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CUT Members Struggle to Understand Changes

Bozeman Chronicle/March 14, 1998
By Karin Ronnow

LIVINGSTON Recently, the Church Universal and Triumphant's actions and business like manner of ''re engineering'' have forced a growing number of once devout members to question their faithfulness.

Many of them moved everything they had to Montana in 1990 prepared for the end of the world.

The ground is shifting under these people and now they are taking a closer look at the world around them and the people to whom they have entrusted their lives, their families and their life savings.

Once such person is Grace Risley, an 18 year old Livingston resident who grew up in the New Age sect. Her mother was a member before Grace was born.

Risley grew up in Seattle until, when she was 10, ''Elizabeth Clare Prophet said move to Montana,'' she recalled. Risley, her mom, brother, sister and step father moved to South Glastonbury.

The young girl attended Thomas More, a private church school that required tuition, through eighth grade.

''I didn't like the administration or the focuses that were a part of the curriculum, the way they pushed kids to get into the higher society and higher jobs and East Coast schools,'' she said. ''It just seemed that if that wasn't what was going to float your boat, you were not wanted or not as valued as a student or a person. So I dropped out.''

She was homeschooled for two years and then went to Park High School, which was a big reality check.

''That was hard, that was really hard,'' she said. ''First of all, being a kid who lived in Glastonbury for as long as I did, I had a social life only with small groups of kids in the church. And the parents saying the world is not a good place. We were so sheltered. I was totally isolated in myself. I didn't have any social skills. I think with kids, as a general rule, coming out of the church, the rest of real life is mind boggling.''

The first seven months were incredibly hard for Risley, who was not only struggling with the stigma of her beliefs, but also with being a teen ager.

''I didn't talk to anybody. I didn't have any friends. They all thought I was weird and I thought they were weird.''

Then she started partying and ''being bad intrigued me.'' She rebelled, ran away, drank, did drugs, broke laws ''I went wild,'' she said.

She eventually dropped out of Park High and is finishing her degree through correspondence work. ''I hated high school.''

And she has left the church behind, too.

''I have embraced some of their ideas about karma and reincarnation. But I don't like what it does to people. I go to conferences every once in a while because I try to keep an open mind. And I went to other churches for a while. I don't see any of them as appealing to me right now. I have a lot of faith in God. I just don't want to deal with the package that goes with going to a church.''

Risley is not alone in her struggle to make sense of her belief in the teachings while rejecting the church's leadership. Many former members still cling to the beliefs, while disavowing the leadership; they say it is hard to admit they may have been wrong when they gave up everything to move to Montana for the shelter cycle.

But the teachings and the leader are not mutually exclusive, author Kathy Grizzard Schmook warned, and trying to separate them is intellectually and spiritually dishonest.

''If you accept the message, you must accept the messenger.''

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