Authors on their new books: ten questions to Lesley Elizabeth Smailes
Lesley, you wrote the book Cult sister. What is this book about?
Cult sister is my memoir of the ten years I spent travelling around America with a nomadic, very fundamental Christian group. I try to paint an honest word picture about life in the strange group from my point of view. My book is really a girlie book. I write about real woman issues like birth and miscarriage, rape and abortion – painful, taboo issues that we have the habit of sweeping under the rug, and making out like we are not hurting so badly, when, in fact, we are dying inside from the emotional pain. My story is a story of hope, forgiveness and healing on a journey that criss-crosses America, ending full circle back in Port Elizabeth.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote Cult sister for many reasons … Initally, I started writing it because I had been involved in a whiplashing head-on collision that rendered me incapable of doing my usual work. It is a story I thought worth telling. I wanted to expose everyday life in the church … There is a lot of information about the Jim Roberts group on the net, but nothing like my story.
When would you classify a religion as a cult?
According to the New World Encyclopaedia, “the word ‘cult’ comes from the root of the word ‘culture’ representing the core system of beliefs and activities at the basis of a culture”. So, yes, all religions could be classified as cults. Some are just bigger than others.
Please tell us about some of the rituals of this specific group you were involved with?
A regular ritual in the group I was involved with, was gathering together in the evenings to sing and pray together. There was no hard, fast, set worship ritual, though. The sisters’ daily rituals included cooking and cleaning and washing. There are groups out there that are into really strange rituals. I would not include ourselves in that category. We were actually quite normal in many ways … We had rituals like brushing and flossing our teeth.
What would have happened to you if you did not follow their rules?
If I did not follow the “rules”, I was reprimanded by my husband. Some folk who were controversial were “cut off” from the group, ostracised and left to their own devices.
What do you think triggered the fact that you became involved with them in the first place?
I was fascinated by them. They reminded me of the disciples of biblical times. Their lifestyles appealed to my sense of adventure and my desire to be pure.
And what made you leave?
You will have to read the story to find out.
Have you always been a religious person?
James tells us that pure religion is “to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world”. That is quite a thing, to keep yourself unspotted from the world. I have made that a pursuit of mine now … This is my religion. It is attainable through grace only. I have recently, since just before my son’s death, come to understand an inkling of God’s grace. I prefer to think of myself as spiritual, rather than religious. That word is so loaded. Christ slated the religious people, calling them vipers … It was the religious people who had him killed … Many wars have been fought in the name of religion. The arrogance of religion separates people, and often is hate-fuelled … That is not how I want to be.
What do you believe now?
Life has had a way of refining my belief. I believe in Grace and Love. These days, I have gone back to being a believer. The word “Christian” means “Christ-like”. I like the basic teachings of Christ. They are very applicable to living in today’s world. We have access to the Living Word that guides us. The kingdom of heaven can be within each and every one of us. There is a Peaceable Kingdom we can be part of now. We don’t need to fear. Perfect Love casts out all fear, because there is no fear in love. I believe in Perfect Love – in my heart. In this imperfect body and imperfect world, we are living stones called out of darkness into the marvellous Light. Let our Light shine. Be the Light conduit. Yeah. Be the ear when and ear is needed. Be the loving touch. Be gentle. Do good. I believe in all these things. Like I said, I believe in Love. God is Love. And Grace is amazing! I believe that there is only one judge and it is not you or I. Love rules – yeah!
Faith is a personal journey. How does someone know whether the belief they follow is potentially dangerous to others or to themselves? Any advice to parents or children, or in general?
All of us should pray that we can have a strong love for the Truth. There is a lot of deceit out there … A good guide for me is, “Does this produce good fruit – good fruit being joy, peace, patience, gentleness, temperance, love?” If that is not a proven in an equation, steer clear. Prove the spirit that someone comes in. And mind the garden of your own heart. The heart can be deceitful and a desperately wicked thing. Don’t always follow your heart. This has been drummed into us. Hearts are like soil. You get good soil and bad ground. Tend your soil so you produce good fruit. Parents, this is your work, plus enriching and tending to the hearts of your children. Don’t hand that job over to the TV or tablet, or, for that matter, the day-care centres. My best advice to parents is to sow into your children’s lives in ways that are meaningful. It does not need to cost a cent. You will reap the rewards.