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.
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.