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It eats at you, I know, so hard to let it go
Let yourself go, yeah, just let yourself go …
The sugarcoated poisoned apple tastes so good,
how could you know
Its deceitful lies, and where you’re gonna go?
—MxPx, “Sugarcoated Poison Apple”
One day in May 1999, Cleetus Adrian was watching The Apostle, the 1997 film starring Robert Duvall, when—as he tells it—he heard God tell him to become a pastor. Adrian’s father was a Nazarene pastor, and he already attended his father’s church. But when God calls, you answer.
That weekend, as on most weekends, Adrian went to a punk show in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where he lived. Looking around at the concertgoers, Adrian thought, They’re sheep without a shepherd. The following Sunday, Adrian opened a punk-rock church where outcast kids could go to worship: Deliverance Bible Church.
Adrian’s best friend Jeff Davis was the first to show up at DBC’s inaugural service. DBC wasn’t much of a church at first: ten friends met at the YMCA gym in Fort Worth and read a few Bible verses. But, unlike at other churches, they could pray however they wanted: sing, dance, run around, shoot hoops. Adrian, Davis, and others started handing out DBC flyers at concerts. About a year later, the DIY young church moved from the YMCA to its current location in Hurst, Texas, a small, mall-dominated suburb nearby. Hundreds of people started showing up every Sunday: punk rockers with ten-inch blue mohawks, heavily pierced goths, hardcore kids. Word spread that even if you couldn’t wear a spiky collar to your mother’s church, you would be welcomed at DBC.
“We thought God was working through us, and we didn’t need the world’s approval,” says Davis now.
Within a few years, the Deliverance Bible Church had ushers and a full praise band, with Adrian still installed as pastor. He doesn’t look anything like a typical pastor: At six-foot-five, Adrian has a shaved head and is tatted up with Jesus imagery, with large gauges in his ears and a lip ring. He’s media-savvy, and has been profiled by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Inked magazine, as well as being featured on the world’s largest Christian TV network, TBN, and the reality TV show Miami Ink.
As DBC expanded, it developed a brand. Instead of having a standard baptismal scene behind the stage, the backdrop at DBC was a tattoo-style banner, with “Jesus” in the middle. Polaroids covered the walls, memorializing those baptized by gallon-water jugs in the parking lot. The church’s leadership marketed it like an exclusive club, a “subculture church”; the name of its ministry was the Nation of the Underground. Its T-shirts had an antiauthoritarian bent, reading, “Religion Destroys, Christ Saves.” Hour-long jam sessions energized the crowd preceding sermons, which mixed Bible verses with lyrics from Adrian’s encyclopedic knowledge of punk bands such as MxPx or the Descendents. Church felt like a fun hang sesh, or a concert with free merch. “When he got off the stage, I was like, Oh my God, I’m with a rock star. I’m not worthy of talking with him,” says Lydia Chong, who attended DBC from 2000 to 2006.
More than 200 members united around one core belief: that DBC is not a church, but, rather, a cult.
Everyone who spent time at DBC says a certain energy ran through the place. It was imbued with a Christianity that didn’t sit still. Miracles became rote: in one famous rumor, Adrian’s young son was said to have accidentally pinned his foot under a dresser. It turned black and gnarly. Adrian touched his hands to his son’s foot and prayed; when he lifted his hands, the foot was cured. In another story, the congregation prayed over a member who had walked with a terrible limp his entire life. All of a sudden, there was a loud pop, like a firecracker going off. The churchgoer straightened up. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” he screamed, jumping up and down. He tore out of the door, raced around the parking lot. After that, he would supposedly run to church every day. In yet another tale, Adrian allegedly prayed that congregants would find gold teeth, and an associate pastor discovered that his fillings had turned gold. (There’s video evidence of that one, but the picture quality is fuzzy).
The punk-rock church, with its charming leader and its willingness to accept outcasts, became an obsession for some followers, many of whom were looking for guidance. Daniel Cathey started attending DBC while couch-surfing with friends in high school. “I was just a poor kid with a skateboard and a mohawk,” he says. Another former member, Clay Warren, had battled a predilection for angel dust until he found DBC. For years he crashed with four DBC dudes in a hideous, neon-pink one-bedroom apartment a mile from the church. Warren ate, slept, and breathed DBC. “I would have done anything for Cleetus,” Warren says. “And I mean anything.”
As a teenager in Arlington, Texas, Austin Williams fell in love with anarchism and punk—specifically, the band Jeff Davis played in, Shmunks For You. So when Williams learned that he could see his favorite band at a Saturday night show, then again the next day at worship, he was intrigued. The first time he showed up at DBC, Williams says, it was “like clean, pure water for my filthy, filthy soul.”
For these kids and others at DBC, Cleetus Adrian was a hero, a father figure, and a prophet. But not everyone feels so reverent today.
Mike Holmesmith was once an associate pastor at DBC. He had first learned about the church through an article in a Christian punk zine called Flame Resistant, when he was a 23-year-old with green dreadlocks living in Washington State. He hitchhiked to Texas to meet Adrian, and for nine years, he was all in. But after being fired from that role in 2015, he was, suddenly, all out. He found himself staring at an email Adrian sent him, a loaded shotgun by his side, ready to end his pain.
In both the email and a later tweetstorm, Adrian called Holmesmith’s wife Jewel a “jezebel” who had “spiritually castrated” Holmesmith. Adrian’s influence on Holmesmith at the time was such that the latter wondered whether his wife was actually a demon. Holmesmith felt betrayed, robbed, abandoned.
It took the next year and a half for Holmesmith to work things out with his wife; then, in November 2016, he wrote his first public statement on his time in the church on Facebook. “I’ve wrestled with this post for a while, but I keep seeing things which have confirmed its necessity,” he posted. “I have come to realize Deliverance Bible Church is an unhealthy and abusive environment.”
The post generated dozens of comments within hours: Other former members railed against DBC, current DBCers quoted Scripture in defense, and acquaintances chimed in with messages of support for Holmesmith.
A few weeks prior, Holmesmith had found out that several former members had started a group called DBC Survivors, with a website and a private Facebook group to swap stories. Leaders of the group say they now have more than 200 members united around one core belief: that DBC is not a church, but, rather, a cult.
The argument over what exactly defines a cult is more than half a century old. The International Cultic Studies Association calls it “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relations and demanding total commitment.” (Most sociologists of religion and First-Amendment-rights advocates now reject that as overly broad.) Anti-cult hysteria reached a fever pitch in the 1980s, with story after story damning cultic abuse. Some activists threatened to “deprogram” cult members against their wishes; in one 1980 incident, infamous deprogrammer Ted Patrick was sentenced to a year in jail after kidnapping a Tucson woman who he thought needed to be “saved.” Nowadays the anti-cult movement is more subdued, planning conferences dedicated to “cultic studies.” Instead of deprogrammers, they’re therapists. Even brainwashing theory is out of fashion, as some scholars doubt its scientific basis. The au courant term is, instead, “thought reform.”
Each DBC “survivor” has their own story of how they came to realize this, but they generally agree that DBC was humming along until the mid-aughts. Around that time, the Christian punk rock movement faded. What had started as radical rebellion against the mind-numbing tedium of mainstream American society became passé; raging against the non-Christian machine got old. Popular bands such as Ninety Pound Wuss and MxPx broke up or left Christianity altogether.
Then Adrian’s father Cycil died in 2004. Three former church members who claim to have been close to him say Adrian mimicked his father’s ministerial style; when Adrian’s father died, they claim that Adrian started idolizing the televangelists on TBN instead, preaching fire and brimstone.
In interviews I conducted, as well as in other interviews and on social media, more than two dozen former members have alleged that Adrian changed DBC from a church to a cult around this time. After his father’s death, Adrian is said by former church members to have begun asking members to choose new names for themselves—Jeff Meaningless, April Purity, Josh Hope—and demanding that congregants give all their money to DBC. That could mean their entire paychecks, even their life savings.
Beyond emptying their bank accounts, Adrian allegedly encouraged church members to spend all their time at the church; some claim to have even slept there on occasion. A regular Sunday meeting might be followed by Monday band practice, Tuesday Bible study, Wednesday Bible study, Thursday band practice, Friday evangelism, and a Saturday meeting. Several former members say that in order to access the inner circle of DBC, they even attended a boot camp called the “School of All or Nothing”—a weeks-long training session about the church’s theology.
“We thought God was working through us, and we didn’t need the world’s approval.”
Former members also say that Adrian told them to cut off family and friends outside the church because those people lived in sin. They claim he dictated when members should date, marry, or have babies, and men were expected to control their wives. According to six former DBC staff, Adrian also dispatched them to plant satellite churches in cities across the world, then cut them off financially and ignored their repeated pleas for advice.
If you questioned any of his actions or preaching, former members claim, Adrian would tell you that you were questioning God. He would single out specific members for rebuke from the pulpit. At times members had to petition the pastor’s so-called “armor bearer”—a personal assistant whose title is modeled after that of the person who would carry King David’s armor—to even speak with him.
Holmesmith claims that, in the months he called out DBC on Facebook, five families stopped attending the church. Starting in January 2017, the two sides entered an all-out social-media slugfest—with Adrian, two DBC associate pastors, and a dozen current members on one side, and the DBC Survivors on the other.
Adrian and DBC associate pastors declined my repeated requests for interviews. But the online spat, which continued on Facebook and Twitter through 2017 and into this year, leaves clues as to their perspective. In July 2017, current associate pastor Andrew Weatherford made light of the situation, tweeting, “Dang, people be mean with them #cult #tweets. #Ouch #bro. #Gumption. *face with tears of joy emoji*” In November, Adrian himself tweeted, “The best way to get back at your old #church isn’t calling them a cult. It’s being more in love with #Jesus now, than when you were there!!”
Misty and Angel Rodriguez met in 2007 at the hair salon where they both worked—Angel as a stylist, and Misty at the register. Though her friends told her that Angel looked creepy with his long hair and goth makeup, Misty thought he was “kinda cute.” They started dating five months later.
At the time, Angel was training to become a pastor at DBC. If Misty wanted to date him, she had to go to the church. She says now that only two weeks in, she could tell something was off, but she held her tongue. “You’re stuck before you realize you got stuck,” she says now. Despite Misty’s attendance, her relationship with Angel quickly caused problems between Angel and church leaders: when he confessed he and Misty had been fooling around, Angel says, DBC leaders pressured them to get married. They did, and soon had their first child. Since she was spending all of her time at DBC, Misty’s parents and siblings started going, too.
Even so, Misty says that Adrian could tell she wasn’t all in. On occasion she refused to attend church and, when she did go, she simply sat there instead of laughing, crying or speaking in tongues. Whenever she wasn’t with Angel, DBC pastors were constantly berating her for sinning. To prove herself, Misty attended the School of All or Nothing; this meant five weeks of training in a hotel, away from her one-year-old son. She says she even donated $14,000—money she inherited from her grandmother—to fund an international mission trip to Brazil, only to be told by an associate pastor that because they suspected she wasn’t born again, she herself would not be allowed to go. (Misty showed me the check stubs for that donation.)
Misty got a tattoo of 1 Peter 3: “Wives be submissive to your own husbands.” Her marriage suffered. Angel constantly questioned Misty’s loyalty to DBC. In turn, she self-medicated with alcohol and weed. In 2013, after six years of incessant pressure, Misty admitted herself to a psych ward, where she stayed for a week.
Angel responded by further dedicating himself to DBC; if they just prayed more, perhaps God would solve their problems. Misty continued to go, too. Her whole circle of family and friends now went to the church—where else was she going to go? They didn’t leave DBC until the following year, when, defending Misty from yet another accusation of sin, Angel had an explosive argument with an associate pastor.
Each former DBC member seems to feel mixed about their time there. If it wasn’t for the church, they wouldn’t be who they are today. But, if given the chance of a do-over, they wouldn’t go again.
They cut off all contact with outside family and friends. When they left, they had nowhere to go and no one to turn to.
After his departure, Davis inhaled every -ism he could get his hands on, the kinds of spiritual teachings that Adrian referred to as “the Devil’s playbook”: Satanism, Occultism, Wicca, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, even atheism. It’s all the same fucking thing as church, he realized. Mostly, he’s frustrated Adrian tricked him.
If Davis is still angry, Katie McDonald has made it to acceptance. “My entire core of who I was got completely ripped out of me overnight,” says McDonald, 27, of leaving the church. McDonald attended DBC from ages 15 to 20. After she left in 2010 following Adrian publicly chastising her for visiting another church, members still there—some of her best friends just weeks ago—started harassing her in person and online. McDonald moved back in with her mother in Hurst and barely left her room for a year, scared she’d run into DBC staff around the neighborhood. Two years later, after nearly throwing herself off a parking garage in downtown Fort Worth, McDonald started daily outpatient therapy and the counselor diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. That helped her get back on track, and eventually go to college.
But, for McDonald, what ultimately led to healing was the DBC Survivors Facebook group. At first, she was nervous to share her story, worried that others would call bullshit. After she worked up the courage, she says, “it was like this weight got lifted off my entire life because I finally got to be heard.”
Many former DBC members say they cut off all contact with outside family and friends while they were involved with the church. When they left, they had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. The DBC Survivors Facebook group helps them cope with loneliness. It’s their support group, helping them recover from shared trauma only they understand. “It’s like AA for DBC,” one person told me.
Several members say that, over the past two years, they’ve frequently discussed strategies around how to fell the “false prophet.” (The Facebook group is private.) Should they confront current members directly? Bash Adrian in the media? Report to the IRS the persistent rumor that DBC is behind on its taxes?
The group members eventually agreed that any aggressive action would be seen as persecution by current DBC congregants, potentially entrenching those people even further into the church; warning potential worshippers would be more effective. Former church members tend to stay as far away from DBC as possible. Some say they moved across the country just to avoid the temptation of returning. “I’d rather burn in hell for all of eternity than go back to DBC,” says Clay Warren.
The group did, however, start trolling Adrian and DBC online. The memes ran rampant.
In January of this year, Adrian flipped the cult accusation back at the DBC Survivors: on Twitter, he accused Holmesmith of engaging in cultish behavior himself when he was part of DBC, by allegedly pressuring others to join the church.
Andrew Weatherford backed up his pastor in a recent tweet. “People accuse you of being in an isolating, insular cult,” he wrote of the DBC Survivors. “So they cut you off, ignore you, and slander you behind your back. First of all, y’all acting like the cult.”
These dueling cult accusations are enough to make one’s head spin. Leaving a cult is notoriously hard—but what if, in leaving one cult, former DBC members merely formed another?
For members of the DBC Survivors Facebook group, identifying as former cult members and spreading anti-cult dogma seems to be all-consuming. They read books, listen to podcasts, and devour articles on the subject, sharing everything on Facebook. The anti-cult content they devour is the work of a hodgepodge of academics, health professionals, and apostates—former cult members—who combat cults worldwide. The anti-cult movement soapboxes against the dangers of brainwashing, which is when a charismatic leader controls the minds of followers, changing their beliefs and limiting their critical thinking.
Three former DBC members told me that they realized they had been brainwashed and sought deprogramming after consuming anti-cult literature. The DBC Survivors group refers former members to a website called Dallas Cult Resource, maintained by Doug and Wendy Duncan, counselors who are self-identified former members of the Trinity Foundation – an organization the Duncans now allege is cult.
When I reach Doug Duncan on the phone, he has just cracked a beer and is about to put two steaks on the grill before settling into an evening watching Netflix with his wife. He says in the immediate years after leaving Trinity Foundation, he couldn’t enjoy such simple pleasures. An insurance case manager by day, Duncan presents at cultic-studies conferences and says he has found purpose in helping others in cult recovery.
Satanism, Occultism, Wicca, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, even atheism. It’s all the same fucking thing as church.
It’s not an easy task to convince people that their basic understanding of the world has been flawed. Duncan says the first therapeutic strategy he employs with a former cult member is basic education: how did the leader get inside their head and make them do things they wouldn’t otherwise? Often Duncan’s clients will “cult hop,” going from one cult to another. When you’re in a cult, he explains, it’s intoxicating, and coming out of a cult is akin to addiction recovery: it’s easy to relapse. The ultimate irony in the DBC case, Duncan points out, is that the DBCers are into punk rock, the emblem of rebellion. But slowly, over time, they have completely submitted.
Given their fixation on their identity as survivors, I ask Duncan if the DBC Survivors group could itself be called a cult. I think he would know: he and others have alleged to the Dallas Observer that the group he and his wife left, the Trinity Foundation, cast itself as a “religious watchdog” that criticized televangelists before starting to act cultish itself.
Duncan says the DBC Survivors group doesn’t seem like a cult. But, he points out, “Whether or not they’re exactly a cult, they’re kind of still doing the same thing with the same intensity to keep the high going.”
The group could be compared to DBC in another way, too: according to a handful of former DBC members, if you’re not all in with the DBC Survivors worldview, you’re out. According to these sources, they weren’t considered gung-ho enough to be part of the Survivors group, and they were ostracized. One said that because he would still consider socializing with Adrian, the other Survivors wouldn’t talk to him any more. When another former member defended Adrian in the comments on Holmesmith’s Facebook post, the Survivors attacked him as judgmental and untrustworthy.
Lorne Dawson, professor of sociology and religious studies at Canada’s University of Waterloo, agrees that apostates often seek an equally intense alternative. However, Dawson dislikes the term “cults,” preferring the less judgmental term “new religious movements.” He says anti-cult crusaders tend to use apostate testimony as evidence that cults are destructive; in turn, apostates use the veneer of the movement’s academics to legitimize their claims. For Dawson, the word “cult” prevents us from truly understanding these fringe religious groups: how they operate, and why they might disintegrate.
Former members, Dawson says, have incentives to exaggerate. He advises me to check out DBC for myself. “Take apostate testimony with a grain of salt,” he warns.
When I tell Jeff Davis I’m going to DBC, he acts casual (“I think you’ll be fine”), but doesn’t seem to mean it. “Be careful,” he says.
The day I attend DBC, it’s Christmas Eve 2017, and more people are finding God at the bingo parlor down the street than in this particular house of prayer. Hurst, Texas (population: 40,000) is home to Bell Helicopter, an aircraft manufacturer. I hear buzzing as I get out of my car outside DBC and wonder whether drones are watching me. The paranoia has already set in.
The church is sandwiched between a fabric shop and another church, in a strip mall called White Plaza. Almost all of the 40 or so people inside are white themselves. I sit down in the back row in a futile attempt to attract the least amount of attention possible, but an usher smiles at me and rushes over with a Bible. Adrian is preaching in front of the stage, which is fronted by Jerusalem stone and boasts a full band setup.
The first thing I hear Adrian say is a joke about church donations: “I don’t want your scratched lottery tickets,” he says. “Maybe we should start accepting Bitcoin.”
This evening’s sermon centers on Genesis 22:1–19, in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Adrian explains that the point is to submit wholly to the Lord, and he illustrates this with a story of his own: the other day, he says, he was reviewing a tape of his sermon, which usually just makes him think about what he could’ve done better. But, he says, this particular tape didn’t show what had happened in the church right after the recording had stopped. Apparently, a man had jumped onstage and threatened Adrian with a knife, claiming he would “slit his throat” because he was so “irritated” by Adrian’s sermon.
Then, Adrian claims, the Holy Spirit dropped an idea into his head, and he said to the man, “Say, ‘Jesus is Lord.’” Apparently, the man reacted as if he had been smacked. So Adrian repeated this command. But the man refused to say it, Adrian says, “schized out,” and bolted from the room. The audience member next to me gasps. Adrian assures us that the incident had nothing to do with him, and entirely to do with this person’s failure to submit to God. It all seems too convenient: in one succinct story, Adrian is able to play both victim of circumstance and messenger of God.
When you’re in a cult, it’s intoxicating, and coming out of a cult is akin to addiction recovery: it’s easy to relapse.
The sermon ends with a request for an offering; I’m surprised at how explicit Adrian is about asking for money. This is prosperity gospel: the blessings you receive equal the cash you bequeath. Adrian urges everyone to give everything they’ve made this year in a single offering. The ushers leap out of their chairs and rush to the front, flanking the pulpit. DBC might not accept Bitcoin, but it definitely accepts Square Cash. Congregants dig into their pockets and amble up to the stage, where everyone can see what everyone else donates. However, when I go up to look at what people have tithed, only a few singles and loose change sprinkle the stage.
Once that’s out of the way, Adrian asks us to reach out to the people around us. I lay my hands on a man with a nose piercing and close my eyes, trying to focus.
“We’re not good people. We’re wretched, evil people,” Adrian says.
“Yes!” crows the man, clutching my arm.
“We’re liars. We’re thieves. We’re adulterers. We’re hateful,” Adrian continues.
“Yes! More! More!”
“Whether people realize it or not, the inner man is so selfish.”
The man grasping me begins to cackle. I, too, start laughing—not in ridicule, but in contagion. Feeling self-conscious, I open my eyes. One guy is rolling around on the floor. Another man raises his right hand up to receive the call, while his son makes karate moves in the air next to him.
I let go. I can feel my endorphins firing. I flash back to prayer-rocking in synagogue as a kid: the potent combination of positive neurochemicals and childhood nostalgia drives me on. Adrian starts speaking in tongues. The fervor crescendos; what people are shouting, God only knows. Then Adrian says, “Come back to me,” and the cacophony halts at once.
After the service, I see Nichole Adrian, Adrian’s wife and fellow pastor, in the hallway near the bathrooms. I introduce myself and tell her I loved the service. For an alleged cult leader, she seems disinterested. I get in a couple of questions about the church’s next meeting before she says she needs to find her kids.
I leave to a torrent of anxious texts from former DBC members: had I survived? What did I think?
Yes, I survived. No, I did not think.
During the service, I couldn’t help but notice how charming Adrian was. He didn’t seem like the monster he’d been made out to be. At the same time, I saw hints of the worrying behavior, including in myself, described by the Survivors. In the weeks afterward, I obsessively follow the ongoing Twitter war between current and former DBCers. I screenshot every relevant tweet, paranoid someone will block me.
An account titled Cleet Tweets is dedicated to satirizing Adrian: “Don’t listen to anyone who disagrees with me or you’re going to hell. #subtlebrainwashing #themaster #cultleadership101.” Meanwhile, Adrian’s followers rally behind him, using the hashtag #beblessed. DBC pastor Weatherford calls the Survivors entitled internet trolls. Tweeting a link to Phil Collin’s song “I Don’t Care Anymore,” he writes, “This classic pretty much sums up how I feel about all the criticism of my church and my pastor. The ridicule and attack will never change my course.”
I request an interview from several current members over Twitter, and one agrees, but only on the basis of anonymity. He insists Adrian is a man of God—and no, DBC is not a cult: you have the right to stay or go as you please. Those former members? They’re just jealous because they couldn’t run the church.
Adrian constantly quotes biblical passages and invites followers to meetings on Twitter. In January, Adrian tweets exactly 295 times, but he never responds to any of my requests for an interview.
The pastor, it seems, would rather speak from a pulpit, digital and otherwise. It makes sense. He’s a compelling leader, even if he commands his followers to go in directions that make them ever more dependent on the church. “It’s funny,” Davis says to me after I describe my confusing Christmas Eve, “What you experienced in one day was my life for a decade and I still have no idea of what to make of it.”