February 26, 2024

Cults, Survivors, and Red Flags

How northern Michigan has wound up at the center of two troubling documentaries
By Art Bukowski | Feb. 10, 2024

America has long held a deep fascination with cults and out-there religious sects. We wonder how these groups manage to conjure up such power and influence. We watch as people (sometimes those we know and love) fall victim to a potent mix of control and their own deep desire to belong. We binge the TV series that probe into the inner workings of these groups.

And while the majority of these groups seem far, far away for residents of northern Michigan, two local groups accused of having cult-like patterns have made national headlines in recent months, in part thanks to documentaries putting them in the spotlight.

Northern Express takes a look at these groups and their impact on the community at large.

The Twin Flames Universe (the subject of Escaping Twin Flames)

By November of last year, it seemed that all anyone in Traverse City or Leelanau County wanted to discuss was Escaping Twin Flames, the show that had rocketed to the top of Netflix’s offerings. The three-part documentary focused on what several people interviewed for the show described as the cult-like behavior of the “Twin Flames Universe.”

The Twin Flames Universe is an online community that promises to find true love for members in the form of unique soul connections. It was founded by Jeff and Shaleia Ayan (often calling themselves Divine instead of Ayan; Shaleia’s birth name is Megan Plante), who now have a home in a subdivision along M-22 in Leelanau County.

The series details how the Ayans claim to have a direct line to God and say they’re able to discern whether others have found their “twin flame.” Former members allege the Ayans amassed millions from supporters to fund a lavish lifestyle at the emotional expense of many current and former members.

The Ayans, who could not be reached for comment for this story, have on multiple occasions taken to social media to defend themselves.

“The allegations levied against Twin Flames Universe not only distort our true aims, methods and curriculums, but also misrepresent the autonomy of our community members, who are free to engage with our resources as they see fit,” they wrote in a Facebook post as the Netflix show surged in popularity.

Despite intense media attention on the couple’s alleged misdeeds, they don’t show any signs of riding off into the sunset. They are promoting a Twin Flames Universe “Spiritual Life Summit” to be held in June in Traverse City, setting off another social media firestorm.

Indeed, the local conversation keeps getting hotter. Traverse City’s own National Writers Series is bringing an event to the City Opera House on Thursday, Feb. 22, titled “Twin Flames: Burned! A Survivor and Cult Expert Speak Out.” The event features Keely Griffin, a survivor of the Twin Flames Universe, and Dr. Janja Lalich, a cult expert, who were both featured in the Netflix documentary.

Grace Baptist Church (the subject of Let Us Prey)

Insidious is perhaps the best word to describe the former goings-on at Grace Baptist Church and school in Gaylord (the school has since closed), with several former members alleging rampant sexual abuse and attempted cover-ups within that organization.

As with Twin Flames, the situation in Gaylord came into sharp focus and high notoriety last fall following its own popular documentary series. Let Us Prey: A Ministry of Scandals aired on Investigation Discovery (part of Warner Bros) and HBO’s Max. The same company, Good Caper Content, produced both Let Us Prey and Escaping Twin Flames.

The series examines several independent fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches and schools, including those in Gaylord. IFB doctrine strictly adheres to the King James Version of the Bible, generally opposes the “worldliness” of other churches, and supports anti-LGBTQ+ teachings. In 2018, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a report identifying 412 abuse allegations in 187 IFB churches and institutions across 40 states and Canada, with some cases reaching as far back as the 1970s.

A similar tragedy played out locally. After several women came forward, spurring a police investigation, multiple Grace Baptist Church staff members faced criminal charges for sexually abusing young women. Aaron Willand, who worked for the school from 2001-2003, is now in prison for abusing girls who were 12 and 14 at the time. David Beckner, another former teacher, is also in prison for abusing a student. Clark Martin, a former congregation member and volunteer bus driver, also was convicted of criminal sexual conduct against a former Grace Baptist student.

An investigation by the Petoskey News-Review uncovered several additional former Grace staffers who went on to face allegations and/or criminal charges tied to sexual assaults in other jurisdictions after leaving Grace Baptist.

In addition to the abuse itself, victims and others connected with the situation claim church leadership ignored or attempted to cover up the abuse over a period of many years. Current Pastor Derek Hagland served as an assistant pastor for about two decades before assuming the top leadership role in 2020. Former pastor Jon Jenkins resigned in 2019 and moved away after the sexual abuse issues first entered the public eye.

Hagland did not return an email or phone call seeking comment for this story.

Moving On and Keeping Watch

Brianna Monroe was one of Becker’s victims at Grace. She and other victims have come together to form the Blind Eye Movement, a group dedicated to being a “safe haven for those affected by abuse within a religious environment.”

“We want people to know that they are worth fighting for, that it’s worth telling their story,” Monroe says. “We want to spread the opposite message that we were told as kids, which was that we need to be quiet, or feel ashamed and guilty about everything.”

Though Grace Baptist was not a cult in the traditional sense, Monroe says many who survived their experiences there are dealing with the same roadblocks as those who escaped cults, including painful isolation and lack of direction about what to do next. The Blind Eye Movement (named for the leadership that allegedly ignored ongoing abuse) strives daily to welcome these people in so that healing can begin.

“A lot of people coming out of a cultish place, they have no idea where to go for help,” Monroe says. “We always thought we were alone.”

Michigan State Police, which investigated the Grace Baptist incidents, says there are no active investigations into the church, though they encourage anyone impacted by incidents there or elsewhere to reach out. But that does not bring total comfort to members of the Blind Eye Movement, who after 20 years of documented abuse plan to keep the church in the public eye to help deter future transgressions.

“We feel scared that things could still be happening,” Monroe says. “I honestly feel like they do need a spotlight to make sure that nothing else happens, to keep them on their toes…because who’s to say they’ve changed?”

In the case of Twin Flames, the Leelanau County Sheriff's Office is very aware of their presence. But despite the negative attention the group has garnered, authorities have yet been given a reason to launch a criminal investigation.

“I’ve had at least 100 phone calls, emails, and verbal complaints regarding Twin Flames, and I've asked [those people] what is going on that they think is illegal? And they say that everything is wrong, and we need to investigate it, but not one person can come up with an actual crime,” Sheriff Mike Borkovich says. “We need facts and evidence, and if people have that, we would love to look at that seriously and investigate it.”

“All of Us Could Be That Person”

When it comes to groups like Twin Flames in particular, some of us might wonder how people get ensnared in the trap and can’t seem to get out. But Lisa Blackford will strongly urge you to realize that it can happen to anyone, perhaps more easily than you would expect.

“We tend to think of ‘those people’ that are vulnerable to cults and ideas of this sort, but in reality, we are all susceptible to something that can be promised to us,” says Blackford, a longtime psychology professor at Northwestern Michigan College. “We feel that people who succumb must be easily brainwashed, but depending on the situation in our lives, we could all fit into that. All of us could be that person.”

The seeds are easy to sow, Blackford says. People naturally look for belonging and a sense of connection (even more so if they’re lonely), which cult-like groups offer. And once you’re in the door, it’s easy to get dragged deeper in.

“It always starts off as a good thing. It’s sort of like domestic violence relationships—I can’t think of a relationship that starts off violently,” Blackford says. “It’s very slow, and usually it starts off filling those needs of feeling wanted, feeling appreciated, feeling respected.”

The warning signs, of course, are ample.

“If someone is isolating you from your community or your loved ones or friends, or telling you not to contact other people except those in our group, that’s a dangerous thing,” Blackford says. “And demanding unquestioning authority, when there’s little freedom of thought or no ability to question or discuss ideas, those are all big red flags.”

The best thing you can do if a loved one appears down the bath path with one of these groups is to stay connected with them as much as possible and “keep the door open,” Blackford says.

Leelanau’s Borkovich says that anyone asked to spend money on or for any group needs to have a heightened sense of awareness of a potential scam. He hopes that those looking for a sense of belonging can find it in one or more of the many civic and social groups active in our region instead of questionable organizations.

“There are lots and lots of good organizations like the Elks Club and Lions Club, Rotary and Masons, and there’s school organizations and sports, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts,” he says. “There’s lots of social things to do.”

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