Flashpoint: Part Two of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College

Photo by Maik Garbade on Unsplash

When you finally regain control of your life’s story from abusers who have held the pen for so long, it can take time to get the courage to write again, to say in effect: “You are no longer the author of my story and I do not need your approval to write the next chapter.” -Wade Mullen

The reaction to part one of this blog series has been truly overwhelming, I would like to start out by thanking each and everyone one of you who have reached out to me with words of encouragement. Writing this blog series has been incredibly helpful in this healing journey of sharing my story, and though some wounds have healed over in 25 years, there are still pockets of pain and fear that I’ve never really dealt with. It’s sometimes frightening to put yourself out there and make yourself vulnerable. Thank you for encouraging us to continue sharing our story, even though it is hard and scary and painful.

This blog has already morphed a bit since the first post, as more information has come rushing in from multiple sources. The blog format has provided a quick and easy vent on the boiler, so to speak, but may not be the best long-term record of events. I think that the best long term solution to this information would be to write a book, and will consider this blog as a potential rough draft / sketchbook for such a project.

Say oops upside your head (The Gap Band)

A dear author friend of mine turned me on to a podcast called “80’s All Over” which is hosted by Scott Weinberg and Drew McWeeny. The podcast goes month by month through the 80’s, reviewing every major movie release for that month. That, in and of itself, is pretty awesome. But each episode of the podcast usually starts out by correcting any mistakes they made on their prior podcast. So let me start out by saying that towards the end of my last blog, I was in a hurry to get it to press and so the exact order of some events got somewhat muddled. I skipped over a lot of the detailed content, left off quite a bit of relevant back story, and closed the first blog on a cliff hanger, without providing some relevant information that probably led to Narrowgate being kicked off campus.

I am now going to back up and fill in a bit more detail of those events, leading up to us being kicked off campus. I will first provide some of the back story explaining how Pooky and I met, which takes place well before we ever heard of the Narrowgate group. Having a better understanding of our relationship with each other will help understand our journey through the cult. Plus, it’s a pretty awesome story that I never grow tired of sharing. I then want to fill in a bit more of the picture of that Summer of 1995, as it really was a pressure cooker of activity that led to the rather spectacular events in the fall of 1995. And that led to some truly horrific events after that… and here we go.

Someday love will find you, break those chains that bind you. One night will remind you how we touched and went our separate ways (Journey)

When I was but a wee Sophomore lad at Messiah back in the fall of 1993, I made a bold declaration to one of my friends – my perfect soul mate would be a cute, blonde physical therapy major who loves back rubs. Pretty specific, right? It turns out there was someone who exactly fit that bill, a girl we now know as Pooky. One fine fateful evening in January of 1994, I was in the snack shop down in Old Main, having an evening snack with one of my friends. We were finished eating, and for reasons unknown, I decided to skip the long walk to the trash can (about ten feet away) and toss my plastic fork into the trash. Those who know me can validate that at five feet six inches tall, the NBA has never been a reasonable career path. At the exact moment I released the plastic fork, a cute blonde physical therapy major who loves back rubs just happened to walk up to the trash can, placing herself between myself and the trash can. The fork sailed dutifully through the air and hit her in the eye.

I leaped from my seat, mortified, and rushed over to her. The good news is she was not blinded for life, or harmed in any way. Even better news is that she laughed it off, a sound which caused my soul to swoon. Through my embarrassment, I offered an apology of deepest sorrow and she returned to her friends. The next day, I sent her a bouquet of friendly purple daisies (nothing says non-threatening like purple daisies), and a brilliantly written poem on a note card:

Poem
actual original poem
ticket
actual ticket stub from our first date

As a sign of my deep repentance for hitting her with a fork, I asked her out on a date (smooth, I know). I remember we saw a movie (Sister Act II, relatively clean and un-threatening) followed by a steaming mug of hot cocoa at Denny’s, before going our separate ways. We both dated other people after that, which did not go at all well for either of us (and I’ll leave it at that).

One brisk evening in April of 1995, we enjoyed a friendly chat on the phone, and I casually mentioned that her dorm and my dorm were literally next to each other. Given we were talking to each other on the phone while being just a few yards apart, I asked her if she would like to take a nice leisurely walk outside with me. And so we walked around campus together, and continued our jovial chat. We walked along the beautiful yellow breeches creek, and sat down along the edge and admired the moon reflecting off the glassy surface of what I remember calling the “Jello of Death.” I offered her a back rub (she was, after all, a cute blonde physical therapy major who loved back rubs). She accepted, and after several minutes of squeezing her shoulders, she turned her head to look at me over her left shoulder. She looked like an angel, her face glowing in the moonlight. Hearts pounding, our lips drifted inexorably towards each other, and we kissed. And now many years later we’re happily married with five beautiful children, and not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for bringing her into my life. We both view the fork incident as destiny.

I’m on my way, just set me free… Home sweet home (Mötley Crüe)

And now, I will pick the story back up and fill in some additional detail during the start of the summer of 1995. This overlaps a little with the previous blog, and fills in more detail. Pooky went home to live with her family in Maryland. There, she worked at a local hospital with the elderly (she has always had an affinity in working with the elderly). She just finished her sophomore year, and truth be told, she was very unhappy with school and grateful for the opportunity to shake off the stress of academia for a few months. Pooky worked during the week and drove back to college on the weekends, and stayed with some of her friends on campus. I was living on campus as a dorm host for the summer. This allowed us to see each other more, and allowed us both to attend the Narrowgate meetings together on Sunday evening. As the Summer progressed, those Sunday evenings got harder and harder for her to go back to Maryland. And so part-way through the summer, Pooky decided to move in with some of the Narrowgate ladies who were house-sitting for a professor who went away for the summer. This provided them with an inexpensive place to live during the summer, until the professor and his family returned at the end of summer to begin teaching Fall classes.

Living in this house helped her draw closer to some of the ladies in the group.  They would spend long nights, talking about the deeper questions in life.  In this house, Pooky lived with Mia, Charlotte, Ashley and Kayla (not their real names). Ashley had a broken leg at the time, and Pooky helped take care of her, and helped get her to doctor appointments. I believe it was Charlotte who I had first met down in Climenhaga, in my very first encounter with the group after band practice. She was very kind and sweet, and her personality aligned very well with Pooky.

pong
Photo by Dennis Cortés on Unsplash

I still had a fair amount of distrust for the guys in the group, and lamented that I didn’t really know anyone that well.  I was still pretty intimidated by Liam, since he and his wife Emma only occasionally showed up and appeared to me as being “untouchables.”  We started to have a weekly supper at the girls’ house (as we started calling it), and after dinner, the guys would wind up in the basement playing ping-pong (this is the ping-pong table I referred to in the previous blog).  It was there that I started to let down my guard and develop relationships with some of the guys.  As I got to know them, I related with the other musicians like Logan and Noah.  Noah and his wife Olivia were the worship leaders and he played guitar, so we hit it off fairly well. Logan was in my year at Messiah, and we got along very well. We had an acting class together, and for one of our projects, we did a scene from Wayne’s World that was pretty fantastic.

As I mentioned in the prior blog, our friends Amelia & Lucas had moved away just a few months earlier. Pooky reminded me that not only were they our close friends, but they were assigned to us (and us to them) as “covenant buddies”, which meant that we were paired up by Narrowgate to be close to each other for accountability and friendship. I totally forgot about that, thanks, Pooky. To this day, although our friendship with Amelia & Lucas was genuine and valuable, I have an issue with the concept of making “covenants” with anyone and have a negative knee jerk reaction to even hearing the word. Hey look, I just psychoanalyzed myself! I told you that blogging about this is therapeutic!

sandy-millar-YeJWDWeIZho-unsplash
Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

During this summer, Pooky and I spent a lot of time together and grew even closer. We had been dating almost a year and a half, and were beginning to talk more openly about marriage. I know she wanted to marry me because she hinted at it pretty openly. And I really wanted to marry her, but was afraid of the timing of it all.  I always tried to put ideas about marriage into the future, saying that in a “few years” we might be able to get married.  I don’t know how mature or reasonable that was, but in retrospect I was probably neither mature nor reasonable. I remember talking to the leaders Emma and Liam about wanting to get engaged (which delighted them), and asked how to go about looking for a ring.  I spent quite a bit of time wandering the area malls, looking at rings, to try and find just the right one. It had to be dainty, beautiful, and unique – just like Pooky.

One weekend in late July of 1995, our dear friends Lucas & Amelia were visiting from Massachusetts and I shared my secret that I wanted to get engaged, and was searching for the perfect ring. They were elated, and we went to the (now extinct) Camp Hill Shopping Mall to do some ring window shopping. It was there that I found the perfect ring – it was exactly what I was looking for, such a wonderful and beautiful ring.  I swore Lucas and Amelia to silence and immediately began a layaway payment plan for the ring. Around this time, I started working a second job at the local Toys R’ Us (may God rest its soul) and was squirreling away money for both educational expenses and for the ring.

hiking
Pooky and I, hiking with Narrowgate in the summer of 1995

I mentioned in the last blog entry that towards the end of the summer, many in the group drove up North to Glen Falls, New York to go hiking. I have always been a nature nut, and Pooky and I had a fantastic time. There was an amazing lake up in the mountains that was breathtaking to behold. I took quite a few photos of our hiking, and still have those photos today. As I mentioned, that trip made me aware of this growing chasm between our belief system and the belief system of those “outside” of our group. This little chasm was most evident in witnessing the theological debate between some of our group and the family members with whom we were staying and went hiking with. This ideological chasm would grow and expand with time, driving some families farther and farther away in the pursuit of our group ideals.

We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control… Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone! (Pink Floyd)

During the summer of 1995, an issue began to solidify for us, as a couple. Pooky was very unhappy at college and wanted to take some time off from college. Pooky was (and still is) a brilliant person – always at the top of her class, straight A’s in high school, Valedictorian of her high school, permanent citizen on the honor roll, class president, and editor of the yearbook (and this blog!), with straight A’s at Messiah. But for Pooky, it was just a constant striving to prove herself and gain acceptance from those around her. And after two years of studying to be a physical therapist, she wasn’t certain that was even what she wanted to do with her life. She was nearing a proverbial fork in the road, where she began questioning who she was becoming and how it differed from who she had always been. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us face similar questions when we start out on our own in the great big scary world.

Pooky talked to her Mom about her unhappiness at school, as well as her doubts that she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a physical therapist. Through many long conversations, they decided that it was okay that she take some time off, perhaps a semester, to re-charge and consider the next steps.  This greatly alleviated some of the stress and anxiety Pooky was having towards the end of the summer. Unfortunately, some of her other family members got involved in the decision, and began calling her or visiting her, begging or coercing her to stay in college.  In one highly memorable family event, one of her Aunts asked Pooky (with me feet away, trying to melt into the wallpaper) “don’t you want to get your degree before you strike out on marriage?”

As a (very reluctant) compromise, Pooky decided to stay in college but changed her major from Physical Therapy (a six-year program) to Family Studies (a traditional four-year program) to give it a fresh start. That fall, she was in one of my classes (I believe it was Intro to Interpersonal Communications), and we had a blast though I don’t recall learning anything – other than the professor’s amazing laugh, and his personal story about an area rug mysteriously moving around in his home.  At the end of that August, Pooky also moved into a quad (that is, a large on-campus dorm room fitting four students) with some of her non-Narrowgate college friends. Unfortunately, these changes did little to help her predicament – she still hated the pressure of college, and cried a lot during this time. I (Geek) remember feeling very stuck between a rock and a hard place during this time – I wanted to love and support her, but wanted to be respectful and supportive of the wishes of her family too. All I could do during this time was love her and encourage her to do what she felt was best. It was a very fine line to walk.

Photo by Tim Cooper on Unsplash
Photo by Tim Cooper on Unsplash

Side note: Pooky was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2018. Given her symptoms and severity, we believe she had this for many years, possibly since childhood. Lyme is a horrendous disease that can cause many bizarre symptoms that she was then experiencing, such as fatigue, anxiety, and heart palpitations. Though we can obviously not go back in time and test her then, we speculate that she may have been battling Lyme Disease back then, though only seeing some of the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks and attributing them to the stress of college.

With the start of the school year in late August, we began meeting in a large room down in Climenhaga, and we started to pack out the room.  A majority of the people seemed like they came out of curiosity to check it out.  Others came fairly regularly to heckle and argue with whatever topic was taught that week.  Others seemed drawn for the worship.  At this time, I was still on the worship team, and I was at first very nervous with this larger crowd.  The music was still somewhat new to me, vineyard music and the like.  Since I played hard rock more than anything else, I was uncomfortable in playing my normal style of music.  With time they encouraged me to play as loud as I wanted to, and the louder I played, the more they would cheer and dance.  I still wonder if my loud playing scared many people off, or turned them off to worship.

The time of meeting together during the summer seemed to have locked in the core group, with Liam as our undisputed leader. I think that at this point we were almost too cohesive as a group for outsiders to fit in. Those who attended seemed lost because each “sermon” was based upon the understanding of the previous one.  It was a chain that kept getting longer and deeper and more complex until only the core members could understand it after hearing it for over a year.  Many people came and went, based on the theology.  Others were asked to leave for asking too many questions or for arguing with Liam.

Do you wanna get married or run away? (The Goo Goo Dolls)

On Friday September 1, 1995 I joyfully made the last payment on the engagement ring, and walked out of the Camp Hill Mall with the ring in my pocket. Later that evening, I made a trail of forks leading from her dorm room to the lounge on her floor. I then slid a greeting card full of high-octane romantic mush under her door, knocked, then patiently waited for her to leave her room and follow the trail. We then decided spontaneously to take a walk, where fate would lead us down by the creek we affectionately still called the “Jello of Death”. We sat down by the side of the creek, exactly where we first kissed.  I offered her a back rub, and after all she was still a cute blonde ex-physical therapy major who loves back rubs so she accepted. In exactly the same way, she turned her head to her left to face me, and our lips inched closer. It was absolutely a moment of destiny – and my right hand fumbled in my pocket for the ring, but could not get the blasted velvet box open with one hand. So improvising wildly, I pulled away from her, and told her I was overwhelmed with emotion and it was “too much”. I was then able to stealthily open the velvet ring box with my right hand, and held the ring out to her right. As her head was facing to her left to face me, she did not see the ring. With my left hand, I gently and lovingly placed my hand on her chin and turned her head around to her right. There was the ring, glowing in the moonlight. It was the most miraculously magical moment I had ever experienced, and as my heart pounded, I whispered into her ear, “Will You Marry Me?”

In that moment, my beautiful Pooky started to hyperventilate.

IMG_1578
Actual location, September 2019.
engaged
I think she may have been excited!

I confess that this was not the response I had expected, and so I asked her “does that mean yes?” to which she found her voice, and said over and over, “yes! Yes! YES!!!” and we kissed and cried and hugged, and I placed the ring on her finger, and there we sat in the glow of the moon beside the “Jello of Death”, exultant in our love. Our victory march back to my on-campus apartment was memorable in that Pooky joyfully told everyone we encountered that we had just gotten engaged. The very first people she told happened to be a young married couple who seemed genuinely happy for us.

But if you wants to see heaven’s door, make out a check for five hundreds or more. “Send me your money”, do you hear what I said?  (Suicidal Tendencies)

As I mentioned in the last blog post, there was an increasing disdain within Narrowgate for the college, its leadership, and pretty much anyone outside the group that was building ever taller walls around us. Liam regularly taught about the lost nature of those around us on campus, which included professors, other students, and the leadership to which he was accountable at the college. Liam also regularly spoke out on the futility of a college education. Liam graduated from Messiah College in 1995 with a degree in International Business. It is assumed that Liam was having challenges landing a good paying job with his business degree from Messiah, which may have contributed to his derision for a college education. Given the obvious impact of Andrew Wommack ministries and other “Prosperity Gospel” organizations, the realization that Liam was not becoming wealthy and prosperous – especially armed with a degree from Messiah College – must have been a jagged pill to swallow.

Prosperity theology is a teaching among some sects of Christianity that believes that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God. They often go by the name “health and wealth” or my personal favorite “blab it and grab it,” because they teach that our words are containers of power that – when infused by faith – can literally bring about healing, health, and financial well-being. Looking at the net worth of many preachers in this line of theology, it’s hard to argue – according to an article published by beliefnet, most of the richest pastors in the US adhere to this line of theology. Liam regularly regurgitated this type of theology within Narrowgate. That he was not yet providing evidence of financial prosperity must have been troubling. This is all speculation, of course. But the impact of such teachings on the group were hard to ignore. Pooky was not the only one struggling with hard decisions about continuing education, and with repeated teachings from Liam, those themes became more and more pronounced.

notebook
notes from a prophecy given to me by “Liam”

Liam told us of his aspirations to be a full time preacher, and wanted the group to support him financially to do so.  The logic of requiring a group of college students – most often the poorest segment of the population – to financially support Liam and his wife was undoubtedly faulty. Some of the group were already working one or two jobs just to pay for tuition. My dietary intake of Ramen Noodles during this time period was evidence enough that I didn’t have tons of spare money I could donate to make Liam prosperous.

An entry in my notebook dated August 11, 1995 stated that I “can smell demons here on campus” is evidence that Narrowgate saw the people around us at Messiah as being controlled by demons. In addition, correlating “Bible degrees” and “crap” in the same note give evidence that degrees were not highly regarded. It is perhaps ironic that the group existed only because we were all either current or past students of the educational system around us – we probably would not have come together otherwise. But the climate within the group was at this time significantly anti-education, which created a tense environment. There was tension between the group and “outsiders”, and tension within the group between those who wanted to get an education (I was in this camp) and those who questioned the value of education… or even those within the group who may have hated education altogether.  And there in the midst of that volatile environment was Pooky, who was burnt out from school and just wanted to take a break. This tense environment was a powder keg, vulnerable to explosion from the slightest spark.

We didn’t start the fire. No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.  (Billy Joel)

Fire 003
Image of damage from largest wildfire in California history, from CNN dot com

According to CNN, one of the largest wildfires in California history was caused by a spark made from a hammer driving a stake into the ground.

Pooky and I were now blissfully engaged (good), but she was still miserable about college (bad).  And so it was about halfway into the Fall semester of 1995 when she decided she could not take the it any more, and so one day she just quit college.  She talked to me about this decision and I confess I didn’t agree with what she was doing.  I didn’t know what to do, though, since we were betrothed.  After she quit, she then told her parents, who were admittedly livid since they lost all the tuition money they paid for the semester.  She moved out of her quad on campus and into a house that a bunch of the Narrowgate girls rented from a Messiah professor in nearby Lisburn.

Sometimes, the greatest measure of love you can give someone is to stand by their side and believe in their decisions, even if they are hard for you to understand. And that is exactly what I did.

Within a few weeks, several others in the group also quit: James & Ava (who later got married while in the group), Charlotte & Elijah (who were dating at the time), Rose, and Ashley (not their real names). Some others within the group refused to quit, including myself and an engineering major named Robert.  I just never spoke about it and kept on taking my classes.  I felt sometimes singled out, especially when Liam would frequently teach about how evil psychology was, which as a Psychology major was hard to not take personally. I have always felt that Psychology by itself is not evil, though like anything else it’s possible to use it for evil purposes. I kept my head down, and pressed on in my degree. Socially, I was somewhat of an anomaly among my non-Narrowgate friends and room-mates. More than once, I was asked questions about the group. Some brought up concerns with the group, to which I’d always respond with something like “look at me – do I look like a mindless cultist?” that pretty much avoided answering the questions and concerns. It was a fine line that I was walking.

Pooky’s quitting college seemed to be a spark that set off a wildfire within Narrowgate that quickly spread outside the group, and shook the entire campus community. That Pooky moved off campus and into a house with several other Narrowgate girls (several of whom also quit college) was a gigantic warning flare in the sky over Messiah College. That the group was now on the school’s radar in a big way was undeniable.

And here is, perhaps, the understatement of the decade: This did not go over well. As you already know, this was a pretty major factor in us getting kicked off campus… but this also led to a visit from an inquisitive reporter.

(to be continued)

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