In the Bible, when Elijahs time had come, God carried him away on a whirlwind. On occasions when she was called out in church meetings for an alleged sin, she searched within herself and prayed for hours, asking God to reveal her flaws. Ex-members told tales of harassment and manipulation. Other nights, she went out to clubs, determined to break all of the churchs rules. Afterward, Ericka told Jenny that if she were to join the church, she would have to deny herself. But at night, alone in her bedroom, her past consumed her. Denise then asked if Jenny had any hidden sin in her life. Denise is at the house, he said. When Jenny talked about her struggle to get over Paco, a girl played Unanswered Prayers by country singer Garth Brooks. Jenny recently changed jobs, joining another title company. Jenny signed without even reading the document. But in time the tears gave way to confession and revelation. Jenny met the girls again the next day for a study of discipleship. She drank until she passed out. Mike hadnt tried to replace Jennys father but to be a friend and confidant. Jenny spent her free time waitressing at a restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront and running around with Paco, her high-school boyfriend from Arlington. Jenny initially enjoyed the evangelism.
Jenny doubled as the church secretary, but sometimes Denise had her spend the day helping her. In the same way, she had refused to give up her art-history major, despite Mikes concern about its usefulness. She flipped through it as if cramming for a final exam in a class she had never attended. Jenny called Colleen and told her friend she had left the churchand was considering leaving her husband.
Eventually, Jenny ended it for good. Now for the first time, she understood that Paul and Denise, her self-appointed models of virtue, were sinners, too. When Jenny showed up, Denise denounced her. The night before the big day, she developed bronchitis and a fever. I was a cult member, she wrote. Jenny started to reconnect with Colleen. . When the music ended, she and the girl prayed.
Ronald Reagan, the president during Jennys happy childhood, died in June, and as Jenny watched Nancy Reagan put her head on her husbands casket, a flood of memories washed over her. With that, Jenny bolted out of the house, across the shadows of the towering maples, and past the car where the exit counselors waited. He accused her of stealing his dream of a life in ministry. She seemed consumed by some secret. In his sermons, Paul had a wide smile; his delight was contagious. In a heated polemic, she said she couldnt go through the motions anymoreshe wanted out. On the bridge, in a tug-of-war between her past and future, Jenny prayed for God to take her away. She was afraid of Paul and Denise. What is the International Christian Church (ICC), and what do they believe? Denises number flashed on her cell phone. In private, he and Denise blasted Jenny for her arrogance, forcing her to confess her pride on her knees until she broke down. . To find those again, she decided, she had to find a way back home. Then she announced she was moving with the church to San Francisco. Every time Jenny looked at her husband, she was reminded of the cults control over her life. Jenny wanted to be baptized before she went to Florida to celebrate her grandmothers birthday. While she was curled in her sweat-damp sheets, in the midst of her passionate petition to God, her fever broke. Before her meeting the next day, Jenny went home and found the Bible that had been used in her sisters wedding. Her grades slipped. Upon their return, Denise convened a staff meeting in which she and Paul berated the couple for hours. But Jenny exploded. Her pride made her competitivethe study groups she organized grew more than any other in the churchbut it also made her vulnerable. From the Washington Golf and Country Club up the street, she called Ericka, who sent someone to whisk her away. She baptized them and met with them regularly to talk through their issues and challenge them to perform spiritually. If you dont get them out of my house, Im going to move the kids to Virginia, divorce you, fall away from the church, and go to hell., When Jenny opened the door, Denise was still there. A few years earlier, Jenny and her parents had packed her things at their Arlington home and moved her into a dorm at Georgetown University. Jennys parents noticed a change in their daughter during the familys trip to Florida. She stepped into a bathtub of scalding water. What is the International Church of Christ (ICOC), and what do they believe? Each morning, Jenny cleaned the house. Paul came downstairs and sat across from Jenny, staring at her. The two left the retreat early. She has tried to read the Bible, but all she can hear is Pauls loud voice. Its leaders worked her long hours and condemned her for sins real and imagined.
A hard December wind made her march feel like an uphill slog through thick sand. On that late-summer day, the bridge had seemed a gateway to a bright future. In the past year, Jenny has counseled five members of the California church who have since left the ministry. In January 2001, Jenny gave birth to a daughter, Bailey. And dont talk about your way of life as if its normalbecause its not. The tests had come back negative. Jenny was 23 years old, and the light that once filled her blue eyes was all but extinguished. Is the Church of Christ a good biblical church? You need to leave, Jenny said, fuming. Getting into Georgetown University was one of the happiest moments of Jennys life. I dont have to be here, she thought. But her classes, all-night Bible studies, little food, and the rigorous confession had taken a toll. In the end, they promised her three months severance pay if she signed an agreement that she wouldnt sue.
They managed 30 or so staffers. At the girls apartment, she was surprised to find a group there, including Ericka. Persecution was to be expected, she continued; just look at how Jesus suffered. Members could date only other church members and only those whom their prayer partner approved. During daily prayer walks, she talked to God and fought to keep her love for her flock at the heart of her work. Her youth helped her relate to college students and young professionals. Several times, weary from late-night Bible studies, she pulled her car onto the side of the road and slept. Hi, Im Chloe, the girl next to her said, sticking out her hand. He couldnt condone her decisions, he said, couldnt support a marriage and a way of life that had been decided for her. One day she set out on a run, determined not to come back until she had worked through her anger. But appalled with what he perceived as that denominations lack of zeal and holinessand because of church leaders increased scrutiny of his teachings and practicesMcKean and the church split in 1977. She ran a long timeso long that she had to walk. She said she didnt care. Whats your name?, When the teacher divided the class into groups, Chloe said, Oh, my gosh, Jenny, we have to be in a group together., Such an outgoing personality made Jenny tentative. The couple looked happy. If the plane crashed, she could picture the red flames dancing in eternal perdition. She took film classes, became interested in English literature, and majored in art history. The next day, beneath a blue sky dotted with clouds given a golden cast by the California sun, Jenny married John on the long green lawn of Stanford Universitys Memorial Court, in sight of the black forms of Rodins Burghers of Calais sculpture.
After several awkward minutes, he said it was clear why the baby was agitated. Her heart broke for the kids, but she reasoned that if she could find happiness, they would be happier, too. In his sermon, Paul talked about the differences between the church and the world. This article appears in theJuly 2008 issue of Washingtonian. She rose dripping wet to the sound of clapping. She talked of how shed been hurt by Paul and Denise after the death of Johns mother. To see more articles in this issue, click here. One day, she got angry on the phone with one of her kids teachers. She tried rocking him. In Paco, Jenny found a kindred soul. The next day, Denise called to tell her about a staff meeting and birthday party. . Jenny believed God had restored him and that together they could go into ministry. . . Denise later dressed her down for the outburst. Staff rushed recruits to baptism and discouraged members from moving awayanything to improve the numbers. That night at home, Jenny pored over her Bible, trying to interpret its words for herself. One of the church elders wives chased after her and climbed into the car with her, trying to calm her. As a kindergartner, she had refused to wear pants on a cold day, preferring a pink dress and ignoring threats of a spanking.
Jenny lay on top of him, trying to stop his shaking.
Jenny searched her soul and wondered whether her hidden sin might be the homosexual tendencies Ericka had cautioned her about.
Denise refused Jennys request to take some time off, and five days later Jenny spoke at the churchs midweek service.
Or a lawyer, like her stepfather.
Dozens of colleges banned the church from campus, but it continued its work via student-run organizations with secular names. She was reminded of how much she missed her familyat the rehearsal dinner, they told stories that she wasnt a part of, laughed at jokes she didnt get. On I-95, she got a ticket for going 100 miles an hour. Paul upbraided leaders of flagging groups. Once when Jenny was gossiping to others, Chloe said, Jenny, how would you feel if they were talking about you like that?. The lesson struck a chord in Jenny, and she agreed to meet one of the girls the next day to talk about the Bible. Her anger at the church was coupled with grief over what shed losther family, her friends, a mission in life. In the resignation letter, McKean wrote: My most significant sin is arrogancethinking I am always right, not listening to the counsel of my brothers, and not seeking discipling for my life, ministry and family. Why did you leave the hotel? Denise said. Its her story, though her family, friends, and cult experts help her tell it. She danced with strangers and made out with them. Inside she still felt alone. Perhaps, she told Denise, Ive been watching too much television. John was uncomfortable with the church, but he wasnt ready to leave.
She got up early every morning to do her Bible study and prayer. Could you all please stop touching my baby? she shouted from the stage. She felt the girls eyes on her, saw them writing down what she said. She drifted back to sleep, and when she woke up she wasnt sure what to do. Jenny was to meet a friend from the church in Georgetown, but Mike and Jean had agreed to drive her only to the foot of the bridge and left her there to walk. When she arrived, Mike pulled her aside. Not long after joining the International Church of Christ, Jenny Hunter stood on Key Bridge considering whether suicide was better than life as a church disciple. But Paul took over. Who are the Disciples of Christ, and what do they believe. Dont try to convert us. Photograph courtesy of Jenny Hunter, At Yorktown High, Jenny led the drill team. Chloe hadnt told Jenny about this part of the evening, but she stayed for the lesson, which was about the Tower of Babel and how confusion follows anytime people take the place of God. She had brought three of her disciples. When Jean asked what she was reading, Jenny stormed out of the room. In Redwood City, Denise Graham took over planning the wedding. John came home from the hospital a week later. But laughter soon lit her blue eyes again. Both she and John had changed to fit the mold the church wanted. Jenny said that her mom was going to hell because she didnt belong to the church. By her senior year, after transferring to another private school in North Carolina, she was valedictorian. The journey to San Francisco was filled with talk, laughter, and loud music, much of it intensely spiritual. Other studies followed about salvation through baptism, Jesuss violent death on the cross, the false teachings of other churches, and the International Church of Christ as the only true church. They led the same Bible studies that Ericka had taken Jenny through. When the day came, Chloe called to say how excited she was that Jenny was coming. From the teachings of the church, she knew suicide was a one-way ticket to hell. Instead she stared at the floor. Founded by Kip McKean, a charismatic young pastor whod come to faith in 1972 as a student at the University of Florida, the International Church of Christ was one of the fastest-growing Christian movements of the 1980s and 90s. Each night they ran a meeting, and they regularly preached at services. In her two weeks at Wellspring, she found people who understood what had happened to her. As she stood at the rail on Key Bridge, she looked down at whitecaps that mirrored the turmoil inside her. Jenny didnt answer, so Denise continued: Maybe he never would have had the seizure if you hadnt made him leave the hotel.. It was an impromptu decision, but once on the road, she couldnt get there fast enough. He said she had the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. Finally, when Paul split the San Francisco church in two, he asked Jenny and John to lead the West Bay branch, made up of some 1,200 people. Jenny talks to Johns new wife often to help her understand what he is only now beginning to sort through. She was bowled over by her daughters confidence and passion. I was a cult leader. Her language turned coarse. She tried giving him milk. Jenny made up something about wanting to change the world in California, but she broke down in tears and began a true confessionshe was heartbroken about her family. At the rehearsal dinner, Jennys family and Colleen ordered bottle after bottle of Champagnepartly as a celebration, partly out of a desire to put aside their concerns. A romantic, she had dreamed of marrying someone she passionately loved. Midway through the study, Jenny glanced at a notebook in the lap of one of the leaders, a girl named Ericka. Paul, Denise, and the others would blame her departure on hidden sin and slander her. In the final study, called Counting the Cost, Ericka grilled Jenny to test whether her opinions conformed with the churchs.