WOW – can I really say that now, like the 90s was a long time ago??? Blimey.
Um, sorry. Let's continue.
As I was saying, back in the 90s I worked for a Christian charity that worked with children on a poor estate in South Wales. This charity was run by a couple who had a real passion for Christian community lived out for real in and amongst the people God wanted to reach. For a time, it was a terrific ministry that made an impact on 100s if not 1000s of lives.
Unfortunately, over time things turned sour. The work of the charity was endless (because there was so much need), while the money, people and resources were severely limited. This put enormous pressure on the leaders and as the outfit grew they found it difficult to let go and trust newcomers to their 'baby'.
While working for the charity, I met my future wife and for several years we stood by it even though things got harder and harder (and weirder and weirder).
Eventually, we recognised that things weren't right and decided to get out a fast as possible (almost ten years ago, in fact). It was only several years afterward that it dawned on us that the whole outfit had become something of a cult. A mild form of cult, admittedly, but a cult all the same. The two leaders wielded too much control, there was scant opportunity to challenge decisions and tasks had to be completed exactly according to the wishes of the leadership without deviation. When one of the two leaders left due to the overwhelming pressure, things really should have ended there and then.
Unfortunately, the charity limped on for some time longer – finally giving up the ghost when financial matters forced the hands of the trustees.
Well, that's the way I understood it. I may have got some of the details wrong, but I think I got the essence of things right.
Anyway, I have many vivid memories of my involvement with this particular charity. Some good, some not so good. There were numerous times when things happened which should have alerted me to the dangers of where the charity was going. Unfortunately, being a bit naive back then, I was oblivious to it all and didn't say or do anything (maybe because I'd been conditioned not to question authority).
One occasion really sticks out.
The female matriarchal leader – let's call her Sharon for confidentiality's sake – led a bible study one evening that involved watching a film. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, except she decided to show us Devil's Advocate, starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. Now, it's a decent film I admit, but as an 18-rated film it does have a hefty amount of bad language, sexual content, satanic goings-on and general unpleasant stuff. This was over ten years ago now, so that film would probably have gotten a mere '15' certificate nowadays, but even so, it was a difficult film to watch in places. The movie makes a good point about the choices we make and how it's not the devil forcing us do bad things. Rather, he makes suggestions to us and ultimately it's our decision to decide whether or not we respond to them and sin.
An important subject for a bible study, but I feel that Sharon was irresponsible in showing it to us in the first place. Firstly, we were a mixed group (ok, I was the only guy but that's not the point) – I don't think showing something with explicit sexual content is appropriate for guys and girls to watch together. Secondly, there was one girl in the group who was a very young and immature Christian. She was a sweet girl who was quite innocent, and had found working on the Cardiff estate a real eye opener. Still in her teens, I think she may even have been under 18 making it even more of a no-no.
By her own admission, she'd never seen an 18 before and certainly never watched anything that was remotely scary or gory. To be fair, Sharon did warn us about the film before she hit play, but from what I recall didn't give much of a chance for us to raise objections. In any case, she had such an influence over all of us that none of us would have dared to scupper her plans for the evening.
So the lights went off and we watched Keanu battle it out with beelzebub.
And then the lights went back on again.
I can still remember that girl's face after the film. She looked like she'd seen the devil himself.
I don't care that the message of the 'bible study' that evening was an important one about who we give our soul to and how we wield our free will. I don't care that we were grown ups and had a choice not to watch it. That girl was pretty much forced to watch unpleasant stuff she didn't have to. I would go as far as saying a large part of her innocence had been taken away that night. Even now, it angers me that she had to go through that (and that I didn't speak up on her behalf).
She didn't stay working for the charity for much longer after that. I don't know what became of her. I don't know if she continued as a Christian or lost her faith.
I'm pretty certain that she remembers that experience vividly and that it has affected her walk with God to some degree, which is a tragedy because this didn't need to happen. With a little bit of common sense and pastoral understanding it never would have happened.
Oh well, God is bigger than all these things, which is good to know. I'm just relieved that the charity eventually died off the way it did rather than become a monster, which it easily could have been (although I suspect that once the leaders chose to ignore God and do things their way, he simply chose to withdraw from it which is why it ultimately failed). The sad thing is, if God has just been allowed to do his thing maybe it would have grown in the right way and made a huge difference to countless lives.
I guess that's the risk that God takes when he asks fallen people like you and me to do His work.