents were less strict, and she moved out on slightly less dramatic terms.
Eleanor was living in a two-bedroom apartment, and she now housed three extra refugees there, including another girl who worked with us at the school newspaper. It was too small for all of them, so they moved into a house together, sharing costs.
Cynthia Jeub blogs about philosophy, religion, and growing up in a homeschool family of 16 and their television show at cynthiajeub.com. She studied communication and theater at UCCS, and was a reporter and culture editor at the campus newspaper, The Scribe.
The Underground Railroad: Being an angel with a shotgun
The Underground Railroad: The trouble with freeing people
Why the name Underground Railroad?
The Underground Railroad: Racquel’s story
The Underground Railroad: Defecting from a cult
The Underground Railroad: Ashley’s story
The Underground Railroad: Cynthia Jeub’s story
The Underground Railroad: Options, not ultimatums
The Underground Railroad: Gissel’s story
The Underground Railroad: Homeschool, the perfect hiding place
The Underground Railroad: Self-care during activism
Underground Railroad Stations: How you can help (Cynthia Jeub’s thoughts)
Underground Railroad Conductors: How you can help (Eleanor Skelton’s thoughts)
The Underground Railroad: Surviving and thriving on the outside