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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Thursday, Mar. 8, 2018 8 months ago

Winter Park resident Charlene Edge escaped a fundamentalist cult

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The Winter Parker is sharing her story through a book she published last year.
by: Tim Freed Associate Editor

One Winter Park resident has a story of manipulation, escape and a fresh start — and she’s sharing it with the world.

Charlene L. Edge is the author of “Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International,” which gives a detailed account of how she joined the faith-based group and how it controlled more than a decade of her life. She will be among the panelists at this year’s Winter Park Library Book Festival, which takes place Saturday, March 10. Edge will appear on an 11 a.m. panel titled “Publishing: Traditional, Self or Electronic. Which is Write for You?”

For those interested in learning more about her experience in the cult, Edge will speak at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m on Wednesday, March 21 at Rollins College. 

“To me it’s an important story — it has universal parts to it; it’s not just The Way or this terrible cult leader,” Edge said. “It serves as an example.”

HOW IT BEGAN

It all began in 1970 when Edge was a college freshman at East Carolina University.

“I was looking for more than a college degree,” Edge said. “I was looking for Christian fellowship and some knowledge about the Bible.”

“They said, ‘When you get off to college, be sure to find yourself a fellowship and keep reading the Bible and stay out of trouble.’”

She found a fellowship on campus that met on Fridays — and that’s when she met two people who were recruiting for The Way International.

“These two fellows started to chime in and challenged the minister and had some things to say that I thought were very interesting,” Edge said. “They said, ‘We can teach you the accuracy of the word.’ That’s really what got me going.”

In retrospect, Edge said she realized The Way International was recruiting at colleges because they were looking for future leaders. 

Much of the group’s appeal had to do with The Way Founder Victor Paul Wierwille, who was reportedly able to teach people how to speak in tongues and that he could hear God. 

Wierwille even was referred to as “our father in the word,” Edge said.

One-and-a-half months later, several women from the fellowship at East Carolina University attended a retreat in Ohio. That’s where Edge first heard Wierwille speak. She became absorbed in his teachings and the idea of learning the Bible, she said. That took a turning point while she was taking a history exam toward the end of the semester in college.

“I thought God was telling me to drop out of college to go work for The Way and spread the word,” Edge said. “I wrote something for this one essay answer, put it on the professor’s desk and left the room.”

‘THAT WAS MY WORLD’

That following year, 19-year-old Edge was swept up in The Way Corps. She trained at the groups’s headquarters in New Knoxville, Ohio.

In 1973, Edge fell in love with a man from The Way and got married. The couple was sent off to Los Angeles to recruit more followers. Edge and her husband continued to move up the ranks within The Way’s reach in California. 

It was at that point that their marriage started to suffer, Edge said, and the couple separated but were forced get back together by The Way’s leadership.

Edge and her family came back to headquarters in 1976, but the couple separated once again and were later reunited once more under Wierwille’s direction a year later.

“Wierwille was very manipulative with spouses,” Edge said. “It seemed as if he was the authority in your marriage. He was the authority no matter what you were in the ministry.”

Edge was brought on to The Way’s research team, where she helped work on a project for a reference book — a type of dictionary for the Bible that translated Syriac text and listed where certain words are referenced in the scripture.

Edge’s life was consumed by The Way International all the way up until the 1984, when she had a crisis and a realization.

“I wasn’t clued in on the shenanigans going on behind the scenes with Wierwille, including emotional abuse, sexual abuse of women and I’m sure financial abuse,” Edge said. “Over time, he accumulated lots of money, property, airplanes, motor coaches — this was a big ministry in the ’80s; there were more than 40,000 followers in every state in the Union and 36 other countries.

“My whole support system, my whole life was all wrapped up in this group for all those years,” she said. “That was my world.”

THE COMMENT

That world was turned upside down thanks to a single comment during a research team meeting. There was a discrepancy with a word in Ephesians — a clear example where Wierwille was wrong about a translation and added his own meaning to a word.

“In this moment — in my book, I call it ‘the comment’ because it woke me up – this person sitting next to me said ‘I love Dr. Wierwille, but sometimes his Greek isn’t so good,” Edge said. “I was finding out that there were a lot of things like that that were hushed up or put in a file drawer or denied or that the general believer in The Way never knew about or heard about.

“Your world is totally not what you thought it was,” she said. “I couldn’t take it all in psychologically. I’m a truth-seeker, and thank God, because that’s how I got out. I decided, ‘OK, now what do I do?’”

Edge quit the research team and eventually left The Way International in 1987, in the midst of a sudden power struggle following Wierwille’s death in 1985.

Edge returned to college and finished a degree, and finally  divorced her husband in 1991. 

‘GO WITH THE FLOW’

Today she lives in Winter Park with her new husband, Hoyt, whom she married in 2002. She still has questions about faith and religion, but at the same time, she’s not actively seeking those answers out anymore. It’s been a long time she’s opened up the Bible, and she’s traveled with her husband across the world and witnessed many different religions and philosophies.

She decided to tell her story about her time in The Way through a written account, and her book has been an experience that’s brought peace and closure, she said.

When asked what she believes in today — whether it’s a philosophy or a religion — Edge smiles and gives a simple answer.

“Go with the flow,” Edge said. “I want to be present in my life. I don’t want to be worrying about whether I’m earning rewards in heaven. I don’t know if there is going to be a heaven. I’m concerned with, ‘How am I doing today?’”

 

Tim Freed is an Associate Editor with the Winter Park/Maitland Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.

See All Articles by Tim

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