Support groups for walk aways
By Eric Merrill Budd
Why a support group? There are two good reasons for the establishment
of support groups for former members of fundamentalist authoritarian
religious groups. First, there is the mutual support and sharing of
experiences which can help individual members recover. Second, the
presence of such groups can help promote greater awareness of cultic
groups in local areas.
Of course, it is not essential to start a group, and the resources
may not be there for you to get one off the ground. But here are some
ideas if you're thinking of starting a support group.
The first step is to develop one-on-one contacts with other walk aways.
This can be done by word of mouth, posting notes on community bulletin
boards, computer networks (such as Compuserve), and personal ads in
newspapers. You can write to _Walk_Away_ and ask if there are any
others in your area who would like to talk with you. Eventually, these
contacts can develop into a local network where members can exchange
information and ideas.
Next, people in the network can meet in small groups of three to five
people. Meeting for a social occasion, such as a potluck meal or at
a restaurant, is a good idea. But don't rush into organizing too soon.
Keep things simple and informal, and give people time to talk and
know one another. Later on, people may be interested in starting a
larger, more formal support group.
If you and your friends want to start a self-help or support group,
there are three major questions to ask: where to meet, who can join,
and what will you talk about? There are a lot of other questions that
relate to these, but let's stay with the basics for now.
The ideal place to meet would be a room at a community center or public
library. They are usually centrally located and arrangements for space
are either free or provided at a very low cost. If not, someone's
house or apartment can do for a start, or you can rotate from one
house to another. However, meeting a bunch of strangers in someone
else's home could be rather awkward for some first-time members. While
a restaurant may be too public a setting for some to discuss personal
issues, you may be able to reserve a private room on a regular basis.
If a mainline church or religious group offers its space, be careful.
Some ex-fundamentalists may not like walking into a church and there
could be a conflict of interest. One person should scout around the
local area and look for suitable meeting places, and then have a list
of options ready for other people to look over and discuss.
Membership in this support group should be for former members of restrictive
and abusive religious groups. Family and friends of current and former
members of such groups may want to have their own support group in
order to deal with separate issues. These two groupscould exchange
information and meet together as well. Clergy, counselors, and other
potential allies can attend meetings and observe, but they should
understand the need to avoid telling people what to do. As for any
fundamentalists or cult members who come in to disrupt a meeting,
do not hesitate to throw them out!
In discussions and activities, the group should steer clear of imposing
any rigid programs or doctrines, and should definitely avoid imposing
any set of religious life-stance beliefs on participants. The key
is to provide structure without crontrol - to guide people towards
healing and growth, not force them into yet another narrow system.
Meetings can be centered around open discusions of personal issues.
Again, there may be separate discussions for family and friends. Once
a month or so, the group could have special meetings dealing with
selected topics or concerns, or see a videotape of a movie like _Elmer_
Gantry_, _Inherit_the_Wind_, or _Marjoe_. Above all, stick to being
a support group! Understanding and dealing with religious abuse should
be the first priority of your group and its members. Activism against
cenorship and theocracy are also very important, but these should
be left to other groups.
Publicity and public relations can attract new members and raise public
awareness. First, you'll need a name for your group. It should be
short and easy to remember, and convey an impression of what your
group is about. Walk Aways is good, but some people might consider
that too broad. Other possibilities include Battered Souls, Free at
Last!, or perhaps the acronym SOAR, for survivors of abusive religion.
An ad in the local weekly newspaper will cost a few dollars, but some
papers also offer free notices in community bulletin sections. Most
public libraries and supermarkets have bulletin boards where you can
put up meeting notices. Some local radio stations, as a community
service, will announce meetings on the air for free (as long as you
don't pay for advertising elsewhere). You can also talk to sympathetic
clergy and counselors about referring people to your group.
As you get more established, you might want to consider presentations
to civic and church groups, radio and TV talk shows, and newspaper
interviews. Of course, by this time you might have to worry about
organization and finances. If the group gets larger, one or two people
cannot do all of the coordination work, and the group may want to
elect a committee to ahndle a lot of the business aspects. Funds for
expenses can be raised by modest collections of about one or two dollars
per person each week.
Last, but not least, remember that numerical growth in membership
is secondary to personal growth for each member. It's not the size
of your group that counts, but the size of your heart.
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Copyright 1995 IFAS
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