25 Years Later: My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College (part one)

My daughter is a student at Messiah College (soon to be Messiah University) in South Central Pennsylvania. She writes articles for the campus newspaper, and has access to their news archives. One day, she sent us pictures from her iPhone of an article dated December 1st, 1995. The title, “Walking the Straight and Narrow Gate,” hit my face like a blast of January wind. I vividly remember reading this article when it first came out, my heart pounding in my chest as I flipped through the pages – that simultaneous sense of excitement and terror doesn’t easily leave your memory. The news story was a long forgotten toy, full of memories and emotions.

The news story was in part written about me – I was in the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College.

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I immediately pulled out my old journals and diaries from the 90’s – a hodgepodge of Word Perfect documents, spiral-bound notebooks and day planners where I faithfully documented my life: Where I went, who I saw, how I felt.  It was a very detailed record about a part of my life I had all but left behind. This line from my diary jumped out at me:

“Narrowgate met on Tuesday nights in Kline hall of science in a classroom.  My first meeting with them was on September 13, 1994.”

Twenty-five years ago, my life was about to change forever.

This blog series walks through my experience in the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. I have done my best to change the names of individuals with random names from the top ten most common baby names for 2018, as reported by WCPO dot com, to protect their identities and dignity as much as possible. There are very few exceptions, which I have clearly identified. I am merely sharing my story as I remember it, based on what I documented at the time.

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Going places that I’ve never been, seeing things that I may never see again, and I can’t wait to get on the road again  (Willie Nelson)

Sunday afternoons at Messiah College were usually set aside for band practice. I and a few of my friends had started a hard rock band, and dutifully lugged our gear down to a practice space in Climenhaga for a few hours of practice. We never made it big or changed the world, but we did have a whole lot of fun trying. One Sunday afternoon, our practice ran over the time slot we had booked. As I lugged my equipment out to my car,  some people were coming into a neighboring practice room as we were going out. One girl was friendly and full of smiles, and asked me about our music. She said they were setting up for a Bible Study, and that I was welcome to stick around and check it out (though I gracefully declined). This was the first time I met anyone from what I later learned was Narrowgate Fellowship, though it certainly would not be the last.

At the time, I was a junior studying for my Psychology undergrad degree. Pooky was a sophomore studying pre-physical therapy. We had been dating for close to six months, and were (and still are) deeply in love. We were both curious about the supernatural, and wanted to believe there was more to life than the stereotypical Christian subculture we saw all around us at Messiah College. At Messiah, alcohol was forbidden, it was a dry campus. For our first few years there, social dancing was forbidden. At meals in the dining hall, many people bowed their heads for an obligatory number of seconds (mine was about ten) over their food before digging in. There was prevalent social pressure for students to get engaged by Senior year (affectionately termed the MRS degree). You had to attend chapel several times a week. You were allowed in the dorm room of a member of the opposite sex for a few hours a week, and the door had to be open a specified number of inches. Having been a latchkey kid with very few rules at home, I thought attending Messiah was like going to prison. For Pooky, who grew up in a rigid fundamentalist church and attended a very strict Christian school, Messiah was full of insane freedom. It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

Narrowgate Fellowship started off as a Bible study on the campus of Messiah College. The group was led by students, for students. Narrowgate met on Tuesday evenings on campus for a Bible study with scripture reading, teaching, and sometimes a little worship to start out.  They also met on Sunday evenings for a time of prayer, praise and worship, and some teaching from the Bible – that’s where I first met them, down in the music practice area at Climenhaga. This format was pretty close to being a normal church service. There was also a Wednesday evening meeting for the core attendees and leaders, that met in the apartment of the main leader and his wife.

The leader of the group – an upperclassman I’ll call Liam (not his real name) – was a charismatic man who believed that God was still in the business of the miraculous. Things like prophecy, speaking in tongues, dreams and visions and miraculous healings were signs and wonders that could still happen today – if only we have the faith to believe. My first impression of Liam was that he was both impressive and somewhat intimidating. He was a very persuasive and dynamic speaker and came across as being very compassionate. He had warm eyes and a disarming smile, and his wife Emma (not her real name) was the sweetest person you ever met – she almost always wore a kind smile.

Given the conservative nature of the college environment, there was a bit of theological backlash against the group from other students on campus. Theologically, Narrowgate was heavily influenced by the teachings from Andrew Wommack ministries (yes, his real name). Narrowgate’s leader, Liam, adopted and shared many of the Word of Faith teachings that he learned from cassette tapes from Wommack’s ministry. Many of these tapes were passed around to other Narrowgate members, I still have a bunch of the cassette tapes that were passed on to us by the group. Ironically, Liam currently lives in Colorado and works for the Andrew Wommack organization… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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For several months, Pooky and I sporadically attended a few of the meetings. For both of us, Narrowgate was oddly enticing in that it was edgy and counter culture. We were certainly skeptical, but willing to check it out. The people there scared us, at first we didn’t click at all. They spoke their own kind of secret language (which is actually pretty common on Word of Faith environments), but we were willing to give it a try. We listened and took lots of notes, trying to keep up with the teachings while keeping the attendees at an emotional arm’s length. After the meetings, we then would debrief with each other, discussing the teachings, theology, and different personalities. Learning about these new different beliefs helped us to grow.

Ping pong over the abyss  (the 77’s)

For some reason, I turned a social corner with Narrowgate as a result of a ping pong table. I don’t recall who actually got this ping pong table, but it showed up in one of the member’s basements, and that seemed to knock down some awkward walls between me and the other guys in the group. Pooky has always had a gift of being an interpersonal carbon atom – she can bond with just about anyone. I’m quite the opposite – I’ve always been very slow to warm up to people. Once I’m warmed up, I’m good – but lots of awkward silence and the relational circling typically leads up to any form of relationship. I don’t know which comes first, the chicken or the egg on this: Either I’m stand-offish of other people, or they are stand-offish of me – or perhaps some balance of both.  Pooky says I tend to project a leave-me-alone wall that dissuades more than a casual head nod from others. Eventually that wall inched down, in large part from a ping pong table – because nothing says cult bonding like ping pong.

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Image by HeungSoon at Pixabay

Another thing happened around this time that drew us closer into the group. A married couple – I’ll call them Amelia & Lucas, not their real names – moved to the area from Massachusetts. They were related to one of the other married couples in the group, and I remember the first time we saw them at one of the meetings, huddled close together against the wall, looking small and frightened.  They acted quiet and seemed very close to each other, which we could relate to. After we shook hands, they seemed very sweet, and we liked them instantly.

friendlyquesaThey came and went to meetings but were still pretty quiet.  It wasn’t until later that something strange happened to bring us closer together.  Pooky went out with some friends to eat at Friendly’s.  She ordered chicken quesadillas and ate them without incident – but later on she got very sick from them.  It turns out that Amelia also ate the chicken quesadillas at Friendly’s that same day, and also got very sick.  Never underestimate the bonding power of food poisoning – they talked about their shared illness at a meeting one evening, and hit it off from there.  They started hanging out together and Pooky visited her at their apartment just off campus.  The husband Lucas and I would spend time staring at each other like two scared shy kids, though we eventually started talking and soon hit it off as well.  He was a quiet and caring guy, it was difficult not to like him.  He liked similar music and was a fun guy to be with.  We were overjoyed that we had finally met some close friends, and begun hanging out together quite often.

By this time, we were becoming more socially ingrained into the group. As our attendance picked up and we got more comfortable with the group, we were inducted into the Wednesday evening meeting and started attending on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday.  I remember we felt honored to be able to attend the “serious” members only meeting, and it was more personal and down to earth than the other meetings.  We would socialize, one of the leaders would share, we would have a time of open discussion, share testimonies, prayer requests, and then we would have a snack and dismiss. Because who doesn’t like a snack? There was still some hesitancy on our side towards the group, more on my side – I have always been socially awkward. But we were gradually becoming more involved in the group.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom  (Hillsong Worship)

At first the teachings were pretty basic Word of Faith teachings about Spiritual Gifts. This included baptism by immersion, speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy and to a lesser extent (at least for now) the other spiritual gifts.  We could handle these new topics in small doses, but it was all so new that we needed time to digest it all.  We didn’t get that luxury, however, as more and more teaching poured in on the topic. It really was like drinking from a fire hose, where you just didn’t have the chance to take something and isolate it, digest it, study it, and come up with a belief. Due to the rapid nature of all the information coming in, at first we caught what we could, perhaps one item at a time, and let all the other stuff go by – but as time and the fire hose wore on, we started just accepting it all with less questioning and research. Our hope was that the logic behind these teachings would fall in line after we believed. Understand that these three nights of meetings were on top of a full time of student course work, lectures, homework, quizzes, and tests. It really was becoming a lot more to handle, and the educational side started to slip. One of the major pieces of the Word of Faith theology is that you have to believe, without doubting. The very act of questioning / wrestling through the teachings would in part negate the ability to believe in them. This is in large part based on an interpretation of Mark 11:

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from http://www.biblegateway.com

Baptism

The teaching on baptism was pretty straight forward and (we believed) fairly laid out in Scripture. Pooky at one point decided that she had never been baptized, and asked to become baptized. The group almost immediately baptized her by full immersion in the leader’s bath tub with her fully clothed. It was (and still is) fairly common for people to get baptized in the yellow breeches creek that runs through the campus. At this time, it was seasonally too cold to uphold this outdoor tradition, so into the bathtub she went.

Healing

Some of the other teachings, such as healing, were a little less clear-cut for us. On one memorable meeting, the topic was on healing. The leader, Liam, taught that God’s design was for people to be healed, every single time of every single ailment, as long as they have enough faith. This is a fairly common belief in Word of Faith theology, commonly called Faith Healing. I remember in this particular meeting, after the leader taught on the topic, there were a lot of questions and arguments from other people who had come to the meeting. To me, it was just so much noise back and forth. It was more arguing than it was persuasive discourse – one side was dug into their position, and the other side was dug into theirs. I do recall that I didn’t feel well that day, and after all the arguing was done and there was a time of prayer for anyone that wanted it, I went forward to be prayed for to receive healing. Nothing happened, and I left somewhat confused as to why. If someone was not healed, this theological paradigm left only two real alternatives: that the healer did not have the required healing power, or the individual did not have the required faith. Many years later, a third alternative has come to the forefront as another – that God does not always heal an ailment, but instead chooses to use that ailment in someones’ life to achieve some greater good.

Prophecy

Teachings on prophecy started to gain a very strong focus in the group.  It started out with the teaching that God ordained some to be prophets.  A gentleman who lived upstate came in as a guest speaker, launched a new chapter in the group. He was somewhat well known by a few in the group as a modern prophet, and after his teaching, he laid hands on people and prophesied over them. He then imparted the prophetic into the leaders, and after that meeting, prophecy became a huge focus for Narrowgate. At the end of every meeting, Liam or one of the other leaders would lay hands on people and prophesy over them. These were often recorded, and taken home as a gift to those who had been prayed for. I still have several of the tape recordings of the prophecies, and several pages of notes from them, though to this day I don’t recall any of them actually being specific enough to “come to pass”. Much of it seemed to be general things that could have applied to just about anyone, though sometimes there were little nuggets that seemed specific to me. This really was a very strong hook that got me to return again and again.

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In retrospect, I was not mature enough to know how to handle this new theology. The concept that the creator of Heaven and Earth wanted to speak to me was addictive like a drug – if God could speak to me then I wanted Him to do it all of the time.  I would sit in every meeting they had, and pray to God for a word for me from Him.  Occasionally I would get one, and I would write it all down in my Bible and wait for it to happen.  Liam made a point to prophesy over all the new people at the meeting, and gave them the tape to take home afterwards.  Not surprisingly, our view of Liam solidified over time into him being an oracle of God. When he spoke, we learned to listen as it could very well be the very direction of God.

Today there is no black or white… only shades of gray  (the Monkees)

For even a casual observer, there are probably warning signs by now. That any human being was being set up with so much unquestionable authority should be a very large red flag. Was Narrowgate, at this time, a cult? When does a gray thing become more black than white? To this day, I have no idea. You may feel like you’re watching a small branch floating merrily downstream, unaware of the waterfall just ahead. In life, there is no guarantee we are immune to disaster – God most certainly destines some for the easy life, while others have a path over the waterfall, to be dashed to pieces. Pooky and I were quite clearly on a trajectory towards trouble.

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Played it till my fingers bled… was the summer of ’69  (Bryan Adams)

With the arrival of the summer of ’95, Narrowgate shrunk and refined itself.  Our dear friends Lucas & Amelia moved away in search of better employment. I stayed on campus and worked there over the summer as a dorm host. Pooky went back home for the summer to work in a local hospital. I kept in touch with some of the members who were also staying on campus to work over the summer. Narrowgate still met on campus, in a basement classroom of the dorm I was living in. It was at this time that I started participating on the worship team for the group, as the prior worship leaders (a married couple I’ll call Olivia & Noah, not their real names) slipped into more of a junior leadership role beneath Liam.

I remember playing the guitar, and my classmate and close friend Logan (not his real name) played the drums. The drum set was donated to the group by one of the members, and we wore that set out. We would worship so loudly and boisterously that we’d get a visit from Public Safety, asking us to tone it down. One of the songs we used to sing a lot was Romans 16:19 which I believe was made popular by Bob Fitts (and later, Chris Tomlin). The entire song was basically a musical rendition of that passage of scripture. I tinkered with the song a bit and wrote an arrangement that I played on my electric guitar. Though it was pretty heavy metal with thick chunka chunka riffs, it was a hit with the group, and we played that song’s chorus over and over late into the night. Because we were in the basement, it was so humid and hot that by the end of our meetings, the floors would literally be slippery as the humidity started to break down the wax coating on the floors. It became fairly common that someone would slip and fall on the slick floor while they danced exuberantly to that song. At one point, Liam rewrote the lyrics from “And the God of Peace will soon crush Satan” to “And the God of Peace has now crushed Satan” to better fit the group’s theology. We didn’t have to wait soon to crush Satan under our feet – the full anointing of God’s supernatural power was for us now! For what it’s worth, that is a pretty common teaching in Word of Faith theology.

On one very memorable evening, I was running my electric guitar through a wireless setup which gave me increased mobility while I played. During one song, I ran out among the worshipers, some of whom were laying on the ground, face down, as they worshiped. One of the girls (the same girl who had originally invited me to Narrowgate) was laying prone on the floor near a row of folding metal chairs, and for some reason it struck me as a brilliant idea that I would run towards her, step onto the chair, then leap over her. This plan went off without a hitch, until my toe caught on the back of the chair and I went face down into the ground, landing on top of my guitar. Thankfully the girl I leaped over was not hurt (though I imagine she was pretty surprised). When I landed on top of my guitar, the strings cut several grooves into the metal frets, and carved a small chunk of wood out of the fretboard. In addition, the strings cut deeply into my left hand that was valiantly holding a chord while in flight. I had a nice slab of humble pie that night, and bled a fair amount though luckily I did not require stitches.

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actual guitar, with damage circled for detail

Later that summer, Pooky and I joined several other members of the group to make the long journey North into New York State. We stayed at one of the member’s homes (a guy I’ll call James, not his real name). From there, we all went hiking out in the forest to a mountain-top lake. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I have several photos of us hiking in the forest. One of the junior leaders, a girl I’ll call Mia (not her real name), spent some of the trip arguing theology with James’ dad, who was a pastor of a local church. I remember there was a smug sort of feeling, thinking we (as a group) had a better theological handle on life than a man who had been a pastor for many many years. At the time, this solidified for me the concept that you didn’t have to go to seminary to hear from (or be used by) God. In retrospect, it was solidifying the walls we were putting up around us, separating the US from the THEM.

‘Cause back in school we are the leaders of it all  (the Deftones)

As we headed into my senior year in the fall of 1995, Narrowgate hit the ground running on campus. Speaking in tongues started taking on a more prominent role in the teaching.  There was a meeting in the college prayer room led by one of the upperclassman long timers about speaking in tongues.  There was a time of teaching, and then everyone had hands laid on them to receive the gift of speaking in tongues.  It turned into a time of prayer, with most people speaking in tongues, and others praying and laying hands on each other.  I was standing and praying quietly when Logan came up behind me and wrapped his arms around me in a bear hug.  He held me tight and prayed over me until I gradually sunk to the floor, and lost consciousness.  I don’t remember too much after that, other than being overwhelmed in with a great sense of peace.  I didn’t ever want to leave that peace, I stayed down on the floor for about an hour.  When I came to, I felt so lightheaded and giddy.  I found myself under a desk with my head in a garbage can.

As I began seeing more clearly, I noticed that they were still praying over Pooky to receive the gift of tongues.  It had been about one and a half hours, and they had her repeating any sounds that came into her mind while they prayed over her and spoke tongues out loud.  Liam said that he wouldn’t leave until everyone spoke in tongues that night, and she was the last.  She kept trying and trying to speak in tongues but it just wouldn’t happen – she could get a few nonsensical syllables out, but nothing fluid happened.  She was getting increasingly frustrated and other people kept giving her more and more advice.  Eventually everyone left that night, and Pooky never did speak as fluently as they thought she should.  We talked about it afterwards, and decided that it was just too much pressure on her at once, and she could not concentrate or anything.

As speaking in tongues became a focus in the group, people spoke in tongues every chance they got.  Whenever Liam would pray over someone, he would fervently pray in tongues. The louder he got, the harder we thought he was praying and the more we thought he was receiving from God.  It got so that he would pray only rarely in English, choosing to speak in tongues most of the time when praying. When he taught, he said that praying in tongues was what built up his faith to pray in the natural.  It reminded me of a toy motorcycle I had as a child that you had to push down a lever again and again, as the internal gears revved higher and higher. Once the toy reached a fevered pitch, you would set it on the floor and it would cruise across the floor (and more often than not, crash into the wall). Praying in tongues was somewhat necessary for prayer to work. And because we could not understand anything coming out of his mouth, we assumed he was connected directly to God and was accomplishing great spiritual things. In retrospect, this further solidified his position as an inerrant leader. And because we believed this about each other, and ourselves, this reinforced that we were on the right path. This wouldn’t be happening if God wasn’t with us, right?

At this time, Liam began connecting prophecy and tongues together with all the other spiritual gifts. He taught that every single true Christian received every single Spiritual Gift, and that all of us should be able to speak in tongues, prophesy, and so on. There was a meeting at this time that I missed because I had to work, where everyone had to take turns and prophesy over each other. Though there was still a time of teaching, the general order of the meetings shifted focus during this time to times of ministry – to praying over each other in tongues, and making prophecies for each other.

It might sound crazy but it ain’t no lie… Baby bye bye bye  (*NSYNC)

All on-campus bible studies and groups were required to have an overseer – a spiritual leader who was on staff at the college. The chaplain of the college, Eldon Fry (yes, this is his real name), was our overseer, and was responsible to meet regularly with Liam and keep tabs on what was going on with Narrowgate. As time wore on, there was more and more friction between Liam and Eldon, as the theological divide between them became more and more pronounced. As Liam was becoming more entrenched as an inerrant prophet and teacher, the divide rapidly became an impasse.

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notes from a prophecy given to me by “Liam”

Liam taught that people around us at Messiah could be dutifully following the teachings of Christianity, without actually following Christ – that they were blinded by dead religion, like the Scribes and Pharisees of the Bible. An entry in my notebook dated August 11, 1995 (shown above) speaks volumes in its brevity. It was my notes from a prophecy encouraging me to “look how far I’ve come in 1 year” and stated that I “can smell demons here on campus.” The general disdain for the college, its leadership, and pretty much anyone outside the group was building ever taller walls around us. This disdain was significant on several levels. It removed Narrowgate’s leaders from any form of oversight and accountability. It also isolated the group members from friends, family, and other Christian groups / churches. Like Joseph and David in the Bible, we were “called and set apart” while everyone else was ostracized as being controlled by religious spirits or labeled as pharisees who followed after dead religion. The group, after all, was passionately pursuing a Living God! Our pride was thick mortar that reinforced the walls we were putting up.

It should come as no surprise that around this time, Liam decided that he was no longer accountable to Messiah College and struck out on his own, without Eldon’s direction. This meant that we could no longer meet on campus, and had to find somewhere else to meet.

This also meant that there was no one to keep us in check.

(to be continued)

 

 

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