January 12, 1980
Kirsten and Johanna Neilsen, twin sisters from the Vine Christian Community Church here – best known for several years as operator of the Yellow Deli restaurants, which have since been sold. After they were “deprogrammed,” they held a news conference at which they denounced the organization, charging that small children were walloped, that members were forced to marry against their will, and that members could only visit their parents if the church elders gave their permission. Church officials have denied the charges. However, since the charges were made public, several people whose lives have been touched by the church have contacted The Times to relate their personal experiences. The Times today begins a series dealing with those experiences and with the church activity in general. Because the subject of today’s article remains a member of the church, names have been changed.
Sharon and her mother had always been extremely close. “People used to remark how close we were,” the mother said.
“She was my first born and I was very young. Were were always more than just mother and daughter. We were good friends. We could talk about her boyfriends or anything else. She was a very affectionate child.”
But, the mother added, the relationship between her and her daughter began to deteriorate several months ago when Sharon hooked up with the Vine Christian Community Church.
She last saw her daughter in August.
“I was amazed at the change in her and she had no emotion about her. She smiled only once or twice and she never laughed once. She used to be so jolly and happy and full of laughter. But not now. I know she’s brainwashed. She’s a completely different person.
The mother has been trying for more than two years to persuade Sharon, now 23, to come home. She had just about abandoned hope until she heard of the recent “rescue” of the Nielsen twins from the church.
Sharon hasn’t acknowledged receiving a Christmas card and gifts that her mother sent. There has been no communication at all since early November.
According to the mother, Sharon was a student in college here when she was first introduced to the Vine Christian Community Church. Sharon, she said, was dating a student who dropped out of college during Sharon’s junior year.
“She continued in school for another year and in the meantime, her boyfriend got involved in the church. He kept corresponding with Sharon through notes, telephone calls, and visits. When school was out he persuaded her to visit the Mentone (Alabama) church. After a two week visit she was so hooked she didn’t want to come out.”
The mother said she contacted Sharon on July 4 to see if she would come home for the holidays. She agreed to come home and her parents went to pick her up.
“I felt strange at the sight of the people and the way they looked. I was shocked that men and women were living together.”
When they arrived back at their home, Sharon’s parents talked to her at length. “We could see something was wrong but we didn’t know what. We used verses from the Bible about children obeying their parents and honoring their fathers and mothers. We thought this would convince her to come back home to stay. She said she wasn’t sure we were right. Ultimately, she did agree to come back home.
“The next day we returned to Mentone to retrieve her personal belongings. We ran into some static from the people. One man said he couldn’t allow her to leave and my husband told him he had no choice, that she was coming home.
“We got her back home and she stayed one full night. The next day she left the house, saying she was going to the mountains to pray and read the Bible. About midnight I kissed her good-night and went to bed. The next morning my husband showed me a 10 page letter from Sharon. She talked about the necessity of forsaking mother and father, brother and sister if one should be a disciple. She was convinced she needed to give up everything or Christ wouldn’t accept her. I then knew that she had called these people when she told me she was going to the mountains. She had climbed out her bedroom window at 2 a.m. in the morning and gone to Chattanooga.
Sharon’s mother’s first reaction was to go back after her, “but my husband said no; that it would be better to wait and see what happened. She called in about two weeks and said she had made up her mind to stay in the community and that she hoped we would accept her ways. We sent her clothes.
Between July and January Sharon communicated with her parents through letters and phone calls.
“She came home on Jan. 12 because her sister was engaged to be married on Jan. 19. It had been a childhood dream that she and her sister would be each other’s maid of honor. Her sister asked her to be the maid of honor and Sharon told her she had to pray over it. She went back and the people in the church told her she couldn’t be in the wedding. Sharon called and said she couldn’t participate in the wedding and would not attend the wedding.”
For some reason, Sharon showed up the day before the wedding and stayed two nights.
“She was cold and hard. I just can’t describe her personality. It just wasn’t Sharon at all. She wasn’t clean and she needed to wash her hair. She had always been so neat.”
Sharon visited her family again in the spring of 1979, bringing a girlfriend from the church with her.
“We talked to them as much as we could. We mentioned deprogramming and they just laughed. It was a big joke to them. Latter in the week my husband took them to the farmers market in Atlanta where they met some of their friends who took them back to Chattanooga. That was the last time she had been home.”
In August, Sharon’s parents drove several hundred miles to visit her. She had dinner with them but refused to spend the night with them in a hotel. “She said she had to be at work early the next morning. So we asked her to go to a park the next day for a picnic lunch and made plans to pick up her at 11 a.m.
“One of the men called about 10 or 10:30 the next morning and told my husband that he couldn’t allow Sharon to go out with us. My husband said he wouldn’t believe it until Sharon told him that. Sharon got on the phone and said she couldn’t understand why we had come so far and not come visit her brothers and sisters at the church.
“We didn’t go to the community because we knew we would see only what they wanted us to see so we returned home.
Sharon’s mother has talked to her once since then. She called in November to see if Sharon would come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sharon refused.
“When we hung up, there was a coldness between us.” It was a repeat of Christmas 1978.
“I called and asked her to come home but she said she would pray about it. I took a chance and bought a one-way airline ticket and sent it to her, thinking that through some kind of miracle she would come home. She called and said she was cashing in the ticket and using it to buy things she needed. I told her I would go to the airport to wait for her. She said it would be a waste of time; that she wasn’t coming.” And she didn’t.