Gloria Froese is a former member of the Church of God Restoration. A few years after her escape, she attended Providence College, where she got her Bachelors in Fine Arts degree, and met her husband, Chad. She currently lives in Winnipeg with her husband and two young children. Her favourite hobby is choral singing, and she’s looking forward to the day when that will be safe to do again.
1) What was your experience with Church of God Restoration? When and why did you leave?
My family joined the Church of God Restoration when I was 9 years old, and left when I was 18. It was an incredibly traumatic experience, with lots of abuse involved- physical, mental, and emotional. My life was dictated and controlled down to the smallest detail- I wasn’t able to have my own thoughts, or really to have a childhood/youth in any meaningful way. They controlled the type of dress down to the smallest details (underwear could only be white or beige, stockings had to be a certain colour), and as the years progressed, the clothing became more and more restrictive. Women were not to show their figure in any way- all curves needed to be hidden. I wasn’t allowed to have feelings for boys- crushes were considered sinful, and dating was completely out of the question. We were told that God would bring your partner to you in his time, and by that they meant the ministry would curate it. I felt extreme guilt for being a normal young person, with normal hormones and feelings- I would constantly pray that God would take these feelings from me, but it never worked. Relationships with outsiders were strictly controlled and/or forbidden.
I took my faith very seriously- I was a True Believer, and I tried to go above and beyond everything that was expected of me. In retrospect, the pressure that put on a developing youth was intense and cruel, and has caused lasting repercussions to my health. Nothing I did was ever good enough- I was never holy, sin free, or perfect enough, although certainly not from lack of trying. The COGR teaches that you need to live a sin free life, and I tried- oh, I tried. The goalpost was constantly moved for me, and no matter how perfect or demure or soft spoken I tried to be, there was still always something in my bubbly personality that was wrong or undesirable. I suffered through constant, lengthy sessions of emotional and physical flagellation, trying to break my spirit and will, and form me into the perfect robot model. They nearly succeeded in breaking me completely, but there was still that little spark of fire that couldn’t be extinguished, which would serve me well in my escape.
I left during the church wide split in 2000. Up to that point, I whole heartedly believed that this was the One True Church, and that everyone else also took their quest for sin free living as seriously as I did. As the split progressed, I saw the ugly underbelly of the beast, and saw how my fellow church members showed their “sinful” sides- exploding with hatred, lies and ugliness. My principled brain broke as I watched this- how they could show all this sinful behaviour and still be considered members in good standing, while I had done nothing wrong, and was being dragged in the dirt? They launched an aggressive campaign to try to get me to stay, including waylaying me by my car in the dark after my evening shift, or pinning me against the wall after a service, with 30+ people staring me down as they tried to convince me to stay. At that point all this seemed more or less normal- I guess I was used to trauma, but looking back, I can’t believe they treated an 18 year old like this. It’s one of those experiences that’s seared in my brain- I still remember the sight and feel of that evening. I remember feeling so weary and wounded, and just wanting life to go back to normal- I opened my mouth to say that yes, I’d bite the bullet and come back, but the person trying to convince me just kept talking, and I thought better of it. I still remember walking to the stairs of the Steinbach Arts Council (where they held that service), my legs trembling from the adrenaline. I wanted to hold on to the railing to help me walk down, but the sides were lined with young men who were solemnly watching me walk out- haha. I remember opening the door, and feeling the cold February Manitoba air hit me in the face, realizing that it was over. I didn’t know if life would ever be ok again, but I also knew I could never go back.
The next few months were incredibly difficult, lonely and painful, but I was surrounded with people who loved me, let me talk through my trauma, and helped me start the process of healing. I remember being surprised at the amount of love and kindness I was shown. During the campaign to keep me, I was told that I would find nothing but darkness and misery in the world, that nobody would love me the way the church did. The ensuing months and years would show that the love and kindness I found on the outside highlighted how cruel the church was to its congregants. I still tear up when I think of the people who came alongside that broken young woman, showed her love and support, and helped her heal- they’ll never know how deeply they impacted my life.
2) Due to their plain dress and, perhaps, because of the surnames of some of the leaders in Canada, some people assume the Church of God Restoration is a Mennonite or Anabaptist denomination. Are they?
That’s a complicated question. A lot of the congregants, especially in Canada and Mexico, are of Mennonite background. As for the denomination itself, no, it’s not Mennonite or Anabaptist of any sort. They have their roots in a holiness group- The Church of God, founded by Daniel S Warner in 1881. Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) There have been a series of splits since that time (the most notorious being in 1912, when they split over whether or not to wear neck ties.) The Church of God Restoration was founded in the 1980’s, when a former drug addict, Daniel Layne split away from the Faith & Victory branch of the Church of God to form a more “pure”, “radical” group of his own. Church of God (Restoration) The bulk of the early members were taken from the Faith and Victory branch, as well as Gemeinde Gottes (German Church of God). A lot of the German Church of God congregants that moved over were of Mennonite descent- many of them originally from Mexico. In the early 2000’s, they scooped up several Conservative Mennonite and Amish adherents, as well. The dress code itself is loosely based on that of the 1880’s- the period of time they idolize as when the church was at its purest and best. They’ve since taken it and put in their own twists, but that was the origin.
3) In Aylmer, Steinbach, and other places, the group has received a lot of press for their involvement in recent protests. Why have they become involved in activity like this?
I’ve been noticing a distinct difference in the way they interact with the outside world over the last 2 years, or so. Evangelism and recruitment has always been important to them, but they’ve generally been an insular, mistrustful of outsiders group, so their efforts have always had very poor results. Over the last two years, their rhetoric towards outsiders has changed- they’ve softened their judgmental, insular language, and have been trying to reach out to outsiders and convince them that they’re a benign, normal group, with lots of love and fun activities for their members. That approach had no success, so they decided to up their game and get politically involved. This has given them more of a platform and attention than they’ve ever had before, and they have people supporting their cause, so they believe that this is the catalyst that brings in the multitudes.
When the pandemic began, I predicted that this would be the event that they would throw their full resources into, and I was right- I just had no idea that they would go so far down the rabbit hole! One of their apostles down in Indiana began the anti-government/anti-lockdown protests, and got lots of attention and support, so it was a natural thing for Henry Hildebrandt to pick up on and run with here in Canada. They have always been anti establishment, so this fits with that, but the level to which they have taken their political involvement is shocking to all former members. They generally have tried to stay apolitical, but that’s drastically changed over the last year. Right now, it would appear that Bill Gates is their enemy #1- out to take their money, retirement savings, and children. They’ve bought into the darkest of QAnon and conspiracy theories, and are using this fear to try to get their people to give more of their money over to the church. The end goal still seems to be the multitudes- it’s the push for the money (we need money to build something for the multitudes to come to), and that prophecy somehow needs to be fulfilled…
My heart breaks for the people when the pandemic has come and gone, and the multitudes are still missing. I’m not sure where the breaking point is, but I’m fairly certain this will be it for at least some of them.
4)It may surprise some people to know the group was also present at the Black Lives Matter march in Steinbach. Why were they there?
See my answer to #3. It’s the same motivation- exposure and attention, so that the multitudes come in. I think it’s important to understand that they are so convinced that they are in possession of THE truth- they hold the keys to heaven, and you can’t get there outside of being with them. Their fantasy tells them that people just have to see them, to be aware of their existence, and they’ll be convicted to join. So, it follows that if they get a lot of exposure, a lot of people will automatically see the truth and begin to flock to the church.
During the Black Lives Matter march in Minneapolis, a group of them went viral as #Amish. I don’t think they were thrilled at being mislabeled, but the attention empowered them, and caused them to really jump on the bandwagon. It was a little surreal for me to see them hold signs that say “We are one human family” when I know what they really think of outsiders. Outsiders have always been less than/sinners/on the way to hell, so it was incredibly amusing to see them suddenly claim that they were one with the rest of us. Down in Indiana, they were trying to get people to give their contact info so that they could organize on a different platform. The apostle there was trying to convince the crowd that if they joined with the church, this problem would be taken care of for once and for all, and they’d never need to demonstrate or march again. As with everything else, these efforts fell flat, and the multitudes still haven’t arrived. So, short answer, this was marketing for them. They don’t particularly have interest in any of these causes for their own sake- it’s all about the attention and marketing to bring in new adherents.
5) What is the most important thing you would like people to know about Church of God Restoration?
Don’t ever go there! Hah! But seriously, it’s important to understand how their insular, isolated way of life has left their people- particularly their children- miserably crippled when it comes to knowledge of life on the outside.
If you have the chance to show some kindness or love to their members, particularly their young people, please do so. Leaving is one of the most terrifying, lonely experiences possible, and they’re so afraid of the outside world that they’ve been taught to distrust and fear. Show them that there is a life full of happiness and love outside, so that when they come to the point where they’re considering that step, they know they have someone to turn to.
Their young people need so much support when they leave- I’d like to see a more robust support system in their communities to help them when they want to take that step out. The leaders have been known to physically lock up a young person that is showing signs of wanting to leave, and taking their phones, money and cars away so they have no way to escape. If you see someone who has left or is showing signs of wanting to leave, please make a point of reaching out to them and offering them support- they may not know how to ask for it, but they need it.