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Unanswered Prayers: The Story of One Woman Leaving the International Church of Christ
Comments () | Published July 1, 2008
At a service in Paul Graham’s hotel room before the group left for San Francisco, Jenny broke down. Taking turns, the church members confessed their fears and vision for the trip. Jenny made up something about wanting to change the world in California, but she broke down in tears and began a true confession—she was heartbroken about her family.
At Yorktown High, Jenny led the drill team. Photograph courtesy of Jenny Hunter

In his sermons, Paul had a wide smile; his delight was contagious. But now he wasn’t smiling. For nearly an hour, he lectured Jenny. He said she had the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. He told her that she needed to stop whining—that, like Jesus, she was making sacrifices to do God’s work.

Paul had been “discipled” in Boston by Kip McKean himself. McKean defined discipling as helping members become more like Jesus, but ex-members and critics said the process involved public scorn as a way to humiliate vulnerable members, to keep them humble.

At the end, Paul asked Jenny, “How do you feel about that?” She stopped crying, and Paul hugged her. He told her that she was going to do great in California, that she was a California girl.

The journey to San Francisco was filled with talk, laughter, and loud music, much of it intensely spiritual. When Jenny talked about her struggle to get over Paco, a girl played “Unanswered Prayers” by country singer Garth Brooks. In the song, seeing an old flame prompts a man to remember how he had once prayed that he would be with the girl forever. He then turns to his wife and realizes that God had a better match for him. “I guess the Lord knows what he’s doin’ after all,” he concludes.

The song comforted Jenny, who was still shaken up about leaving her family. When the music ended, she and the girl prayed.

The ten Washington church members were on a mission to revive the group’s fledgling Bay Area church. Along the way they stayed with fellow members who cooked for them, prayed for them, and treated them like brave warriors headed into battle.

In California, Jenny moved in with Paul and his wife, Denise. They lived in an affluent neighborhood in Redwood City, just north of Palo Alto. Jenny worked as their nanny and personal assistant, sleeping on the couch. The couple’s three-year-old son, who had Down syndrome, woke around 4:30 each morning, and Jenny was expected to take care of him until his mother got up.

“Keep him quiet so his mom can sleep” was her charge from Paul.

One morning Jenny couldn’t stop the boy from yelling. She tried rocking him. She tried giving him milk. Paul came downstairs and sat across from Jenny, staring at her. After several awkward minutes, he said it was clear why the baby was agitated. Jenny was hiding sin in her life, which made her ineffective with the baby. She was ruining the household because his wife couldn’t sleep. Jenny searched her soul and wondered whether her hidden sin might be the homosexual tendencies Ericka had cautioned her about.

Each morning, Jenny cleaned the house. Paul told her that if he had to change one roll of toilet paper, one soul was going to hell. Jenny doubled as the church secretary, but sometimes Denise had her spend the day helping her. On days she worked at the church office, she took the boy out for a couple of hours in the afternoon, then cooked dinner.

After a year, Jenny’s faithfulness in taking care of the Grahams had prepared her for full-time ministry work. First, church leaders said, she needed a husband. Jenny had a crush on a former staffer who had stepped down because of sexual sin he’d had to confess before the church. Jenny believed God had restored him and that together they could go into ministry.

Denise sat Jenny down and denigrated his character for four hours. He had struggled, she said, with pornography and masturbation. As Denise described him, he sounded like a monster. For as long as Jenny lived in California, she had a hard time even looking at him.

Paul and Denise had a better match. Tall and dark-haired with a gentle Southern accent, John Lynch was a church member who had joined in 1993 when he was a junior at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He had been into drinking and partying until a car wreck badly injured a friend and demonstrated to John the fragility of life. His mother had struggled with mental illness, and, growing up, he had despaired that he was unable to help her. Now he looked for a way to help others.

John was being discipled by Paul, and the Grahams said that he and Jenny would be great partners in ministry, though the two had little interest in each other. They began dating, and by Thanksgiving they were engaged. In January, they went on staff together, appointed by Paul to lead their own “sector,” a group of house churches.

Back in Virginia, Jenny’s mother had followed the advice of the cult-awareness counselors and kept in touch with her daughter. When Jenny called to say she was getting married, Jean swallowed hard and made plans to help get her daughter ready for a wedding arranged by leaders of a church she despised.

Mike Kelly had been hurt by Jenny’s refusal to meet with the counselors before leaving for California. She had come home for her first Christmas after college but hadn’t apologized. On the night during that visit when Jenny stood on Key Bridge considering suicide, they had fought. 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.

Mike told Jenny he couldn’t come to her wedding. He couldn’t condone her decisions, he said, couldn’t support a marriage and a way of life that had been decided for her.

Jenny cried. Then she asked, as Mike had asked her, “Will you do it just because I ask?” After a moment of silence, Mike buried his hurt and hostility and agreed to come. But he made some stipulations. Don’t talk to us about the church, he told her. Don’t try to convert us. And don’t talk about your way of life as if it’s normal—because it’s not.

In Redwood City, Denise Graham took over planning the wedding. She picked the day and the wedding party, replacing Jenny’s friends with girls from the church whom she wanted Jenny to know.

Colleen, one of Jenny’s best friends from childhood, came to the wedding not knowing what to expect. Jenny’s parents had pushed Colleen to try to talk sense into her. Colleen held back. Since their days at Yorktown High, she had always trusted that Jenny knew what she was doing. But at the wedding, it was as if the bold, free-thinking girl she’d grown up with had been replaced by an automaton. Every interaction seemed rehearsed. Every conversation was peppered with Bible verses. Jenny was 23 years old, and the light that once filled her blue eyes was all but extinguished.

At the rehearsal dinner, Jenny’s family and Colleen ordered bottle after bottle of Champagne—partly as a celebration, partly out of a desire to put aside their concerns. Theirs was a lively table among the somber ones in the candlelit dining room.

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 University’s Memorial Court, in sight of the black forms of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” sculpture. It was a beautiful service. The setting was intoxicating, with sunlight and brilliant flowers, the sandstone arches of Stanford’s Memorial Church, and the rugged hills rising in the distance. The couple looked happy.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 07/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles