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.
“Our call has always been to help ease suffering, and we are Eva’s Eden … bringing love to the world, one cat at a time,” they wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post.
But a group of former followers says Ruthven’s ministry is a cult of personality, devoted to its prophet, who they say claims to be a Divine Magdalene, a reincarnated messiah figure who will create a new Eden after the apocalypse. Those former followers say they once worshipped Ruthven, following her every command, even leaving their families for her sake. They now run a Facebook page aimed at exposing what they call an abusive cult.
Eva’s Eden denies these claims. They say former members are a hate group, founded by Ruthven’s ex-husband, aimed at slandering their ministry. The nonprofit has responded to critics by denouncing them online, trading letters with legal threats — and then posting cute cat videos on YouTube.
But in early August, Eva’s Eden disappeared. Two days after a reporter requested an interview with Ruthven or other leaders, Eva’s Eden’s website went down. Its Facebook page and YouTube accounts vanished, and the group canceled a planned public cat adoption at a Kroger grocery store in nearby Spring Hill.
Nicole Walker, Ruthven’s daughter and manager of Eva’s Eden, also filed a criminal complaint with the Maury County sheriff’s office against Rachael Gunderson, one of the group’s critics, accusing her of harassment.
It’s the latest chapter in a complicated mash-up of spiritual experimentation, charismatic leadership and cute cat videos.
Michelle Lamphier first met Ruthven in the late 1990s at Gates of Praise, a small Pentecostal church that once met on the second floor of the former Sons of Norway Hall in Bellingham, Wash. Lamphier was a new mom at the time and had just started going back to church.
Ruthven, then known as Sheryl Walker, was one of the first people she met. She was tall, blond, rich and had an almost irresistible magnetism, says Lamphier.
“Everybody idolized her,” she says. “Every woman wanted to be her best friend.”
Ruthven also had the gift of prophecy, according to Lamphier and other former followers. She seemed to be able to know exactly what people were going through. When she spoke, she’d go into a kind of trance, as if God’s voice spoke through her, according to recordings of her prophecies, made by followers. People would arrive early at church just in case Ruthven might have a word for them from God.
In the early 2000s, there was a church split. Most of the congregation followed Ruthven to start a new church, known as Freedom Fire Ministries.
Mary Gunderson, a former Assemblies of God children’s pastor and aspiring worship leader, heard about the church while shopping at a Walmart. Gunderson saw a business card for the ministry on a bulletin board and decided to check it out.
“I heard Sheryl preach that day, and I was hooked,” she says.
She and Ruthven became inseparable. Gunderson says she would spend every free hour she could with her new pastor. She soon became convinced that Ruthven wasn’t just an ordinary pastor, but instead she was a prophet — and if Gunderson stuck with her, then her salvation would be secure.
“I tied myself in so I would not lose favor with God — that I would not lose favor with this woman,” she says, a hint of what sounds like embarrassment in her voice.
Before long, Gunderson’s younger sister Rachael had joined as well. Like her sister, Rachael Gunderson had grown up in the Assemblies of God, but had grown disenchanted with her home church. She felt distant from God and was looking for a spiritual connection. Rachael found it at Freedom Fire.
“It felt like a waterfall when I walked into Sheryl’s church,” Rachael says. “I felt alive again.”
Just being in Ruthven’s presence was like a spiritual high, her former followers say. A smile, a touch or a kind word made them feel like they were experiencing God’s love firsthand. They came to believe that their salvation depended on being under Ruthven’s spiritual oversight or “covering.”
“Following Sheryl gave me what I felt I had been looking for my whole life,” says Rachael Gunderson. “It was like I finally arrived at who and what I was supposed to be by following her teachings and learning to be like her.”
The Fear of God
As time went on, Ruthven’s former followers learned the downside of following a prophet.
Ruthven claimed to have a direct contact with God and to be speaking God’s words. No one was allowed to disagree with her, say former followers. Anyone who disobeyed was banished.
“She knew how to put the fear of God in us,” says Lamphier.
Among those banished from the group was Lamphier’s then-teenage daughter, Shalyn.
Shalyn had often been in trouble with Ruthven and refused to follow her instructions. When she was caught drinking at 16, Shalyn was grounded at first, then Ruthven told her parents to get rid of her. So they took Shalyn into the backyard, joined hands in a circle with her brothers, and cast her out of their family.
“ ‘We give the devil permission to overtake her, and bring her to his side. She is no longer “covered” with our “covering,” ’ ” Shalyn recalls her parents saying, in an account of her experience posted on Facebook. “ ‘She is on her own and you may now take her.’ My own parents did this — gave my soul away.”
It’s a decision that shames Michelle Lamphier to this day. At the time, she says, she would have done almost anything that Ruthven commanded. Today, she cannot believe how she treated her daughter.
“What kind of mother does that?” she says.
Along with following Ruthven’s directions, her former followers also say they had to change their beliefs to conform with her prophecies. At first, the changes were small. The church stopped celebrating Christmas and Easter and instead focused on Jewish holidays. By 2005, they’d changed their name to “Moriah Ministries” — after the mountain where Abraham was told to sacrifice his son in the book of Genesis.
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.
Rachael Gunderson says being in the ministry was like being trapped in an abusive relationship. She knew things were bad but didn’t know how to leave. She also feared losing her soul. Ruthven was a prophet, and doubting her was like doubting God.
“It’s like once you take one sip of the Kool-Aid, you keep drinking,” she says.
This kind of fluid theology and devotion to a charismatic leader can be common in new religious groups, says Ben Zeller, assistant professor of religion at Lake Forest College, just north of Chicago. Group members are often more tied to the leader than to their theology, says Zeller, who studied the Heaven’s Gate cult in Arizona.
“If you are invested in the person rather than in the theology of the group, that helps explain why if the founder claims she is Mary Magdalene, people don’t just leave,” he says. “They are invested in her.”
There’s also a social side. Many new religious groups become close-knit, almost like family. Those ties are hard to abandon. People stay in churches all the time, even if they disagree with the preacher, Zeller notes.
“I don’t think cults or new religions are different in that way,” he says. “There are plenty of people who are along for the ride. It’s just that it’s amazing what people will do when they are along for the ride — if it means giving up their money or control over their lives or their finances, their romantic relationships or, in suicidal groups, their lives.”
Few new religious groups turn out to be dangerous, says Zeller. And while their beliefs may seem odd to outsiders, they often make sense to those inside the group. After all, he says, even traditional beliefs — like the story of the burning bush or the virgin birth — may seem odd to outsiders.
“We can’t just dismiss them as crazy,” Zeller says. “They are no weirder than us.”
Starting a nonprofit charity, Zeller explains, is also common for new religious groups.
“New religions often use businesses or charities for outreach. Some honestly believe they are doing good, charitable work. Others are just seeking converts. Often it is both.”
For Ruthven, the cat rescue business has both spiritual and personal motivations.
She’d taught her followers to become vegans as part of their focus on being one with Mother Nature. They also began to volunteer at local animal shelters as part of their religious practice.
Then Ruthven’s cat, Eva, died, leaving her distraught. She saw the cat’s death as a sign she should start her own cat rescue.
“She died on the Winter Solstice,” Ruthven wrote in describing the founding of Eva’s Eden. “Death had come, now I needed to embrace Life. How does one explain such a love to a world that sees animals only as animals? As I had studied and taught my people that of Egyptian Alchemy, I grew in reverence for their beliefs of honoring the Felines as vessels that are able to guide us through our passageway of life.”
For Ruthven’s followers, this new ministry meant fostering cats and kittens by the dozens.
At one point, Lamphier had more than 40 cats in her home. So did the Gundersons. In the foster homes, the cats would eat first — even before the kids.
“We had to revere them more than ourselves and our families,” says Rachael Gunderson.
And if the cats weren’t treated with proper reverence, Ruthven would berate her followers.
“Eva’s Eden is not a social gathering hour,” she wrote in a January 2013 email. “It is the Temple of God. You are to enter with the reverence of what is sealed within its foundation and walls and within every single Feline. You are to enter with Awe. You are to see each customer in there with discernment ... are they a Chosen?”
Caring for the cats accomplished two goals, says Rachael Gunderson. Ruthven’s followers were building up good karma by doing good deeds, and they were also preparing for the Apocalypse. Ruthven taught them that cats were supernatural beings in disguise, carrying the 144,000 souls mentioned in the New Testament book of Revelation. Those beings would come to the rescue of Ruthven’s followers during the Apocalypse.
“As long as you take care of them, then in your time of need, they will transform and take care of you,” Gunderson says.
At first, Eva’s Eden met with public approval, seen by many as just another cute cat shelter. Gunderson and other members put together cat videos to promote their work. Ruthven’s daughter-in-law Nicole Walker, the shelter manager, gave interviews about the shelter but left out its spiritual underpinnings.
The only sign of their religious beliefs: the Eva’s Eden logo, which featured the outline of the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet.
Inside the group, however, there was turmoil. Ruthven had feuded for years with her ex-husband Marc Walker, a Washington developer. She accused him of abuse and had him arrested. The charges were dropped, but the two divorced. Marc would later remarry, and he and his second wife Mary began to meet with family members who’d been estranged from Ruthven’s followers.
Other group members also clashed with Ruthven and were asked to leave. Rachael Gunderson began to date a man from Tennessee, without Ruthven’s approval. While they talked on the phone, she mentioned she was working on a video for Ruthven about Eva’s Eden. In Ruthven’s eyes, that was an unforgivable betrayal, having told her followers to keep her prophecies secret. So she banished Rachael from the group. Mary Gunderson moved out of the house she shared with Rachael and cut off all ties with her sister.
“You had no right, no authority to take what is mine, a Prophets and to give it to someone else,” Ruthren told Rachael Gunderson in an email. “You used my revelations and truth as if they were your own and gave them to darkness … now they will be used against us.”
Around this time, Ruthven was planning what she called her “Exodus” to Tennessee. The move was prompted in part by growing conflict with her critics.
She also told followers that the end was drawing near. She wanted them to move to Tennessee and begin preparations for the Apocalypse, which meant buying farms where they could live off the land when society collapsed.
Ruthven attempted to escape any controversy. Followers were directed to say that Eva’s Eden was shutting down and that Ruthven had gone into retirement in Scotland.
“Please don’t make me regret opening the doors for you to come with me to Tennessee,” Ruthven said in an email. “I am going to start over and to have no one know anything about myself, the cult or the church.”
And Ruthven might have gotten her wish, had she not changed her mind and re-established Eva’s Eden in Tennessee.
Not long after arriving, Ruthven and her followers set up a small shelter in downtown Columbia, then added an air-conditioned mobile trailer to hold adoption events at local stores.
In response, former followers and estranged family members began blogging about their experience with Ruthven. Their Facebook page, called “Is There a Cult in Columbia, TN?,” struck a nerve. The two groups have feuded, mostly online, for the past few years, and though their conflict flared up at times, it went mostly unnoticed. Until July, that is, when Rachael Gunderson shared her story with the The Ex-Files, a podcast produced by a group called Life After God, which led to more social media attention.
Michelle Breedlove, who adopted a second kitten from Eva’s Eden in early July, says she’d heard about some of the controversy online, but it probably wouldn’t stop her from getting another kitten from them in the future. The group’s volunteers seemed kind, she says, and the cats she adopted were well cared for. She liked that the cats lived in a foster home rather than in cages. And none of the volunteers ever mentioned any kind of religious beliefs.
“If there is no one being hurt, and they are just being odd, that’s OK,” she says. “There are oddballs everywhere.”
When contacted for an interview about their religious beliefs, shelter manager Nicole Walker said in an email that she would have to contact the FBI, the local sheriff and their lawyer before commenting. Eva’s Eden had been harassed in the past, she said, and was considering legal action against her critics.
“Thank you for your understanding,” she emailed on Aug. 11. “I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
The next day, Eva’s Eden pulled its Facebook page and shuttered the website.
Georgia Snow, the group’s treasurer, says she didn’t know if the cat rescues would continue. Snow, who is also Ruthven’s mother, says she was fed up with the criticism of her daughter.
“Maybe we are tired of the persecution,” she says. “Because it’s all a bunch of lies and not true.”
Snow says her daughter is no longer a pastor, and that her church no longer exists. All they want to do now is rescue cats.
“We do nothing but good,” she says. “And yet we have people who try to destroy that.”
Mary Gunderson says the cat rescue is fine with her. The cats at Eva’s Eden are well cared for, she says, and many would have been euthanized if the shelter hadn’t rescued them. But being nice to cats doesn’t wash away her ex-pastor’s sins.
“You pour out all this care and love to these animals — and when they are adopted, they become a blessing to their family,” Gunderson says. “That doesn’t erase the years and years of spiritual abuse.”