My thirtieth birthday came and went without much fuss because everyone forgot about it. Everyone except Anton. I should have been grateful for that at least seeing that I’d forgotten his, only months before. Not having a big hoopla for your birthday when you’re an adult shouldn’t be a huge deal, but awkward, sad birthdays…
Tag: cult leaders
How do you escape a cult?
Not everyone sticks it out in a cult. The really honest, smart ones leave! And when they do, they become public enemy number one. The mere thought of wanting to associate with these defectors on any level is enough to send a shiver of holy terror down a cult member’s spine. It’s an unwritten code: if you leave, you are a lost soul with a one-way ticket to the dark side.
Most defectors of the cult of Alon fell into two categories:
Not cult material
Either they were simply not community material; meaning they didn’t have what it takes to live within the hallowed sanctum of Alon. And to be in close and holy proximity to like-minded servants of The Most High (i.e. God). When these people left the cult, they were sent packing. We’d give them a fond farewell and a blessing and the leaders heaved a sigh of relief as they waved them goodbye.
Basically, if you want to leave a cult then you should just not fit the mold. Don’t work hard, don’t be obedient, and don’t give the slightest hint that you may be a useful asset. Before you know it, you’ll simply be asked to leave. Cults don’t like sponges, cults like to be the sponges.
But it’s hard to go against the grain because deep down most of us aim to please and so we try our hardest and fit the mold. It’s a rare breed that’s completely at ease simply being the odd one out. Or at least that’s the case within a cult-like social structure.
Perfect cult material
Perhaps you were indeed community material. A person of many and lucrative talents. Someone with a dazzling smile and a knack for small talk. Most likely you’d have nimble fingers and a fast metabolism. In essence, you were a good-looking cult ambassador with high energy and the natural tendency to work like a dog.
So you fitted in well. You gave your life to Jesus and you prayed the most eloquent prayers. But then one day, something sets you off and you just can’t swallow the bullshit anymore and start speaking your mind.
The cult leaders would try to snuff this critical thinking out and at first, you might fall for their tactics. There would probably be a period of deep remorse and anguish on your part that you ever questioned your destiny as a member of this sacred group. You would be wracked with guilt for being a rebellious follower.
But then, your fuse would once more grow short and the whole painful process would start again until one day you would simply say, “Screw it.” and quit. Or, if you were really out of hand they might give you the boot. Either way, there’s pretty much no turning back. And good for you.
But you would know that as you walked away the entire community of brainwashed and spineless cult followers would be saying the most awful things about you. Tutting at the waste of talent and the inevitable misery that would now befall you all the remaining days of your godforsaken life.
I’ve witnessed people leaving a cult
I have seen many people leave. Or at least, I’ve borne witness to the aftermath. Because some people literally ran away in the dead of night. Either on foot, making a brave dash through the forest or by car, if that was a possibility. Some people were there one day and gone the next. Vanished, as if into thin air. When this happened, you’d only speak about it in hushed tones.
Other cult defectors bravely left in broad daylight, moving trucks laden with all traces of their existence. We’d say goodbye pretending that everything was hunky dory. But they knew we thought they were failures and the terrible thing is, they probably believed it too – at least for a time.
In rare cases, these cult escapees would keep in touch with our cult leaders. Living in a sort of middle ground of uncertainty. They’d even come to visit Alon on occasion. As if they doubted their decision. Doubted their instincts. But in retrospect, our leaders would only encourage this kind of fuzzy middle ground if there was something to be gained from fostering a relationship. Usually, it had to do with business.
Some people make a clean break from cults and others slowly pull away. But neither method is easy or painless. Escaping a cult leaves you with a sense of deep loneliness. It’s confusing and jarring and you feel as though you have stepped onto a new and unfamiliar planet as you try to assimilate to “normal life” again.
Some cult escapees make it their life’s mission to set other cult members free
These people were the devil incarnate. Evil. Possessed by the spirit of Jezebel. Satan’s servants sent to destroy the precious work of God that was Alon. Persecutors.
Their tactics were to reach out to members of Alon via SMS, email or phone calls. Any means necessary to help the blind sheep see the truth and walk away from our lives of subservience and captivity. Whatever it took to help their friends escape a cult.
Newspapers and magazines were tipped off. Articles and research journals were published. And we were on high alert. Members were told that under no uncertain terms should we entertain these lies. Stay off social media. Don’t read any articles. And don’t ever open any line of communication with these monsters.
At one point some of ‘these monsters’ were actively trying to expose the truth that Alon was an abusive religious group. A fanatical cult. ‘THEY’ got in touch with a young woman who had left Alon shortly after getting married. And together they tried to reach out to many of us in a last-ditch effort to save their friends. ‘SHE’ was a wayward woman and a Jezebel incarnate, according to our leaders.
But actually, she was a young girl who knew her own mind and who had stood up for herself. And that’s a brave thing to do when you’ve been broken.
It was ‘HER’ sms that got me into a world of trouble.: How do you escape a cult?
Larger than Life
The Ben-Avi family were larger than life. The sound of their voices travelled ahead of them wherever they went. Blue eyed and sharp tongued, they all seemed to exist in a world slightly separate from the one the rest of us dwell in. Untouchable. I envied that. I felt as if danger of misstep lurked around every corner for me and yet somehow, they managed to march surefootedly through life never requiring the guidance or correction of anyone but themselves.
Exactly how Davit occupied his days I could never quite fathom, but he took on the appearances of an immensely busy person, always flurrying from one place to the next in a haze of bustling activity leaving a wake of disruption behind him. You didn’t call on Davit to calm the waters, that was Jesus’ job anyway. Davit wasn’t a mediator, diplomat or peacekeeper. He was a firebrand, but where would we be without the instigators and rabble-rousers of this world? These characters have a way of keeping us on our toes and pushing us to new heights, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
“Expansion, expansion!” he would declare from the pulpit with a pseudo-Spanish flair, waving his arms as if in the throes of a flamenco pageant. Gazing at him, dumbfounded, his busy flock would wonder what this great revelation held for them. He would go on to elaborate such things as, “I see us being scattered throughout the earth, as a mouthpiece for Christ.” And then tell us about the exciting developments that he was witnessing on his international travels. “The harvest field is ready! And a property, a penthouse, in Larnaca is selling for such a good price. I feel so strongly that the Lord has ushered us towards this island to use it as a springboard into the middle east. But we are waiting on him for a sure sign and provision. If anyone feels to pledge money, however small the amount, give what you feel the Lord has put on your heart.”
Sometimes the expansion would be more tangible, “People, we are going to build an Olympic size pool outside of Mosaic. This community is growing, and we need more space to accommodate everyone who wants to swim.” The flock would then ooh and aah in excited agreement sort of like the minions from Despicable Me. “It would be such a wonderful facility for the high school kids to use and imagine how beautiful when guests come to host their weddings at Mosaic and there is a beautiful pool outside, reflecting the sunset. Give what you feel the Lord has put on your heart.”
Eventually, the trust was purchasing flats, houses, properties and cars at such an almighty rate that most of us were often not even aware of many new acquisitions unless our services or finances were necessary for the purchasing or overhauling of these fine assets.
There were some principles at the heartbeat of Alon that were treated like the gospel; first and foremost was: stewardship. This was the bedrock of all we did. Being a good steward meant making the most of everything we possessed, whether that be money, food, talent or time. Nothing was to go to waste.
In order to make each penny go further, it was encouraged to find loopholes in the system such as applying for financial aid for our school fees, evading taxes and asking for discounts and freebies wherever possible. Every trip to town meant fuel consumption so vehicles were expected to be refuelled before returning to the farm and the cost was split amongst the passengers – needless to say, the more the merrier! Things like milk were regarded as a luxury item and there was a list at the breakfast counter that you could tick off every morning indicating whether you had consumed a quarter, half or whole cup of milk. At the end of the month, you could settle your milk bill.
In keeping with the idea of time being a precious commodity. The more you could accomplish in a short amount of time, the greater the slap on the back. We learned to squeeze a lot of activity into one day and function on rationed sleep. Sleep was essentially a waste of time and if you seemed inclined towards taking a nap then your social ranking took a serious blow. “Work hard, play hard!” was a phrase Davit loved to spritz from the pulpit whenever the troops seemed weary.
Preachings & Teachings
The pulpit was an interesting place, you just never knew what might jump out at you from behind that tiny wooden structure. It could be spewing with outrage at the complacency of the crowd or bubbling with glad tidings of good news. Sitting your butt down on a seat was like getting a ringside view of a human lucky packet with the added bonus of possibly being roped into the sermon of the day. Davit loved to point individuals out, be it for a public display of appreciation or an example of poor behaviour. It added a certain tinge of adrenaline to every meeting. But, apart from that, the man could ramble. I don’t know if Davit ever spent any time preparing for a sermon, but it always seemed as if he spoke off the top of his head and jumped around from topic to topic randomly interspersing his view of the world with one-line scriptures from the bible.
“As I was walking up the hill, I overheard the children playing. Just imagine a world without the sound of children’s voices. So quiet. We must be like children. You know, if the rapture took place today, all the children would be taken up to heaven and I think that the thing that would plague the unbelievers left behind on earth would be the terrible quiet because there would be no sound of children playing and laughing and shouting. I heard yesterday on the news that the pope is now blessing gay marriage. I once met the pope in my younger days. But I tell you, we must be as children unto the Lord for the signs of the times are all around us. When we visit Italy after our cruise, those of you who are joining us will get a sense of the terrible spirit of lust and perversion that is hanging over Europe. Justin Bieber was in Europe recently and he was almost arrested for drug use, but he still speaks of Jesus. Isn’t that amazing? This is what happens when you forsake your childlike ways, people, utter destruction of talent. Even my good friends in France complain about the attitude of the children walking the streets, smoking and swearing already at the age of nine.
“Kyla, you would also have been one of those children, walking in your grungy clothes through the streets of Cape Town if your mother hadn’t brought you here, isn’t that amazing?” Blindsided, I dumbly nod in agreement. “And Maeve, she wanted to just come here and clean toilets and peel vegetables, but I said ‘No!’ imagine that waste of God-given talent and now she is going on a cruise to Italy! Yes Maeve, come up here, I will show you your ticket, it’s booked!” The crowd cheers as my mom walks up to the pulpit awash with gratitude.
Rules & Regulations
Davit wielded power over his flock in absurd yet effective methods. Our routines, as set as they were, could change at the drop of a hat when Davit was on the premises. Over the years, he and Sara frequented the far reaches of the planet more and more, travelling to Australia to visit their daughter, Bianca, on the way. With numerous connections in Europe and the middle east the pair could be found being entertained in circles of millionaires at five-star hotels all over the continent. So, when they graced us with their presence, Davit loved to spice things up and remind his jaded sheep that he was the source of cheer and festivity. “Fasting day is called off and we will have an off weekend from Thursday evening to Monday morning!” or “Pizza night tonight instead of shabbat meeting and we will watch a movie afterwards!” The real trick of the thing was that he and he alone had the authority to veto the rules because he was the one who put them in place.
Sometimes rules would pop up at the spur of the moment. One day, Davit happened to be on time for a Sunday morning meeting and noticed that a considerable amount of people dribbled in at the last minute. Outraged, he went on to admonish us about our lackadaisical ways and decreed that we should all strive to be at meetings fifteen minutes before the time to prepare our hearts to receive the word of God and at the latest five minutes before the actual time. This idea slowly trickled into meetings of every kind, including early morning prayer meetings. Needless to say, that was the last time we ever saw Davit on time for a meeting.
Some other rules included, “No toast for children.” (It was a waste of electricity you see – in fact Sara saved the bell for us once when Davit stumbled across and article on power consumption and discovered that hairdryers were greedy little appliances. He almost banned the use of them but fortunately Sara told him it would really tip us all over the edge, and she liked to blow dry her hair too). “No eating in front of the television in your own homes.” Or one of my all-time favourites, “No use of tumble dryers but also, no hanging of wet washing on clothes horses in your homes.” It’s interesting to note that Tzaneen has an average annual summer rainfall of up to 1500mm and sometimes it can rain on end for days or even weeks. “No picking flowers.” – unless it was for the shabbat table.
Many things were casually mentioned from the pulpit and then morphed into unofficial regulations. “It’s such a shame when parents use TV as a babysitter.” And you would get nervous every time someone glimpsed your kid watching a cartoon. “There isn’t really anything beneficial on the news these days, especially for children, so much negativity.” And then no children big or small were ever permitted to watch the news again. “Sometimes the biggest sign of disrespect is when a child doesn’t greet you by your name.” And then every little kid became a greeting robot.
The power of the pulpit
Another nifty trick was to address someone indirectly from the pulpit. “Isn’t it amazing that even today, despite having the funds, Sara and I still don’t own a car of our own and yet some people want to constantly trade in their cars for newer models. Just a status symbol.” And the poor soul who was hoping to upgrade their outdated jalopy for a newer model would keep bumping along the dusty roads decades behind the times.
There were moments when subtlety went clear out the window and we’d all bear witness to Davit’s ranting about someone’s transgressions, “This afternoon I went past Ruan and Kerry’s house to have a cup of tea.” And even out of the corner of your eye you could sense them beginning to squirm in their seats. “Aren’t they such a beautiful, vibrant young couple? Just like this beautiful Saturday afternoon with the sun shining and the birds singing. Well, unfortunately I had to get my tea somewhere else, because they weren’t there. I mean they were there in body – on their bed, but in spirit they were in la la land.” The colour rising to their cheeks their heads drop. “Did you have a nice sleepy Ruan? Maybe you were ministering to your wife and feeding her the word of God by the spirit, hey?” And then, the rest of us would thank our lucky stars that either we hadn’t succumbed to the urge of snoozing or that Davit hadn’t made his rounds past our houses.
Putting someone on the spot to shine a positive light on them happened too, but that sly fox knew how to do it in such a way that it would make someone else feel less than or second guess their own actions. For instance, let’s say two couples had invited Davit and Sara for a meal that week. And you have to understand that when you invited Davit for a meal it was a lavish affair because he spoke so openly about his likes and dislikes, and we were all so acutely aware of his myriad ailments and allergies.
“Nina, my girl, what a beautiful spread you prepared for us. People, people, it’s truly a treat eating at Jules and Nina’s. Such a cute couple! And the food, what was that dish called? Oh, it was superb.” And that would be it, not a mention of the other couple. You can bet your bottom dollar that the unmentioned hostess would never prepare the unmentionable meal again and would walk around for a couple of days wondering if the food she cooked was perhaps an outward display of a sinful heart that she had been previously unaware of. No, my dear, what you have is a simple case of gaslighting.
What began as a semi-circle of seating facing the pulpit eventually fanned out into a tight arc of multiple rows in front of the stage – eventually constructed as a permanent fixture in our place of worship. Every additional row of seats was like the rings on a great tree, marking its steady growth towards the light. We were likened to trees, and its true that we were rooted, only I’m not sure we were branching out so much as we were crowding together to form a tightly knit canopy that cast deeper shade with every passing year.
Meetings were an integral part of our life as a Christian community. Most were held according to a relatively predictable schedule but like all other societies ours too was impervious to the influx of the smart phone. WhatsApp meant that we were on 24hour beck and call. With the convenience of broadcast messages and WhatsApp groups, meeting times and locations could be adjusted at the drop of a hat. To switch your phone off at night was to commit spiritual treason, if there was need for an impromptu prayer meeting in the middle of the night, then hallelujah for the modern miracle of cell phone technology.
Praying for the sick
Davit was preoccupied with health and wellbeing – his health and wellbeing specifically, because the man endured health issues that a lesser being would have perished under. Joyce, his wayward mother was the cause for all of this because she had deigned to feed him milk and sugar instead of allowing him to suckle at her breast. But tit for tat I suppose…
The amount of times I have heard the phone buzz in the night and the tired shuffle of men’s feet passing by, making their faithful trek to Davit’s house or some allocated meeting place in an effort to pray off an allergic reaction of some sort is impossible to count.
Let me tell you, that a bigger baby I have never encountered. Sniffing and snorting and yelling for “Saaaaarrrra!” begging for another cup of her special ginger tea to wash away the allergens. Hours he would spend poring over medical journals and health blogs. Adjusting his diet until all he could consume was the fat of the land, free-range, organic, pricey fare purchased at the finest health shops and delicatessens our country could provide.
The man was a bloody medical marvel as far as I could tell. Allergic to wheat, gluten, dairy, sugar, preservatives and anything that didn’t taste good, he still managed to consume an enormous helping of colourful food – at least he never lost his appetite and survived countless scoops of ice cream.
To his credit, Davit loved to share with great enthusiasm, not only the word of God but also health tips from his pulpit. Cayenne pepper was glugged down in the mornings, there was a long spell of oil pulling with half the community going about their morning routines with a mouthful of coconut oil sloshing around in their mouths. Turmeric was suddenly added to the list of vegetables that grew in our huge veggie patch and we were all encouraged to consume mountains of it. Kefir, kombucha and honeycomb was readily available. At one stage we were advised to increase our vitamin D uptake by exposing 80% of our skin to pure sunshine for 20minutes every day. Where he thought we’d find the time to all strip down to our bathing suits and loll around in the sunshine, God alone knows. It was moments like these that I became more firmly convinced that he and his kin lived in a parallel universe.
As with many large organisations, the management becomes more and more out of touch with it’s employees and there came a time when I think many of us suffered under Davit’s inability to keep tabs on all his spur of the moment decisions. And like any good dictator, he had created a barrier between himself and his subjects that consisted of nothing else but fear. The fear would keep anyone from speaking up and reminding him that perhaps some of his mandates were out of date. Did he know how little we had to survive on when he encouraged us to buy expensive vitamins and buy sheepskin slippers? Was he really so oblivious to our financial standing that he assumed we could sashay into Europe on a cruise trip and happily make ends meet?
Oh, how he did love to cruise the high seas. I suppose there were many reasons for taking groups of his congregation onboard MSC’s majestic fleet of ocean liners. For one, you get a good discount when you make group bookings. It’s also easier to justify your lavish lifestyle if you make it available to others. And, for those who couldn’t afford to pay their way it was a handy tool for blackmail.
Subtle blackmailing was one of Davit’s trademarks. It’s a dangerous thing to allow yourself to feel indebted to others. A potent exchange of power.
Sara was more direct. Not one to mince her words, she simply cut you down with her quick and blunt assessments of your actions, attitude and personality traits. Like the moral loudspeaker of the community, Sara didn’t draw you aside and quietly counsel you in the hopes of moulding your character, honesty was her policy. Or so I thought.
That’s the thing about this power couple. They were nothing alike besides the way they rolled their R’s and projected their voices. Besides their sky-blue eyes and permanent tans they looked very different, Davit was tall and lanky, Sara short and stocky. Where Davit was an avid researcher on all things health and apocalypse related, the only reading material Sara ever got stuck into was her daily devotional bible. Davit was obsessed with healthy eating and Sara loved to graze on junk food. He extended his eagerness with a wholesome diet to his immediate family and his grown son would hide his coca cola under the table if his dad walked by, Davit seemed to be the only other living being capable of evoking any glimmer of trepidation in Gad. But Sara was immune to the haze of healthful living that encompassed the rest of her kin and happily drank coke and ate chocolates in full view of her manic husband. She seemed to be the only person he was willing to back off from.
But if Gad feared his father he made up for it in asserting himself in the lives of everyone else in the community and like an avalanche that picks up velocity and power as it thunders down a mountainside, Gad’s clout and sovereignty was growing insidiously until one day it was beyond the jurisdiction of even Davit and Sara.
But until then, this happy trio blazed a trembling trail through our little community perched atop a hill in the shimmering forests of sub-tropical Tzaneen.
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Love is Patient, Love is Kind and Cults are Clever
This is a reference post, intended to serve as a quick go-to when the story I am telling just doesn’t add up. Think of it as a cult/psych 101… except that I am not a psychologist!
Also, I am not a huge fan of labels and boxes and sometimes I feel like all these phycological labels get thrown around haphazardly and become… hazardous. But I recognise that it’s very comforting and helpful to know that some of the things we experience are shared experiences, that we are not alone and it is empowering when you have the vocabulary to describe your struggles, experiences and triumphs. Also, it’s great to have some apt terminology in your back pocket that you can whip out at any moment and say, “See, this is real, I’m not crazy and I’m not making this shit up.”
Cults are a little understood psychological phenomenon. It takes two to tango in this dance of power play and while there is plenty of research out there about ex cult members there is little to no material on cult leaders. I guess that’s not surprising because in order to get proper research you’ll need to find a cult leader who recognises that that is what they are. “Sure, I’ll do a psych evaluation for you. As a cult leader, I have to say that I am just so honoured to be part of this important work.” Yeah, that probably won’t happen, but nothing is impossible. Anyway, what we do know for now is based on ex-culties recollections and all the signs point towards narcissism being the driving force behind cult leaders.
So here are a couple of terms that may be helpful:
Although love bombing is usually referred to in the context of a romantic relationship, it is also a term that can often be found in explanations about the psychological dynamics in a cult. And considering that love bombing is a tactic associated with narcissists and that cult leaders are almost always narcissists, then, well, you know.
Essentially love bombing is a clever ploy of manipulation.
In a cult setting new recruits/potential members are lavished with love, attention, praise and acceptance. Even when they behave in a way that isn’t acceptable within the cult’s culture, their actions are met with tolerance, patience and humour.
So when you wonder to yourself how someone can find a cult so appealing, then this is a big part of the answer.
Cognitive dissonance is basically the way we rationalise things in an effort to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing, even if what we do conflicts with our core values.
There are various settings where this can occur but within a cult, this dissonance is closely related to peer pressure. For instance, a new recruit may feel that they never get enough sleep and are deprived of free time, yet, when they look around them they see all the other cult members smiling and full of energy, they convince themselves that if they go along with the routine they too will be smiling and happy.
Or a new member may be confronted with actions that oppose their moral code such as seeing a child being spanked and scolded. But the new member will justify these actions because no one else seems bothered and because the people doing these things are the same people who have gained the new member’s trust by, you guessed it – LOVE BOMBING!
Gaslighting is a sly way of making you feel like you are doing/saying something wrong even when you know you are in the right. I found these checklists on HEALTHLINE and they pretty much sum up the way I felt most of my adult life at Alon.
Someone who’s gaslighting might:
- insist you said or did things you know you didn’t do
- deny or scoff at your recollection of events
- call you “too sensitive” or “crazy” when you express your needs or concerns
- express doubts to others about your feelings, behavior, and state of mind
- twisting or retelling events to shift blame to you
- insist they’re right and refuse to consider facts or your perspective
Signs and symptoms of gaslighting:
Experiencing gaslighting can leave you second-guessing yourself constantly, not to mention overwhelmed, confused, and uncertain about your ability to make decisions on your own.
Other key signs you’re experiencing gaslighting include:
- an urge to apologize all the time
- believing you can’t do anything right
- frequent feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or worry
- a loss of confidence
- constantly wondering if you’re too sensitive
- feeling disconnected from your sense of self, as if you’re losing your identity
- believing you’re to blame when things go wrong
So it goes like this: you’re new and skeptical, therefore in order to keep you from leaving, you’re showered with good vibes and friendliness until you eventually let your guard down. That’s LOVEBOMBING
Then, when you’re beginning to enter the inner circle of cult life and being included in meetings etc. that only members normally attend you may be confronted with confusing and conflicting situations but you reconcile what you are seeing or experiencing with yourself because all these other awesome people seem to be okay with it. That’s COGNITIVE DISSONANCE (or what most of us can relate to as peer pressure, just more subversive I guess).
Now that you appear to be serious about hanging around and showing some commitment, the tables start to turn and where you were once met with love and acceptance you are now met with judgment and admonishment. When you kick against this turn of events you’re made to believe it is because there is something wrong with you. That’s GASLIGHTING
And finally, if you are able to soldier through the gaslighting round then you emerge again at step one, and the lovebombing starts all over again. Then around and around you go, until you are so confused and craving so much to find mercy and acceptance that you will do and believe anything just to get that lovebomb again.
It’s really like a junkie, just scrambling to get their next fix and the dealers know they can ask whatever price they want… and they do.
*Many names have been changed out of curtesy and respect for innocent parties. It is also important to note that the story outlined below is merely a recollection of tales as shared by Davit Ben-Avi over the two decades that I knew him. There is no evidence to suggest that any of these claims regarding his heritage are true. What is true is the manner in which he used these tales to weave a web of both pitiful beginnings and staggering family drama to highlight his miraculous rise as a man of God despite his apparently questionable beginnings .
Two Star-Crossed Lovers
Let me introduce you to Duncan Hollis. Born in the fifties to a party girl and a con artist, it’s believed that Duncan’s mother, June, wasn’t delighted at the prospect of maternity and attempted to abort her pregnancy, but the baby refused to exit her womb and so began a battle of the wills between mother and child that would exist until her dying day. In an effort to escape the law and some unhappy investors with diminished bank accounts, his father fled the country when Duncan was but a boy – never to return to his wife and children again.
June may not have been a natural born nurturer but her largely Jewish family provided the backdrop of domesticity to her children’s lives that she was unable to give them. Duncan’s grandmother took care of him and his younger sisters. It was her home that would be his reference of childhood and family ideals.
There was occasionally mention of the poverty they sometimes endured, having to resort to old newspaper when there was no money for loo rolls. But on the whole, the family home was an ebb and flow of relatives, friends and secular Jewish culture.
The Hollis’ lived in the seaside town called The Strand on the outskirts of Cape Town, overlooking False Bay. Duncan became a happy hippy surfer of the seventies and could be found padding down the main road, surfboard under the arm, his sun-bleached hair flapping merrily in the wind.
It’s on one such sunny day that Sara first saw her husband to be. The legend goes that the moment she laid eyes on him, this timid, conservative Afrikaans girl from a poor, inland farming community declared: “I am going to marry that man.”
They did get married, but not before their first child was conceived. Bianca was born soon after Duncan and Sara wed. Sara was just shy of twenty-one when she became a mother but having a baby in her arms was when she finally discovered her sweet spot in this life. Little did she know that in years to come she would be referred to fondly as “the mother of the nations” much like Abraham’s Sara from the biblical past.
Two years later Sara gave birth to a ginger haired little boy who would be her pride and joy despite his propensity for defiance and mischief. Dustin was everything his sister wasn’t: loud, energetic and constantly in trouble. But the two siblings balanced each other out and as much as Dustin found a haven in his mother’s arms, Bianca had a special place in her daddy’s heart.
Now with an expanding family to provide for, the Holwills opened a coffee shop that turned out to be a huge success. With Dougie’s knack for business and Sara’s finesse in the kitchen their little eatery was never empty.
But Duncan wanted more. Domestic bliss wasn’t going to cut it for this wildcat. He hadn’t clawed onto the very wall of life from day one just to own a coffee shop. What else was out there? What was this life all about? What was the point to this existence? And then he found Jesus. He was engulfed by spiritual zeal almost from day one. “On fire for Jesus” as some might say. His heroes were the spiritual outliers and revolutionists who had not shied away from breaking the mould and risking their very lives and reputations for the message of the cross.
As much as Sara had found her purpose cradling babies, Duncan found his spark when the power of the holy spirit engulfed him – anything was now possible. The more he learned about the great evangelists and spiritual pioneers the more Duncan felt convinced that the little buzzing coffee shop he and Sara had built up from scratch was not his place in this world. He was searching, speculating and the cogs of his young mind were turning at a newfound pace.
They will run and not grow weary, They will walk and not grow faint.Isaiah 40v31
Much to Sara’s dismay they sold their business and began their pursuit of evangelical proprietary. The church was God’s business and Duncan was ready to invest. His Jewish roots seemed to deepen as he studied the psalms and the exploits of Jesus. Duncan wanted to dance as David had danced in the streets of Jerusalem and pray as Jesus had prayed along the shores of Galilee. And so, with barely a penny to his name he booked a ticket to the Holy land of Israel and left his small family so that he could seek out the voice of the almighty and run his fingers over the stones his ancestors had laid in the land of the living.
Left behind to fend for their little family, Sara was told to trust in the Lord to provide as their bank account neared nil. She understood that zeroes didn’t bode well, after all she had been a bank teller before Duncan had thrust her into a life of entrepreneurship. But it had been easier to see reason in his bold take on life as the figures in their coffee shop books slowly climbed. Now, jobless and nearly penniless with her zealous husband far away in a land she only knew about from Sunday school she was at a loss.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”Matthew 6 v 25
“Have faith Sara, the Lord will provide. Do not ask your family for help, this is a test of your faith.” His words would ring in her ears every night as she lay in her bed worrying about how she would feed her two sleeping children. And miraculously they pulled through.
On Duncan’s return she could see her husband was different. He had let go of the former things and he was more passionate about Christ than ever before, spending hours studying the word of God from his well-thumbed and battered bible. Trusting the Holy Spirit to teach him and reveal new truths to him, Duncan was on a one-man mission towards enlightenment and Sara had better start running or she may never catch up to him again.
The World Tour
I don’t know how, but they managed to get enough funds together to allow them to begin travelling the world and meeting fellow believers from around the globe. Their travels took them to Minnesota, New York, Israel, New Zealand and possibly a few other pitstops along the way. At some point Sara’s belly began to swell once again and a little angel called Alona filled her arms one last time.
The family of five found themselves, by divine intervention, in a Christian commune in New Zealand where they spent a long season, reportedly learning the value of submission both unto man and unto The Lord. It was a harsh discipleship. Dougie was made to contribute to the community by doing physical labour and apparently, he was sometimes even called upon to clean the very toilets. It was a sore point for him and a scar that he seemed to carry into his Pastoral career.
One day Duncan had a vision while lying in a field gazing at the clouds scudding along the blue sky. He never said exactly what the vision was, but it’s clear that it involved him and Sara heading a group of people called to do God’s work and it definitely didn’t involve him cleaning one more toilet.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.Acts 2v44-47
When the young visionary got home to his wife who had been, as ever, dutifully minding the children, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that she too had experienced something vision-like dropping into her heart. They knew now that the cloud was moving on and like Moses leading the Israelites through the Sinai, Duncan led his wife and family out of the confines of the Christian community in New Zealand.
Their meanderings also gifted them with a stay at another Christian commune in Minnesota called Ben Israel. As the name would suggest, this group had an affinity with Israel. Much of the teachings and bible studies were focused on God’s love for his people, the Hebrews, and Duncan Hollis appreciated these sentiments.
Ben Israel was an international community of born-again Christians and drew members from as far afield as Switzerland and Denmark. It is right there in the deep, cold Minnesota winter that Duncan and Sara met some of the people who, unbeknownst to them at the time, would turn out to be part of the founding group of their very own Christian community in the desert town of Oudtshoorn, South Africa.
A Symphony of Synchronicity
For the Hollis’, the world tour served as a crash course on communal living and a baptism of fire into the world of spiritual leadership. So, upon returning to their homeland they set out to find a place they could settle, much like the Israelites of old. At first, the pillar of cloud seemed indeed to point towards Oudtshoorn and by hook or by crook (for lack of a better phrase) Duncan secured an old house for them to dwell in.
At the time, the South African military had a conscription policy and by law young men were called up for one year of basic training upon leaving high school or after completing their tertiary education. Coincidentally, Oudtshoorn was home to a large military base and thus, Duncan had the opportunity to evangelise many a young, jaded off-duty soldier.
There were marches through the streets carrying crosses, banners and posters declaring Jesus to be the one and only saviour of the world. Bible studies were held within the walls of the Hollis’ home and more than a few baptisms took place in their bathtub.
Coincidentally, four of the young soldiers who spent their downtime in personal prayer and guidance from Duncan would later become anointed as leaders to help him and Sara fulfil their vision of a community of believers dwelling together in unity.
Feeling a strong calling to be a tool in God’s hand for the salvation of the Jews and considering Duncan’s Jewish roots, Duncan officially changed his name to Davit and the Hollis’ surname was also replaced by Ben-Avi. Duncan was no longer a son of a party girl and a con artist; Davit Ben-Avi was now a son of Abraham and of God (In Hebrew Ben means son and Avi is Abraham).
Oudtshoorn had served them well and provided a wonderful brotherhood of promising leaders, many of whom remained committed members to his small home church even after the completion of their basic military training. They were also joined by adventurous friends that the Ben-Avi’s had met on their international travels.
Davit could sense that Oudtshoorn was becoming too small for any further expansion of his ministry and after scouting out several possible new regions in the country, he finally felt the peace of God in the unexpected territory of Tzaneen, a far-flung agricultural town in one of the Northern-most fertile tracts of land the country had to offer. How this farm overlooking the subtropical valley of Tzaneen and it’s distant Wolkberg mountains was paid for, remains a mystery – at least to me. But the Lord’s ways are mysterious.
And so, in the early nineties, a caravan of young believers from all walks of life and nations could be seen making their way up-country in a trail of vehicles and moving trucks. Alon farm was established like a long-promised Oak of righteousness, a planting of The Lord.
Not a year later but Davit and Sara’s precious little girl, Alona was diagnosed with brain cancer and died in what would have been her first year of primary school. The loss was devastating, their little acorn was wrenched from her mother’s arms and buried beneath the wild fig tree at the bottom of the garden.
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. John 12v24. It was the scripture that her parents clung to in order to try and make sense of her death. And it really did seem as though Alona was a little kernel of wheat that ushered in a big harvest of members to Alon Christian community. It also set the precedent for members to accept that blessings come from sacrifice. If Davit and Sara could sacrifice their own daughter for the kingdom of God, then who was anyone to complain about giving up their own ambitions and worldly goods?
Where my Little Story Begins
A couple of years later, a burnt-out artist and her daughter joined the ranks of Alon’s growing numbers. You guessed it, that kid is me! Our story isn’t the most tragic, dramatic or heroic, but it’s the only one I can give a first-hand account of, so here we go.