A Month and a Half in a Cult
As told to Cliff Williams
Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with “Claudia” on June 13, 2023. Right after graduating from college, she went to work for a mission organization in Mexico that turned out to be different from what she had been led to believe. “Claudia” is a pseudonym.
Looking for Work
After graduating from college, Claudia wanted to work with a Christian NGO that worked to alleviate poverty. “I looked for places in Mexico where I could do that kind of work. I had been there before with a program sponsored by the Christian college I went to. So I met with someone who could connect me to an organization in Mexico where I could work at alleviating poverty for a living.
“She showed me a glossy brochure that had statistics about how a certain organization in Mexico was reducing poverty. ‘This group is doing the real work,’ she said. That authenticity grabbed me. I took her word for it, because I wanted to be one of the real ones who is actually making a difference, doing meaningful work.
“The next step was to send my resume and then be interviewed. I met with a large, pot-bellied white man who was very confident of himself and thought he was funny. I laughed along with him. I knew that if I was nice to the man’s ego, it could go well for me. It was just one of the steps I had to go through, I thought. He also struck me as the kind of older man who is over friendly to younger women. He was flattering toward me, which felt weird. But I rolled with it, and the interview went well.
“‘The woman you would be working with is a powerhouse. She is a hard worker and gets a lot done,’ he said. I thought, ‘Great! My boss would be a woman. That will be interesting.’
“I had two more interviews, and on Christmas Eve they told me that I had gotten the job.”
Claudia went to a small town in Mexico. “Through a connection, I had found a room to rent in a woman’s house. My boss had told me that I would have two weeks to get set up and adjusted before starting work. It ended up being two hours.
“First, there was a week of training. Then there was another week of ten-hour days with intense sessions on the theology of the leader. I was put in with pastors from nearby poor neighborhoods. We were kept in a room in the hot sun with only instant coffee and limes to keep us awake. When I had to leave the room because I was feeling dizzy and nauseous, I was scolded by my boss.
“The leader of that week’s sessions was the leader of the organization. He was charismatic, and everyone adored him. One of my coworkers said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we get to do this ten-hour training for five days with this man who has two master’s degrees? What a blessing! How lucky we are that he chooses to spend time with us.’ She insisted that I agree and also praise the leader.
“Everyone there, I discovered, was obsessed with the leader. That reminded me of pastor-centric churches where the pastor was overbearing and confident about everything.
“My boss told me that she and her husband had decided to become missionaries in this organization before they had gotten married. ‘We completely trust the leader’s vision,’ she said. Their whole marriage seemed to be based on working for the organization.”
Claudia had a number of disturbing experiences. “Everyone in the organization lived in the same neighborhood, and they did everything together. They all went to salsa classes and bars together. I was invited to go with them. That felt friendly at first. But later it felt as though they wouldn’t leave me alone—they constantly asked me to spend free time with them. My world got smaller and smaller.
“After the two weeks of orientation and then a week of indoctrination, I worked all day—twelve hours each day. I left my apartment before any stores were open, and I went back after it was pitch black. I couldn’t leave the apartment when it was dark, because it was in a dangerous neighborhood. So I couldn’t always buy food at a grocery store or restaurant. There were times when I went to bed hungry.
“I had been told before I arrived at the organization that they would always take me to my apartment in a car, but once I moved in I had to beg for rides so as to avoid using buses and combis, which were unsafe.
“I like to think I’m a tough person, because I’ve done hard things before. I’ve slept on the ground, and my family lived through terrorist attacks in another country. Still, when I literally couldn’t eat, I began to realize how bad it was to be at the organization.
“Sometimes the woman from whom I rented the apartment fed me. We talked and shared a lot, which was really nice. It became a respite from what was happening at work.”
More Disturbing Experiences
The disturbing experiences began to pile up. “One of the males I worked with wanted to take selfies with me and give me hugs. I had spent enough time in Mexico to know that this was not a normal amount of affection for Mexicans, especially between women and men. It felt creepy. It was definitely not your basic, ‘Oh, hi.’
“One day another male coworker looked me up and down in a disgusting way and said, ‘You look nice today.’ It wasn’t what he said that bothered me, but the way he said it. It was gross.
“My boss was right there when that happened. Later she said, ‘That’s not okay. I’m going to talk to him.’ I asked her several times whether she had talked to him. But she never did. He even made inappropriate comments to her.
“During one of the early weeks I was there, we hosted donors, most of whom came from the United States. They were nice older couples. They came up to me and asked, ‘Are you okay?’ I said, ‘Yes. Sure.’ But I was not okay at all.
“By this time, I had starting noticing things. Plus, the room I was staying in at the organization’s building during the week the donors were there was a storage room. Everybody knew where it was, and the door to the room was rickety so the lock on it was not very good. There was no privacy and no boundaries. Everyone came and went at all times. The creepy, male coworker who wanted selfies left his stuff in the room, and he went to it at odd hours to get his stuff.
“One night during that week, after working eleven to eleven, I was eating leftovers I had found in the fridge with that coworker, just us two. The room I slept in was right behind me. He started bragging to me about how much girls enjoyed sleeping with him. I started to freak out, because he was much bigger and taller than I am. I finished eating, put away my plate, got into the room, and locked the door, which, as I said earlier, did not seem to give much security because the door was so wobbly.
“I truly thought that that was the time I would get assaulted. That is how it happens. And people would blame me because it was midnight and I was alone with the coworker. Thankfully, nothing happened.
“Another time I was scolded for talking to the cook. I had been told that I should be helping with the breakfast that had been served to the donors, and I was in the kitchen helping the kitchen staff clean dishes, talking to the cook as I was working. My boss’s husband came in and said, ‘What are you doing? Talking to the kitchen staff? Get out there. You’re supposed to be helping with the translation sets.’ So I rushed to the translation sets and found that there wasn’t anything for me to do.”
Claudia left a month and a half after she arrived. “I talked to a couple of my friends from college, telling them about all the freakiness of what I had been experiencing and about how scared I had become of the people I worked with and how I did not trust them one bit. They both had worked with Latin American NGO’s, and they said, ‘That’s not normal. Get out of there! Don’t include it on your resume. Just forget the experience ever happened.’
“I called my boss and said I had to go. She was shocked, but I said that it was because the pandemic had just started and because I didn’t have health insurance in Mexico. I told her I was feeling sick, and my mom was worried.
“I packed in three hours. The next morning I went out for breakfast with the woman I lived with. Then I took an Uber to the airport and flew back home to the States.”
At home, Claudia spent a lot of time in the garden. “I went to Home Depot and bought compost and seed. With my parents’ permission, I tore out a lot of their landscaping. I dug out roots and took away trash I had dug up. I planted squash, corn, and amarine, a flower. I worked myself hard. I swung whatever I was working with—a shovel, hoe, or rake. That was how I got out my anger about the wrongness of how I had been treated. There were a million little things that had made me feel small and unworthy.
“If anyone were to ask, ‘Did you say anything to the people in Mexico?’ I would say, ‘Yes, I did.’ I explained to my boss my concerns about the organization. I asked her whether she would recommend that a friend of hers work at the place. She said she wouldn’t. I talked to my boss’s boss. I told him about being harassed and about everything else. He did nothing.
“I’ve worked as an intern with brilliant lawyers at the Department of Justice, and they never made me feel small because I was an intern. They were just the opposite—encouraging and respectful. But with the organization in Mexico, there was no amount of proving I could do to show that I was worthy.
“My parents had taught me to obey people in authority. But I had enough of a rebellious spirit in me by the time I started working with the organization to realize that I didn’t deserve what was going on.”
A number of things prompted Claudia to conclude that she had been part of a cult. “People at the organization were observing me and talking about me. There were multiple times when I realized that they were sharing information about conversations I had had with different people. They definitely seemed to be checking up on me.
“They wanted to know about my personal life. Both my boss and the leader’s assistant kept digging in about my personal life—are you seeing anyone, are you thinking of getting married, how is your relationship with your family—much more than is normal with coworkers.
“The leader’s assistant asked me what I ‘really thought’ about the organization. It turned out that she was testing my loyalty to the organization.
“They didn’t like it when I had conversations with the donors during the week they were at the organization. I was told, ‘You should be working right now,’ even though I had just checked with my boss about what to do.
“There was never any downtime. I had to be constantly working though there were no clear expectations of what I should be doing. If I was doing one thing, I was told that I should be doing something else, but when I got to the other place, there was nothing to do.
“You couldn’t treat work there like a regular job. It had to be your life. My boss said, ‘We work really hard and we play really hard.’ All I wanted to do was to do a good job.
“They wanted me to spend all my free time with them. It was either spend all your time outside of work with them or you had no free time outside of work because you worked too much.
“Before I joined the organization, I was told that I would be coordinator for short-term mission trips. They did not give me a description of what I was to do for this, did not train me for it, and did not tell me what their expectations were. I was told many times that I would simply have to read my boss’s mind to see what I was supposed to be doing.
“My position was downgraded after I had been in the organization for a month. I believe that my asking questions figured in the decision to downgrade my position. Critical thinking there was definitely discouraged.
“One of the most important things was that the director was a total narcissist. He needed his ego stroked all day long. He needed everybody to be hanging onto his every word and know that he was brilliant. ‘Oh, brilliant, wonderful, wonderful! Please talk to us more, man with two masters degrees.’
“I learned after I left that the director used to work with a missions agency that he broke away from so as to start the one I joined. He had been restrained by that agency and started a new one so that he could implement his own ideas.
“I also learned some time after I left that the organization no longer existed. It had crumbled apart because the money manager was embezzling funds from it. The director had known about that but refused to believe the manager would do that kind of thing. Plus, the director himself had been having affairs with multiple women, one of whom worked at the organization. Later, his wife divorced him and got custody of their son.”
The whole experience left Claudia with suspicion. “I became suspicious of churches after I left. I have trouble trusting people in church spaces now. I am alert for narcissism. If I see someone with narcissistic traits, I run for the hills.
“I find myself shadow boxing a lot, such as when someone says, ‘Oh, there’s this wonderful charity, or this wonderful NGO, or this wonderful pastor,’ or when someone says that some religious organization is going to transform the world.
“I listen to my intuition now, because when I was with the cult, my intuition told me something was wrong. I could have rationalized away everything the organization did, but in the end I listened to my intuition, because it was right.
“It is so easy to make transformation of the world about your own ego, especially for covert narcissists. They are sneaky, because they say that they are going to die for a grand vision, whereas in reality they are shallow and insincere. I can sometimes see things like that in flashes, when someone, just for a moment, lets down their guard.”
© 2023 by Cliff Williams