1987. A warm day in early September. The Tom's Food Market parking lot in Acme, MI. Five kids and their parents in a red Suburban, all ready for a special family project. The four of us who'd attained school age were prepared with shiny new laminated vocabulary cards for this month's Wisdom Booklet, which we'd marked with colored sticker dots to keep the sets together. I was 11 that year, my brothers 9 and 8, my sister was 5. Baby Brother came along but didn't get a set of cards.
We'd just joined the new Advanced Training Institute, a homeschooling program based on the Sermon on the Mount and headed by Bill Gothard (an unmarried speaker and former youth pastor then in his fifties). Momma had high hopes for this new curriculum that would emphasize developing wisdom, godly character, and strong family relationships--all so much more valuable than mere academics. There were character quality themes, scriptures to memorize, Christian heroes to admire, even "medical" advice from the Institute. We were even going to learn the Greek alphabet so we could interpret the New Testament more precisely.
Wisdom Booklet 1 focused on the opening lines of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount":
"And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain..." (Matthew 5:1a)According to the recommended project in the Parent Guide, we were going to practice seeing the multitudes the way Jesus saw them--going beyond outward appearances because God sees the heart. We were supposed to learn to recognize people's deep inner needs just by watching them. For the next hour or so, we saw, observed, noticed, perceived, ascertained, and discerned (and then conjectured, assumed, divined, speculated, and supposed) those poor people ad nauseam.
Mom and Dad tried to take the project very seriously at first. We probably said a prayer before we began. But with three bright and lively children in a hot car, things eventually descended into silliness. The man escorting a little girl across the parking lot must have failed at his marriage. The woman returning a shopping cart's worth of beverage cans must be married to to an alcoholic who was bitter at his father. The teenager dressed like..., the elderly lady that..., the tattooed man who...
I studied the Wisdom Booklets for the next ten years. The project that day became a memory we older kids laughed about. But the technique was reinforced repeatedly in ATI materials. Training in "counseling" recommended quickly identifying the "cracks" in someone's life, like cracked pottery that might be coated with wax to make it appear watertight. Over and over, we were taught to judge inner quality by physical "signs" of rebellion, of bitterness, of pride, of impurity. Layers of meaning was assigned to the most inconsequential characteristics. Who knew so much could be revealed by a hairstyle? By a neckline? By a pair of jeans? By musical preference?
It took more than another decade to wash the cult out of my brain. My observation skills had been honed to a fine point. I still catch myself taking mental stock of a person's appearance and making snap judgments.
Last month IBLP started its own Facebook page. I ended up chatting with their IT director, Robert Staddon, about some of the harm ATI caused in my own family. When he asked for specific examples of bad IBLP teaching, I referred him to that initiating project. He wasn't familiar with it, though many other former students remember it distinctly. Apparently he discussed it with Bill, because I got this message back a few days later:
March 12, 2013:
"We have submitted a ticket to our ATI team to revise the Wisdom Booklet project mentioned with further clarification on the purpose of the project (Learning to look on "the multitudes" with compassion as Jesus did). Thank you for sharing your concerns!"
Nice. 25 years of "spiritual abuse" memories engraved on the Tom's Food Market asphalt and now they file a f---ing ticket, like the ones I used to file and process when I was a secretary in their Publications Department. As if the horrors perpetrated by the IBLP worldview on thousands of children, teens, and parents were as simple as a spelling error. Future editions of fundamentalist legalism and alternative dysfunctional mis-education of children will be corrected and safer for human consumption.
Thanks to the Basic & Advanced Seminars, the Men's Manuals, the ATI program, Striving for Excellence, Faith & Virtue Journals, courtship commitments, the Financial Freedom Seminar, ALERT, CharacterFirst, and Oak Brook College of Law, my siblings and I along with hundreds (thousands?) of former cult members are in need professional therapy. But they've submitted a ticket so all's right again in Bill's world. Let the multitudes be. His conscience is clear.