Followers of a controversial Mormon sect are reportedly abandoning the church in droves, and adjusting to life on the “outside” isn’t an easy task once you’ve been excommunicated.
Al Jazeera America has published a two-part report on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the sect led by convicted pedophile Warren Jeffs. Those who have escaped the church’s strict settlement talked to Al Jazeera about “deprogramming” and adjusting to the real world after having been separated from it for so long.
The church — which split from the mainstream Morman church when the latter banned polygamy — teaches its followers that excommunicated members are “of the devil.” As a result, people who leave Jeffs’ settlement are often shunned by family members and anyone else still loyal to the church.
After Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison about four years ago for sexually abusing underage girls he took as “wives,” the government made efforts to modernize a settlement he controlled in two towns on the Utah-Arizona border. But, as The Associated Press notes, Hildale and Colorado City are still dominated by people who remain loyal to Jeffs and resist the “deprogramming” that defectors have embraced.
The Associated Press explains how this works:
The Hildale and Colorado City town councils are filled with Jeffs loyalists. The 190 children at the Hildale public school are only a fraction of the town’s estimated 1,200 school-aged kids. Many sect members still follow Jeffs’ edict not to send their children to class.
… Women and girls wearing prairie dresses with up-do hairstyles can be seen around town, pumping gas and driving tractors. They often run and hide when they see outsiders. Men drive trucks with windows tinted so dark you can’t tell who is inside.
Jeffs controls his followers and relays orders through his brothers Lyle, a bishop in the church, and Nephi. Some FLDS members say that Jeffs’ edicts have gotten much harsher since he was imprisoned.
Al Jazeera reports:
Many feel he is trying to control every aspect of daily life for his followers — not just the details of the outfits they should wear but also what they can and cannot eat and exactly how they should wash their hands to remain “pure.” … Children are not allowed to play in the town park, and toys are forbidden. Nonreligious books, television and almost all access to the Internet are banned.
Members of the FLDS sect are taught that people who leave the church or are forced out are unholy, which means excommunicated members are often denied contact with their family and friends who are still part of the settlement.
Some former members set up clandestine visits with family who are still with the church, but these meetings are often held in secret.
Kenneth Thomas, who left the church about two years ago, told Al Jazeera that when he visits his family his children don’t speak to him. He’s getting divorced from his wife, who still believes in the FLDS doctrine.
Flora Jessop, a former FLDS member who was the subject of a TLC show about the sect, told HuffPost Live that her father no longer acknowledges her when she visits her nieces and nephews.
“Today, when I see him, he can barely stand to be in my presence,” Jessop said.
The FLDS church tells its members to homeschool children, and the teachings rely heavily on religion.
Some former members who flee the church go back to school once they’re on the outside, but it can be a tough adjustment.
An anonymous former FLDS member told Al Jazeera: “I started community college this week. It’s overwhelming. So many people! And I just don’t know how to act.”
Kenneth Thomas told Al Jazeera that he’s thinking about dating again, which is daunting because of his background. Finding someone who can understand that culture might be a difficult task.
But sometimes leaving the church is necessary to be with the person you love.
Kathwren Steed, a first cousin of Jeffs, realised that she was gay while she was still living on the settlement. She told Al Jazeera that she started an affair with her best friend, who eventually fled the sect with her. The night the affair started with Steed’s friend, she panicked because she knew the church wouldn’t accept it.
“I freaked out,” Steed said. “I was on my knees the entire night, praying, ashamed.”
They broke later up, and Steed met someone new while working at a lesbian bar in Salt Lake City. Her now-wife was raised Mormon and was sympathetic to what Steed had been through.
People who escape the FLDS church to live outside the settlement are often clueless when it comes to modern life in the rest of America.
Many who live in the settlement don’t have access to the internet.
A 22-year-old who left the church in 2013 told Al Jazeera that he first found out about Facebook when he snuck a look at it on a computer right before he left the settlement. He’d heard about the social network and found some friends who had escaped the sect.
The anonymous woman who just went back to college says even simple decisions can be overwhelming.
“Before, the only choice was the pink dress or the blue dress or maybe the green dress — there were not many ways to express yourself,” she told Al Jazeera.
Kathwren Steed told Al Jazeera that she learned to put on mascara from watching YouTube videos.
Those who have escaped the sect also struggle with psychological issues at times.
Flora Jessop told HuffPost Live that it took her years to be able to trust women after she made it out of the church. Being in a polygamist family, where multiple women share one husband, fosters jealousy and competition, she said.
“The brutality on each other and on each others’ children is insanity, and so you learn to hate women,” Jessop said.
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