Laura was born into a 'church' called Outreach International. It took her 32 years to leave.
By Sarah Steel
20 July, 2019
"One of the phrases they had was 'if you feel comfortable, you should feel uncomfortable'. That's the state that we were supposed to live in, this uncomfortable feeling all the time."
Laura Sullivan spent 32 years in a group she now believes is a cult.
But she didn't choose that path — she was born into it.
From the outside, Laura's life looked remarkably normal
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"If you live a 'normal' life, you slowly have dreams along the way of your life — 'I wanna live here' and 'I wanna do that'," she says.
"I couldn't ever dream that stuff 'cos that stuff was just given to me. Where I would live and what I would do and how my relationships would be."
From the outside, Laura's life looked remarkably normal.
She, her two brothers and her sister went to a regular school in Adelaide, and their parents, Robert and Donna, had regular jobs.
But the people who met the family had no idea what was really going on in their private lives.
In the 1970s, Robert and Donna had joined an Australian organisation called Outreach International (OI).
The origins of 'the church'
Though never officially registered as a religion or a charity, its founder Tony Kostas refers to OI as "the church" and receives donations from members.
In 1975 its members were required to recite the words "For me, to live is Tony Kostas" if they wanted to remain involved.
Tony Kostas and Outreach International
- Tony Kostas grew up Greek Orthodox in Melbourne
- Attended Billy Graham's Southern Cross Crusade at the MCG when he was 17
- Went on to become a Youth Leader at his local Church of England, then to study at Bible College
- By 1967 he had formed his own crusade, Melbourne Outreach Crusad
- Says he received a message from God in 1970 telling him to go to Moscow
- Returned to tell his followers that he had confronted Satan in his hotel room
- By 1973, his crusade had become Outreach International
- Today, members number in the low hundreds
- By the late 1980s, his group had moved far from its Christian roots.
"Believe me when I say that the judgment reserved for apostate, antichrist, Christianity is far greater and more dreadful than that which will be meted out to the Communists or to the most immoral of men," Mr Kostas wrote in his 'Outreach Letters' series.
Laura was born in 1978, and so the only "church" she ever knew was OI.
"Although I grew up born into a church and left at 32, I barely know the Bible, because it was like, we're too cool for that," she says.
"We're more about family, and love, and God's light, you know, relationship with God.
"And we're elite, and we're the only ones, so we know better, we don't need the Bible."
Her early memories are positive — there were lots of other kids around, and she had plenty of friends.
It's in the 1990s that Laura says things went really bad.
This was when the "church" went through a phase they called "the scattering".
"The scattering was where either people themselves went, 'You know what, I feel God's telling me to move to Jakarta, or move to Wagga Wagga,' or wherever, and so they would move. Or the pastor would say, 'I want you to move'," Laura says.
The Sullivans' pastor told them that he felt they should move from Adelaide to Sydney.
Laura was in year 9 at the time, and when kids at her new high school asked why her family had moved, she did not know what to tell them.
"I'm 14, I'm like, well how do I explain that some man told my family to move?"
After the scattering, OI members no longer gathered together in big meeting halls to listen to their pastor.
Some communities were as small as just a couple of families.
Instead they would get together on Wednesdays and Sundays in each other's houses, and share all of the details of their daily lives and decisions.
"As soon as you do that, the intimacy level rises and people are closer to each other physically. You could really look someone in the eye," Laura's younger brother Lee explains.
Then members would challenge each other.
"'Challenge' is a really big, prominent word in that church, everyone gets challenged about everything," Laura says.
"So you would talk about anything, like, 'Oh, I'm going for this job, you know, I want to change career,' or whatever, and whether it's five people or 50 people in the room, they'd all have an opinion and they'd all say it."
Her father says that as a member, you'd try to avoid being the one in the hot seat.
"You're either the one or two people being attacked, or you're part of the attack team," Robert says.
"It was just weird when you think about it. Nothing to do with God."
When Laura was 21 and living in Melbourne, her father was diagnosed with cancer.
While his wife remained incredibly dedicated to OI, he'd been "in and out" of the sect.
"I did fairly quickly have this love/hate relationship with the fact that I felt I was called to it, and God was part of it and God endorsed Tony and endorsed the church," he says.
"Yet at the same time feeling uncomfortable, that it was controlling and that I wasn't able to be myself.
"I was kicked out a couple of times and I left a couple of times."
At the time of his cancer diagnosis, Robert wasn't a member.
After receiving his news, Laura wanted to move back to Sydney to be with her family. She was told by her pastor that she wasn't allowed to.
"There was like meetings where everyone challenged me. 'Why do you want to move to Sydney? Are you just running away from your relationships in Melbourne?'" she recalls.
"[They said] 'You should be in Melbourne because your family is too comfortable for you. You love your family too much, so you should be in Melbourne.'"
Eventually a new pastor came to Melbourne, and when Laura told him she still wanted to move, he told her she could do so.
"And you know what, that was a great moment, because I was allowed to go," she says.
"But when I look back … I was allowed to go?"
A conditional love
Mr Kostas names Mark 12:30 and 31 as the two great commandments that God gave him for the vision of OI.
They are: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength," and "Love your neighbour as yourself."
"The word love is used so much in OI, it's just everywhere," Lee says.
"The way it's used, in such a corrupted way in OI, it's sick.
"This is a whole bunch of people telling each other how to feel, and doing it with this veneer of love."
The love expressed within OI is fairly conditional.
Those who leave are often scrubbed from the lives of people who they once considered family.
And like in many religions, practising homosexuality is not allowed.
Gay people are heavily encouraged to enter a heterosexual marriage, and the consequences of that can be devastating.
"One guy who was one of Tony's top guys, he'd been a homosexual all his life and he was fighting against it all the time," Robert recalls.
"He had kids but he was still homosexual. In the end, he'd been put out of the church, and he [died by] suicide.
"We were at a church meeting in Sydney when this guy's son walked into the group, and this guy told Tony, and his attitude was unbelievable. It was just like, almost like, 'Well, who cares? He deserved it.' To the guy's own son."
OI also has particular views on the place of women.
All leaders are male, and romantic relationships are only allowed to be initiated by men.
"Oh, they're definitely second-rate," Laura says of the female members.
"They have men's retreats, they have men's meetings, and the ladies, they just follow suit.
"They're supposed to obey their men … I mean, it's pretty much just run by the men."
The pressure to give
Mr Kostas' teachings regularly tie the concept of love in with that of giving.
"Love is much more than mere words, it is paying the price. It is giving yourself wholeheartedly and totally — without counting the cost or drawing the line," he writes in the Outreach Letters series.
Robert says they would be told to give money — not to the pastors, but to God.
It "started off as just giving what you felt to give," but as the years went on, "you could feel pressure".
And Robert felt so much pressure that at one stage he handed a business over to OI.
"I had a business in Adelaide, underground water sprinklers, pop-up water sprinklers," he says.
"I was asked by one of the pastors once: 'Would you give up your business for God?' And I said: 'Well, of course I would.' And he said: 'OK then, I want you to give it to the church.'
"So within a day I just signed my business over to give it to the church. And over a period of months it just wasn't financially viable, so when it almost went broke they gave it back to me."
His son also felt the pressure, even in high school.
"When I worked, my first jobs at 14, I was pressured straight away to give," Lee says.
"I gave a small amount, because I only had a small amount, but it was a precedent that was being set for the rest of my life."
Lee managed to leave OI as a teenager, and Laura thinks this is because of their age gap.
Lee is younger by eight years, and has fewer memories of the church before the scattering and the endless challenging.
"I was 16, and it was seeing how different my relationships outside of the church were, and how much less judgment, and how much less I was judging people," he says.
"I could see that the art that I was experiencing through music and movies, just seeing like the love that people had and how they expressed it, was actually so much more fulfilling, and it was like, that was the dream world, that's the cult that I want to join."
Lee tried to convince Laura to leave as well, but "she just froze up" and said she didn't want to talk about it.
It would be another eight years before Laura finally made the decision to leave.
Members are only supposed to date other members, but Laura met someone outside of OI when she was living in Canada with the Toronto OI community.
On her return to Sydney, she decided to break things off via email.
As was expected of her, at the next meeting she shared her decision with the group.
She was challenged for not having the email approved by someone in OI before she sent it.
"Tony happened to also be in Sydney as well. He said: 'Well, you clearly don't have a relationship with God or Jesus if you're acting this way,'" Laura says.
"And I was like: 'My 32 years of devotion to you — it's come down to this?'"
A couple of days after Laura left, her mother Donna left too, after almost 40 years in OI.
"I'm glad I did it because I don't think Mum would have left, had I not left," Laura says.
"So now we're all out, it's great. But in a way I think she probably just feels guilty that it wasn't the other way around."
For those who have left, there are lasting consequences.
"With all the people that have left, the rate of people who've seen a counsellor, [who are] on medication or suicidal, is almost 100 per cent," Laura says.
Lee speaks of having to hold back a compulsion to overshare, to tell people he has just met the details of things he's done in his past that he's not proud of.
Laura recently celebrated her 40th birthday, and has been out of OI for eight years.
She says looking back, she can see the experience was traumatic.
"To realise all these people that I loved, and I thought loved me, don't love me. They're gone. And then I was left with nothing," she says.
"I just felt like I'm just this person who exists in so much pain, and I can't see a future, I just felt like there was nothing to live for."
That's when Laura sought therapy, which she says helped her a great deal.
"[It] helped me realise that I can actually think for myself, that people aren't actually talking about me all the time, which I thought they were, because that's what they do in OI," she says.
'Life now is so beautiful'
Laura has now rebuilt her life, and in her spare time she runs an Instagram account called Found by Laura, where she showcases notes she picks up off the ground, imagining the stories of their writers.
She's held a couple of exhibitions, which is something she never would have been able to do in her OI days.
"I wish that had never happened to me, but I would still do all of that to have this life now," she says.
"'Cos this life now is so beautiful. Us who have left have this heightened sense of joy in moments.
"It's probably the silver lining is that I think life is quite amazing right now."
The author asked Tony Kostas for an interview a number of times to understand his perspective, but had no response.
Sarah Steel is an independent filmmaker and producer. She researches cults for her podcast Let's Talk About Sects.
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