30 Mar 2023

Former Exclusive Brethren Church member sets up support network to help other leavers

7:45 am on 30 March 2023
Lindy Jacomb, an ex-member of the Exclusive Brethren Church, has started the Olive Leaf Network to support others leaving high demand religious groups.

Lindy Jacomb, an ex-member of the Exclusive Brethren Church, has started the Olive Leaf Network to support others leaving high demand religious groups. Photo: Supplied

A group of people who have escaped cult-like groups have set up a support network to help others like themselves build new lives.

The Olive Leaf Network offers information and practical help to ex-members of the Plymouth Brethren Church and other closed sects to integrate (or re-integrate) with general society.

Lindy Jacomb was just 19 when she was forced to leave home and pushed out into a world, which she had been conditioned from birth to regard as "evil and dangerous".

Her crime? Asking questions of the leaders of the Exclusive Brethren, now called the Plymouth Brethren.

"In a very short time-frame I found myself out in a world in which I had (no) idea how to cope, how to survive in it.

"The Brethren also practise ex-communication or shunning, total familial and social ostracism.

"So overnight, you lose your entire family, your parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, cousins, all your friends, everyone you know. It's incredibly traumatising."

Fortunately, Jacomb was taken in by kind strangers, a Christian family, who became her surrogate family and helped her build a new life.

However, she knew of others who were not so lucky - and 15 years on, that is what inspired her to start the Olive Leaf Network, with the help of fellow survivors.

Its name refers to the biblical story of Noah and the flood, in which a dove returned to the ark carrying an olive leaf, signalling new lands beyond the horizon.

Members include recent leavers and others who left decades ago, and friends and family of people caught up in such groups.

They are of all ages and walks of life - straight, gay, Christian, agnostic - united by the desire to help.

"If someone needs accommodation but they don't know how to go about it, we can help point them in the right direction," Jacomb said.

"Or perhaps they need connecting up with Work and Income to help figure out access to benefits to help them through some hard times, or maybe they need legal advice.

"Or maybe they just need help understanding what the hell has happened to them."

High demand religious groups are defined as those which seek to control many aspects of members' personal lives, including their relationships, employment, finances and lifestyle choices.

Beliefs and practices usually clearly distinguish between people "inside" the group and outsiders.

'It's a real heavy drinking culture'

It is 21 years since Northland woman Jillian Moxham left the Exclusive Brethren.

She was 47, with six children whom she loved dearly and a heavy drinking habit, which nearly killed her.

"It's a real heavy drinking culture, alcohol numbs you down and keeps you compliant.

"I drank very heavily for eight years. Looking back, I can see it was like a slow suicide.

"But when I woke up on life support, I realised I did want to live."

Her two youngest daughters called 111 when she had overdosed on alcohol and turned "blue".

"They saved my life but that must have been so traumatising for them. My youngest was only 7 at the time."

Moxham did the Salvation Army's rehabilitation programme on Rotoroa Island.

"When I went to the island I never knew that I would actually leave [the Brethren]. I thought it was impossible because I had all my children and was very close to them. But then I thought, 'I just can't go back there', I knew it was death.

"I just knew I would die, I would probably die if I went back into the church."

She had believed her children would follow her out, and it was a shock to realise they now saw her as "doing the devil's work".

She got custody of her youngest through the Family Court but her daughter voluntarily returned to the Brethren a couple of years later.

"She just missed her brothers and sisters too much."

Life in the outside world was not easy, she admitted.

Aside from the grief at losing contact with her children - and now 11 grandchildren - she has struggled to hold down a job or a home.

She lives in a caravan.

"I would like to have a house but money has always been a struggle.

"I'm a good worker, but I could not abide any sort of authority.

"I need heaps of space even now ... I've been so constricted by people in my past life I need that space."

She still regards herself as "a spiritual person" but has stayed away from organised religion.

"Even the word 'God' is just too triggering for me, after having it yelled in my face for so many years."

Despite all that she has lost, Moxham is at peace with her decision.

She still phones her children on their birthdays - and texts those who will not answer her calls.

"I know they love me."

She has supported other ex-Brethren over the years.

"Some of them have never had anyone to listen to them in their lives, they've just had people shoving stuff down their throats.

"I see a lot of people who leave come out and literally they are so broken - as was I for the first five years - some of them end up going back because the brokenness and the destitution and everything that you lose is just so much.

"But there is life past suffering, you don't have to suffer, there is a way through it."

Covid-19 prompts woman to question her life

Laura had just graduated from university when she was drawn into the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, led by self-proclaimed messiah Lee Man-hee.

Followers of the 91-year-old South Korean believe he is immortal and infallible.

"I quit my job altogether and became a fulltime worker for Shincheonji.

"After about three months I moved in with members, so my entire world became just Shincheonji."

An old friend was so worried she told Laura's parents, who confronted her.

"Initially I lied, because it's quite acceptable in Shincheonji to lie, as long as you're doing it for God."

Eventually she confessed to her family that she was involved with the church, but still hid the scale of her association, including the fact she had quit her job to become a fulltime evangelist.

Hiding the truth was easier, because she had completely distanced herself from her family and former friends.

"You're so busy you don't have time to think about your doubts, or you think 'but they're just small things'.

"Shincheonji is all about the 'big picture', they're always saying 'don't look at the little details'. But the reason they're saying that is because the little details don't make sense."

Shincheonji was Laura's life for five years - until the pandemic.

Covid-19 gave her back her own life in a sense, she said.

"The lockdown in 2020 gave me a chance to sleep, to eat properly, to exercise, to do things other than Shincheonji, although I still did a lot of Bible study because this was supposed to be the Great Tribulation, that's how Shincheonji saw Covid.

"But it just gave me a chance to think and reflect, and over that year I just took back some of myself."

The trigger for leaving was when a senior leader who helped found the church in New Zealand phoned her from South Africa to say she had left Shincheonji.

"That was so shocking to me because I really looked up to her in the faith.

"But it gave me permission to think about my own doubts."

Barely a month later she herself left the church.

It was very difficult, she said.

"I had no idea who I was or what I was about. But my biggest sense of grief was the people because I had distanced myself from my real family and made them my family.

"And suddenly they didn't want to talk to me because I was a betrayer to them."

Laura was forced to "figure it out" alone.

"There are a lot of people in New Zealand in this situation, there are a lot of high control groups.

"So it seems crazy that there hasn't been something like that [the Olive Leaf Network] and I think it's great what they're doing."

No-one should be afraid to ask questions, she said.

"If something is true then it will stand up to scrutiny, so don't be afraid to question, it's normal.

"You don't need to worry because it will still be true after you've questioned it.

"And if it's false, that's good, you've found out, and you can change your values and beliefs to be based on something that is true."

'It's taken me 15 years to get over my fear'

Jacomb, who is now a Baptist pastor in Wellington, admitted there was some trepidation among ex-Brethren about starting such a group.

"It's taken me 15 years to get over my fear."

Similar groups overseas have shut down due to the threat of litigation.

The Olive Leaf Network was not about "attacking" anyone else's religious freedom, she said.

"Unfortunately they [the Plymouth Brethren] are entitled to live like that, they are entitled to practise social exclusion.

"What the Bill of Rights Act says is that people have a right to practise religious beliefs. But they have a right to leave their religion as well."

Brethren's response to accusations

In a written statement, Plymouth Brethren Christian Church spokesman Doug Watt said like the Catholic and Jewish faiths, ex-communication was "a rarely used last resort".

"From time to time a person will decide to leave our church. This is rare and it is sad, and when it does occur, we wish the person well.

"If a person leaves our church, it is up to them and their family to choose what their relationship looks like going forward. It is certainly not standard church practice to interfere in this decision."

He denied there was a heavy drinking culture within the Brethren, and rejected any suggestion that ex-members were forced to quit their jobs at the "request" of the church or its leadership.

Asked whether threats of legal action had been used to shut down support groups set up by ex-members previously, Watt said the church was not responsible.

One United States based website, peebsnet.com was closed down for alleged infringement of copyright by its founder Tim Twinam, a former Exclusive Brethren member from England.

Another former member, Dick Wyman, shut down his website exclusivebrethren.net in 2004 after being sued for defamation.

"If individuals within our church have been defamed by people who have left it, and they take action within their legal rights to protect themselves, that is a matter for them, not the church."

Shincheonji says members make their own decisions

Shincheonji New Zealand spokesperson Ula Bluszcz denied claims by ex-members that they were encouraged to work as evangelists fulltime and give all their time and resources to the church.

"This is volunteer work, so sometimes they're engaged in fulltime missionary work because they are passionate about it, they see it as a fulfilling way to live.

"But this will always be an individual person's decision."

Other members continued to do their day jobs and were also parents and grandparents.

Bluszcz said Shincheonji members have been the target of "slanderous media reports" and even violent attacks in its birthplace South Korea.

This was driven by "jealous" pastors of fundamentalist churches, which were hugely influential in politics and the media, she said.

False reports about Shincheonji had led some members' families to employ thugs to try to force them to leave the church.

"Some people have actually died.

"But despite this hatred and mistrust, Shincheonji is growing very fast, with 100,000 graduating from our theology course this year.

"This is because the teaching is clear and biblical."

Jacomb, who now has two young children of her own, still hopes to be reconciled with all her family one day.

She said the Olive Leaf Network registered charity has set up a Give-a-Little page to help with initial set up costs, including legal fees and bills for the website.

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