Don't let the focus on feline factoids leave a faulty impression. This is no fluff piece. It's a furry ball of fantastic journalism, even if it involves — as Smietana's investigative report so eloquently describes it — "a complicated mash-up of spiritual experimentation, charismatic leadership and cute cat videos."
(By the way, the video above contains 10 of "the cutest and funniest cat videos of all time." However, as far as I know, that video has no connection to the cult covered by Smietana.)
Smietana opens the story as if talking casually with a friend. But then the conversation with readers takes a jaw-dropping turn:
You might rattle off a quick list of things that Columbia, Tenn., is known for, if prompted: It’s the home of James K. Polk, our 11th president; every April brings Mule Day and its parade and festival; you might even know about the race riots in the 1940s and the work of defense attorney (and later Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall.
It may also be home to an end-times cat cult.
The Rev. Sheryl Ruthven and a few dozen followers left Washington state three years ago, hoping to find a place where they could live in peace and quietly wait out the apocalypse.
Along the way, they hoped to rescue as many cats as possible.
Those cats, according to Ruthven’s writings and interviews with former followers, are divine creatures that will carry the 144,000 souls mentioned in the book of Revelation.
But the group’s unorthodox beliefs and controversial history followed it all the way across the country. In public, Ruthven’s followers, who run a nonprofit cat shelter known as Eva’s Eden, describe themselves as a peaceful group devoted to Mother Nature and living in harmony. They foster dozens of kittens in their homes and host cat adoption events in their air-conditioned mobile cat playground.
Keep reading, and Smietana — a former Religion News Association president who was a GetReligion favorite during his time as religion writer for The Tennessean — delivers the journalistic goods.
The Scene story is full of rich and revealing details — a sign of strong, insightful reporting — and I'm tempted to copy and paste the entire thing. But that probably would violate a few copyright laws.
A few months ago, I mentioned Smietana — who works full time as a senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine — when he wrote a neat feature for the Washington Post on the Babylon Bee, the fake religion news website. Sometimes, though, real news is much stranger and bizarre than the satire kind.
Which makes me wonder: How exactly does a journalist find out about an "end-times cat cult?"
It's simple, Smietana told me an email: Go grocery shopping at Kroger. Wait, what!?
More from Smietana's email:
Really. They set up cat adoption events at the Kroger near by house, so I'd seen them around. And their logo was a big odd — looked like an Egyptian cat goddess, so that made me wonder what they were about. Then someone shared the ex-member Facebook page with me, after the Wayne Jolley story ran.
Jolley, who died earlier this year, was the leader of another Nashville-area "cult-like group" that Smietana investigated for Christianity Today:
But let's get back to the cat cult story: What a joy it is to read such a piece written by someone with an obvious grasp of — and experience in — religion writing. Smietana brings a journalist's tenacity, a Godbeat pro's expertise and a cult watcher's curiosity to the story.
This section is typical of the outstanding nature of the reporting and writing:
Soon, beliefs from other faiths and spiritual traditions were added. Worship services now opened with tai chi and Buddhist meditation. After that came teachings about chakras and healing crystals, Tibetan singing bowls, ancient Egyptian gods like Osiris and Isis, the Greek goddess Athena and a host of New Age-like practices.
Eventually the group renamed itself the “Oneness Foundation” and settled into a renovated former Masonic Hall in Blaine, Wash., about half an hour north of Bellingham.
PowerPoint slides of Ruthven’s sermon notes from around the same period show the group’s eclectic mix of beliefs — there are notes about the effects of a “powerful Karmic moon,” references to Yom Kippur and warnings about Judgment Day. The group’s worship songs also reflected their mix of beliefs. They ranged from familiar church hymns like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” to songs of praise to Ruthven, who by this time claimed to be a reincarnated Mary Magdalene.
“Athena spreads her wings and lifts her staff / She opens up the door and says, ‘Come in’ / I recognize you, you are Magdalene,” says one of the songs. “You have the power to re-create Eden / So come in, Magdalene / So come in, Magdalene.”
Ruthven’s followers also bowed down to her during worship. Once she had claimed to be a messiah figure, they say they also drank communion juice tinged with her blood. Ruthven would prick her finger and drip the blood into the communion cup, which was filled with grape juice. Then they’d all drink, say the Gundersons and Lamphier.
Wow. Wow. Wow.
Read it all. It's the cat's meow.