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Tracy Simmons and her mom before joining a cult in elementary school

I’d forgotten why I became a religion reporter

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By Tracy Simmons

After Coffee Talk last month a friend texted me and said, “Your smile is gone.”

I didn’t know it was evident.

In the course of teaching at two universities that are 75 miles apart while managing the ins and outs of SpokaneFāVS, Coffee Talk had just become another “to do” on my list. It felt meaningless — in the busyness of it all — I had forgotten why I become a religion reporter in the first place.

That story begins in Albuquerque.

Only recently have I begun to share pieces of this story publicly. I’ve dropped the word “cult” into guest sermons here and there and have alluded on social media to my broken family.

The religion beat is unique in that those I interview want to probe my own background. When I covered politics, no one asked who I was voting for. When I covered sports, no one asked what team I cheered for. But covering religion means being faced with these constant questions:

  • What religion were you raised in?
  • Why did you become a religion reporter?
  • What religion are you now?

A reporter is purposely evasive. I realize, though, that partly why I didn’t share is simply because I didn’t want to.

I didn’t want to think about what I was taught, who taught it and how those messages have taken my mother from me. I thought about my friend’s text and realized my smile was gone because I had lost my vocational motivation by letting everyday distractions stifle my memories. And those recollections are what move me to be a religion reporter.

Those experiences generated my motive to educate people about various faiths and to provide dialogue and community engagement opportunities around the issues and thoughts regarding those beliefs.

I still hesitate using the word “cult” in describing the religious sect I grew up in because it brings up wrong ideas. We didn’t live on a compound, there was no sexual or physical abuse, we weren’t asked to drink the Kool-Aid. On TV that’s what a cult is, but in reality a cult is a religious group that is exclusive and authoritarian. There are, of course, other aspects too. Cults are controlling, the leaders get special God-given knowledge, there’s indoctrination, group think, cognitive dissonance, and so on.

The group I was raised in was exclusive in that, like other groups that exercise enormous power over their adherents, they are the only ones who are right, and if you leave them, your salvation is in danger. It’s authoritarian in that its leader expects unquestioned and unwavering loyalty and obedience.

There isn’t a name for the group I was raised in. It’s led by one man Sam Soleyn a self-proclaimed apostle who says he gets direct revelation from God. To his thousands – yes thousands – of followers, his teachings are Gospel.

Soleyn is smart. He has a doctorate of jurisprudence from the University of New Mexico and has managed to recruit thousands of followers from New Mexico to Texas to Washington D.C., all the way to his native the Caribbean and beyond to South Africa. And he’s done all this while remaining under the media’s radar and off of social media.

He preaches doctrine you might expect: Homosexuality is wrong, abortion is wrong, premarital sex is wrong, tithe 10 percent, be prepared for Jesus’ return, and so on.

But Soleyn’s theology goes much deeper and becomes much more questionable than these typical fundamentalist teachings. For instance, he says to isolate from the rest of the world, because of rest of the world is wrong.

“Three years ago I prophesied, ‘Come my children, enter your rooms, close your doors, hide yourselves for a little while,’” he says in a sermon. “I explained to you then that what the Lord was saying was that a time where truth was of no particular value to a people, had come and that God was going to pull his people out from the public forum so that the world could engage itself – the world and the secular church – could engage themselves in debates based on sociology and not on the Scriptures and that we were to be silent and offer no participation in any of that…”

He teaches that you start out by being a “son” who needs a “spiritual father” to guide and discipline you. Perhaps ultimately you can make your way to a patriarch. “A patriarch is a father (man or woman, supposedly) who is mature enough and (in) depth of relationship with the Lord such that he no longer needs oversight…. If there would ever be a need to bring correction to a patriarch, the matter would be judged by a delegation of apostles,” according to Sam’s website. Anyone — like you or me — who does not have a spiritual father from Sam’s group is an orphan.

He teaches dogmatism: “The biblical standard is not ‘love is tolerant.’ That is the convenient view of the popular culture today….Tolerance… lacks convictions. It is a human standard and not a divine one.” I read those lines in a letter written by my mom and stepdad – and, I’m convinced, Sam — sent me three years ago.

Soleyn teaches that those who don’t believe his truth do not have God in their lives. As my mother, et al, wrote in that same letter: “Truth is an eternal plumb line by which we are to live and by which we are eventually judged. For a people who choose not to retain God in their knowledge, these are quaint notions easily sacrificed on the altar of convenience, mere traditions to be discarded in the greater goal of human freedom.”

In that letter I was told that because we couldn’t agree on Sam’s theology, we could no longer be in relationship. I’m confident that that “order” came directly from Sam and was never questioned. With these words, my mom wrote off her only child.

Exclusive. Authoritarian. It’s a dangerous combo. And that’s why I became a religion reporter. Because there are “Sams” everywhere. I talked to a cult expert once, and he told me he learns about a new cult leader every single day.

That’s scary, but for lots of reasons it’s not surprising. There are vulnerable people looking for belonging and unknowingly aching for the comfort of someone telling them what to do and what to think. Enter Sam. There are others looking for power. Enter Sam with his message of “fathers” and “patriarchs.”

I don’t write about religion and urge others to do the same just because I want to prevent people from joining cults. I do it because it’s easy to be close-minded.

Being narrow-minded spawns fear, hostility and as we already saw above — intolerance. It also breeds ignorance. It becomes a place of order where critical thinking skills aren’t needed. Being receptive to others takes work, takes intentionality. It means trying to understand what your neighbors believe, and why, what their traditions are, and how such customs are practiced — even if it’s uncomfortable. Because wouldn’t we want the same consideration for our own beliefs?

That’s where the religion reporter comes in. Someone well-versed in theology needs to study and write about the belief systems in a community, needs to put a human face on Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and so on. You might not even know you wanted to learn about the synagogue on the corner until you pick up the paper, or click on a link that caught your attention.

As a high schooler I lived next door to a Hindu family. I was taught they were wrong and weird. Not once did we try to understand them or their culture. To me, it was our own lack of respectful curiosity that was wrong and weird, and countering that attitude was a driving force in my finding the God beat.

My mom and stepdad think what I do for a living is spiritually dangerous. Educating people about other faiths is spreading a doctrine acceptance, tolerance, respect that’s not Sam’s, and thus a wrong theology. They refuse to read my articles or visit SpokaneFāVS.com.

I’ve been thinking about my mom a lot while writing this column. It was just the two of us growing up, and her absence hurts. But in that pain I find meaning in what I do. Bearing that pain I can only hope that during my 14 years of writing about religion, the stories I’ve written have softened some hearts and connected new and unexpected friends. Owning that pain, I can only hope that the stories I will write over the next 14 years will re-connect human beings, whatever their creed, more lovingly to each other.

Tracy Simmons

About Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 15 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. She serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and for the Religion News Service. She is also a Lecturer of Strategic Communication at University of Idaho.

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17 comments

  1. Thank you for being brave and vulnerable and telling your story here, Tracy. Your commitment to religion reporting and helping people learn about others’ faiths has made a difference and will continue to do so. We are lucky to have you!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Tracy. What a powerful message, and I can only imagine how excruciatingly difficult losing your mom must have been. It’s really neat to see the vocation you’ve been able to bring out of that difficult situation, and also to see the inspiration behind Favs. I’m really glad I read this!

  3. Kelli Yukiko Quan-Martin

    It’s been a while, friend. It’s truly amazing how little we recognize about the lives others have lived and are currently living. I found it enlightening to read your story, especially knowing that I considered you a friend during this time in your life, and yet, I was blind to so much of this. Reading your stories and seeing your posts on social media still connect us, and I am glad too still be “getting to know you.” You are a strong person, you always have been. And you amaze me!

    • So good to hear from you Kelli! Outside of soccer, I don’t think I recall much about your homelife either…funny how that happens. Glad we’ve reconnected 🙂

  4. You are doing great work Tracy! We are fortunate to have you.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story, Tracy.

  6. Tracy, thanks for sharing your story and for providing a space for others to do the same. You make a difference.

  7. What an amazing story from an amazing person

  8. I really appreciate you telling your story, Tracy. I appreciate it because we all need to hear this to appreciate the origins of your vocation – a vocation that I personally have benefitted from greatly. But I also think it is important for all us to remember what prompted the passions and interests we have, so we can refresh our batteries and look again with new eyes. So thank you for prompting us to do that too.

  9. I’m so glad to know you. Your compassion and curiosity and respect for others never ceases to inspire. Keep writing.

  10. Also, ‘tolerance lacks convictions’… can I take a second on that? It is much easier, in my opinion, to decide you dislike/fear/hate someone else. That requires little thought and effort. To be truly respectful and curious and interested in what other people are and who they are takes courage and conviction and daily dedication that most people would rather not bother with. It is too hard. It is not popular on either side of most issues.

  11. Tracy, when you write ” Owning that pain, I can only hope that the stories I will write over the next 14 years will re-connect human beings, whatever their creed, more lovingly to each other.” It goes straight to my heart. And yes, only by reaching people’s hearts with stories that invoke empathy can we change things to be more loving. all the reason in the world won’t make it passed people’s deep seated emotional responses, I’ve come to learn reading up on neuroscience lately. I’ve also learned, that these kinds of cult figures provide something people desperately want — a sense of stability they aren’t getting because they don’t have good loving attachment skills which leaves people vulnerable.

  12. Mark L. Kennedy

    Tracy, first of all, thank you for sharing this difficult story. I, too, have encountered much the same as part of my experience with Sam Soleyn. It is hard to discuss even now how it was that I was drawn into the “cult” like Soleyn snare. It sounded so good at first with expanded teaching on Kingdom living and the exercising of the five-fold ministry. This was new ground for me as my background was strictly confined to the high church teaching of the denomination I had been born into. Sam certainly could talk, and talk, and talk…and one could hear the same thing over and over with only slight twists and turns and suddenly you would find yourself accepting what was being said. As Sam’s influence began spreading to much of the U.S., he also began taking overseas trips and his following grew to quite large numbers. Although he claimed to have oversight from a “long time friend and mentor” there was no accountability visible nor actively seen. Only later, when sharing with others left wounded from the exclusive and authoritarian manner Sam exercised over his followers, would it become evident to me that it all boiled down to “Sam’s way or the highway”. There is a clear pattern of wounded ex-followers of his teaching left scattered behind. And then his teaching became quite strange, as he dictated that to be one of his followers it would be necessary for every person to declare a personal “spiritual father” with the idea being just as you described in your article. This was the end for me as the control factor became such and issue for me that I withdrew from this group. I lost some “friends” over this but knew it had to be done. God has been faithful, however, and has surrounded me with a small group of believers (some who were also once part of the Soleyn followers) and together we have actually enjoyed the healing process as we have found a rekindled passion for knowing Jesus. I will be reading more of your writings as time goes along and thank you for your honesty!

    • Hi Mark,

      Thank you for sharing your experience here. I’m glad to hear you got away! I wish you all the best on your new faith journey,

      – Tracy

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