Former Morningland disciples describe what life was like inside the sect
“They constantly talk about love, there is a lot of hugging.”
By Larry Keller
Staff writer, Long Beach Press Telegram
Talk to former Morninglanders, the unorthodox church that has been in Long Beach since 1973, and many will tell you three things:
- The sect attracted them with its friendliness and vision of working for a better world.
- In time, the sect’s practices became repressive and perverse. Despite this, they would do anything to remain with the sect.
- Ask them to explain this anomaly, and they will use terms like “brainwashing” and “mind control.”
But is Morningland a cult? “Destructive cults” and “human growth” groups that have the ability to compel slavish obedience from their adherents share common characteristics, says Juliann Savage, a clinical social worker in Los Angeles.
Former disciples say Morningland fits that description.
Cults are a subject in which Savage has some expertise. She and colleague Nancy Weiss worked for the Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles, where they provided non-denominational counseling to persons who have recently left cults. (Savage has left the organization since the time she was interviewed for this story.)
At least a dozen of the former cult members they counseled were Morningland members, the women said.
The pair declined to talk specifically about Morningland, but did discuss cults in general. All cults recruit new members either by giving misinformation or a lack of information, said Savage. And they flatter vulnerable people by making them feel they have been singled out for attention, she added.
Former members say Morningland is no different and that it was only after initially attending a few astrology or tarot classes and perhaps some church services that the sect began making more demands on their time and their lives.
Many former disciples interviewed for this story asked that their real names not be used, fearing unspecified harassment by the sect’s followers.
They shower this attention on you,” recalled Daryl, one of Morningland’s earliest converts.
They talk constantly about love,” added Bruce, another early disciple. “There’s a tremendous amount of hugging.”
Another common thread among cults, say Savage and Weiss, is that people joining them are going through a personal transition at the time that join — such as a divorce or a change in jobs — all are seeking companionship, spirituality and intellectual stimulation.
Cultists tend to be idealistic and interested in a better world, said Weiss.
It’s not a bunch of weirdos you’re looking at,” she said, “some have joined for very impressive reasons.” “I really care about people,” said Lisa, a Morningland disciple until late 1984. “That’s what a lot of us had in common. We all loved people.”
Bruce and Daryl said the search for spiritual enlightenment was a major reason they joined Morningland.
It claimed to be New Age teaching.” Said Daryl. “I was looking for a spiritual home, so to speak.”
Cults lead their followers to believe that they are superior to people on the “outside,” said Savage and Weiss. And they have a charismatic leader.
Everybody on the outside is bad; everybody on the inside is good. The leader is better than everyone, ” said Savage.
Most former Morningland members use the word charismatic in describing Sri Donato, who, since the death in 1976 of her husband and church founder, Daniel “Donato” Sperato, has been the spiritual leader of the sect.
She’s a very powerful speaker,” said Lisa. “She can look at you and grab your attention. She’s hypnotic. She has an air of confidence about her that is very intimidating, or it can be very sweet.
We were superior to everyone on the planet,” added Lisa, “Because we had Sri and they didn’t.”
There is a stigma attached to friends and family who aren’t Morningland disciples, say former members.
I was afraid to visit my parents,” said Daryl. “I was afraid they were going to grab me and talk me out of Morningland.”
Morningland membership has split entire families. Shirly Haaswyk left the sect in 1983, and her mother followed suit the next year. But Haaswyk’s sister, Carol, remains a disciple, and the two haven’t spoken to each other since June 1984.
Judy Slavin’s brother also remains a Morningland disciple. She said she hasn’t spoken to him in two years.
Cults often use sensory deprivation, deprive members of protein foods, and resort to other means to make new initiates more likely to succumb to their programs, say Savage and Weiss.
Several ex-Morninglanders say the sect encouraged them to eat junk foods kept near the temple. One ex-disciple sheepishly admitted offering candy she brought from a Morningland vending machine to a fellow airline passenger, because she believed it was “permeated with the essence of Sri Donato” and that she was doing a good deed for the passenger.
Nearly everybody who was a disciple said he got very little sleep. Ray Slavin, a 10-year sect member, said during one 2.5 year period he averaged two hours of sleep per night. Daryl said he typically would work during the day, go to Morningland at 7 p.m. and stay there until 3 or 4 a.m.., teaching classes, planning fund-raising events, and the like. Then he would go home, sleep two or three hours and return to the temple, repeating the cycle again.
Cults have an underlying need to create chaos in members’ lives so as to foster dependence on the cult, say Savage and Weiss. One way of doing this is to have different levels of status within the cult, and to keep the status of individual members in flux.
Morningland members constantly are falling in and out of favor, said Lisa, “and you never knew how you got there.” And disciples are only permitted to talk or mingle with others of like “thought groupings” or status, she added.
Husbands and wives are always at different levels in the Morningland caste system, say former members.
Although Morninglanders hold jobs, the church exercises several controls over them aimed at eliminating outside influences that might interfere with their devotion to the sect, say former members.
Among these controls, say ex-disciples are the following:
Disciples are strongly discouraged from spending Christmas or other holidays with their families. “It’s never been said to you that you can’t spend Christmas at your folks,” said Lisa. “But they plan events on those days.”
Vacations are discouraged. Those disciples who do go on a trip are grilled in front of their colleagues upon their return.
Some disciples who own homes are encouraged to sell them. The Slavins say that Morningland persuaded them to move from their house to an apartment because the upkeep of an apartment is less time-consuming, leaving more time to devote to the sect.
Given all these demands on disciples, why do so few leave Morningland voluntarily?
Savage and Weiss said it is difficult for people to leave cults because of the dependency factor and because of threats of what may happen to them if they do. And leaving the cult means going back to the outside world they were unhappy with in the first place.
Life without the cult also can mean a loss of status. In the cult, one is a big fish in a little pond. And after severing ties with family and friends, disciples don’t have these former relationships to fall back on when they leave the sect.
Many ex-Morninglanders also have another feat — their safety. None of these people said they actually were threatened, but based on their own experiences in the sect, they say disciples will do whatever Sri Donato asks of them.
Lisa said she would have died for Sri Donato.
I thought she was the Christ,” she said. “I pictured myself jumping in front of her as someone tried to shoot her. Personally, I don’t think I would have drunk (poisoned) Kool Aid. But I would have gladly given my life for her.”
Other ex-disciples fear Morninglanders will even kill themselves if asked to by Sri Donato. Bruce is one of them.
It was such an incredibly strong feeling … total devotion,” he said of the years he spent in the sect. “I can sit here and say I don’t think I’d willingly kill myself. But I’m in a different place now than I was then. I couldn’t rule it out.”