An ABC Nightline crew spent a total of seven hours at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church last Saturday and Sunday — in addition to four days of shooting on location in California — as they filmed interviews and the congregation’s worship service for a Nightline segment scheduled to air this Thursday at 11:30 p.m. (CST).
The subjects of the feature are the 33-year-old twins, Flor and Tamar Edwards, who had spent eight years of their childhood, along with their parents and 10 siblings, in a cult in Thailand. According to Flor, the cult, called the Children of God, at one time included 12,000 adherents who were spread throughout the world, mostly in Third World countries.
Nightline decided to feature the twins’ experiences after reading a story Flor wrote after receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California Riverside. The feature will focus partly on what life was like in their compound in Thailand.
“I wasn’t allowed to leave without permission,” Flor wrote. “If I did, I’d be giving up my birthright as one of God’s 144,000 chosen and would forfeit my spot in heaven, come the apocalypse in 1993. I would be 12 when the world ended. Father David, the cult’s charismatic leader, said we would be God’s martyrs. It was the price we had to pay for being God’s chosen ones. Most of my childhood was spent fantasizing about the details of my death. Father David lived in hiding. My parents followed him but were never allowed to see him. I never knew what he looked like. The world outside was referred to as ‘the system.’
“We woke up every morning at 7 a.m.,” she recalled. “By 7:30 our rooms were immaculate and spotless, the bed sheets unwrinkled and firm. We slept in rooms sometimes filled with 15-20 children. With little water supply and limited space, we kids showered communally and slept in tight quarters. Having to take our clothes off in the humid tropical afternoons or during nap time was not uncommon.”
The cult began to fall apart after Fr. David’s predicted end of the world in 1993 didn’t happen.
“When you grow up in an apocalyptic cult,” Flor wrote, “and the due date for the end of the world rolls around and nothing happens, it’s rather anticlimactic.” Father David died a year later, which guaranteed that the cult would fall apart.
The feature then shifts focus to the twins’ transition to life in the U.S. when they were 12 years old and the role the Thai church played in that process.
Pastor Pongsak Limthongviratn remembered receiving a call from the Edwards family saying that they had been missionaries in Thailand, had little money and no place to stay.
“I had a tough decision to make,” he recalled. “Most denominations see the Children of God as a cult, if not heresy. I remember telling Bill and Ann Edwards that I decided to take a risk to support them, not because I didn’t know about the cult, but because I was compelled by Christ’s teaching in the great commandment to love one another. To me love is the most powerful witness. Love outlasts man-made theology or doctrines. We have to love all people as Christ has loved us.”
The Thai church supported the family with a gift of $3,000 for a year, and a family in the congregation let them use an apartment rent free. Tamar Edwards said the Thai church “anchored us — our family was in survival mode.” The twins remember feeling a sense of “being home” when they were in the Thai church. They heard Thai being spoken and the Bible was central to the congregation’s life as it had been in their Thai compound. The congregation gladly included them in activities like classical Thai dancing and the Christmas program.
Flor recalled, “I can’t tell my story these days without mentioning what the Thai church did for our family that year.”
St. Paul was an anchor for Tamar and Flor because in some ways the transition into the “real world” of 1990s America was more traumatic for them than life in the cult had been.
Everything was new.
“I was in my own state of survival,” said Flor, “trying to figure out how I was going to make it as a teenager in a world I knew little about. High school turned into a disaster, with both Tamar and I getting kicked out twice each for having alcohol and weed. Numbing our minds became our way of dealing with the world.”
Tamar is presently living in San Francisco where she teaches yoga. Flor lives in Los Angles and is working on a memoir. In their interview at the Thai church, surrounded by LED lights, cameras and sound equipment, ABC reporter Reena Ninan asked them how they felt about their experience of living in a cult and the difficult transition to life in the U.S.
“I don’t harbor anger,” Flor replied. “I don’t know who to be angry at. I do have a hard time thinking about God. I would like to break through my resistance to religion and get involved in something.”
Tamar said, “I don’t feel God betrayed me. At this point I feel well grounded in my spirituality. I chose not to be a victim.”
Flor noted that positive things have come out of their “out of the mainstream” experiences.
“Tamar and I had each other and we still do. The struggles in my life have led to empathy. I now see being different and unique as a gift.”
Although some members of the Thai church felt like the presence of the TV cameras was an invasion of their privacy, most enjoyed the filming process. Pastor Pongsak sent an email to church members last Sunday morning before the congregation’s 4 p.m. worship service saying, “It was good to see Flor and Tamar yesterday. They are very spirited young adults now. They and the ABC Nightline team will come back to join our service today. Please invite friends to join us.”
As far as he knows, St. Paul is the only Thai church to have appeared on ABC, and it has happened twice — in 2004 featuring their Christmas service and now in 2015.
Flor Edwards’ complete 20-page story which was published online by Narratively can be reached at http://narrative.ly/stories/my-childhood-in-an-apocalyptic-cult/