Journey of Hope

by David Ayliffe

It’s 30 years since I began my strange journey. I attended Sunday School as a child and was taken to church by my mother whilst my dad waited outside reading the Sunday newspaper. I’m sure he thought that was a more productive use of his time. Sometimes he would venture into church with us but he always looked uncomfortable. In my teenage years I taught Sunday School. At one time in my early High School years I felt that God was calling me to the Anglican priesthood. Then life took a different turn as I wrestled with the idea of a loving and merciful God compared to what I saw in organised religion.

At 20 I renewed my commitment to Christ and had a life-changing experience of Him, and an introduction to miracles that accompany a faith that believes that all things are possible with God. A healing and deliverance ministry was being practised at the church I attended in Sydney. I began to see people’s lives change and hear the testimonies of those who said they had found release from their troubles. I began spending my free time at church assisting with deliverance sessions, counselling, preaching, and leading worship. But sadly, what began so well started to go off the rails.

The ministry was founded by a woman, Violet Pryor, whom we all believed was anointed by God. She claimed to have the stigmata (a phenomenon where the crucifixion marks of Jesus miraculously appear on the body) and there seemed to be amazing evidence of the power of God at work in her life as she spoke into the lives of people seeking help. We came to believe that her prophetic gift was infallible. Those who came seeking healing soon became followers, not so much of Christ (though they believed they were) but of Violet, who would later claim herself to be God. Violet claimed greater and greater authority over the lives of her followers and every area of our lives was controlled. Even visits to family required her permission and came with time limitations and advice or instructions on how to behave and what conversations to have and to avoid. Friends outside of ‘the ministry’ were out of bounds. Neighbours were to be shunned, and our families became more and more estranged from us.

Gradually we lost the ability to think for ourselves. It was a typical cult and it was crippling in its effect. The journey to hope had led to despair. There were times when I seriously contemplated suicide and dreamed of ways of escaping the hold of Violet. But I was a leader and so much was to fall on my shoulders. As I tried to pray for guidance from God all I could feel was the heavy responsibility for those around us and a sense, strange as it was, that the real God was still there, somewhere, still leading us. But I also had a very real fear of losing my salvation - fear of forever being banned from the presence of God.

By this time I had forgotten the reality of the Scripture that says ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’ The reality and preciousness of the message of God’s grace in Christ – suffering so that we all might be free – was confused in a litany of religious laws and expectations that none of Violet’s followers could fulfil. I read about Richard Wurmbrand’s experience in solitary confinement in communist Romania where his closest and most powerful experiences of God came in the hell-hole of a dark, cold cell where no kind voice was to be heard. Similarly, my most powerful experiences of God came during those dark years when I longed to be free.

Violet died in 1991. It was a blessing. We could then face the reality that she was a fraud and was probably suffering from some kind of mental illness. But it would take five years to accomplish this as fear still held us in it’s awful grip. Nevertheless, almost immediately after her death, we began to dismantle the deception, encouraging our people to visit their families, make friends and be involved in the community around them. For all of us involved in this cult, becoming ‘normal’ again was very difficult and unfortunately we didn’t receive any help from other Christians. The churches around had been warned about us. Some said that we were ‘worse than Waco’ - the tragedies of the Waco and Jonestown cults still being fresh in people’s minds. Our critics didn’t realise how hard we were trying to shed the constraints of exclusive belief nor how deeply this group of people wanted to love and serve Christ. If only they had known how to reach us they would have found we were desperate for friends and support.

It must be hard for people who have never known spiritual oppression and fear to understand, but it took me five years to eventually make my ultimate break with Violet’s control over my life. This was achieved with the help of a dear friend who, like me, had deep questions that he was afraid to ask. With fear and trembling we both finally confronted the lie that had kept this group following this eccentric woman during her life and after her death. Together we confessed to each other that she was not God and that we had been terribly deceived. It was tough, but it was wonderfully liberating and we wept as we realised how far off the track we had gone. In the next few days we called everybody in the group together (by this stage some 60 people) and presented our case to them. We really feared that we might be stoned for denying what each person had sacrificed so much to believe. After all, these people had given up everything: family, possessions, and careers to become part of Violet’s select end-time group. We were astounded though when we found that everyone in the group accepted our message that day. The sense of relief in the air could be tasted.

My wife Margaret and I, our children and the others referred by Violet to be ‘Children of Zion’ have lived a strange journey. It’s been a journey that we could never have survived without the support of family and friends who kept believing for us, waiting for the day when our eyes would be opened. During our years in the cult I was barely able to speak to my brother and my sister. I thank God that over the years since then our relationships with our families have been wonderfully reunited.

Even then, it took me more years to get over the guilt that I felt for dear friends in this group who received no financial recompense or provision from the cult which had stripped them of everything. You see, I was the senior pastor, and felt deeply the responsibility for their situation. Believing God was leading us, we had made foolish financial decisions which had profound impact.

During Violet’s time, she had lived with great financial comfort whilst her followers existed with little resources and no freedom. Yet, how could we really blame her for our problems? She may have deceived us, but she was also deceived, and those who are mature take responsibility for their own actions. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, ‘We are never deceived; we deceive ourselves’. Demosthenes put it differently: ‘The easiest thing of all is to deceive one’s self; for what a man wishes he generally believes to be true.’

Miraculously, in 1997 I was given the opportunity to lead the ministry of International Needs Australia. This was incredible for someone with such a questionable background as mine. ‘There has to be a God in heaven,’ said my brother John as he saw the transformation in our lives. The International Needs years have been the fulfilment of a dream for me, exciting but also very difficult as memories from the past have seen me fighting depression over our experiences and the hurt of the members of that group. God’s grace has been, and remains, sufficient for me.

I couldn’t have survived without my brother’s encouragement. Celebrating this, we are writing a book together, My Brother’s Eyes, which will tell this story from my perspective and from his. I have been a prodigal son returned to the fold. These experiences have taught me the value of a loving family. Where would my wife, our adult children, Grace, Nahum and Ruth, and our little boy Joseph be today without our families and our friends? In this I not only find hope, but I find Christ over and over again. It’s been quite a journey of hope, and thankfully, it’s not over yet.

David Ayliffe is co-editor of Worldview Interactive magazine and can be contacted by email: davida@wvi.net.au

Thursday, November 9, 2006   printer friendly version | 8663 reads