HUGS, CLAPS, AND KOOL-AID: CULTS CAN BE FUN! PART III

I'm back! Thanks for your patience as I publish the third and final installment of this series. Be sure to check out Parts 1 and 2 if you haven't already.

What led me to leave: Rock the Era 2010.

Soon I was asked me to volunteer for a big cultural event known as Rock the Era, which took place in Philadelphia. It was the SGI-USA’s 50th birthday, and over 11,000 participants showed up for this youth event. The focus was how our youth will take the reigns to continue promoting a world without war or nuclear weapons. Spectators of this event were able to witness some kick-ass performances in dance, music, and in the sharing of personal experiences.

With all those members, they needed volunteers to keep the machine running smoothly. Since some of my friends were volunteering, I jumped in, always looking to experience new things. Oh, and yes, we had to pay some money to cover transportation, food, and accommodations. You read that right, as a volunteer you had to pay your own way because “breakthroughs”! It wasn’t much money, but it still ticks me off that the organization has more than enough money to cover these costs…especially since 99% of their labor were/are volunteers.

No going back now...

No going back now...

So on a Friday night, I remember all of us getting on a charter bus for this “amazing” event that was going to be just, well, amazing. We were promised a chance to stop for dinner on the road, but that turned out to be McDonald's, which would have killed my stomach. I ended up munching on a granola bar and pretzels instead as we continued our journey to Philly’s Temple University. We arrived late, closer to 11pm, if memory still serves. There on the lawn stood hundreds of people waiting for room assignments.

Kinda like this, only it was much darker and less structured.

Kinda like this, only it was much darker and less structured.

Many of us were unable to get to sleep before 1am due to the long wait, which made getting up at 6am very difficult. Breakfast was served in the school’s cafeteria, and the food was God-awful, not that we had any time to eat it. We had maybe 30 minutes to stand in long lines just to gain entry. Once inside you had to swim through a sea of people just to grab a few items, leaving you about 15 minutes to choke down your meal. We then assembled in groups to chant and delegate responsibilities.

I was so disillusioned at this point, because nobody seemed to care if anyone was tired or hungry. I even wondered if it were done by design to lower your resistance? In any event, I scored the jackpot when they made me a “floater,” meaning wherever they needed help, I would be there. At some point they forgot all about me, leaving me with about 2 hours to kill. So I did what any normal person would have done: I snuck back into my room to take a nap before the evening’s festivities. As I laid there, I wondered what this was all for. A short time later I woke up feeling better and quickly joined the group to chant before the event "kickoff."

As you see see, thousands of people worked very hard to put this event together.

As you see see, thousands of people worked very hard to put this event together.

My position was to stand by one of the entrances and allow people entry, inform them where the bathrooms were, etc. I thought I was doing a decent job, but apparently not. This is an exact conversation I had with a byakuran who approached me out of the blue.

Byakuran: Do your feet hurt you?

Liz: Hmm, a little bit, actually.

Byakuran: Because all the members can see on your face that you’re in pain, and you’re supposed to be putting them at ease.

Liz: (Speechless)

THAT.

WAS. 

IT. 

That was the moment I decided to quit, both the volunteer program and the entire organization. All of us were working so hard, so to have someone trap me like that seemed very manipulative, if not downright cruel. Now, I knew this girl and she’s not a bad person, not at all! I am willing to bet that she was trained to say things like that, for who’s more compassionate than a devout disciple right? (eye roll).

I kept my eye on the clock and made sure I was one of the first people to board that bus home. A weight lifted from my shoulders, the kind that you only notice when it disappears. I smiled to myself, turned up my iPod, and closed my eyes until we made it to Union Square. Once off the bus I hugged my buddies goodbye and rode the subway home.

A welcome site for me.

A welcome site for me.

As the train made its way to Brooklyn, I smiled to myself, confident I made the right decision. I had been struggling most of that year with whether or not I wanted to permanently leave. Looking back, that weekend felt like an experience meant to guide me to the conclusion that my time with the SGI was over. While I can't speak for anyone else, I never once experienced those promised breakthroughs, but that doesn't mean I didn't benefit from joining the religion. What I did experience was a sense of community and support, one that I'm truly grateful for.

Final Thoughts:

Earlier I promised that my intention was not to bash the SGI, so it would only feel right to end this post shedding light on how the SGI saved me, in a way. See, I still consider the SGI to be a cult, a fairly benevolent one, but a cult nonetheless. The organization’s leader, Daisaku Ikeda, is very much a cult of personality. I rather liked the guy, as he came across as quiet, wise, humble...but like many cult leaders, much criticism and accusation has been aimed in Ikeda’s direction, so keep that in mind.

I met a lot of great people in the SGI, many of whom I still consider friends. Because this is a layperson’s organization, ordinary people take positions of leadership, and sometimes they make mistakes. The byakuran from the “sore feet” story above really isn’t a “bad” or manipulative person. The SGI has very strict customs and promote uniformity; she was only doing what she was trained to do. If she’s reading this, no hard feelings!

I was an SGI member for less than two years, between 2008 to 2010, during a period of immense personal pain and struggle. By November of 2009 I reached a critical point: I had to make a change or I would not make it to the next year. After a phone call to an SGI buddy I was quickly put in touch with a wonderful woman—let’s call her “Nancy”—who agreed to travel to my apartment to chat.

Nancy entered my apartment full of love and a calm sense of faith, that’s the best way I can describe her. She had been battling cancer for a few years, so her hair was shorn, yet her smile communicated that she was a survivor, not a victim. I loved her immediately and felt so grateful just to have her sitting on my couch. Despite her own health struggles, Nancy patiently listened to me without judgment. She allowed me to process what I was feeling, helping to clear an energetic pathway that would lead me to the next phase in my life: resigning from my teaching job and entering grad school for filmmaking, something I had wanted to study since high school. 

People may read this and think I didn’t need the SGI to come to that decision, and maybe they’re right. But it is not lost on me that I was drawn to this organization during a time in my life when I needed the most support. Since I don’t believe in accidents, I feel I joined the SGI simply to meet Nancy, whose grace and presence allowed me feelings of worthiness previously hidden. I spent so many years talking myself out of such a high-risk career move that I actually convinced myself I wasn’t Ivy League material, that film school was just a summer camp for rich kids. God, what limitations I put on myself!

I shared these thoughts with Nancy, who looked at me and said, “If you believe in your heart this is what you need, then you already got in.” I hugged her goodbye, thanking her through my tears. As soon as she left my apartment I sat down on my computer to begin the first essay...

…six months later I received the acceptance phone call from Columbia University's MFA program. I quietly finished out the teaching year and moved uptown, ready to finally feed this starving soul of mine.

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