Alumni shares experiences of life in a cult

On Thursday, March 23, Charlene Edge ’94, a poet and writer of Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International, visited Rollins to discuss her seventeen years of experience within The Way.

Katrina Jenkins, Dan of Religious Life, inspired the presentation, reading, and signing. She explained, “I went to a meeting of retired women from Rollins… and someone had said you might be interested in her [Edge’s] book. I thought this story was really compelling and I wanted to make sure it was shared on campus. This is not usually a topic we talk about.”

The unusual subject matter drew in many Rollins students and staff, as well as various Winter Park community members. Edge began her compelling story with a slideshow of several photos of her and other members from her time in The Way, an international religious cult organization. She was first introduced to The Way when she was in her late teens. Her hunger to learn more about God, her vulnerability from her mother’s recent passing, and the lack of support at home made her very susceptible to the organization’s tactics. She would later notice that this vulnerability from a death in the family, divorce, or other heartbreak was something most of those involved in the society had in common. Though at first the cult seemed like a supportive group, pressure was slowly piled on the recruits: to research more, to follow their leader loyally, to never question him, and to report those who did. Seventeen years would pass before Edge realized the errors in The Way and found a safe enough time to leave with her first husband and twelve-year-old daughter.

The Way’s rules against questioning the Bible or the cult’s leader, Victor Paul Wierwille, were the opposite of what Jenkins wants. She made the point that “We’re at a liberal arts college. I want them [Rollins students and faculty] to learn that it’s okay to question and learn [more]. As Dean of Religious Life, I appreciate when people question… I think that’s a good way to learn.”

After Edge read a moving excerpt from the book, the open question and answer discussion with the author encouraged this idea. Edge stressed that the Fundamentalism, literalism, and complete accuracy of the Bible promoted in The Way “undermines democracy and promotes discrimination.”  Women were also considered lesser than, even within the group—the leader of the organization even sexually abused several of the organization’s women, who, of course, were unable to tell anyone without risking everything. He also plagiarized many of his speeches and would make up ancient Greek and Aramaic translations in lessons if he did not understand it. The latter was the beginning of Edge’s return back to reality.

In addition to the array of snacks and refreshments, Jenkins brought out surprise flowers and a cake for Edge, since her birthday was coming up. It was a touching end to the Q&A. Afterward, anyone was welcome to purchase and have their book signed by the author.

Edge hoped Rollins students would realize that “We need to be informed about different religions and understand what they’re about to keep that dialogue going. We need to understand the threat of fundamentalism in this country and learn more about cults. We need to keep an open mind and a positive attitude.” True to her Rollins roots, she emphasized the role of our mission statement. “Part of learning to participate as a global citizen is knowing about different religions. The more we learn, the better citizens we can be.”

The first chapter of Edge’s book is free to everyone on her website, http://charleneedge.com.

Kalli Joslin

Section Editor, Web Editor, and resident cat-lover at The Sandspur.

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