Lessons from SPAC Nation*
*Disclaimer: I have never actually visited SPAC Nation, nor do I personally know anyone who goes there. But when I read some of the allegations against it, I’m reminded of my own experience and think it’s probably time to share it.
If you don’t already know, SPAC Nation has been credited with helping young people escape gangs by setting up safe houses and encouraging them to give their lives to Christ. But leaders have also been accused of pressuring young people to take out large loans and/or giving thousands of pounds in “seed offerings” (Huff Post, Nov 2019)
I had an abortion when I was 18 and it left me feeling broken. When I was dumped by the father, I was sorely wounded. At the same time, my siblings were going through their own life traumas and I really feel for my single mum and what she had to deal with in that period. We were all Christians but desperately needed some kind of healing. We were introduced to a large church (which has since faced allegations of malpractice and shall remain unnamed in this piece) where people reported release from all sorts of non-physical ailments. It was somewhere with a strong belief in the supernatural and the sense that when bad things happen to us, the devil is inevitably involved. I guess you could call it a deliverance ministry and as a family we got to a place where we felt like we needed deliverance.
It was a very shouty church and I guess when you are exerting lots of energy (from shouting at the devil), you start to think something must be happening, so we continued going every Sunday. Then when one of the young pastors there left to start his own church, we went with him. He set up in a small room in an office building. It was in an undesirable part of London and pretty grimy. But for me, it was humbling. After everything I had done to my body, to my child; it was more than I deserved. This pastor knew the Bible very well and with his small congregation of about 10 people - including children - eagerly listening, he began to teach us. In services lasting around 5 hours at a time, we sang, prayed, read and recited the Bible and screamed at the devil. We started off with just one service a week but soon we were told we needed to spend more time with God there so services started happening most weeknights too.
So it started off innocently enough. We’d all been in church most of our lives. This looked, sounded and smelt like church. And honestly, I cannot explain how incredible I felt during that early period. It was there that I was able to break down before God quite physically on my knees and tell Him how I was feeling. Down on that filthy floor in an obscure office building. At church on my 21st birthday I started speaking in tongues. After one meeting I came out of the station at Canary Wharf, got down on my knees in the middle of the commuter rush, and worshipped God. I was leaving my comfort zone to evangelise to strangers on the streets, and spending all my time with people in the congregation who I would never normally cross paths with. And the most beautiful part was being charged with looking after two wonderful little girls whose mum was struggling with her four children. I was living wholly for God. Finally, I was getting right with Him, giving Him all my attention, time and then...money. More on that last one later. I don't know why humans keep thinking that beating ourselves up in the name of repentance is what God is calling us to. Jesus came to get rid of all that. And yet there we were.
The type of penance that had my whole family give up work because the pastor told us we should be working for the church, is the kind of BS that we fell into - willingly. I had just started an amazing new job when I was told to give all my money to the church/pastor out of respect. So I did, but then had no money to actually get to work. So I had to quit. I was told that God would pay me back for what I had done so selflessly. Romans 8:28 right? Sounded plausible. Similar things happened with my mum and brother. But my sister refused. Always particularly sensitive to the Holy Spirit, she clearly knew something we were blinded to. She refused to go to the services or to have anything to do with the church or its pastor. But still the rest of us went.
I was told that I should expect to get married soon and encouraged to perm my hair which was natural and healthy at that point. I obeyed, because that’s what good Christian girls do, right? But I didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t keep it up, so my hair started to break, and then fall out. But I covered it up well. I became good at that, making excuses for the decisions I was being coerced into. Some random guy came to the church that I was totally not into. But the pastor said he was my husband. I thought okay fine, whatever. Maybe that was my punishment for losing my virginity to someone I wasn’t married to. There was a lot of guilt around that. I was told women like me were like vipers, coercing men into bed. So I felt God was punishing me for that decision. But I figured since God isn’t evil, maybe we would grow to love each other...or something. Thankfully the so-called-husband didn’t stay at the church very long.
All of us were given new names, being new creations in Christ and all that. Mine was Ruth. I took it more seriously than the others and actually had it changed by deed poll. I told everyone I knew that my name was now Ruth, my old name had died with my sin. Or something. I have a dear friend who must have suffered watching me go through this, but she made a point of staying in touch through it all and started calling me Ruth just as I requested. I think she was the only one who did. Everyone else thought we were crazy and started distancing themselves. They could see what we couldn’t.
One of the key things we were told is that the reason we had been suffering was because of the sins of our ancestors. Apparently, in order to cut off those chains, we had to give offerings of varying amounts. The pastor decided how much. For our family it was in the tens of thousands. The day we were all told how much we needed to pay was horrible. Everyone cried. The pastor told us God would find a way for us to pay our “debt”. We were to trust Him and be faithful. Maybe God would magic money out of thin air - the pastor knew people it had happened to. We were told not to limit God. He suggested we try and get loans. I think some of us tried (but luckily were rejected). In the meantime we were also given the task of finding him a luxury flat and a means to pay for it.
At some point he told us God had given him permission to find a wife and he married the mother of four children. We all went to the wedding. I was the maid of honour and spent most of the day looking after the kids.It was a horrible rainy day and the wedding was a shambles. Everything was late, hardly anyone turned up and it just felt...weird. I’d not been to many weddings before that but I knew the joy I usually felt from the couple - and there was something missing.
Something isn’t right here
Not long after that, there were rumblings of discontent in the group. We weren’t growing at all; our numbers had gone up and down but we were still the original 9 or 10 people who had started the church. Our individual circumstances had not changed, no miracle money had appeared and none of us had presented the thousands of pounds “debt” for deliverance. The pastor seemed to be angry all the time. The calm and loving teachings he had started with were no more. I felt like he was telling us off in every service. Finally I sensed that something was not quite right and that’s when God stepped in.
I’ve got a bit of a reputation as a black sheep in my family. I’m the only one who drinks and has been drunk, I used to sneak my boyfriend up to my room, I stayed out past curfew, I was reprimanded at school for my short skirts and of course there is the aforementioned abortion. But at this point, I was the epitome of obedience. After years of being the “bad child”, I was finally in favour.
So that’s why it was a surprise when I woke up one Sunday morning and told mum I would not be going to church that day. I didn’t and couldn’t explain why, but I was adamant I was not going. My mum and brother went that day but when they returned I heard the pastor wasn’t happy and told them to tell me that no one should be absent. This triggered something for my mum because she then told him that all three of us were going to take some time out from going so that we could pray together as a family. He hit the roof. He phoned the house and screamed at us, telling us that were disobeying him and therefore God.
And then everything started to unravel. His wife told us that they had been sleeping together for months before their wedding - something he frequently warned us against. She also said that he had occasionally hit her and they argued frequently. She also told told us something sinister. That she felt he was planning to groom me. I feel sick remembering this part, knowing now, with my eyes wide open, that I was so close to a situation which could so easily have destroyed me.
In the end, we went to his house to confront him. And that was pretty f**king scary. I can still remember the wild look in his eyes and his scarily even tone as he spoke to us, denying everything and calling us crazy. I prayed fervently the whole time we were there; there was such fear in that room. And then we left. And we never, ever went back.
When I talk about this experience, I refer to it as spiritual abuse and these days I refer to the“church” in this post, as a cult. A recent tweet, following the story on SPAC Nation, expressed the thought that we need to ‘stop calling these places “church” and giving these leaders the title of “pastor”.’ This extract from The Guardian gives some insight as to how I came to this understanding:
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who once taught at Harvard Medical School, wrote a paper titled Cult Formation in the early 1980s. He delineated three primary characteristics, which are the most common features shared by destructive cults.