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PNC pastor leads UCC General Synod workshop

Why do people join cults and cling to the beliefs?  How do they escape trauma and find healing?

Alyssa De Wolf helps to build understanding of cults and traumatic experiences.

            Photo courtesy of Alyssa De Wolf

Allysa De Wolf, pastor at Wayside UCC in Federal Way since 2018, has used her family heritage to offer one of 50 workshops for General Synod. 

The great- granddaughter of a cult founder said her upbringing and academic studies have given her a unique insight into how cults and conspiracy theories work and why people are attracted to them.

She prepared for the workshop by presenting a three-part extended worship on the same theme, “Conspiracies and Cults: What Defines Them and How You Can Help,” from Wayside June 17, 24 and July 1 by Zoom to share with PNC churches.

Why do people believe what they do despite evidence against those ideas? Why do people join harmful sects, movements or cults? In addition to demystifying and de-stigmatizing those who are candidates for and members of sectarian groups, participants will learn how different dynamics of race, gender and sexuality influence or change the way these groups behave.

Allysa first gave the workshop for the Next Generation Leadership Initiative group with the Pension Board when colleagues asked for resources on the topic.

It’s a topic much in demand during these times with QAnon, NXIVM, Anti-Vaxxers, Scientologists, Flat Earthers, Quiverfull Movement Followers and Trump devotees, and made more prevalent by internet and globalization.

She uses insights from her grandfather’s experience breaking from the Church of Scientology, which his father founded.

“My father was six when his father broke away.  His family was harassed and traumatized by the church until he was 16. Then the family changed its name and stopped litigation against the church,” she said.

Until recently, cults were considered something from the 1960s and 1970s.

“I was raised not to talk about our family’s ties to Scientology because of what my father experienced. An older cousin and I have been vocal. He has experienced threats,” Allysa said. “It’s important to tell our story, because it helps other people tell their stories.  The more people can tell their stories of abuse, the more they are freed so healing can occur.”

Previously, she had only talked about it one to one.

“There is expertise in personal stories and family history,” she said. “It’s important for the church to see what happens when an organization lashes out against people who stand up to challenge it.

“I am aware of how destructive organizations and cults work,” said Allysa.

She grew up in Southern California attending an Assembly of God Pentecostal church until she was 18. She had a “mountain top experience” as a teen, when she made a commitment to enter ministry.

With the UCC a church with many “refugees”—people coming out of traumatic religious experiences—she works with people from conservative Christian organizations, many of which function the same way.

Allysa spent 10 years on the East Coast for undergraduate and seminary studies.  At New York University, she attended the Gallatin School of Individual Study, in which students design their own majors. Hers was “civil disobedience and ideal societies from ideology to application.”

“Many people take sacred texts to create ideal ideas of society—Quakers, Lombards and Shakers to the French Revolution and civil rights movement.  “People can take ideas from the same book, the Bible, and make extremely violent or peaceful societies,” she said. “Similarly, cults and conspiracy theorists take scripture and apply it to a world view they think is better than anyone else’s.”

In the workshop, she helps participants understand who joins groups, why they join and how to help them.

“Anyone can be in a cult or follow a conspiracy theory,” Allysa said. “People are in a vulnerable position when they join a cult, because cults prey on their vulnerabilities and then practice systemic abuse.

“No one ‘joins’ a cult.  Cults draw in normal people seeking to fill basic human needs. Most do not know they are in one.  It’s hard to leave.  It takes patience and time to help people leave,” Allysa said.

A first step for those not in groups is to take away the stereotypes and mystique. Cults may  arise in the secular world or in any church. They are not just about big organizations.

“The UCC can help prevent cults, because its policy places power in the people not in a central leader, because of its ethos that all are welcome and because it values curiosity,” she said. “Many people in UCC pews experienced trauma in other churches. We need to understand their backgrounds so we do not increase their trauma but let our churches be spaces for healing.”

Allysa graduated in 2010 and chose to study at Yale, because it is ecumenical. While she had left the denomination she grew up in, she remained Christian, but not part of any denomination. She wanted to do interfaith work.

After “deconstructing” her faith at NYU, she was ready to build on her faith at Yale, where she was introduced to the UCC, to which she could bring all of herself and be challenged as “a Pentecostal UCCer.”

“I did not have to sacrifice my faith or identity, and found the UCC my church home,” she said.  “Yale and the UCC were also welcoming, also allowing me to come out as queer.”

While at Yale in New Haven, Conn., she served as a pastor at the New Town Congregational Church when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred.

She was pastor two years during seminary and one year after graduating in 2012.

“I was pastor to people who had been through trauma,” she said. “I saw the community reacting in courage and being positive in the midst of a horrible situation, and being an example for dealing with the subsequent national horror of school shootings.”

Allysa developed crisis management and other skills to deal with journalists, politicians and calls from the White House. “People around the world wanted to help, sending things and offering counseling,” she said.

Allysa also worked with youth, helping them deal with being in the spotlight and learning that they were more than “a kid from Sandy Hook.”

She has taken what she learned in that ministry and used it in her ministry since in the midst of shootings, natural disasters like wildfires and the pandemic.

While at New Town, the church celebrated its 300th anniversary, giving her an opportunity to learn more about the roots of the UCC.

From 2014 to 2018, she was pastor of the UCC church in Santa Barbara, Calif., before she came to Wayside.

“We have worked here to refocus and identify who we are as a church, developing new mission and vision statements, and looking at how we can better connect with and be witnesses of Christ in the community,” she said.

That has included looking how the congregation and building can better meet the needs of the community.

“We have been partnering with the LGBTQ community to be more visible and provide more access to resources.  We planned the first Federal Way PRIDE before the pandemic,” she said. “We are building connections with other churches in town to build partnerships, such as helping another church put on a monthly meal.”

Allysa works three-fourths time with the church and is also a chaplain with Multicare Hospice, where she also is helping people through a time of trauma.

For information, call 253-838-0915 or email

Pacific NW UCC News Copyright © July 2021




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