Nomads: Part Four of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College

Photo by Keith Hardy on Unsplash

And the road becomes my bride. I have stripped of all but pride, so in her I do confide. And she keeps me satisfied, gives me all I need (Metallica)

Now that Narrowgate was banned from meeting on campus, we met in various locations as a temporary arrangement as we worked things out.  It was about this time (or perhaps just before) that Logan stopped attending. I did not follow what happened, my recollection is that there was a theological difference between him and Liam that finally became an impasse. Logan had always held some beliefs that are fairly common to Messianic Jews, about celebrating some of the festivals and feasts common to Judaism. He just stopped showing up, and we were strongly encouraged to have nothing to do with him. This was challenging for me, as we had been friends since our Freshman year and over the years had become somewhat close.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

During this time period, Liam taught a lot about listening to the Holy Spirit and stepping out in faith, which was a tough thing for Pooky and I to do.  We learned a lot about listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and speaking to other people based on what the Spirit told us. It became somewhat common for people to tell other people that they had “a word from the Lord” for them. I remember one time Rose’s younger brother was visiting, and I really felt strongly that I had an encouraging word for him.  I was apprehensive to say anything, out of fear that I might just be imagining things. How do you ever really know? And so I quietly asked Rose if her brother liked Legos, and she said that he did a lot, so I shared with him what I felt the Lord had for him.  I remember it was just general encouragement for him about his creativity, or something like that. At the time, I thought it was really amazing to be used of the Lord like that. But was it necessary to declare that it was a Word of the Lord? Or would it have been sufficient to just encourage him without the bold declaration of authority? In retrospect, it seemed to build ourselves up just as much as the person we were speaking to – perhaps even more. And we were potentially setting ourselves up for infallibility – if I declared it, you had to accept it… even if it was just a stray thought.

Now that we were off campus, the size of the group dropped significantly. We still met together frequently, both in formal meetings, as well as informal gatherings. A lot of those tended to occur at the girls’ house that Pooky was living in. Given several of the girls no longer attended college, they had much more free time to just hang out. I visited when I could, and we grew closer to some of the girls that Pooky was spending time with. As we ended 1995, there was a large Christmas party there in the house. We took a group photo around the Christmas tree, which I still have to this day. At this point, the group consisted of a hodgepodge of people in different walks of life. There were about three married couples, including one married couple who had a toddler and a newborn. Several of the members were related as brother-and-sister, which added to the tight-knit community. There were also a few couples within the group, which brings up an interesting dynamic.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a match, Find me a find, catch me a catch (Fiddler on the Roof)

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Photo by Jonathan Pendleton on Unsplash

Pooky and I had been dating well before Narrowgate, and were pretty serious in our relationship when we started attending. At this point in time at the end of 1995, we were engaged to be married after I graduated from college in May. And though Pooky and I were not directly affected by this, I remember there was a lot of pressure within the group to pair up with others. In a few instances, a member would develop a crush on someone else within the group, then believe that God authoritatively told them that they would marry that person. That caused some level of awkwardness for the other person, who may not have gotten the same divine wedding invite. On more than one occasion, the issue was brought to Liam, who made the determination that the couple was divinely ordained by God to get married. This authoritative proclamation was without a doubt a form of coercion towards a hesitant group member to accept God’s will and get married. At this time, there were at least three couples within the group who were “dating” in this way. There were a bunch of single females within the group who seemed stranded, since almost all of the eligible males in the group were “taken.”

“God told me who I was supposed to marry” was actually a fairly common phrase heard around campus at Messiah College. Think about it – marriage is perhaps one of the most important decisions someone can make, the outcome of that decision lasts a lifetime. It is perhaps logical for a Christian to labor over this decision with prayer, meditation, and seeking wise counsel. That people at Messiah – not just in Narrowgate – were seeking God’s wisdom in this area is to be expected.

That said, it takes two to tango – your decision is not made in a vacuum. I will say this as clearly as I possibly can – coercing someone into a decision by appealing to Divine Authority is an abhorrent form of abuse. On several occasions I’ve seen people convince themselves that someone was their mate for life, while the romantic target did not have any romantic interest towards them. I’ve seen this play out in different ways, too. In some cases, the person only told their closest confidants what “God told them” and fervently prayed that God would then wake the target person up to romance. I’ve also seen the person go to the romantic target and boldly proclaim what “God told them”. I’ve also seen instances (as I mentioned above) where the person went to other people in authority (ie. Narrowgate leadership) to appeal and coerce the romantic target into submitting to God’s plan. This does not ever end well – it is an abusive tactic to force someone against their will into a romantic relationship. This frequently leads to heartache, spiritual confusion, divorce, physical and emotional abuse, child abuse, and even death. One thing I learned the hard way through Narrowgate is how remarkably easy it is for a person to convince themselves that their own desires are from God.

This realm of romance was one of the early warning signs for what could happen as we began “stepping out in faith” and “listening to the voice of God.” This type of “personal revelation” was a significant challenge to deal with – who can authoritatively argue with such an argument as “God told me…” when it falls outside the swim lanes of established Scriptural canon? It was the ultimate blank check to get anything you wanted from anyone else. On the occasion where there was a conflict, where (as an example) God told me ABC and it affects you directly, you had no real choice but to bend to ABC. And if you did not submit to ABC, the highest authority in the group – Liam – would often be consulted, and he would authoritatively determine the outcome. With God and Liam on one side of the equation, you had no choice but to accept ABC. The lopsided authority within the group became increasingly evident during this time period – people went to Liam to verify what God said, and what Liam said was enough to sway people into a great many things. To this day, I have no idea whether or not God was speaking to me by His Spirit. Telling Rose’s brother that God liked his creativity could just as easily have been phrased to encourage his creativity, while leaving God out of it entirely. And to this day, if I hear someone use the phrase “God told me…” or “I have a word for you…” it is a PTSD-like trigger, guaranteeing that I will not listen to you.

designed by mmmham on Redbubble dot com
designed by mmmham on Redbubble dot com

I imagine this line of thinking may have worked much better in the days of Jonah, where God told Jonah to go somewhere and say something to a bunch of people who did not know God. But in this day and age, God is more than capable of telling me directly whatever word you believe God has for me. It is a major logical fallacy to appeal to the ultimate authority – and it is a major tool that dangerous people still use to this day to manipulate others for their own personal gain. This would certainly not be the last time that divine authority was evoked to change our behavior. I’ll set the stage with some ominous music, then quote the little pet sloth in The Croods, “DUN DUN DUN.”

Blinded you lost your way through the side streets and the alleyway. Like a star exploding in the night, falling to the city in broad daylight, an angel in Devil’s shoes. (U2)

In January of 1996, I took a J-term cross cultural trip. Many students took cross cultural trips at Messiah to amazing locations like Ireland, Spain or Greece. Those trips sounded amazing but cost money – something I had very little of. My cross cultural trip was to Philadelphia, where students stayed in the homes of different African American families while studying their culture. Pooky and one of her house-mates (Rose) drove me to Philly to drop me off at Messiah’s Philly campus house. After dropping me off and a tearful desperate goodbye, Pooky and Rose drove off in Pooky’s lemon yellow station wagon. Several hours later, I was surprised when Pooky and Rose walked back in the door, looking extremely upset.

Photo by Susanoo . on Unsplash
Photo by Susanoo . on Unsplash

After they had left from dropping me off, Pooky’s car started acting up while in the far left lane of a four-lane highway. For anyone who has ever driven in Philly, going about 10 miles per hour in the far left lane is NOT where you want to be. As she “chug chugged across four lanes of traffic”, the peaceful considerate Philly drivers wove around her at 70 miles per hour like angry buzzing bees. Once she reached the right lane, she took the nearest exit where the car finally gave up the ghost in the parking lot of a convenience store somewhere in the wrong part of town. Remember, this was in 1996 – before the day of cell phones and GPS. As the last rays of the setting sun melted into the cityscape, two attractive college-age girls found themselves hopelessly lost in the inner city, sitting in a broken-down station wagon. The smells and sounds of the ghetto wrapped around them with cold, icy tendrils of panic.

Pooky made some phone calls to try and get a tow truck from AAA from the pay phone in the parking lot. And so they waited, and called AAA repeatedly, and waited some more. Once it got dark, a guy came out from the convenience store, wearing a three-piece suit and dark sunglasses (at night… that would make for a catchy song…) and told them to not be out after dark in this section of the city. So they went inside, and Pooky asked if she could use their phone to call AAA again. The guy led Pooky back into the dark isolated office, where he leered at her while she used their phone. AAA repeated the same line from the past few hours, that someone would be coming out. Pooky returned to the front of the store where she and Rose watched for the truck. Some time later, a tow truck pulled into the convenience store parking lot, so they ran gleefully out to the truck. But it wasn’t a tow truck from AAA – it was an angel from heaven. A hulking man with a heart of pure gold listened to their tale, and offered to tow the car to someplace safe, where they would not get ripped off. He promised that he would make sure they remained safe and taken care of. He was as good as his word, and got them to the mechanic who was unfortunately closing for the day and could only look at the car on the next day. The giant angel made sure one of the mechanics could transport the ladies back to Messiah’s Philly Campus, so they climbed into his car – Pooky in the front seat, Rose in the back. As they drove across the city, the driver reached into the car console and pulled out a handgun and waved it around for dramatic affect.

I can only imagine what Pooky and Rose were feeling at that point – I would probably have soiled my huggies right then and there. The driver then acted coy and said to not worry, everyone in the city has a gun for protection. This little display of power was most certainly designed to get a reaction from the girls – why make such a spectacle of getting the gun out at all? But the guy was true to his word, and dropped Pooky and Rose off at Messiah’s Philly Campus. They stayed on campus that night in the girls’ dorm, and someone from the college drove them back to the mechanic the next day where they picked up the fixed car and drove back home. Their adventure has chilled my blood to ice within my veins since the day it happened. Whether that guardian angel really was an angel, or just a good-hearted truck driver, I don’t know – but we are grateful that he saved their lives that night.

A man is something that’s real – It’s not what you are, it’s what you can feel. It can’t be too late to look through the hate and see: I know that’s what a man can be (Boston)

Once Pooky and Rose were safely on their way back to Harrisburg, my J-term studies began. The first few days of the term were spent in a classroom setting at Messiah’s Philly campus, studying African American culture – something I confess I knew very little about. At one point, the instructor told the class (all of whom were Caucasian) that we were all racists towards African Americans. This pronouncement created quite an emotional response from the class, with several arguments and tears. The professor’s point was that we were members of a privileged cultural system by way of our race. Because we were the “haves” within that privileged system, we were blinded to the inherent racism of that system towards the “have-nots.” I remember struggling with this concept a great deal.

We’re hopefully all friends here, so I will be open with you even though it’s uncomfortable for me to do so. As a youth, I suffered both physical and emotional abuse in my home from people who I trusted. As a teenager, there were times that that we did not have enough money to provide heat or hot water during winter. After we were evicted from the house we rented in the charming borough of Monroeton, we were homeless. Thanks to the generosity of the clergy and congregants at the Episcopal church we then attended, we were able to “house sit” while people were away on vacation. This gave us a temporary place to live while my Mom desperately looked for a new apartment. My Mom worked as a second shift nurse, so after school I would come home to an empty house and no human interaction. Some days, the only meal I had was a free public school lunch – and though my face burned with shame at the little punch card I got each week, I was grateful for the food. At home, I would scavenge for anything edible I could find – sometimes my entire dinner would be a tin can of corn, doused with tons of salt and pepper to mask the taste. I would scavenge and save pocket change for days so I could walk over to the B&D diner (nicknamed the Bite-and-Die) for a hot meal. All that to say, at this point in 1996, I had experienced being poor, hungry, homeless, abused, and neglected. It was a tough pill to swallow that on top of it all, I was also a privileged racist. In the end, survival instinct kicked in and I regurgitated in my own words what the professor told us so I could pass the class. At the time, I wasn’t in a mature enough place to grapple with such complex issues as institutional racism. If you haven’t picked up on this by now, I viewed my college education as a way out of a desperate life of poverty and loneliness.

Following the classroom portion of our cross cultural studies, I and another guy were placed in the home of a sweet little old lady for a few weeks, where we learned about her African American culture. This involved going to church with her in a gospel church where the choir sang hymns with fantastic passion. During the day, we volunteered at a school in the inner city. In the evenings, we often met up with other Messiah students, and spent time checking out the sights of the city. For some reason, I recall finding an amazing restaurant in Chinatown that had the most fantastic fried dumplings that later gave me food poisoning. They tasted way better going down than they did coming back up. While in Philly, there was a huge snow storm, and I remember spending hours shoveling this lady’s sidewalks. It was a long month apart from Pooky, we were both very happy when January ended.

I’ve been searching, can’t find my peace of mind. It’s gonna be a long cold winter. (Cinderella)

Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder: Once I returned to campus at the end of January, Pooky and I were desperate to get married sooner than our planned May date. At the start of my Sophomore year at Messiah, my Mom and Siamese Cat (may they both rest in peace forever) moved to Florida to find better employment. Because my Mom was so far away, she could not make it North for a wedding. She had already planned time off around May for my combination graduation and wedding celebration, so we backed off on rushing things, and stuck to the May wedding date.

In the realm of Narrowgate, we were given permission to meet in a local church day care building where Annette worked.  It was a cramped basement room that was not very enjoyable to meet in, the group renewed its efforts to keep looking for a new place to meet after only one or two visits there.

We soon found a local church that would rent out their building to us on Sunday evenings.  It was located near the Delbrook apartment complex, where Emma & Liam lived. We met at this church and had an organized Sunday evening church service.  It was attended by both our Narrowgate members and some members of their church.  They viewed us as a kind of youth group outreach, and the pastor supported us and took Liam under his wing. I was the temporary drummer while Olivia & Noah led the worship, and did an average job banging on the drum set.

We borrowed Liam’s drum set the first few times we met,  and it was an uncomfortable visit to his house to get the drum set.  One of the members had originally donated the drum set to Narrowgate, but Noah kept it in his apartment to practice on in between services.  It is still unclear whether the drum set was given to Noah or to the group, but we decided to let it rest and just gave it to him.  I moved to rhythm guitar and one of the church members joined up with us as drummer, bringing his drum set to our meetings.  It was a good time and though the worship was not as good as it was when Noah was in the band, which were probably the golden days of Narrowgate, the worship was pretty good.

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Photo by Mikael Stenberg on Unsplash

At some point during the Winter / Spring of 1996, a major cold front came into the area. The girl’s house was founded on the principle to give as you felt led, which meant that rarely did anyone actually give anything. And so it was that the girls found themselves without heating oil in the house, with a major cold front coming to town. One of the guys in the group, an energetic guy named Mason, came over to the house and tried to help by dumping car antifreeze into the toilets to prevent the pipes from freezing. Most of the girls decided to go stay with friends elsewhere where there was heat. Pooky and I bought a kerosene heater or two to try and keep the place warm enough to inhabit, but to no avail – the pipes froze, then burst. The owner of the house was pretty upset – it was gross negligence that led to the damage. Pooky was also pretty upset – there had been some tension throughout the house leading up to this event, with people not chipping in for groceries or rent or to clean after themselves. The pipes bursting pushed her over the edge, and she decided to move out. She wound up moving into the basement in a house Isabella & Benjamin, one of the married couples in the group, were renting near the college. The basement had its own external access, and so they rented it out to Pooky. They had two small children, and Pooky didn’t mind the pitter patter of their childrens’ feet above her head. While there, she enjoyed luxuries like heat and a clean space to call her own.

Now that Narrowgate had an off-campus church building that we could meet in regularly, and a pastor who agreed to take Liam under his wing, you might be tempted to think there would be a happy ending to this tale. You would be horrendously wrong: Narrowgate was a runaway train off the rails, and picking up steam.

(to be continued)

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