Beyond Belief Interviews Yolande Brener

Yolande Brener is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the memoir Holy Candy, the story of her fifteen years as a member of the Unification Church.  Her essays have been published in New York Press, Nerve, and Strange Angels, and her film scripts have been funded by the British Film Institute and the Arts Council of Great Britain. Yolande believes that all religions contain wisdom.yolande

What interested you in contributing to the anthology? When Susan and Cami invited me to write a short piece for their anthology I was delighted to be part of a project that explored so many different women’s experiences with extreme religion.  Because they had their own personal experiences, I trusted that they would present an honest and open-minded collection of stories.  I’m not interested in bashing the Unification Church or anyone in it.  I am interested in exploring why people make these choices, and whether there are better ways to accomplish the sense of community and integrity women are seeking.

 What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? In some ways, I would prefer never to speak about it again.  It saddens me that I was so convinced I was contributing to making the world a better place, and yet there was no evidence that this was the case.  It took me fifteen years to move away from the Unification Church.

I share the story because people want to understand why someone like me—who is an artist and an individualist, and externally very calm—would make the choice to submit to the will of a religious leader.  All of us are malleable, we are influenced by those around us, our emotional experiences and our desire to belong to a “family”.  Part of joining an extreme religion like the Unification Church involves giving up one’s individuality for the sake of the greater good, and that is what I did at the time.

The greatest miracles that came out of the experience for me are the two most important people in my life: my two children.  My son and daughter are amazing and yet they came from an arranged marriage between two people who never would have met outside the church.

I have no ill feeling toward anyone in the church, although it breaks my heart that I believed the promises they made to me if I followed their religion. My desire to connect to a higher power was so great that I left behind my identity, my friends, my family and my country.  I no longer believe that any organization can be a mouthpiece for what we call “God.”  I believe we all have a channel to higher intelligence, and I strive to be open to it.

 What was the hardest part of leaving for you? The hardest part of leaving was the immense sense of failure.  I promised “God” that I would dedicate my life to Him in order to help cure the world and my family and that I would follow Reverend Moon’s instructions to the best of my ability.  These ideas seem ridiculous now, but they are indicative of the strong faith I had.

The hardest part wasn’t so much leaving the church as becoming a single parent.  The Unification Church promised that our marriages were blessed by God and would last eternally. This was very important to me.  I wanted my children to experience the security of seeing their parents loving each other, supporting each other, and being united in service to the community. When my children’s father left and I no longer had the support of the Unification Church community what I feared more than anything else; becoming a single parent like my mother, became a reality.

 Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion?  When women today are attracted to extreme religion it’s for the same reasons I joined the Unification Church: desire to contribute to the greater good of humanity and desire to create a good, wholesome family with integrity, purity and good values.  Most people want to do something to help others in their lives, and it’s not always easy to find a way to do this.  When a group comes along saying they are The Way, people who are searching just might believe them.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life?  Two maxims I carry with me are to make everyone I encounter feel loved or appreciated by me, and to see everything as holy.  If I can succeed at this occasionally, I feel I have accomplished something.

Having lived side by side with people from numerous nations I learned to be more empathetic to others and appreciate the differences between people. The idea of the unification of nations and religions is a good one. I feel great compassion for the people I shared my journey with.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now?

I am a strong believer in our inner guidance system.

We have feelings for a reason, and the most important things in life do not always happen according to logic.  I believe that our feelings are more connected to our divine nature than to our intelligence. As humans—we often think our ideas are solid or statistically proven, but the more instinctive part of us may reflect a broader ranging viewpoint.  We are part of a planet and a larger community. We haven’t always done what is best for that planet or community.  Perhaps there is a more connected part of us that knows what would be better for the larger organism if we would learn to listen to it?

And if all that sounds esoteric and far out, what did you expect from an ex-Moonie?

What are your current writing projects?  I hope to publish my memoir, Holy Candy, later this year.  Holy Candy tells the story of my religious experience and my arranged marriage in more depth: why I made that choice, why I left and what I gained from that part of my life.

I write about local interest issues for Harlem World and post on my Holy Blog.  The main themes I focus on are love and spirituality. I write about what moves me, this can range from the Law of Attraction and channeling to chance meetings with extraordinary people.

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Beyond Belief Interviews Grace Peterson

Grace Peterson is a writer and blogger living in Oregon. Her stories have been published in several anthologies and she blogs about the writing craft and recovery topics. Grace’s new memoir, gracepetersonReaching has just been published by All Things That Matter Press. It tells her tale of entering and leaving a religious cult and breaking free from the power of a charismatic cult leader. An avid gardener, Grace keeps busy writing a garden column, updating her garden blog and working on her forthcoming gardening book.

What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief? It began with serendipity and a random Google search. When I found Susan and Cami’s website and read their call for submissions I immediately thought, well, this is right up my alley! Having someone interested in my journey was and is a priceless gift.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion?  It made me very grateful for where I am today.  I was an emotional wreck during the bulk of my seven years under the influence of a hyper-religious man I call “Brock.” During that time, opportunities to explore my emotions were far and few between. I had convinced myself that seeking outside help was wrong. I was like a caged animal. If my “free expression” wasn’t congruous with Brock’s point of view, I was either a rebel or demon possessed. I felt terribly hopeless.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? I remember thinking, if leaving Brock means leaving God then, so be it. I really didn’t want to live the rest of my life without God but I didn’t want to live under Brock’s control either. Brock had taught me to fear the outside world. It took 5 years before I could start to trust people. During this time I began to realize that what I had believed was wrong. I had to admit my part in it. It was much easier to lay blame on Brock and play the victim. It took several years and lots of therapy to own up to the role I played in my own deception.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? For me, initially it was about finding a cure for what was ailing me. Once I was in it became about belonging. I had grown up with parents who were emotionally unavailable. I was longing for connection and wanted a family, particularly a doting father. I believe all of us need to feel a human connection. We’re on this earth for a united purpose.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? Not very much, I pray, not in a ceremonial way. I talk to God and hope that a higher benevolent being cares about me and my loved ones and the goodness of humanity. I hold on to the hope that when we’ve exhausted our efforts to control things, we can trust that higher power to guide us. I’m not a religious person. I doubt I’ll ever step foot in a church again.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Extreme religion is all about conformity to a specific set of doctrines. I would remind women who are struggling with their faith to hone their intuition. We’ve all been gifted with the ability to think and reason and wrestle, to discover what works and what doesn’t.

Additionally I’d remind women that we can eschew religious people and/or institutions and still be connected to our higher power. We don’t need a bevy of pious people to guide us. We can think for ourselves.

One last thought:  A belief system that is hurting you emotionally, physically or spiritually is a red flag. Even if you can’t put your finger on what it is, listen to your gut. It’s okay to think the unthinkable—and to protect yourself from situations that are hurting you.

What are your current writing projects? My memoir Reaching was just published. In it, I go into much more detail about my life, how I was lured into a cult and how I got out.  I’ve also written a light-hearted garden book which will be released in late fall 2013. I write a garden column and author two blogs.Reaching  front cover

Anything else you’d like to say to our readers? I’d like to state publicly how honored I am to be a part of such an important undertaking. Thank you Susan, Cami and Seal Press for believing in this project and giving each contributor a platform to share their story.