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Fran's Story: Part III

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

Disclaimer: The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the author's. Names have been changed to protect identities. The only names kept true are leadership.

Leadership

Rhonda had a silent power about her. Everyone spoke of her with delight. From the moment I stepped on the Farm, I was asked countless times if I had met her yet, as if this were a special anointing that I’d be so privileged to receive. She didn’t welcome me on the first day. She didn’t welcome me on the second day. The only reason I met her at the end of the second day was because she was invited to one of the residents’ birthdays who happened to be my housemate. *Bianca had been on the Farm for years and had a close relationship with Rhonda.


Rhonda’s name echoed through every teaching that was shared on the Farm. She had this “gift” that none of us would ever possess. She had been specifically plucked by God to lead a movement, whatever movement that was, on the Farm. Everyone’s beliefs were based on Rhonda’s beliefs and the most shocking of all, no one questioned her; not the residents, nor the leaders. I often felt like I was living in the twilight zone, looking around dazed and confused, asking myself, is everyone actually buying this crap? They were. All of them. I did suspect some of the residents felt the way I did, but I think we were afraid to say it out loud. I don’t think it mattered how close we got to each other. We didn’t trust each other fully. The fact I felt this way made me a target; an outsider. And I think Rhonda had her suspicions about me.


It’s impossible for Rhonda to have grown such a following without the help of her loving husband *Danny. Danny was the face of the Farm. A precious, kind, loving man, who often served as the spokesperson on behalf of his wife. My encounters with him were always positive. He was gentle and always had a good story up his sleeve. Rhonda never spoke to us all unless Danny made an introduction. It was as if it were a formula: he speaks, tells a joke, introduces his wife. Danny and Rhonda were supported by “staff” members who all lived on the Farm. I still don’t know what necessarily classifies them as “staff” members because none of them were licensed counselors, pastors/theologians, nor teachers. And very few of them knew how to run a farm. The more I began to ask questions, the more I realized that most of these “staff” members were just friends of Rhonda’s or believers of her teachings who had moved to the Farm to have direct access to it.


There was a definite hierarchy with Rhonda sitting at the top, above Danny, followed by her closest of friends *Earl and *Sandra. Then a couple of other board members, followed by elder members. Not every staff member had residents living with them. Each staff person lived in a picture-perfect home. Some, I’d even classify as mansions. It didn’t appear that anyone left to go to a regular job off of the farm. Everyone just “worked” or participated as a staff member on the farm. Most of them served as either “Pastoral Care Counselors” (with no real counseling or pastoral degree) or they were house moms/dads, or did miscellaneous jobs on the farm. I never fully understood how the farm made money, but it was always donations based. I should also add that the farm isn’t a free stay either. There is a fee for the month that covers room and food. My house mom, Betty, was in charge of assigning community service and in charge of making sure everyone was on task/location. I personally think Betty worked the hardest out of everyone. She organized everyone’s schedule and ran around the farm putting out fires. Bless her.

The entire staff met every Monday for private meetings to discuss operations. Sometimes those meetings would run all day. To my understanding, they would discuss daily operations, issues with residents, and make decisions about the Farm including said residents, etc. None of us were privy to that information and were only told what we were allowed to know. We weren’t invited into some of those decisions either –even though some of them directly affected us. I witnessed some of these “decisions” in action. Some of my housemates were trying to plan out their holidays and permission needed to be granted for them to be able to leave the Farm including the duration of that leave. My issue with that was that we were constantly told we were free to leave whenever, but if that were true, why couldn’t the residents leave for home for holidays? There were times that some of the residents would express to me their desire to go back to school (because some didn’t even finish high school) or wanting to read a math book they found in the Refuge building and not being allowed by the staff. The reasoning would always be the same: “God doesn’t want you to right now.” Free will or the freedom to choose was not an option, but you wouldn’t know that based on their website or interactions before coming to the Farm.


Now back to my meeting Rhonda for the first time. As previously mentioned, my housemate, Bianca, was celebrating her birthday so the women (two staff members and one resident) who lived above us agreed to cook her dinner. Rhonda was invited to this dinner to which she agreed to attend. When I walked upstairs, I was greeted by *Sylvia and *Mama (staff members). I felt shy and uncomfortable –still pretty emotional, raw, and homesick. I saw Rhonda from a distance and she didn’t make it her point to come greet me. My house mom, Betty, walked me over to Rhonda and introduced me to her. It was quick and it was as cold as me meeting any business associate. She didn’t ask me questions during that brief interaction nor did she seem to care much about my presence, so the evening continued. We sat down at the dinner table and Rhonda was invited to sit at the head. She sat there with her laptop open while we ate dinner. She told us she was on an online auction trying to acquire certain appliances for the Refuge building and it was urgent for her to do that at that particular moment in time.


During dinner, all the women kept asking Rhonda questions about her teachings. It was strange. It was as if she had exclusive information about Christianity that no one else had access to. Me being new on the farm, I had no other experiences that would make this interaction super strange, so I listened as a way to understand Rhonda more. Somewhere after dinner, Rhonda decided to put the spotlight on me.


“So Fran” she began, “tell me about yourself”. I have always hated this question in interviews or in any social gathering for that matter. It seems so generic. I can answer that question in so many ways and not give you the information you were wanting. So, I decided to ask a follow-up question.”


“What do you want to know about me?”


Rhonda’s face changed as if she wasn’t used to getting questions from the residents often. She continued to glance from her laptop then back to me, not ever giving me full attention.

“Well, where are you from? Do you have any siblings? How did you become a Christian? What brings you to the farm?” She asked as if reading from a list, not catching her breath.

I smiled through discomfort. I didn’t really know my housemates yet, I didn’t know these other staff members well, and even though I pride myself in being an open book, I also appreciate discretion. I wasn’t about to tell my whole life story, so I simply answered all of her questions as quickly and concise as she delivered them. There was an awkward pause following my response. She stared at me and then said, “isn’t it so interesting how our stories are all so different?” And everyone sighed deeply and nodded as if she had just said something incredibly profound. I remember thinking, well gosh, I hope she’s deeper than this.


She didn’t impress me. In fact, none of her teachings did. Rhonda’s teachings always seemed elementary, nothing with much depth, and full of shame and guilt. Anytime any of the staff members shared a story, it always had to include something about Rhonda or how wonderful she is and how lucky we were to have a “teacher” like her. It was almost as if no one was allowed to speak publicly without giving her praise. The residents and even staff members gawked at her. Whatever Rhonda needed took precedence over anything else that needed to get done around the Farm. On multiple occasions, I witnessed Betty move everyone’s schedule so Rhonda could have extra hands for a particular (and sudden) project at her home.


From all the research I gathered, most publications describe cult leaders as narcissists, charismatic, able to read a room, and determine the environment they’d like to create –whether peaceful or chaotic. Because they’re so intuitive, they’re able to create a space that allows them to always be in control and ultimately serve as an authoritarian figure, which is hard to believe (sometimes) because of their charisma. Rhonda fit into this category perfectly. There was never a time she didn’t speak of herself highly; of being gifted with this direct access to God. She was easily excitable, almost begging for attention. Everyone was always tickled when Rhona overreacted to things. It was a weird hypnosis that I couldn’t quite comprehend. She opened her mouth to speak and everyone held their breath. On many occasions, Rhonda changed her teachings to instill fear in the residents and staff. She’d start with, “I feel the Lord pulling me away from my ‘planned’ teaching to tell you this…” or some sort of variation of that. I wish that sentence ended with, “God wants to remind you He loves you”, but it never did. In fact, it always was followed with, “our fire is dying on the Farm. We need to continue to fan the flames because if we don’t God will leave us.” Or my favorite, “You all are distancing yourselves from God and He’s angry. He’s going to leave.” What this created in those moments was chaos. There would be wailing from the women, screaming, dry-heaving, spitting up, and so much more. In these moments, I’d close my eyes and beg the Lord to silence it all. My heart would beat rapidly and I’d desperately want to hide my face. I longed for the safety that the God I know and love could offer me, and it wasn’t this version; Rhonda’s version.


There was this one week that I remember where my house mom, Betty, left to visit family. We were left with one of my pastoral care counselors, Sylvia. She took over all of Betty’s responsibilities including “watching” over us. I’ll say this, Betty was an awesome house mom despite being sold out for this cult. She was fun and real. She openly shared stories of her dark past. We enjoyed a lot of laughs together with Betty and, to some degree, were able to be ourselves. There were rules we all had to follow, but she was also willing to be flexible with us. The week Sylvia took over was miserable. Sylvia, herself, was kind and a big goofball, but she was a strict rule follower, especially when it came to farm rules. There was no flexibility for us in the 9 days that Betty was gone.


Rhonda’s message about our “flames” going out and how God was going to leave us all had been echoing on the Farm. Obviously there was chaos and panic from most residents and leaders. Sylvia made it a point to “help” us “fan” those flames. Our long workdays were already packed with mandatory prayer sessions with all the residents, so our time off was precious. It was a chance to decompress, process, and rest. Sylvia made our house sit down together after dinner to read scripture, pray, and cast out any demons or evil spirits (more on that in Part IV). During some of these sessions, I’d be so exhausted that I’d briefly fall asleep. I tried to get out of them a couple of times by telling her that I needed some time to myself and time to be with the Lord and she wouldn’t let me. She’d try to shame or guilt me into these sessions and I just didn’t have the energy to argue with her so I’d comply. My housemate KC broke down one morning from exhaustion. She was angry at Sylvia for the amount of time she was forcing us to be “on”. I remember empathizing with KC, hugging her, and letting her know she wasn’t alone.


Peace, funnily enough, didn’t exist much on the Farm. Rhonda was a master manipulator and had convinced everyone they hadn’t done enough to earn God’s love. On our work days, the residents could only speak about what Rhonda had taught the previous week and how we needed to continue working for God’s love. They would pray and sing loudly, rebuke anything they could think of, and wail on some occasions –even during our work day. I wanted to shake them all. Hug them. Tell them Rhonda was wrong on so many levels and that they were already worthy of His love. I wanted to remind them of Ephesians 2:8 that says, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” I wanted to rescue them. I want to rescue them all.


The only time I felt peace was on my daily jogs that I’d sometimes run with Liz. Liz and I grew very close during our time there. She struggled with shame and guilt brought on by the messages Rhonda taught and leadership being extremely hard on her. She was the definition of free-spirit, but somehow, she wasn’t allowed to be that while being a follower of Christ. She was tormented with the fact that she couldn’t be herself freely and still love the Lord. There was a box they wanted to fit her in and she struggled with bending and molding herself into that box. I loved her like a sister and felt a sense of protection over her. She reminded me a lot of my brother who has the same free-spirit attitude as her and I would hate to see anyone kill his fire. I felt the same for Liz. Our runs felt like our only freedom.

Our house also had a prayer room and at night, I’d scurry in there and lay on the ground and weep. I knew I was in a cult. I knew I wasn’t safe. I also knew I needed healing. I equally felt anger for the manipulation these women were under and anger for my desperation and the entrapment I felt. I’d sometimes be in the prayer room for an hour just laying there, journaling, letting the silence fill my soul. No one could interrupt me there and no one could force me to do anything. It was my private sanctuary with God where I could vent and cry and just be me. I could sit there and tell God about this cult and no one knew.

Another problem I had with the Farm was how Rhonda influenced everyone’s beliefs. No one seemed to have an individual relationship with the Lord. Every word spoken through either staff members or residents echoed Rhonda’s, sometimes verbatim. One example is everyone called Jesus, Yeshua, which is His Hebrew name. This wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it weren’t for the responses I repeatedly received from the women when I asked why everyone called Him this. They would tell me this story about how Rhonda had a dream one night and felt a deep conviction in her heart that calling our Lord, Jesus, was not being authentic. Yeshua was Jesus’ birth name and to call on Him using any other name is wrong. So, everyone on the Farm followed suit. I’m convinced some of them believed that if they called him anything other than Yeshua, their prayers wouldn’t get answered. I attempted to call Him Yeshua once and it felt as inauthentic as you can imagine. Have I called Jesus Yeshua in my prayers? Sure, but I’ve also called him Jesus, Abba, and many other names. I am a great believer that God loves us and just wants to be with us. You could literally look up and say, “Hey, you”, and He’ll find joy in spending that moment with you. There were many other beliefs that Rhonda influenced on the farm, but we won’t get to those until Part IV.


I disliked the lack of individuality from these women and how none of them seemed to have their own personal relationship with the Lord. I wanted to believe that the residents lived in pure happiness, but with the amount of chaos and shame they lived in, it was hard to believe and even see. Residents would arrive on the farm vulnerable and broken, and not a single person would protect them from the shame poured over by Rhonda. It all starts with her, trickles down to leadership, then to the residents. Fear lived on the farm. Whether it was fear of outsiders or fear of the inside, masked in shame –it was real. Joy was an idea, but not a way of life for the Farm. These residents were and are alone. I don’t think there is anyone in leadership protecting them and if any one of them does have suspicions about the Farm and Rhonda’s leadership, they’re not courageous enough to speak up. At least not yet.

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