Special Report: Part Three of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College

Photo by Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash

I think that I’m now somewhat caught up and have filled in as much detail as I can. Thank you for your patience while I got my chronological crap together. Also, thank you for humoring me in sharing some of the back story of how Pooky and I met and became a couple. We truly believed (and still do) that our meeting and falling in love was a miraculous gift to us both. This is, I promise, highly significant to keep in mind as we wade deeper into the Narrowgate quagmire.

Boom! Here comes the Boom! How you like me now?  (P.O.D.)

Both prior blog entries lead up to the same general point in time. So now, I start moving forward with the story. Chronologically, several students (Pooky included) quit college. Several of the girls (Pooky included) were living together in a house rented to them by a Messiah professor.

On a small campus like Messiah College, the news that a bunch of students quit college who were part of the same “bible study” with questionable theological teachings spread across campus like wildfire. The school pretty much blew up (figuratively, of course) after that.  A lot of people (students and staff alike) came out verbally against Liam’s teachings. From what I overheard, most people on campus thought that Narrowgate members were quitting college because Liam told them too.  I think this is an oversimplification of a complicated issue. Some members (like Pooky) were genuinely unhappy with college. But to be fair, Liam did teach a lot about how evil Messiah (as an establishment) was, and the meaninglessness of a college education. But was it that, or the student’s discontent with Messiah that pushed them over the edge to actually quit?  It’s the classic question “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” To this day, I have no idea. It is undeniable that the group’s teachings and overall culture (heh I said ‘cult’) influenced the decision for some to either stay in or quit college. But I do not believe it was a simple black and white issue. I do not recall Liam ever telling someone to quit college, and them blindly following the order. Case in point – I did not quit school, nor did Robert who was studying engineering.

I believe at this point, we were then officially labeled a “cult” by Messiah students and leadership.

Water can’t cover her memory, and ashes can’t answer her pain. God give me the power to take breath from a breeze, and call life from a cold metal frame. (Dream Theater)

After I had gone out on a first date with Pooky (remember the fork, flowers and poem?), we had gone our separate ways and dated other people. At that time, I started dating a girl who did some writing for the campus newspaper. To over-simplify, we were not a good fit for each other. This resulted in a transition from “seeing each other exclusively” to “seeing each other as well as seeing other people” to “not seeing each other at all” in fairly rapid succession. There were some hurt feelings on both sides from this breakup. After I started seeing Pooky, there was some uncomfortable tension between some of our mutual friends. With time, this got worked out, thankfully, but there were some icy moments when I brought Pooky to a social event attended by friends of my ex. On one memorable occasion, it got icy in every sense of the word when I took Pooky ice skating with some friends which included a close friend of my ex.

At this time, my ex-girlfriend came and asked if she could interview Pooky and I about our experience with the Narrowgate group, for an article she was writing in the school paper.  I remember asking her if she was doing it for her own glory of a sensational story, or if she really wanted to know the truth of what was going on in the group.  After a major pause, she replied “both” which was at least an honest answer. I told her that Pooky and I wouldn’t talk to her about it.  She then went on and tried interviewing Liam and James, who were viewed by the college as being the chief group leaders, with the same result that they would not talk to her. This was a warning of things to come: we now knew that there was going to be an article about us in the Messiah newspaper. There was a fair amount of excitement, wondering who they got to, and what was said.

The wait did not last long.

A newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends (Simon & Garfunkel)

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The school paper came out with a super sensational front-page “Special Report” titled “Walking the Straight and Narrow Gate.” At the time, we felt the article was based in large part on hearsay and rumors, with a few interviews with anonymous people that had either attended some meetings in the past, or knew someone who did.  There was no representation in the article from anyone who was currently a part of the group – a fact that we used to discredit the article. To be fair, the author had reached out to myself and Pooky, as well as Liam and James, but we all sent her away without information. In reality, one of the people who was interviewed for the article, “Jane” was reportedly one of the longtime junior leaders in Narrowgate who had left the group at the end of 1994. Why did she leave the group? And why did she talk to the press? To this day, I do not know either answer – nor have I ever really paused to ask those difficult questions. I’m still not even certain who she is. Remember the old joke? Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. I was in denial that people were leaving the group – we just didn’t talk about them, or to them. It was much easier to not look back.

As an aside, this is a very obvious sign of a spiritual abusive environment. One of the many symptoms I immediately recognized in the abusive Baptist church we left two years ago was a total lack of concern for those who were leaving. On one very memorable occasion, I questioned one of the pastors about a family who had left our church. His response was that the head of the household (within that patriarchal environment, the head of the household was expected to represent his entire family) was unteachable, so let them all go, and good riddance. Some time later, my entire family faced the same dismissive disdain when we could no longer stomach such an abusive environment, and left.

I now know how terribly painful it is to leave an abusive environment that was your home. To be subject to the abusive neglect and lack of concern after you leave… it’s punishment heaped upon abuse. To this day, it still hurts deeply at the lack of concern for us after we left – after twelve years of pouring ourselves out in ministry, then finding that it meant absolutely nothing… those scars will take a long time to heal. And so now, 25 years later, I understand how hard it was for those people to come forward and share their experience in the Messiah newspaper. I understand how much it had to have hurt to be dismissed by the group that was like a family. I understand… and I was wrong. If you reading this now, and you left the Narrowgate cult, or you left Oakwood Baptist Church and I never took the time to reach out to you… I am sorry. Being sorry is not enough to heal your scars, I know that. I understand now how that hurts, and I am so sorry.

When the article hit, it was like someone had tossed gasoline into a fire, the campus seemed to explode. I vividly remember sitting in the living room of the girls’ house (that is what we called the house that the girls were renting at the time) reading the newspaper article. My heart was literally pounding in my chest as I flipped through the pages, greedily devouring every detail. We passed copies of the article around the room, and spent quite a bit of time discussing who we thought the anonymous interviewees were based on the information they provided in the article. One of the people was, we believe, a long-time member who left for reasons I do not know. She was in a position of pseudo leadership – I considered her a junior leader under Liam. The second person of the three was based on second-hand information, I believe she was a girl who had attended the group for a short period of time. And the third person I believe was a fairly close friend of me and my ex-girlfriend. She would have been easy to get an interview with, as she was still pretty close to my ex. Pooky and I had a good laugh that the article was written by my ex-girlfriend, and in the author section, it credited a guy as helping write the article. That was actually a shock, as after our first date, Pooky dated that guy a few times. In a bizarre twist of fate, my ex-girlfriend and Pooky’s ex-boyfriend co-wrote the Narrowgate article together. Interestingly enough, they also later got married.

Overall, I believe the members of Narrowgate were excited about the article – it was for us a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was now clear to us that we were facing persecution, surely it was a sign that God was with us. It drove a larger wedge between the “us” and the “them.” After all, Jesus faced near constant criticism from the religious folks around him. That people around us were genuinely concerned for our well being was mostly outside of our realm of comprehension. We firmly believed we were on God’s side, and they were out to get us and bring us down. It was the beginning stage of paranoia settling into the group, we began viewing everyone outside our group with suspicion.

Are you sturdy enough to move to the front? Is it nods of approval or the truth that you want? (Steve Taylor)

After the article came out, I socially went into hiding, not letting anyone know that I was in that group.  Some of my friends came to me and asked me about the group and I told them that I was fine and I had never grown so much.  I asked them to think about the group, and to look at me, and see if I was some bizarre cult psycho. Yes, I used a few logical fallacies here. That I was fine and had never grown so much did not mean the group was not a cult. And by asking them if I was a bizarre cult psycho, I skillfully concocted a red herring straw man that avoided the truth of their concern. The truth is that I was in a cult, and did not realize it.

Around this time, I had an appointment with my academic adviser. He pounced on the topic of Narrowgate, as he had somehow learned that I was affiliated with the group. Deflecting awkward questions was now becoming a way of life for me, I did it skillfully and without remorse. He wanted me to feel free to come talk to him any time I wanted, which was probably out of genuine concern for me, though I viewed it with suspicion. The seeds of paranoia were already sprouting in my mind.

It is at this point that college leadership forbid Narrowgate to meet on campus.  One day, James showed up a few minutes early to get into our reserved meeting room, and the door was locked. The availability of the rooms we had normally met in on campus mysteriously vanished, and we were denied access to reserve them.

As an interim solution, we began meeting in Emma & Liam’s apartment in the Delbrook complex.  We decided that we were right on for God since the original church was persecuted by the established rulers and church Pharisees.  The early church resorted to meeting in the homes of true believers! Our persecution complex led to further isolation and self-righteousness.  Pride came before the fall. A poem I wrote during this time frame makes me slightly ill at the obvious pride and delusion I was under at the time. I think the subject matter pretty much speaks for itself.

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I guess I just don’t understand, I’m just a confused young man. That no picture, no book, no statue, no man can help me understand what it means to be born again.  (The Prayer Chain)

I confess it is hard to look back, to see how deceived I was. But it is absolutely beneficial to do so! It is beneficial for me to look back and see that anyone can be deceived. This helps snuff out any tendrils of pride sneaking across my heart, whispering that I am better or wiser or closer to God or more clever than anyone else. It is beneficial to those who, like me, have been deceived. It is beneficial to those who may still be deceived by cult-like theology or abusive spiritual systems. You can come out. You can be free.

For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.  (Matthew 24:24-25)

Referencing the passage from Matthew 24 above, Liam was a false christ and false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. While in Narrowgate, I personally saw many great signs and wonders, miracles and unexplained phenomenon (trust me, we’re getting to there soon enough). And I was led astray… many of us were led astray. The good news is I didn’t stay in that place.

  • Looking back reminds me of how easy it is to be led astray.
  • Looking back reminds me to have hope and compassion for those who have also been led astray – until we breathe our last breath, our stories are not over. There is always hope that the lost can be found, even still.
  • Looking back helped me to see in 2016 the very clear sign of wolves in the Baptist Church I had called my church home of twelve years – and to identify and call those wolves out boldly.

This Narrowgate story is very far from being over, and I promise you I will talk about what I’ve seen and heard and experienced – even if it’s painful or uncomfortable. Some of the things to come can only be considered horrifying.

(to be continued)

One thought on “Special Report: Part Three of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College

  1. This is a really interesting story! Thank you for sharing! It’s interesting to see how effectively cults are able to transform the concern, horror or disapproval of “outsiders” into concrete evidence that the group is being persecuted, and that they are therefore on the right path.

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