One handshake with you completely changed my life. We met one day in my 20th year when I was walking to class. I could probably go to the very spot where it happened. You just walked right up out of nowhere and introduced yourself. You had long hair and wore an Alice in Chains tee-shirt. We chit-chatted about them for a few minutes before you got around to telling me about this church you went to. The true motivation for your introduction was revealed. Normally I would have just let the conversation end and then forgotten all about it, but you seemed like somebody I could be friends with. And I was sort of in need of a friend. So I ended up going to your church.
A few weeks later, I was a full-blown member, just like you. It sounds crazy, but I basically let myself get brainwashed. I was actually convinced that this little church, with its little outposts here and there throughout the globe, whose Austin branch met in the ballroom of a downtown hotel, was what it claimed to be: the one and true church. Everyone else? Going to hell. I actually believed that. Yes I did. I went from lapsed semi-maybe-agnosticish person with a Christian background to hardcore believer. Yes I did. It boggles my mind that I let that happen, that there was a time in my life I could have been duped like that, but there it is.
Throughout my time with this church, you were my best friend, and the person to whom I was supposed to go when I needed to discuss spiritual matters. In fact, I was supposed to, oh my God, I can't believe this, I was supposed to confess my sins to you. How ridiculous is that? How ludicrous? How manipulative and conniving? Though I can't say it was your fault. It was the system, and you and I were both willing players in it.
The truth is, we really were friends, even outside the structure of the church that said we were all "friends." We hung out every day. We talked about heavy metal. You brought your bass over to my house sometimes so we could rock out. We were buds.
People who left the church, and there were many, were said to have "fallen away." Not only were they on their way to hell like the rest of the world, but their punishment would be particularly harsh because they had known the truth and chosen to turn their back on it. It was hard to find a group photo of people in the church without at least one or two people in it who had "fallen away." I bring this up because when I left six months later, I hated the thought that you would be thinking I was one of these "fall-aways." I knew you would blame yourself, that it would eat you up inside, and that the leaders would go on and let you stew in that guilt. But there was no sticking around for me, not after I learned what a complete and total lie I had given myself over to, what a sham this organization was, how theologically ridiculous their premises were, how manipulative and downright evil many of their practices were, and how much damage they had done to people's lives all over the world. I hated to leave, and I hated to leave you behind. I felt like I was making a jailbreak and there was no way to bring you along with me.
I haven't spoken to you since then, but I swear that was you I saw in the Ikea parking lot a few months ago. You were with a woman, presumably your wife. We made eye contact briefly, and I think that was a smile of recognition. That is, assuming it was you and not some friendly stranger who resembled you. Last I heard, the church had crumbled, so who knows what happened to you and everybody else after that. I can only hope you found your own way to freedom.