Unanswered Prayers: The Story of One Woman Leaving the International Church of Christ

A straight-A senior at Georgetown went to a Bible-study group. But the promise of heaven wound up turning her life into hell.

By: Drew Bratcher

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. Photograph by Matthew Worden

The evening sky was turning purple as Jenny Hunter tottered across Key Bridge toward Georgetown, a slight figure on the empty sidewalk above the roaring Potomac River. A hard December wind made her march feel like an uphill slog through thick sand. Her teeth chattered. Her eyes misted over. Everything was a blur.

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. On that late-summer day, the bridge had seemed a gateway to a bright future. By her senior year, Jenny was getting top marks and life brimmed with potential.

Now, home on a Christmas visit just months after her graduation, she was estranged from her family and all but enslaved by a religious group widely believed to be a cult. She had discovered the group during her senior year—it seemed to fill an emptiness in her high-achieving life. She was baptized, and the day after graduation, defying her parents, she joined the group’s cross-country trek to strengthen its California outpost.

Her time in California revealed a frightening side of the religious group. Its leaders worked her long hours and condemned her for sins real and imagined. She had to suffer, they told her, just as Christ did.

As she stood at the rail on Key Bridge, she looked down at whitecaps that mirrored the turmoil inside her. From the teachings of the church, she knew suicide was a one-way ticket to hell. She didn’t want to go to hell. But she was living in hell already.

In the Bible, when Elijah’s time had come, God carried him away on a whirlwind. On the bridge, in a tug-of-war between her past and future, Jenny prayed for God to take her away. “Or, if you want me to stay in the church,” she said, “please, God, make it clear.”

Getting into Georgetown University was one of the happiest moments of Jenny’s life. Holding the acceptance letter at the kitchen table one spring afternoon was like standing on a mountaintop looking back on her ascent.

As a child, Jenny had roamed her Arlington neighborhood playing hide and seek and twirling batons with Colleen, her best friend. Her parents divorced when she was in grade school, throwing her off-stride for a time. But laughter soon lit her blue eyes again. Her mother, Jean, fell in love with Mike Kelly, a lawyer, and moved with her two daughters, Jenny and Michelle, into his split-level in the North Arlington neighborhood of Country Club Hills. When Jenny was in seventh grade, Jean and Mike exchanged vows in the shaded backyard.

At nearby Yorktown High, Jenny made the drill team, leading the long line of girls who strutted out at halftime to perform. But she grew disillusioned and aimless. On weekends, she and her friends snuck to the banks of the Potomac to smoke pot and drink. Her grades slipped.

Eager for a fresh start, she went to St. Margaret’s, an all-girls boarding school on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, and repeated her junior year. There she found focus and discipline. By her senior year, after transferring to another private school in North Carolina, she was valedictorian.

At Georgetown, Jenny shone, making straight A’s. She took film classes, became interested in English literature, and majored in art history. She was enthralled by Dutch art from the 17th century, by the way Rembrandt captured darkness and striking light in the faces of his prophets and publicans. She pictured herself as an art professor lecturing in some sleepy college town. Or a lawyer, like her stepfather.

Jenny spent her free time waitressing at a restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront and running around with Paco, her high-school boyfriend from Arlington. They had gotten together when Jenny was still dating Paco’s best friend. In Paco, Jenny found a kindred soul. Both believed material wealth couldn’t satisfy their needs and wanted more in life than popularity and cars. On a trip to Chile, while they lay on the beach under the stars, Paco talked about his faith in God. Jenny’s heart burned. She hadn’t grown up going to church, but with Paco she caught her first intimations of a spiritual realm.

Their relationship was intense but rocky. They broke up once, only to get engaged and move in together. Eventually, Jenny ended it for good. Their connection, which had been almost spiritual before, seemed increasingly based on sex. She worried that they couldn’t communicate.

The restlessness Jenny had felt in high school returned. She began going to services at various churches and paid a Saturday visit to a synagogue. She went to a Catholic Mass and a nondenominational Christian church. But she didn’t feel she fit in any of them. She was looking for something more, something life-changing.

Jenny begins the story of her life in a cult on a day at the beginning of her senior year at Georgetown, in September 1992. It’s her story, though her family, friends, and cult experts help her tell it.

On that day, Jenny walked into a class called “Performing Arts and Contemporary Society” and took one of two open seats. “Hi, I’m Chloe,” the girl next to her said, sticking out her hand. “What’s 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. She had never met anyone like Chloe. As they got to know each other, Chloe took an interest in Jenny in a way no one else had—and challenged her. Once when Jenny was gossiping to others, Chloe said, “Jenny, how would you feel if they were talking about you like that?”

One day in second semester, Chloe invited Jenny to an international dinner hosted on campus by her church, the International Church of Christ. When the day came, Chloe called to say how excited she was that Jenny was coming. She had told friends about Jenny and couldn’t wait to introduce her. Tired and running late, Jenny considered not going but decided she couldn’t let Chloe down.

After dinner, most of the international students left, and a group of nine from the church sat down for Bible study. Chloe hadn’t 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.

The lesson struck a chord in Jenny, and she agreed to meet one of the girls the next day to talk about the Bible. Only one thing seemed odd. Midway through the study, Jenny glanced at a notebook in the lap of one of the leaders, a girl named Ericka. She was startled to see her own name written on an otherwise blank page.

Before her meeting the next day, Jenny went home and found the Bible that had been used in her sister’s wedding. She flipped through it as if cramming for a final exam in a class she had never attended. At the girl’s apartment, she was surprised to find a group there, including Ericka.

Ericka, she discovered, had joined the International Church of Christ at Duke University, where she’d been a cheerleader. She’d moved to Washington to intern with the church.

Ericka asked Jenny to pray, and she fumbled through a prayer asking God to bless the homeless and feed children in China. From the beginning, Jenny thought the study was directed toward her. She felt the girls’ eyes on her, saw them writing down what she said.

Jenny met the girls again the next day for a study of discipleship. Ericka drew from Bible verses to explain that the only way to be a Christian was to become a disciple. She asked Jenny if she wanted to become a disciple, and Jenny said yes.

Other studies followed about salvation through baptism, Jesus’s violent death on the cross, the false teachings of other churches, and the International Church of Christ as the only true church.

 

 

Growing up in Arlington, Jenny roamed the neighborhood with childhood friends Colleen Perry, left, and Emily Zellner, right. Photograph courtesy of Jenny Hunter

A study called “Sin and Darkness” was the most intense. Ericka asked Jenny to confess in writing to all her sins. Jenny wrote about sex with Paco and her partying days at Yorktown, and she confessed her pride. At Ericka’s prodding, she admitted that she occasionally envied other girls’ bodies, and Ericka warned her that she might have homosexual tendencies.

At the church’s Sunday service in the gym at Oakton High School, Jenny sat in the bleachers with Ericka. Paul Graham, the leader of the Washington branch of the church—a short, big-bodied man with a warm face—gave an arresting sermon. His talks were flecked with current events, historical references, Bible passages, and anecdotes from his life, and they turned from tear-jerking to tongue-lashing in a heartbeat.

Afterward, Ericka told Jenny that if she were to join the church, she would have to deny herself. The message resonated with Jenny, who had sacrificed often to succeed academically. Here was something she could do.

In the final study, called “Counting the Cost,” Ericka grilled Jenny to test whether her opinions conformed with the church’s. Her family, Ericka warned her, would say she was in a cult. Persecution was to be expected, she continued; just look at how Jesus suffered.

After the studies, the group prepared Jenny for baptism, talking about how their lives had been transformed by the cleansing waters. Jenny wanted to be baptized before she went to Florida to celebrate her grandmother’s birthday. If the plane crashed, she could picture the red flames dancing in eternal perdition.

But her classes, all-night Bible studies, little food, and the rigorous confession had taken a toll. The night before the big day, she developed bronchitis and a fever. She called Chloe to postpone, but Chloe questioned her devotion to God and the church. Jenny’s illness was a small thing, Chloe said, compared with how much Jesus had suffered on the cross.

Jenny woke up that night in a sweat. The question came like a bullet: “What the hell am I doing?” She considered leaving the group and cutting all ties, even changing her phone number. She drifted back to sleep, and when she woke up she wasn’t sure what to do.

The group had taught her to pray if she had doubts, so she picked up her Bible. While she was curled in her sweat-damp sheets, in the midst of her passionate petition to God, her fever broke.

Jenny took it as a sign. Her baptism ceremony was held in the bathroom of a church member’s house in DC’s Cleveland Park. She stepped into a bathtub of scalding water. Todd, another church intern, said he’d made it hot because she was sick. Trembling with nervousness, Jenny stood by as the tub was drained and filled again. She stepped into the water, crossed her arms, and closed her eyes. Todd lowered her until she was immersed. She rose dripping wet to the sound of clapping. Inside, she felt unchanged.

Jenny’s parents noticed a change in their daughter during the family’s trip to Florida. She seemed consumed by some secret. All weekend there were phone calls. Jenny stayed in corners and behind closed doors, talking in whispers for hours. Her church friends, worried that her faith would slip, called to quiz her about her conversations with her parents and her Bible reading.

Her mother, Jean, noticed Jenny clutching a book, its pages striped by a yellow highlighter. Jean knew her daughter was a spiritual girl who felt emotions deeply, but Jenny had never carried a Bible. When Jean asked what she was reading, Jenny stormed out of the room. When the time came to return to Washington the following weekend, Jenny and her parents were hardly speaking.

Weeks later, Jenny’s aunt sent Jean an article about the church she’d seen in Good Housekeeping. It called the International Church of Christ a cult.

Jean contacted a cult-awareness group mentioned in the article and was sent ten pounds of information about her daughter’s new church. Founded by Kip McKean, a charismatic young pastor who’d 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.

McKean had started his ministry as a college pastor with the Churches of Christ. Unlike the United Church of Christ, a mainline denomination founded in 1957 in the Reformed tradition, the Church of Christ traces its roots to the restoration movements of the late 1800s, which sought to strip worship of its accumulated pomp and get back to its New Testament basics.

But appalled with what he perceived as that denomination’s lack of zeal and holiness—and because of church leaders’ increased scrutiny of his teachings and practices—McKean and the church split in 1977. Two years later, he took over a struggling congregation in Boston and before long was drawing thousands to services at the Boston Garden with his compelling sermons.

By the early 1990s, McKean’s International Church of Christ had more than 130,000 members, with branches in cities around the world including London, Nairobi, Chicago, and Washington. In 1995, about three years after Jenny met Chloe, the Washington Post reported that the church’s services occasionally filled DAR Constitution Hall.

The church recruited on college campuses, reaching out chiefly to lonely or depressed students, according to its critics. In intensive Bible studies, leaders warned that all but members of their church would go to hell. Recruits were required to prepare “sin lists,” which critics say the church used to manipulate and control its members.

McKean organized the church around a rigid system of “discipleship.” Every member had a “prayer partner,” an older and more spiritually mature individual he or she was expected to emulate and submit to. Members could date only other church members and only those whom their prayer partner approved.

The information Jenny’s mother received made clear that the church left many spiritually and emotionally battered people in its wake. Ex-members told tales of harassment and manipulation. Leaders set quotas for recruiting new members and punished those who missed the mark. Dozens of colleges banned the church from campus, but it continued its work via student-run organizations with secular names.

Following advice from the cult-awareness group, Jenny’s mother didn’t confront her daughter directly. She and Mike assumed Jenny’s interest in the cult was born of rebellion. Their daughter was hardheaded. As a kindergartner, she had refused to wear pants on a cold day, preferring a pink dress and ignoring threats of a spanking. In the same way, she had refused to give up her art-history major, despite Mike’s concern about its usefulness.

Jenny, they assumed, would eventually get fed up with the cult’s dictates. But talking one day with Jenny at the kitchen table, Jean realized that her daughter was in deep. Jenny said that her mom was going to hell because she didn’t belong to the church. Then she announced she was moving with the church to San Francisco.

The news shocked Jean and Mike. They flew in two exit counselors—one who specialized in untwisting Scriptures used by cults to justify their control over members, another who was an expert on mind control. The family came up with a story to get Jenny to their house.

When she arrived, Mike pulled her aside. From Mike’s first dates with Jean, he had hit it off with Jenny. She was a wild talker and a deep thinker who felt the freedom to be both around him. Mike hadn’t tried to replace Jenny’s father but to be a friend and confidant. Many nights, he and Jenny stayed up talking about life, books, boys.

Now he told her about the counselors and asked her at least to sit and listen to them. When she refused, he asked her to do it for him.

With that, Jenny bolted out of the house, across the shadows of the towering maples, and past the car where the exit counselors waited. From the Washington Golf and Country Club up the street, she called Ericka, who sent someone to whisk her away.

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.

In his sermon, Paul talked about the differences between the church and the world. “All you have to do is look at the drinking that went on last night,” he said.

For Jenny, the wedding felt like a divorce. She was reminded of how much she missed her family—at the rehearsal dinner, they told stories that she wasn’t a part of, laughed at jokes she didn’t get. A romantic, she had dreamed of marrying someone she passionately loved. Now she was marrying a ministry.

After the wedding, John and Jenny continued directing their sector as well as the church’s burgeoning youth ministry. They led the same Bible studies that Ericka had taken Jenny through. Like Ericka, Jenny scolded her disciples for their sins. She baptized them and met with them regularly to talk through their issues and challenge them to perform spiritually.

Jenny felt she’d finally arrived. An overachiever since boarding school, she had the makings of the perfect missionary. She got up early every morning to do her Bible study and prayer. At the grocery, she walked the aisles searching for shoppers to invite to services.

Her youth helped her relate to college students and young professionals. After night services, she stayed late working with those struggling spiritually. 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.

Her pride made her competitive—the study groups she organized grew more than any other in the church—but it also made her vulnerable. Paul puffed her up in services, touting her work as a model. In private, he and Denise blasted Jenny for her arrogance, forcing her to confess her pride on her knees until she broke down.

At staff meetings, Jenny was surprised when the singing and “good news” sharing was overshadowed by talk of the church’s growth. A statistics sheet—a grid 27 columns wide by 37 rows deep—included detailed figures on baptisms, visitors, Bible-study participants, and people who had left the church or were missing. The emphasis was clear: Success in ministry meant retaining members and recruiting new ones. Paul upbraided leaders of flagging groups. Staff rushed recruits to baptism and discouraged members from moving away—anything to improve the numbers.

Jenny initially enjoyed the evangelism. She wanted to tell others about the church and God. But as the emphasis turned to the church’s growth, she began to feel like a salesman with a quota, not a messenger with life-changing news.

After Jenny and John had led their own sector for several years, Paul assigned them to head all of the sectors in their region. 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. They managed 30 or so staffers. Each night they ran a meeting, and they regularly preached at services. To Mike Kelly’s chagrin, Jean went to hear her daughter preach while on a trip to California. She was bowled over by her daughter’s confidence and passion.

With each new responsibility, Jenny worked harder and faced more scrutiny and abuse from Paul. Several times, weary from late-night Bible studies, she pulled her car onto the side of the road and slept. Once she awoke to a police officer tapping on the window. During daily prayer walks, she talked to God and fought to keep her love for her flock at the heart of her work. Even if the church was flawed, she said to herself, she would do good.

Jenny married John Lynch after church leaders hand-picked him to be her husband. Her mother and stepfather reluctantly attended the wedding in Palo Alto along with her sister, Michelle, and a niece and nephew. Photograph courtesy of Jenny Hunter

But doubts plagued her. She was afraid of Paul and Denise. Now 30, Jenny also was afraid of leaving the only life she had known since graduating from college and joining the “real world.” She was afraid, too, of the repercussions of admitting she’d been wrong.

In January 2001, Jenny gave birth to a daughter, Bailey. Denise refused Jenny’s request to take some time off, and five days later Jenny spoke at the church’s midweek service. From the podium where she delivered her message—her breasts leaking and her body aching—she saw others playing with Bailey in the back of the room. She heard coughing and worried that her daughter would get sick.

“Could you all please stop touching my baby?” she shouted from the stage. The room grew still. Denise later dressed her down for the outburst.

Not long after Bailey’s birth, John’s mother died. Denise insisted they take a babysitter from the church with them to the funeral in North Carolina, a girl Denise had selected. Jenny and John refused; they didn’t want to take a stranger to an intimate family event.

Upon their return, Denise convened a staff meeting in which she and Paul berated the couple for hours. Jenny and John had disobeyed their orders. Why were they so stubborn?

John and Jenny were in charge of their own staff meeting the next day. But Paul took over. In the talk, he graphically described John’s mother burning in hell. John and Jenny wept.

Jenny tried to forget the incident, but for the next six months when she thought back, she fumed. One day she set out on a run, determined not to come back until she had worked through her anger. She ran a long time—so long that she had to walk.

For years, Paul and Denise had criticized virtually everything she’d done. If something was wrong, they blamed hidden sin in Jenny’s life. She wasn’t praying hard enough or doing enough witnessing.

Now for the first time, she understood that Paul and Denise, her self-appointed models of virtue, were sinners, too. She said it out loud: “What Paul and Denise did was wrong.” And with those words, a piece of the old Jenny—the smart, rebellious Jenny—awoke in her.

She wrestled over what to do with this insight. She couldn’t tell John; he might turn her in. She carried it around for months until it got too heavy.

During a staff retreat at a hotel, Jenny finally opened up to John. In a heated polemic, she said she couldn’t go through the motions anymore—she wanted out.

The biggest fight of their marriage followed. John was uncomfortable with the church, but he wasn’t ready to leave. This was the only life he’d really known, and now he had a family to provide for. He accused her of stealing his dream of a life in ministry.

The two left the retreat early. That night at home, Jenny pored over her Bible, trying to interpret its words for herself. She knew that if she left, the church would say she was leaving God. Paul, Denise, and the others would blame her departure on hidden sin and slander her. But by morning, after staying awake all night, she knew that to be faithful to God she had to leave.

She prayed for God to bring John to the same conclusion. But when her husband heard her decision, he stormed out of the house. He returned almost immediately, looking dazed, then collapsed in a spasm in the doorway. Jenny lay on top of him, trying to stop his shaking. She called 911, and an ambulance took him to the hospital. Doctors told Jenny he’d had a seizure. They were running tests to check for brain tumors.

At home that night, Jenny got a phone call from Denise and told her about John’s episode. Denise blamed his seizure on Jenny and the fact that she and John had left the retreat early.

“What did you just say?” Jenny asked.

“Why did you leave the hotel?” Denise said.

Jenny didn’t answer, so Denise continued: “Maybe he never would have had the seizure if you hadn’t made him leave the hotel.”

John came home from the hospital a week later. The tests had come back negative. The seizure had apparently been a random occurrence. Still reeling from Denise’s phone call, Jenny told John she had to leave the church. He warned her that Paul and Denise were going to destroy her. She said she didn’t care.

At a meeting at a Starbucks, Jenny told Denise of her decision. She talked of how she’d been hurt by Paul and Denise after the death of John’s mother. She said Denise was wrong to blame her for John’s seizure.

Denise apologized and suggested Jenny take a month off with John to focus on their family and their relationship with God.

Denise then asked if Jenny had any hidden sin in her life. Even though she was committed to leaving the church, Jenny felt strangely compelled to answer. Perhaps, she told Denise, I’ve been watching too much television. Denise again suggested that she take a month off with John.

Jenny thought the meeting had gone well. Denise said she’d pray about the points Jenny had raised. The next day, Denise called to tell her about a staff meeting and birthday party. When Jenny showed up, Denise denounced her.

As Denise spoke, Jenny flipped through her Bible, trying to find a verse to convince her to stay in the church. But there was none. I don’t have to be here, she thought. She gathered her things and walked out.

In the parking lot, her tears flowed. One of the church elder’s wives chased after her and climbed into the car with her, trying to calm her. But Jenny exploded. For the first time she called the church a cult.

“I’m sick of the abuse!” she screamed. The elder’s wife asked Jenny to pray. Finally Jenny told her, “Get out of my car now.”

She was crying so hard that she could barely drive. Denise’s number flashed on her cell phone. She ignored it. John called.

“Denise is at the house,” he said. She had brought three of her disciples.

“Get them out of there,” Jenny said. “If you don’t get them out of my house, I’m 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. “You need to leave,” Jenny said, fuming. “What you did was wrong. It’s wrong.”

Jenny pushed Denise and the others out and slammed the door.

In the month that followed, church leaders tried to get Jenny to confess she’d been wrong. In the end, they promised her three months’ severance pay if she signed an agreement that she wouldn’t sue. Jenny signed without even reading the document.

Church leaders initially said John could work in the church when Jenny left. But they asked him to resign as well and to blame their departure on marital problems. At a service where their resignations were announced, the two stood before the church in tears. John read from a text filled with lies about how he’d failed his family. Jenny wanted to snatch the speech from him and tell everyone what had really happened. Instead she stared at the floor.

In May 2004, 11 years after Jenny joined the International Church of Christ, she and John moved from California to Charlotte, where John’s family lived. John landed a job as a mortgage officer at Bank of America, and Jenny took care of Bailey, who was now three, and 18-month-old Graham, their second child.

Ronald Reagan, the president during Jenny’s happy childhood, died in June, and as Jenny watched Nancy Reagan put her head on her husband’s casket, a flood of memories washed over her. She recalled the optimism of her youth. Her desire to succeed academically. Her dreams of love, her passion with Paco. She was 33 now but in many ways had no more experience than a 21-year-old.

Her marriage to John was never their own but had been run by Paul, who discipled John on how to be a husband. Every time Jenny looked at her husband, she was reminded of the cult’s control over her life.

Both she and John had changed to fit the mold the church wanted. Now each was searching for an identity. John felt like a stranger to her. Jenny called Colleen and told her friend she had left the church—and was considering leaving her husband.

When Jenny asked John to leave in October 2004, she cried herself to sleep for days. Her heart broke for the kids, but she reasoned that if she could find happiness, they would be happier, too.

She immersed herself into getting a real-estate license in Charlotte. But at night, alone in her bedroom, her past consumed her. At times, she knelt beside her bed and begged God to take her life. Other nights, she went out to clubs, determined to break all of the church’s rules. She danced with strangers and made out with them. She drank until she passed out. More than once, she wanted to videotape her escapades and send a copy to Paul and Denise as proof that they hadn’t extinguished her spirit.

Her anger at the church was coupled with grief over what she’d lost—her family, her friends, a mission in life. To find those again, she decided, she had to find a way back home.

One December day in 2005, after John picked up the kids for a visit, Jenny got in her car and headed for Washington. It was an impromptu decision, but once on the road, she couldn’t get there fast enough. On I-95, she got a ticket for going 100 miles an hour.

Her parents had done everything they could to support Jenny after she left the cult. When she and John separated, they bought her a house in Charlotte. But they also gave her space, not wanting to take the church’s place in running her life.

Now she told them she wanted to move back home. They bought her and the kids a condo in Arlington and a car. A friend from the Washington Golf and Country Club offered Jenny a job at a title company doing marketing and closings.

Mike and Jean had meals with Jenny and the children. They took them to movies and the country club. They kept Jenny’s kids when she went on dates. Jenny started to reconnect with Colleen. It wasn’t easy. Who could understand what she’d been through? Not even her mother knew the details. She told men she dated that she had been in a cult, and when they tried to make light of it or justify it, she ended the relationship.

Inside she still felt alone. Her reckless nights continued. Her language turned coarse. One day, she got angry on the phone with one of her kids’ teachers. Later, she called her mom and told her how she prayed every night for God to take her life.

In January 2006, a year after returning home, Jenny entered Wellspring, a cult-recovery center in Ohio. The first time she met with a counselor, she couldn’t get a word out through her sobs. But in time the tears gave way to confession and revelation. In her two weeks at Wellspring, she found people who understood what had happened to her.

One night she sat a restaurant and put her feelings on paper. “I was a cult member,” she wrote. “I was a cult leader. I am a cult survivor. I was victimized and hurt terribly in the group. I hurt others in the group in the same way. What was done to me was inhumane and wrong. What I did to others was inhumane and wrong. I will never forget the faces, the eyes of those I hurt.”

Her declaration ended in hope: “No, no, no, they did not win. . . . My freedom has been restored. . . . I escaped. Wounded but free.”

Jenny recently changed jobs, joining another title company. She has learned to love again and is dating a man she’s telling about her past little by little. He spent last Christmas with her family, and she thinks he could be the one she’ll spend her life with.

Her divorce from John became final in 2007. The two remain friends, bonded by their kids as well as their mutual regret and redemption. Jenny talks to John’s new wife often to help her understand what he is only now beginning to sort through. She has also started a nonprofit, the Alliance for Cult Recovery & Education, to inform college students about cults. She hopes that her message—“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody”—will resonate.

In 2002, Kip McKean resigned as leader of the International Church of Christ following criticism of his leadership style and personal character by pastors within the ministry.

In the resignation letter, McKean wrote: “My most significant sin is arrogance—thinking I am always right, not listening to the counsel of my brothers, and not seeking discipling for my life, ministry and family. I have not followed Jesus’ example of humility in leadership.” In the letter, he thanked Paul and Denise Graham for advising him during his darkest days.

Within a year, McKean took over a church in Portland, Oregon, a move that has split the International Church of Christ. Among those who have broken from McKean is Paul Graham. He and Denise started a private school in California as well as a sports program for kids and received an award for their civic contributions.

In the past year, Jenny has counseled five members of the California church who have since left the ministry. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever go to church again. She has tried to read the Bible, but all she can hear is Paul’s loud voice. When she prays, it’s to a God she says she knows nothing about.

Except for Kip McKean, pseudonyms have been used for cult members.

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This article appears in the July 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.