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The closed-door church

Inside the secretive and strict Plymouth Brethren sect in Manitoba

The Plymouth Brethren discourage interaction between their followers and outsiders, and the church encompasses all aspects of social and professional life for its members. Critics say it has gone from being a Christian sect to full-blown cult.

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Most of my information came from interviews with non-Brethren in the Interlake, emails from Dave Henry, reading Bachelard’s book and exchanging emails with the author, and from internet sources such as Wikipedia and the Brethren web site, plymouthbrethrenchristianchurch.org. What was to be a simple story about an immigrant community in rural Manitoba became more like pulling on a magician’s scarf and finding it attached to an infinite number of scarves.

It was inevitable that if I kept pulling on the scarves, they would lead to people who were either expelled or who had left the Brethren voluntarily. I was not prepared for what they were about to tell me.

Meeting ex-Brethren is like rummaging through a box of broken toys. Each one is missing some piece of themselves emotionally. All the ex-Brethren have children, parents or siblings within the Brethren who refuse to see them.

When you leave the Brethren — or are kicked out — you’re dead to them. Your kids won’t acknowledge you. If you should encounter them, they will glass themselves off, not even meeting your gaze. Your parents will glass themselves off from you. Your friends will glass themselves off from you. Have your grandchildren over? You never will. They will be told you are evil.

You’ll also lose your job because Brethren work for Brethren-owned companies.

I interviewed about a dozen former members who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They admit to being afraid of the Brethren. Almost every one of them had been "withdrawn from" — an innocent sounding term until you hear it so often it takes on a chilling cast.

None of the ex-members I spoke to had been withdrawn from for vice or a venal sin. They were withdrawn from for questioning the doctrine, the leadership or a leader’s words. They were withdrawn from because they associated with non-Brethren or were caught with forbidden technology.

When you leave the Brethren — or are kicked out — you’re dead to them. Your kids won’t acknowledge you. If you should encounter them, they will glass themselves off, not even meeting your gaze. Your parents will glass themselves off from you. Your friends will glass themselves off from you. Have your grandchildren over? You never will. They will be told you are evil.

Many people were withdrawn from for breaking the no-computer-or-cellphone rule, which changed in 2005. Marriage breakup will also result in one of the parties being withdrawn from. One family was withdrawn from because Brethren leaders deemed their home, which was undergoing renovations while billeting visiting Brethren, not up to PBCC standards.

"It hurts really, really bad," said one ex-Brethren parent with grown-up children still in the Brethren. "We don’t want to be bitter. Sometimes, it’s hard not to be. But you have to forgive."

Withdrawing from is how the Brethren leaders keep their members in fear of breaking its rules. "You move one inch out of line and you’re gone," said a former member.

"The consequences of breaking rules is what keeps lots of people from stepping outside those boundaries," said another.

For the protection of these ex-members and their family members still in the Brethren, the following accounts have been greatly generalized. Even people who have left the Brethren are still controlled by them years later.

One person I spoke to got out with his wife and all his children. To hear him, it was like escaping a house fire just in time. He was lucky all his children were still living at home.

Several people I talked to had lost their grown-up children to the Brethren. They don’t see them anymore or if they do, it’s only in passing. Their children will just make brief, polite, heartbreakingly emotionless small talk, like automatons, and move on.

The reason people I interviewed were scared is because even that fraction of contact could be taken away if their identities are revealed.

"The separation with family is just terribly painful and it won’t go away," said one mother who has children and grandchildren who won’t see her. "The only way to heal is to say you were wrong and go back."

Ex-members say you have to go through humiliation to go back. Some people do apologize and return, even after many years away. But many simply can’t bring themselves to truly believe in the Brethren again, even though everyone I interviewed said they still believed in God.

One ex-member said the hardest part for him was having his parents treat him like he no longer existed. He recalled bumping into them accidentally on the street one day. "I approached them and said hello. They both looked away and never replied. It was as if I was not there. Those things burn deeply into your inner being," he said.

"Every ex-member has a long string of heartbreaking stories like that. We tend to suppress them because they are so painful." He has let his own kids know that will never happen to them as long as he lives. "The one thing I convey to my kids is my love for them is unconditional," he said.

In another family, a teenage son had been withdrawn from for getting mixed up with drugs. He had a small bag of marijuana and confessed to it out of guilt. The leaders determined he could still live at home, but the family was forbidden to talk to him or eat with him for an indefinite period. This is called the "shutting up" phase, a kind of trial period. The entire family was soon withdrawn from for failing to obey the church’s directives.

One teenage girl was shut up for 37 days in England last year, including missing school, for setting up a Facebook page.

A father who was withdrawn from came home from work one day to discover his wife and children were gone. Brethren leaders had visited her at home while he was away and convinced her to leave her husband and stay in the fold.

Such visits to women at home alone are a common practice by Brethren leaders. What do they say to the wife? They may tell her God will seek retribution by taking one of her children, say ex-members. They will also try to use the wife as a pawn, saying if she stays in the Brethren and separates from her husband, it will encourage him to come back to the church and to God.

'The first year (out of the Brethren), I came close (to suicide) two times,' said a former member. 'It’s very, very real, and it’s very hard to explain to someone how traumatic it is to be treated like that.'

Divorces are a horrible ordeal among Brethren. The Brethren believe only the marriages of sinners fail. If there’s a split, someone’s at fault and has to be withdrawn from, typically the man. He’s out with no job or family and not a friend in the world.

The Brethren will try every legal tactic to prevent him from even having visitation rights with his children. The Brethren hierarchy keeps a massive war chest just for legal custody fights, Bachelard writes. Members are encouraged to leave money in their wills specifically for the legal fund. One tactic is to fire the lawyer representing the Brethren party just before a case goes to trial, delaying the process. Most withdrawn fathers, now out of a job they held with a Brethren-owned company, haven’t the finances to fight.

If they lose a case, the Brethren appeal, no matter how ludicrous the appeal is.

While one man interviewed didn’t want particulars of his child custody case known, it follows closely the pattern revealed in Bachelard’s book, which details cases of children being told a parent "is leprous, wicked or ‘of the devil.’" Children sometimes write letters to their estranged parent telling them they are wicked. Or they will hang up on phone calls from the parent and return letters and gifts unopened. In Australia, a judge in a custody case reprimanded the Brethren for what he called the "brainwash" of children.

The man I interviewed said the Brethren will make false accusations against the father. "What they try to do all along is destroy you." That’s where the suicides come in.

The man, who keeps in touch with other ex-Brethren, says he knows of 30 to 40 suicides among ex-Brethren. He says 95 per cent of the suicides are men, most of whom have been cut off from their children.

"The first year (out of the Brethren), I came close two times," he said. "It’s very, very real, and it’s very hard to explain to someone how traumatic it is to be treated like that."

That’s why the website wikipeebia.com keeps track of suicides. It currently lists 24 confirmed suicides of former Brethren. It’s the fourth website the leavers have created. The previous three were shut down by legal action by the Plymouth Brethren, according to Bachelard.

The stock answer from the Brethren is that they don’t break up families; sin breaks up families.

History

Updated on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at 8:57 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

May 12, 2014 at 11:34 PM: Correction: Superb Sprinkler Service is no longer owned by a member of the Plymouth Brethren.

August 18, 2014 at 3:47 PM: Note added.

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