Talking to ex-members of sect chilling

Exclusion of family members striking


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No question the biggest story for me in 2014 was the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/12/2014 (2898 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

No question the biggest story for me in 2014 was the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.

It was a story I expected to knock off in short order. This group of Plymouth Brethren was made up of immigrants from England who had settled in Stonewall and nearby Woodlands. As a province with a serious out-migration problem, we’re always interested in new groups that choose Manitoba.

There had been talk of unusual practices by the religious sect — not wanting to socialize with others, refusing to eat in the same building as non-Brethren — but I was confident there were reasonable explanations if I could only talk to them. After all, tolerance toward other religions marked the dawn of human rights. In Manitoba, we respect the rights of other closed sects, such as Hutterites and Orthodox Mennonites near Plumas.

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press A seven-foot-high steel fence surrounds the Plymouth Brethren Meeting Hall in Stonewall.

But I couldn’t get the Brethren to talk. A couple of people agreed to meet with me, but first one, then the other, cancelled. One man twice postponed a meeting, in negotiations that took place over three weeks, before finally backing out.

It’s hard to explain what happens to a reporter when someone refuses to talk to you. It’s like a chemistry set explodes and you walk out with soot all over your face. Your cheeks fill up, steam shoots out your ears, and you start making train-whistle sounds.

That’s not enough reason to do a story, of course, and I questioned my motives throughout. What right had I to intrude on a sect that clearly wanted no part of the rest of the world? Yet there was enough innuendo to warrant setting the record straight.

It should be noted there are other divisions of Plymouth Brethren that don’t practise exclusion to the same degree as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, or PBCC, but the PBCC appears to be the dominant group locally. Their history in Manitoba dates from long before the recent wave of immigrants. They maintain a strict interpretation of the biblical text: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”

I phoned so many people. I talked to several people with the local chamber and got nowhere. The Brethren don’t believe in joining a chamber, even though Brethren members owned 20 or so businesses locally. I talked to several religion professors across Canada. They’d heard of the PBCC, but knew little about them. Locally, everyone said they were nice people, but that was it.

Then someone said he knew of a former Brethren who might tell me more.

I would end up talking to at least a dozen ex-Brethren. They had either left, or been “withdrawn from” by the PBCC. That means they lost their jobs with firms owned by Brethren members and were cut off from all contact with friends and family. If you were a son or daughter, you lost contact with your parents and siblings. Your parents would start to say they had only five children, not six, or whatever number, excluding the non-Brethren child.

If you were a parent, your children would no longer acknowledge you. Your grandchildren would be told you’re a bad person. I know of one elderly man who lives alone and is never visited by his Brethren children.

I heard stories of parents who would walk past their grown-up children on the street and not acknowledge them. That’s not a unique experience for ex-Brethren. Try imagining that when you’ve gathered with family over Christmas. Try to imagine glassing yourself off from your child, or your parent, or your sibling. What would it take to make you do that?

It always reminded me of that British TV show, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. You could live in a suffocating world where everything was planned for you and taken care of for you and explained for you. But if you questioned it, if you challenged it, you would lose everything, every relationship you ever had. You would become the most alone person on Earth. I looked upon these ex-Brethren as McGoohans, as No. 6s, as heroes.

But they did it at tremendous cost. I will tell one story I didn’t put in the paper. I was interviewing a former member of the Brethren. It was going fine. The man seemed in control. He had been cut off from all contact with his family, but that was long ago.

I had been looking down at my notebook, taking notes. When I next looked up, he had shattered. Tears were flying off his face like rain off windshield wipers. The table in front of him was sprayed with tears, like shards of glass. Most people, when they break down, will look away, but he was staring at me. We were just staring at each other. I think he was as baffled as I was.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” I repeated, not knowing what else to say. I don’t recall what happened next, but one of us suggested we needed some water or something stronger to drink. Then we carried on as if nothing had happened.

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