Glynn Washington On Leaving A Cult, What Comes Next
The host of Snap Judgment opens up about becoming agnostic and rethinking the role of belief after growing up in an apocalyptic cult. Plus, the parts of your spiritual upbringing stick that with you in unexpected ways. Hosted by Lee Hale. From KUER and PRX.
Snap Judgment, Glynn Washington’s weekly show
Heaven’s Gate, A podcast about a 90’s cult hosted by Washington
Herbert W. Armstrong (archive) Again I say the unthinkable nuclear World War is coming. And sooner than most people expect. Now only in Bible prophecies can we absolutely know what is coming.
Lee Hale From KUER and PRX, this is Preach. I'm Lee Hale. That guy you're hearing was the leader of the Worldwide Church of God.
Announcer (archive) Ladies and gentlemen, Herbert. W. Armstrong.
Lee Hale Armstrong was an evangelical preacher and a kind of multimedia prophet. He had a TV show, a radio show and he even predicted the end of the world. A couple of times.
He is not our guest. Armstrong died in 1986.
But you can draw a direct line from this self-proclaimed apocalyptic prophet …
Herbert W. Armstrong (archive) But Bible prophecies show that we are now in the very last days of this civilization.
Lee Hale To the only show on public radio that sounds like this ...
Glynn Washington (Snap Judgment clip) OK, so my father he told me early on. See boy, your little white friends, they think life is fun and games.
Lee Hale Glynn Washington, the host of Snap Judgment, is very much alive and he's our guest this week on Preach. Glynn was raised in Herbert W. Armstrong's church. A church that Glynn calls a cult.
Glynn left the Worldwide Church of God a long time ago and now he considers himself agnostic.
Glynn Washington Well man, talk about messy. My beliefs don't make any sense to me. And I've worked on this. I've really worked.
Lee Hale Preach is a show all about that kind of messiness. I talk to people who don't have it all figured out and are willing to say so. And I'm definitely one of those people who does not have it all figured out.
In fact, after spending years as a religion reporter covering my own church — the Mormon church — I've found myself in a bit of a faith crisis. So as a journalist, I'm approaching the problem the only way I know how to by interviewing people who've gone through something similar. About what they believe. About what they're not so sure about. And how they try to make sense of life's biggest questions.
I'll talk with Glynn about the beliefs we're raised with, and how they never really leave us. They're in our spiritual DNA, so to speak.
So, what do you do after leaving an apocalyptic cult? How do you rebuild your beliefs? Can you ever really separate the divine from the damaging religion you're raised in?
To start off, because cult is such a charged word, I asked Glynn how he defines it.
Glynn Washington Generally for me a cult is an organization that's organized around one single leader, generally, who has the divine truth or speaks with Jesus or God or something like that. The theology is oftentimes built around an apocalypse or end date or something of that nature that's coming up.
And I think most importantly for me, when I think of cult, a cult is very insular. And that one of the things that you do in a cult is you basically define the other as everything else but those people who are in the organization.
So you might be asked to not talk to your mother, your father, your cousins. Your new family becomes this organization either explicitly or just by the activity level. Put them all together, for me, that's a cult.
Lee Hale I gotta admit I've been a little nervous to talk to you because a lot of people who leave Mormonism will use that word. And as the kid that word was thrown around a lot from outsiders. I did not want to believe that anything I did was culty.
I guess I would say this way. If, like, being a cult was compared to being vegan, we were definitely vegetarian but not quite vegan, right? I think a lot of what you're saying, like, reminds me of how I was taught to believe about things. But it sounds like with your upbringing in the Worldwide Church of God, that insular-ness was a big part of what gave you the cult vibe, right?
Glynn Washington Yeah. We were cut off and that was purposeful. It was very, very difficult for me to leave behind my grandmother, my grandfather, my extended sort of family situation.
You know, 'Why can't we see Grandma? Well, you know it's not going to really work out right now'. Or because she's celebrating holidays that are of the devil, we can't go see her around the holiday season.
Lee Hale How old were you when your family joined and that had to happen? That separation?
Glynn Washington That separation happened when I was four or five. For a couple years it would be really extreme and then wouldn't loosen up a little bit then it'd get extreme again. It was always black or white. There was no in-between, compromise, see it both sides sort of situation.
I laugh now because it was a Yoda-ish aspect to it. It's either do or do not. There is no try. (Right) You believed it or you didn't. You went full in or you didn't go in at all. That's kind of how we were.
Lee Hale That was your house like shuttered on Christmas Day and you just stayed away from everything? Like what was that like?
Glynn Washington Yes. Christmas was dead to us and (we) really tried to make it into just another day. T
he same thing with our own birthdays. We weren't allowed to celebrate our birthdays. I remember one birthday my present was some carrots. (Wow) Here's some carrots for you to eat for your birthday.
Lee Hale Do you feel any kinship with people who are raised Jehovah's Witness because it sounds similar to me.
Glynn Washington It is. Jehovah's Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, I think we're probably an extreme bastardized version of both of those organizations.
Lee Hale Did your parents have you in public school?
Glynn Washington Yes, we were in public school.
Lee Hale Were you a weirdo?
Glynn Washington I was an extreme weirdo.
Lee Hale Did you own it? Like were you like proud of it almost?
Glynn Washington No. I mean like no kid wants to be the oddball. (Right.) I couldn't help it. I was a true believer as a youngster. I believed in magical healings and I believed in divine interventions and I believed that our leader Herbert W. Armstrong spoke to God.
Lee Hale I'm curious. There's a verse in Peter — First Peter — that Mormons really love because it talks about how you're chosen generation. You're a peculiar people.
I totally resonate with what you're saying. You don't want to be weird. But I was almost told that when you're weird or different that's validation that you're doing it right. (Amen) That you should be odd you should kind of stick out and stand out and people are going to say what you're doing is foolishness. Was that the kind of message you're getting as well?
Glynn Washington Exactly. And exactly from the same verse. You're not here to make it easy for everybody else. You're not here to make it easy on yourself. You're here to represent the will of God. And you're gonna stick out and if you don't then there's a problem.
And you know what? I told you I'm as far away from that organization as I can be right now but I believe that. I don't think that is the best thing always to just go along to get along. I emphasize to my kids sometimes you got to stand up. Sometimes you have to take the hard road. Sometimes you know it' s true that you just can't hide in the back.
A lot of those sort of lessons that I reject from whence they came, they are so inculcated into my personality right now. To my actual real belief system. Sometimes I wonder if I've run away as far as I thought I have.
Lee Hale I often think about like spiritual DNA. And like I've had to come to that with Mormonism even though I feel confident still identifying that way. My faith has evolved a lot. And I'm in a weird place right now. I would say weird.
But I've realized, like, I've got to make peace with it because like you're saying these are my glasses, right? This is how I saw the world. And to think that I could throw that out and forget about it. That's just not how it works.
Glynn Washington That's right. You gotta figure out those glasses that you're wearing and figure out what you gonna do with them. Sometimes I'll find myself saying things that I can't justify from a logical perspective.
A funny story — this is just a funny ridiculous story. (Yeah.) When I was going to have a child. I didn't know whether it was a boy or girl. But if it was a boy, I was going to go ahead and take care of the circumcision situation and my wife didn't have to worry about it. (Right) So I found one of my friends he's a rabbi. He's a Moyle. He was so good at circumcision that they said that the babies didn't even wake up. Which is funny to me.
I said look, I know I'm not Jewish or anything like that. But I just wondered if you hook a brother up. And I got like a special dispensation that he would do the circumcision. Right. I'm thrilled I'm over the moon.
And then I go talk to my then wife and I said look it's all taken care of. I got a circumcision covered. She said' what are you talking about, circumcision?' And I was like, 'well, you know because the Israelites when they crossed the Red Sea'. She said 'what are you talking about the Israelites for?' I'm asking why are we getting the baby circumcised?'
And I'm talking about every single aspect of the Old Testament even though that's not where my religious grounding comes from anymore. And when you don't make sense to yourself? Sometimes you have to ask yourself where are these ideas coming from. And I can only laugh at myself.
Lee Hale Right. If I were to talk to a young Glynn, back then, why were we here on earth? Like what was your answer for that question?
Glynn Washington We were here on Earth to be gods. You're here on earth to keep the god family alive.
Lee Hale To be gods?
Glynn Washington Yes.
Lee Hale That's what Mormons say to you. I've never heard any other faith say that.
Glynn Washington Yeah. We're similar. The Mormons are looking for oftentimes another planet? That you guys are gonna be in charge of. We're very very similar. It was essentially the same.
Lee Hale Wow. Yeah. I mean the idea, like, that you would become a god eventually in the same way God is God. And the joke is that people would say when I make my planet they're going to be mosquitos. Like, I'm gonna do it better.
Glynn Washington Oh yeah. I remember we had our youth camp and at one point our exercise was to describe the land that we would build. The land that we would create. (Wow)
And you know I had this grand tower that went several miles into the sky and it went down through the ocean and you could see the various creatures on every single level through this great glass elevator type of structure and it was stunning and crazy and ridiculous.
And my then best friend in the group, he said well he just wanted a farm. Just a little piece of land with some sheep.
I was like 'Man are you crazy? You can't say that out loud. God might hear. You've got to go big. You've gotta go big. This is sacrilege. I don't know what's wrong with you.
But as much as I screamed and hollered at him, all he wanted was a little 40 acres. A little piece of land. Maybe a truck. That's all he wanted. We almost came to blows over it.
Lee Hale Wow. I hope he's got his back 40 now.
Glynn Washington He might have already found his own little piece of heaven. That's the truth. I don't have my tower. He's probably already living in heaven.
Lee Hale So it felt like that kind of ambition, that Godly ambition, it synced up with you at a young age.
Glynn Washington There was an aspect of revelations that talks about the two witnesses. Revelations is a very, very hard book obviously for people to understand. Wars have been fought over it.
But I thought that, sure, our leader Herbert W. Armstrong, he was definitely one of the two witnesses. But that other spot was free. If I get right with Jesus, if I'd pray properly, maybe who knows maybe that other witness could be me.
Lee Hale I keep talking about myself, but it's crazy the parallels. Because Mormons have 12 apostles. A big part of the church structure is patterned after, you know, what we would say is Christ structure. (Right)
And it doesn't come up a lot but it used to come up when I was growing up that there be these two apostles that were killed preaching the gospel. And I don't know if I ever thought that I would be one of the two that was killed. But for some reason I always had it in my head that I had to be, like, ready to be an apostle. Like that was my trajectory.
And it wasn't until like five years ago, I remember exactly where I was sitting in traffic, where I was just in a really bad almost self-loathing place because I felt like I was not living up to my faith. And I remember saying out loud in my car 'you don't have to be an apostle'. And the amount of relief I felt, like, I feel that relief whenever I think about that moment in my car. (Wow) Because like you, like for some reason I had it in my head that I could do that. Why limit myself, right? If mortal men can be called as apostles of God they can talk to God directly then it should be me. And I didn't realize how deep that had been wedged in (Wow) until not that long ago.
Glynn Washington I don't know that I have an analogous moment except that I know this. The flip side of being a weirdo growing up the way that we did, having people make fun of you and all this other kind of stuff? The flip side of it is that you think that you're special. Y
ou think that you're set apart. You think that God called you for a reason. (Right) And that feeling of being special is, it's a warm feeling. It's a cocoon. It's an armor against a lot of the blows that people deal with in daily life.
And I found, I didn't realize this myself until later, even though I don't believe in the religion I grew up in. Even though that intellectual framework for having that sort of specialness and that armor is gone. Sometimes I still feel special and I don't have any reason for it.
Lee Hale I know exactly what you mean. I mean in some ways it's like the best pep talk in the universe, right? Your calling in life is larger than life. It's bigger than this world. (Yeah)
But it always comes with some dangerous caveats. And I know that like part of what your church taught basically there is this whiteness standard. (Yeah) This race element. When did you start to realize the color my skin might be a problem here?
Glynn Washington It's not part of the initial sales package to a black family but once you get into it it ends up being a very very deep part of the faith. This idea in the Worldwide Church of God of being pure in your generations.
The founder of our church, Herbert W. Armstrong, claimed -- and I never understood this and I still don't but this was his claim — that somehow he could trace his lineage to the Queen of England and thus back to Jesus and from Jesus back to Noah and from Noah back to Adam. And that this was a pure strain. And by pure, it was a pure white strain.
Lee Hale Were you, as a teenager especially, were you encouraged to have private moments with God to, like, get your own answers? To get your own revelation? Is that a concept that was taught to you?
Glynn Washington The concept was that you should prove all things. Don't believe anything that we tell you, prove it.
Lee Hale And proving it was exactly what Glenn intended to do.
Glynn Washington That was really the basis of the unraveling of our organization.
Lee Hale Kids in the Worldwide Church of God were told not just to study the Bible but to memorize it. To internalize the meaning of each verse. And young Glynn took that mandate seriously.
Glynn Washington Most people who claim to be Christians have never read the book that their belief is based upon. And they are surprised when you tell them what's in it.
The thing with this is that they prove all things. OK. And then we start taking it seriously, they would say 'well this is in the book'. Well, where is it? I didn't read that. The kids that they raised to memorize the Bible like that and to question the Bible like that end up being the kids who were the most critical and the ones who had the most learned positions on why they left their own faith.
Lee Hale I mean that's kind of empowering, right? You have the answer sheet. Was there a verse or something that stuck out to you that was a seed of doubt for you? Was there something from the Bible you can remember that put you on a trajectory that led you out?
Glynn Washington I wanted to know from whence this book came from. I had been taught that this was, you know, burned and blazed from the Lord on high. And to his credit I asked my then pastor, who wrote the Bible? Where did this book come from?
And he gave me a book and it was called Who Wrote The Bible and I read that book and I read it again and I read it again. And I have never had the same type of belief system since.
Lee Hale Why do you think your pastor gave you that book?
Glynn Washington I have no idea. I'm not sure you read it. I think that he was just like 'let's shut this kid up'.
Lee Hale Wow. Because I mean that puts you on a trajectory, right?
Glynn Washington It did. And I was already probably going on a trajectory. I didn't appreciate the culture of the organization. Interracial dating was strictly forbidden. I wanted to be able to go out with a girl. Hold a girl's hand. Kiss a girl. Stuff like that. (Right) And the area that I was in was almost entirely white. And the older I got the more separate I felt not just from the community at large but within the church itself. I was an other. So I was two kinds of other. (Right.) That was untenable.
Lee Hale When I have friends who reassess their faith especially in Mormonism it's a whole spectrum of how people deal with it. Some people just want it all out. Just gone. Then there's other people who try to navigate, well, maybe I had some authentic experiences with God but maybe I don't like the structure of the church. And I'm just curious about you. Like, you doubting this church. You doubting the Bible. Did you have a strand connected to God still that you could hang onto?
Glynn Washington This is a strand I have that's connected to God. And the reason why I tell you I'm agnostic and not an atheist. I think that there is a mystery that animates everything. I don't know where this universe came from. And I think that the divine from me is in that ignorance and being humble enough to say you know what? I don't get this.
Lee Hale Yeah you're speaking my language.
Glynn Washington When I say I don't know I'm being as honest as I can be. I don't know. The Grand Unified Theory would be a story that makes everything make sense. I don't have that story yet. (Yeah) I'm trying to find it.
Lee Hale Do you ever find yourself praying?
Glynn Washington When my son was sick and I didn't know which way it was gonna go, and my father told me that he was praying for me, I said “do whatever you can.”
I don't know that I prayed myself. But I understood in a different way that when someone tells you that, what that means is I love you. And I don't want to be dismissive of that because I think the love is what matters in the first place.
I think that there is a power to someone's love that does help people. That being able to express that even if it's on the other side of the globe, some people would dismiss that as some magic, hocus pocus, whatever. I think that's power. And I know that I felt that. I felt stronger having him tell me that he was praying for me.
Lee Hale We do blessings of comfort and healing in Mormonism. A man would put their hands on your head and usually it's the father to a child. And as much as I get weird about a lot of what I was raised with there's something that makes me pause with that.
Some of the best experiences in my life where like having my father put his hands on my head and just invoke the powers of heaven to bring me comfort and healing. Something about seems really pure and powerful and comforting, right?
Glynn Washington Yeah. And isn't that what ritual is supposed to do?
You know I didn't grow up celebrating Christmas as I told you. And the first Christmas that I did have, I was going to stay at university. I was going to stay there Christmas holiday because I didn't want to go home. And my buddy is like 'No you're not. You're coming back with me'.
So I went back to his house and we had Christmas meal. And it was wonderful. His family was in a different space than mine was. They were joyful and they loved each other and they were touching. The food was awesome and everything like that.
But they had come from India. And at the top of their Christmas tree was a Ganesha, the elephant headed god.
Lee Hale Oh interesting. Yeah.
Glynn Washington And that was my first Christmas.
Lee Hale It almost sounds like Harry Potter. Where he goes to somebody else's home so they can have a holiday.
Glynn Washington Right. Very much. That's a really great analogy.
But I know now that when I want to invoke that same feeling of joy and family and warmth and welcome? There's a Ganesha on my Christmas tree.
Everyone's gonna have a different experience and they're going to have different ways of channeling their own magic and channeling their own divine. And I just want to make sure that no one's hearing that I'm dismissive of any of it. I think it's all power. I think it's all love.
Lee Hale You know, you're kind of like a secular preacher now with your job.
Glynn Washington It's funny you use that term.
Lee Hale Does it feel like that?
Glynn Washington Because I thought at the end of it, the only thing I could do would be to become a cult leader. That's the only thing I have of any sort of real background and knowledge of.
But I didn't want to lead anybody's cult. I don't.
And I think that the biggest thing missing right now in the world is empathy. Is getting inside someone else's shoes and understanding their experience. And I really do believe that it is extremely hard to hate someone once you know their story. And so maybe, maybe yeah. A secular preacher.
But there's a magic to story. This is the closest thing that we have to telepathy. And in a lot of ways I learned story on the feet of Masters. These charlatans who were busy with this discredited organization I grew up in. But those tools were real. The power of story was real. And I do want to find a way to take those tools and use them for a positive purpose.
Lee Hale Do you think that God aspiration of your childhood is still there a little bit?
Glynn Washington Yeah.
Lee Hale In what way does it manifest?
Glynn Washington You know, you said it kind of yourself but the truth of the matter is I did grow up thinking that everyone else was a muggle and that I was Harry Potter. And that just doesn't go away just because the intellectual underpinning of that belief goes away.
Lee Hale It almost feels like a paradox in one sense you're saying ‘I'm special’. On the other side, you're saying empathy is the answer.
Glynn Washington Yeah. Those things are contradictory but I do hold those two different beliefs in my head at the same time. I would hope that somebody tells all kids that they're special.
Lee Hale Do you tell your kids that?
Glynn Washington I do. I tell them they're knuckleheads. I tell them they're special too.
When I say that there is a purpose for my children? For me? For the world? That there's a judgment that happens? That there's karma in the world? Am I my telling them that's a religion?
Those are religious concepts that I'm telling my kids and I am not a religious person but I still believe those things. I believe they're here for something. I believe that I see the spark of the divine in them. No question about it.
Am I religious because I said that stuff? Maybe.
Lee Hale Maybe. Well, Glynn this has been so fun. Thank you so much. This felt like a sacred time to me.
Glynn Washington Yeah. We need more sacred time. I'm so glad you're doing this show. This is really important work you're doing.
Lee Hale It feels like in some ways like I don't know if I could do anything else right now. Because I'm just like, I'm going through something.
I don't know what's going to happen at the end but I know that egomaniacs like myself like the process in public, right? (laughs) And when I know it's messy for somebody else I feel less crazy. I feel kind of looked after and I feel like I'm on the right path. It's purely selfish is what I'm saying. (laughs)
Thanks for listening to Preach. You can hear more from Glynn Washington every week on Snap Judgment.
This show is a production of KUER and PRX.
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This show is produced by me Lee Hale and Tim Slover.
Tricia Bobeda is our editor.
This episode was mixed by Ernie Indradat, who also mixed the first episode and we didn’t give him a shoutout. So, sorry Ernie! And thank you.
Our digital producer is Chelsea Naughton.
And our executive producer is Joel Meyer.
Also, I want to say thank you for all the lovely, kind, supportive things you’ve been saying since the show launched last week. It’s been a very exciting week and there’s been lots of love.
And there’s been some reviews on Apple Podcasts, which we really appreciate because it helps other people find the show.
For instance, Vhathaway says, ‘I listen to a lot of Catholic podcasts, because I’m Catholic, but I find that I learn a lot about my own faith by listening to others share their own faith story.’
That’s awesome. Thank you for the stars, and the love. If you want to leave a review, do that on Apple Podcasts. It helps us out a lot.