She was assigned to work in the group's office promoting ministry events. She called merchants and asked them to donate items or services for silent auctions. She worked in the office for two months. She then took a job at a Dillard's Department store. She would work there for more than two years. The ministry took rent, her tithe -- 10 percent of her income -- and utility costs from her pay. She also had to pay the ministry $5 a day to be driven to Dillard's, four miles away. "They [were] nickel-and-diming me to death," Lyons said.
Lyons said that those who did not work at outside jobs worked for the ministry as "slave labor" and never could save "enough money to leave."
During her time in Total Freedom Program she saw herself as a part of the ministry. She dutifully confessed all urges, defined as sins, to her prayer group. She was given greater responsibilities within the ministry, including being a house mom. She was filled with self-loathing for "everything that was natural in me."
"Anything that comes before God is an idol," she said. "Exercise, my whole past experience, friends. I started to feel like I had this Job experience, this lose-everything experience."
Lyons had been turned. She was terrified of demons, which other church members said they could see around her in the form of lizards. She fervently recited the litany of required prayers. She dutifully attended the meetings and services. She imposed the rules on others. At night, during her required "Bedtime Warfare Prayer," she would repeat to herself:
"Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus and repent every thought, spoken word, deed, that was displeasing to You and any uncompleted vow that I committed to.
"I break every curse that was placed on me either self-imposed or put by any demonic source and anything spoken over me that was not from You.
"I curse every corruptible seed that was implanted in me and I command them to wither and die and I loose myself from every spirit associated with those seeds. Allow your righteous seeds to grow and bear fruit for Your glory.- Advertisement -
"I apply the blood of Jesus over my house upon the roof, walls and floors, upon all members, possessions, automobiles, and my spirit, soul body and dreams in Jesus Name.
"I bind up any spirits of terror, fear, nightmares, or torment, every mind-binding, evil, foul, lying and unclean spirit that may try to come and torment me in any way tonight and I muzzle the voice of the stranger. Satan, you and any evil spirit in your kingdom that could be in or around our properties, I bind you and drive you out in the Name of Jesus. Any astral projections or soul travel spirits that could be in or around our property, I command you, in the Name of Jesus, to go back where you came from.
"Father, please send Your warring angels to watch over me and to hold back the forces of Satan and his kingdom while I sleep. Send your ministering angels to come and minister to me as I sleep. Holy Spirit please come and flow though me, giving me dreams, visions, health, supernatural rest and let me wake up refreshed. I pray all this in Jesus name."
Patrice, a woman who had left the community, began to talk to Lyons outside the compound. She urged Lyons to get out of the group because it was "unhealthy." Lyons during a visit from her sister managed to pack her belongings and flee the compound. The group, unable now to hold her, told her she could leave but would fail in the outside world.
After she moved out, Lyons' job went sour because she failed to make sales quotas. She had few friends at work because her indoctrination had made her "a freak," she said. She did not engage in what the ministry called "secular talk."
She gravitated to Christian megachurches that she now calls "sub-cults." The trauma, emotional abuse and manipulation Lyons suffered at the hands of Total Freedom Program were familiar to me because of the two years I spent investigating the Christian right for my book "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." In the closed world of the Christian right, pastors, "disciplers" and "prayer partners" define all doubt, questioning or "backsliding" as a sin and the work of Satan.
Submission to authority becomes the only proper way to serve God. Critical judgment is abolished. Religious cliches shut down independent thought. All other ways of living become a compact with the demonic. A persecution mentality is pounded into adherents, making them deeply distrustful of outsiders. It is an ideology of fear and abject obedience to authority. And all those who walk away are condemned and branded as apostates. Lyons' story is the story of millions of Americans who live or have lived inside these hermetically sealed systems of "Christian" indoctrination.
Eventually, Lyons recovered enough of herself to leave Florida. Before she departed she packed documentation of her stay at the Iannello complex, hoping some reporter would tell her story as a warning to others. Through friends she contacted me.