|Link to HBO|
Let's see. Where should I start?
This past week I learned about an HBO Special called "The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin." My daughter was the one who told me about it and she knew I'd be interested because of my involvement in The Weigh Down Workshop years ago.
My whole life I've thought of myself as overweight. Even when I was a little kid my mother was constantly attempting to get me to lose weight or pointing out how much better I'd feel if I would "trim down." If there was a diet, I've probably tried it -- Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, grapefruit, Atkins, intermittent fasting, counting calories, supplements -- you name it. In 1997 I joined a Christian weight loss program called the Weigh Down Workshop. The workshop was held at a church in town. Participants paid an initial amount, somewhere around $100, and for our money we got a workbook and watched a short video each week featuring the founder, Gwen Shamblin. Gwen was a nutritionist and a Christian. She espoused eating less, or portion control, supplanting God for food. Her videos and the lessons in the workbooks, got the participants looking in the Bible for help with "gluttony" control. If one over-ate wasn't it just part of a pattern of sin?
At first I was tremendously moved by this program and was quite captivated by Gwen's authority and magnetism. What she was saying seemed right AND she backed up her words with scripture. It had to be right. But somewhere in the middle of the twelve-week course, I started to worry. What if the program didn't work for me? Wouldn't that be my last chance? If God couldn't help me lose weight, I was truly sunk, right? I remember sharing this thought with my small group but was met with a stonewall of indifferent looks on their faces. Hmm. Was I the only questioning person there?
Anyway, I think I was fairly successful that first session, losing perhaps 20 pounds. I even bought Gwen's book The Weigh Down Diet and read through it carefully. Once the session ended, however, the weight crept back on, so I decided to participate in another session but this time I would be the discussion leader at my church. Once again there was a capital outlay, even for discussion leaders, but this time the videos had changed. The first first time through each video was only about twenty minutes long, now the second edition videos were all over an hour long. The first ones had been cute and funny and practical, now they were stuffed full of Gwen sitting and talking in a setting in Egypt (theme: Exodus) and what she had to say was almost all about guilt and sin. I could barely stand these videos for the length and for the serious/non-practical nature. After one full 12-week session I was done. I set everything aside and went on with my life. This was in the year 2000.
|Weigh Down Workshop materials I saved all these years. I dumped the book at some point but kept these workbooks. I gained some insights into how the program was affecting me at the time but perusing them this week.|
Now, twenty-two years later, I have learned the rest of the story: According to the HBO Special, Gwen started a church in 1999 in Brentwood, Tennessee, based on the principals shes been espousing in the Weigh Down Workshop. She called the church The Remnant Fellowship, named after a scripture in Revelations about a small remnant of people who will be left behind but will know the "true" word of God. Over the next twenty years as the church grew, Gwen's philosophies started to really diverge from typical Christian theology. Two specific items come to mind: One, she preached that there is no Trinity* (The trinity is God=Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, three-in-one) which of course is a bedrock foundation of the Christian faith and this proclamation made many people leave her weight loss program worldwide. Secondly, and this is an odd one, she continued with her emphasis on weight loss. Members of the church had to attend Weigh Down workshops and were deemed 'saved' if they were losing weight and would get kicked out of the church if they gained weight. What church does that? Some experts began pointing out ways this church, under Gwen's authority, was becoming a cult. Other cultish things about the church included total control of the members. They weren't allowed to associate with people outside the church, even using services from members of the church, not outside businesses. Gwen thought that women should be submissive to their husbands, which often meant forgiving the men for infidelity but not allowing divorce. And children were to be kept under control, even spanked or beaten to break their willful spirits. Glue sticks (for hot glue guns) were a favorite tool for these beatings because they hurt but didn't leave a mark.
Meanwhile she was enriching herself, living quite an extravagant lifestyle and all the while her hair and makeup styling got more and more bizarre. She would often have her hair teased to be at least 6 inches high. As she seemed to lose more and more weight herself, her hair style seemed to be the way she hid the fact she was shrinking.
In 2018, Gwen announced that sometimes God does condone divorce, and she divorced her husband of forty years and within weeks married Joe Lara, a handsome actor and wanna-be country music singer. He also was a small plane pilot, licensed to fly by sight not instrumentation. In May of 2021 Gwen, her husband, and five others, were in a plane (probably piloted by Lara) going to a MAGA rally in Florida. They all died when the plane crashed into a lake soon after take-off. In the ironies of all ironies, it is thought that the plane crashed because it was over the weight capacity.
Around the time of her death, Gwen Shamblin was busy making a video series for her church, which has several satellite churches all over the country, about greed. She wanted the members to give everything to the church, all their money and property. Gasp! The HBO series was well into production at the time of her death also, and so had to do some post-production work to include the details of the crash and speculate about where the fellowship would go now without their leader. The initial three episode of the special aired in the fall of 2021. But so many people came out of the woodwork after Gwen's death, HBO decided to add two additional episodes about the aftermath. Those were recently aired.
So why am I so bothered? It was over 22 years ago that I walked away from the Weigh Down Workshop. No harm, no foul. Yet, as I watched the HBO special, and other videos I found on YouTube I started to shiver. How close had I come to tipping all the way over? I had contributed to this woman financially by buying her books and paying for the workshop several times. I may not have been in her cult but I was certainly cult-adjacent at least for a short while. I'd started to buy into her philosophy which equated being overweight to being sinful. Yikes! I've often wondered how someone, anyone could be gullible enough to get involved in a cult and now I know. The truth of it is chilling -- it happens slowly, over time, to vulnerable people who are attracted to people who seem to have the answers. I was one of those potential victims. Egads.
Here are a six ways to avoid religious cults (CBS News), with my take on how Gwen Shamblin was the leader of one:
- Beware of any kind of pressure."You must decide now, give up food or go to hell."
- Be wary of any leader who proclaims him or herself as having special powers or special insight. And, of course, divinity. In Gwen's case, she thought of herself as a prophet of God with new insights from him. Thinking about all the religious cults I know about, God was shoved aside and the person (in this case, Gwen) became more important.
- The leadership of the group is closed, although there may be outside followers, there's usually an inner circle that follows the leader without question, and that maintains a tremendous amount of secrecy. In the case of the Remnant Fellowship, all the leaders were men, but they deferred to Gwen for guidance.
- The group uses deceptive means, typically, to recruit new members, and
then once recruited will subject its members to an organized program of
thought reform, or what most people refer to as brainwashing. The Remnant Fellowship was so big on weight loss that some very overweight people were told to stop eating altogether until they got down to the right weight. (Isn't that called starvation?) Gwen compared the weight loss of her faithful members to the weight loss of Holocaust victims, who all lost weight! (Don't eat=lose weight.)
- Typically cults also exploit their members. Within the group, they'll exploit members financially, psychologically, emotionally and, all too often, sexually. And think of the children who were beaten by their parents to save them from sin!
- A very important aspect of cult is the idea that if you leave the cult, horrible things will happen to you. In the case of the Remnant Fellowship, people would often lose their livelihood if they left the fellowship because of the tangled up finances and intertwined social networks. It is very hard to leave if it means you will lose all your friends or their financial security.
If you are curious and want to learn more about Gwen Shamblin and the Weigh Down Workshop scam/cult, I recommend you watch the HBO Special: "The Way Down: Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin." If you don't have HBO, this YouTube video (one hour in length) does a good job highlighting the details, too. In fact, I found it answered several lingering questions I had after watching the HBO series: "The Millionaire Preacher with a Weight-Loss Cult / Gwen Shamblin Documentary."
Well, this is me, signing off on another blog post. This time with a sigh of "whew!" Dodged a big one, folks. I dodged a big one.
*Ha-ha! When I first typed the word 'Trinity' I made it 'Trilogy'. Guess you can tell what type of topics I usually blog about...Books!