I Visited A Cult

Oh, yes, I did.

I visited the international training center of a cult, and on the surface, everything looked great.

But I’m going to try to refer to it as a “community” instead of a “cult.” I won’t say which “community” it was, but my 21-year-old nephew came into town with a friend over the weekend, and on Friday night, he announced to me that they wanted to visit a cult (he used the word “cult”) on Saturday…and he wanted me to go with them. I had questions, of course. “You don’t want to join the cult, right?” “Why do you want to go?” “How far away is it?” “Is it scary?”

He showed me the group’s website. It looked pretty benign, And it said they welcome visitors, so I agreed to go, and we made plans to leave the next day. I should mention my husband thinks we are all nuts.

Early Saturday afternoon, we got into the SUV and drove over an hour to the address listed on the website. We were excited to see what we would find! Upon arrival, we drove into the parking lot at the front of the group of houses and got out. We walked around looking for people, but all we saw were sheep out front eating hay. One of the sheep had a penchant for magnolia leaves, so we watched them for a while and discussed what we should do.

Ultimately, we decided to go to another road and approach from the back. When we drove into a back parking lot, we saw a woman stick her head around a fence. I asked my nephew’s friend to put down her passenger-side window, and in my best sweet southern voice, I said, “Hey! We read on your website that y’all welcome visitors! We’re just curious and would like to find out what y’all are all about!” Once she decided we were friendly, she offered to show us around. She explained we weren’t seeing many people because Saturday is the Sabbath, and most people were resting.

We followed her into the dining hall/meeting room, which was lovely…clean and nicely decorated. We ran into a couple more friendly people inside who readily introduced themselves. From there, she showed us the barn area, where they had goats and cows. And after that, we walked over to one of the community’s houses, where members of the “community” had gathered outside for music. We were offered tea, and we all took a cup. I thought it was delicious, and my nephew did too, but I noticed his friend was holding hers…not drinking it. I knew she was thinking about Jonestown, so I took the tea off her hands and drank it myself.

We were welcomed with open arms by everyone gathered outside, and we asked any questions we could think of. Are people free to come and go as they please? Yes. If someone leaves the community, are they shunned? No. Do y’all drink alcohol? No. What are your beliefs? How do you support yourselves? I wanted my nephew to ask if they used cannabis, but none of us had the nerve to ask that. I thought I smelled it wafting out of a house at one point, but I couldn’t be sure. And this group believes everyone should work together for the greater good of the community. Every person contributes by working…like bees in a hive. Children are educated onsite. We weren’t bashful…we asked questions. We didn’t ask in a threatening way…we asked in a curious way, which is exactly what we were…curious.

We left after a couple of hours thinking, “This isn’t a cult at all! They’re just a religious commune!” Everyone was so friendly. They were very reserved, but they were friendly. We had no reason to believe they were anything but good folks.

And then, after we got home, we googled the name of their “community,” and that’s when things got weird!

Unbeknownst to us, just last week, the FBI had released from their vault information from a 2013 investigation into this particular group. At the top of the report, it says, “Open investigation based on allegations that children are being sexually exploited.” And somehow, we decided to visit right after the report was released from the vault? We had no idea! In the report, there is testimony from former members of the community with allegations of child labor, sexual abuse, sexual orgies, and drug use. That led us to look at other websites, where we found allegations of community members being held against their will…and more. And honestly, it frightened us. Is any of the “testimony” true? I don’t know, but it was enough to make my hair stand on end.

And it made me a little sad. I thought of the sweet people we had met. Most of them were friendly, but some of them were looking at us wide-eyed, and one of them appeared a little unstable, but we chalked it up to dementia. But after reading everything, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the wide-eyed ones were desperate to leave. Were they unhappy? Were they being abused? Did they want us to take them with us? Did they want to pass us notes asking us to send help? Of course, that’s all my imagination. No one, at any time, indicated they were unhappy. In fact, most of them appeared very happy.

In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t google the community before we went, because we never would have gone. I believe there are some good people in that group. Are there bad folks? I don’t know. But I’m guessing that will be my only visit to their commune. We went unannounced, but didn’t see anything suspicious. Of course, my nephew’s friend pointed out that we were really only shown the animals and the interior of one building, which was almost unoccupied at the time, so there wasn’t much opportunity for us to see anything nefarious.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they seemed like nice people. Of course, someone else pointed out to me that “of course they were nice! They wanted y’all to join!” Yeah…they probably didn’t want me. I’m way beyond child-bearing years, and I’m sure they could take one look at me and tell I’m way too high maintenance. My nephew, on the other hand, is low maintenance, strong, hardworking, good-looking, musically talented, and artistic. Any cult would love to have him. His friend is pretty and outgoing…they’d love to have a young lady join up, I’m sure. But I would have been a total drain on their system.

And in their defense, the FBI closed the 2013 investigation. Since I never read anything about any arrests, and they didn’t invade the place like they did with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, I’m guessing they didn’t uncover enough evidence to support the allegations.

Either way, we got out unscathed. If anyone ever tries to hold me at a commune, they will run me off as soon as they figure out I don’t even know how to mop very well!

On our way home, I thought of how happy my parents would be that my nephew was hanging out with me in North Carolina. And I wished I could call them to tell them about the experience…they would have loved hearing about it.

 

My Nephews Are 21 Today

My nephews are 21 today. Obviously, they are twins, but they are two very different people…more on that later. I simply cannot believe they are 21 today. Come on…21 is an age that is easy for me to remember, even though it was 30 years ago. So it’s very difficult for me to believe these two young gentlemen are full-fledged adults…full-fledged adults.

How did we get here so fast?

I remember when they were born. I remember when they were afraid of Santa…and Cookie Monster. Their mother and I took them to see Cookie Monster when they were about three, and they were so excited on the way to Uptown Charlotte. They were even excited when we got there. But when it was their turn to sit on Cookie Monster’s lap…wow. Just wow. They freaked out. I have a photo somewhere, but I wouldn’t embarrass them by sharing it. You just have to trust me when I say it’s hilarious.

I remember how my brother would call me and tell me about their accomplishments…in fact, he still calls and tells me about their accomplishments. He calls me to tell me about nice things they have done for other people. They’re good boys.

My parents were crazy about them, but my daddy was insane over them. When we were growing up, he traveled with work, and he worked hard, so he wasn’t around as much as he might have liked. But he retired when the boys were little, so he was able to enjoy them. He loved playing ball with them. He loved having Easter egg hunts with them. He loved placing orders with them when they played waiter. He loved how they loved to run to the trunk of his car, because they knew he would have surprises for them. Of course, Mother helped him get the surprises, but he got full credit, and Mother was OK with that. She enjoyed watching him enjoy them. And Daddy always loved leaving them with WAM (walking around money) after visiting with them.

They were crazy over Daddy too. They were heartbroken when he died in 2012. He was larger than life to them, and they knew he loved them dearly. He would be proud of the young men they have become. 

One has mad artistic skills. He was blessed with great athletic skill, but that was not what he wanted to do. Now that he is in college, he is pursuing art, and we couldn’t be more proud of him. He is smart. He is handsome. Sure, I wish he would get a haircut, so everybody can see how handsome he is, but I accept the hair (even though, the last time I saw him, I jokingly threatened to cut it in his sleep). And here’s why: he is one of the most genuinely kind people I know. He and a friend were in Charlotte a few months ago, and they were looking to rent some scooters in Uptown. They finally found some, but before they could get to them, a homeless gentleman struck up a conversation with my nephew. Instead of rushing off to the available scooters, he stood and talked with him…and missed out on the scooters. He also “adopted” my mothers’s dog, who loves him dearly. That’s who he is.

As much as that nephew has mad artistic skills, his brother has mad speaking skills and mad writing skills. This nephew has cerebral palsy, but he doesn’t let it stop him from doing what he loves. He’s also handsome and kind. As a little boy, he loved baseball, but he realized his love for baseball would not manifest itself in playing the sport. He knows more about baseball than anyone else I know. I was at a Pittsburgh Pirates/Chicago Cubs game, and I started texting him about the game. He knew about each player, warning me the third baseman for one team would likely make an error soon. And he was right! He took that love for baseball to the press box and earns money announcing baseball and softball games. He writes sports pieces for a local online publication and works in publications for the city. 

I love them them both, and I love the men they are becoming. They survived childhood, the teenage years, and some hiccups along the way, but they’re going to be OK. They’re going to be great. My mother died last December, but she was so proud of them, and she’d be even more proud now. And Daddy…well, he would be bursting with pride.

And he would still be giving them WAM every time he saw them.

Happy Birthday to my nephews…you’re full-fledged adults.

Seeking Human Kindness

My friend, Neill, posted this on facebook yesterday: Helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one person. 

That is an amazingly true statement.

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Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

It makes me think of one of Oprah’s shows. Didn’t we all love to watch Oprah back in the day? Well, on one of her shows, her guest was a lady named Tish Hooker. Years before, when Oprah was an eight-yr-old little girl, Mrs. Hooker visited her church while campaigning for her husband in the gubernatorial race in the great state of Tennessee. While visiting, she stopped as she passed the 8-yr-old Oprah. Mrs. Hooker looked at Oprah and said to her, “Why, you’re as pretty as a speckled pup!”

Apparently, no one had ever told little Oprah she was pretty before that moment. So sad, because don’t we all think our own children are beautiful? You’d think she’d have heard it from a relative at some point, but no, she hadn’t. And to be told you’re as pretty as a speckled pup? Well, it’s a southern girl’s dream!

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On the show that day, Mrs. Hooker came out to the stage with no prior knowledge of why she had been invited to appear. Oprah told her the story about the church encounter, and of course, Mrs. Hooker had no recollection of it. But Oprah remembered it. She said it made her feel so good to hear those words that she never forgot it.

Mrs. Hooker had done something kind in passing and didn’t even realize what a profound effect she’d had on that child’s life, but because Oprah went on to fame and fortune, Mrs. Hooker got to find out!

Wouldn’t we all love to have the same effect on someone that Mrs. Hooker had on 8-yr-old Oprah? It’s possible you’ve had that same effect on someone and don’t even know it. Maybe you believed in someone when no one else did. You don’t have to be a gubernatorial candidate’s wife to have a big impact on someone. I don’t mean go around throwing out hollow, baseless compliments, but doing kind things or giving thoughtful compliments can change a person’s outlook…and it can improve your own mood too.

Just today, I was leaving the grocery store, and I was deep in thought about all the things I have to do. It had been an uneventful day, and I had spent the morning tying up some loose ends. I was pushing my cart (or buggy, to those of you in the Deep South) to my car when a smiling lady complimented me on my hair. “Your hair is so pretty!” It put a smile on my face immediately, and I thanked her, adding, “You just made my day!” We started talking, and I detected an accent that wasn’t Charlotte, so I did what I do. I asked where she was from.

She was from a small town outside Knoxville, Tennessee, which explained the accent. I told her I thought she might have been from Alabama. She is a Tennessee Vols fan, and of course, I’m a Bama fan, so we talked SEC football and Bear Bryant for a few minutes before hugging like old friends and going on our merry way.

She had no idea how much that one little compliment brightened my day.

And that’s what I mean.

The late, great Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did. They will remember how you made them feel.” And that’s the truth.

It turns out Oprah remembered what Mrs. Hooker said, but she remembered it because of how it made her FEEL.

A few years ago, my friend, Angela, attended her 20th class reunion. (OK, so it was more than a “few” years ago.) At the reunion, a gentleman approached her and her then-husband. After introducing himself to her husband, he said, “I just want to tell you that your wife is something special.” He then went on to tell how, when he was a new student at the high school, he played football. After every game, the school’s spectators would rush the field and hug the players…important stuff to a teenage boy. The football player didn’t know many people at the school and didn’t have a lot of family in the area, so he could have felt lonely on that crowded field. However, after every single game, Angela made a point of finding him and giving him a hug…every…single…game. He remembered, because it made him feel special in a sea of new classmates. And guess what? By remembering it and telling her husband the story, he made her feel special 20 years later.

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My brother, Mr. Tough Guy, is good about performing random acts of kindness. Yes, I’m going to brag about him for a minute. He has always been good about helping stranded motorists in one way or another. Just last year, he was driving behind a truck on a country road. At some point, the truck pulled over to the shoulder. Brother (that’s what I call him) kept going, but after about a half mile, it occurred to him something might have been wrong. He turned around and went back. When he and the other driver stepped out of their trucks, it turned out to be someone he knew from high school but hadn’t seen in years! The old friend thought he might be running out of gas, so Brother followed him to the nearest gas station…just in case. That act of kindness turned into something positive for Brother too…seeing an old friend. He didn’t tell me the story to get “good deed points.” He told me the story, because it made HIM so happy to see his friend!

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My brother (on the right) sent me this selfie after running into his old friend.

Random acts of kindness…

If you find yourself feeling less than great, practice random acts of kindness. You might make someone else’s day, year, or even change their lives with one gesture! It’s probable you will benefit, as well. It gives me a little rush to think I’ve done something nice for someone. It’s not a “patting myself on the back” thing…it just makes me happier!

Next time you see your child’s teacher, tell them something nice instead of complaining. Treat a new friend to coffee. Stop by to meet a new neighbor. Pretty flowers growing in your yard? Cut some and take them to a friend. Greet your flight attendants with a warm, genuine “good morning” and a smile as you board the plane. Give a little extra tip to your server…or a big extra tip…especially if he/she is having a bad day. A generous tip could turn the day around for them. You never know when someone might need that extra cash. Donate needed items to a friend who collects things for the homeless in your area (remember, homeless people are somebody’s babies too). Check on someone’s elderly mama. I know I’m grateful to people who checked on and visited with my mother as she got older.
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My friend, Mary Ann, won’t take credit for this, but yesterday, she sent a message to the gentleman who organizes free mowing services for elderly people and veterans who need it. He has a country-wide network. Mary Ann wanted to help an elderly couple, both of whom are veterans, but they don’t have a lawn mower, and she couldn’t haul one in her automobile. She contacted the gentleman, and less than 24 hours later, he had someone going to mow the lawn. Mary Ann made it happen.

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My friends, Mary Ann and Neill, and my new friend from the grocery store (whose name I did not get) were my writing inspiration today. They’re all good eggs.  I’ll keep Mary Ann and Neill on my friends list, and next time I see my new friend from the grocery store, I’ll get her name.

So, make a conscious effort to practice random acts of kindness. The recipient will feel better and you will too.

Just think of it this way: Act like a Hooker…Tish Hooker, that is.

Why, you’re as pretty as a speckled pup!

XOXO,

Kelly

 

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