Without a Prayer

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 Jul 2019

Member Reviews

This book is a moving story of how family relations and poverty, mixed with a questionable religious group tragically ended a young man's life.  It explores the conditions (small town, poverty, lack of education, lack of strong family ties, murky religious group, etc...) that allowed a young man to lose his life.  It makes you question people, their motives, their sincerity or in this case, their lack of sincerity.
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Without a Prayer is a heartbreaking true story of how a church became a cult and ended with the death of one of their young members. Word of Life Christina Church was located in upstate New York. It was a secretive church, with entrances blocked off and members coming and going at odd times during the days and nights. The church was run by the Irwin family. When Jerry Irwin died, his daughter, Tiffanie took over. Things became stranger and stranger has she abused her power and turned the church in a cult. 

The author does an excellent job of giving us the backstory- from it's origins to describing the families that were a part of the church. She walks us through the change in leaders and how increasingly strange the church became which eventually led the to the death of Lucas Leonard. Lucas and his brother Christopher were to stay after church for a "counseling session" to force them to confess and repent against their will. What happened next is horrible, heartbreaking and scary. Lucas and Christopher were brutally beaten by members of the church including their own parents and half sister. This  beating led to the death of Lucas. The author then describes the aftermath including the trials where nine members faced murder related charges. 

Thank you to Netgalley and Pegasus Books for an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Without a Prayer takes readers through the Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York, This church probably would not have drawn much attention, save for their strangely gated buildings, the secrecy, and the murder of one of their members. Founded by Pastor Jerry Irwin, the congregation found themselves donating excessive time and money, as well as being forced into plans for their lives by their charismatic leader. When Jerry died after suffering a stroke, his family attempted to have him revived by a faith healer and only after threats from local law enforcement did they have him turned over to a mortuary. That's when the real horror started.  His daughter, Tiffanie Irwin, had been raised to believe that she was a type of messiah. She took on the congregation and made it a full on cult. During her time in power, a young man named Lucas Leonard would be forced against his will to confess at the altar that he'd practiced witchcraft, planned to kill his parents, and other horrifying statements. He was brutally beaten by church members, including his parents and sister. He arrived at the hospital dead. 

Journalist Susan Ashline takes readers through the world of the Word of Life Christian Church and how they went from a Sunday gathering to beating a a member to death. What she reveals is a series of horrifying abuses of power, fear of being falsely accused, forced marriages within the community, and families being forced to separate when family members decided it was all too much. Ashline is detailed and thorough, and at times, it becomes difficult to believe that families could turn on their children the way the cult did. The book explains how it happened, including the subtle changes that sounded the alarm for many members. 

Without a Prayer is a truly terrifying book, more so because it is a true story. 

Susan Ashline's Without a Prayer is available from Pegasus Books August 8, 2019.
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In 2014, a secretive, insular church near Utica, New York, called the Word of Life, made headlines after one of its teenage members died after a beating by other church members, including his own family. 

This is grim enough, but as investigators dug deeper, the saga of the church and its hold over members got stranger and stranger. Less church than cult, it was run by the Irwin family, at the time of most of the events depicted here by the daughter of its original founder (he died and almost got resurrected by the members, so you can imagine what type of beliefs are involved here.) The book follows the origins of the main families involved and the frightening turns things took as the Irwins became more controlling over their followers, and increasingly paranoid, until it all culminated in Lucas Leonard's death.

I couldn't put this down. Ashline's writing is gripping from the very start. Her descriptions are so detailed and rich that you almost forget you're reading something that really happened. The case was helped by a wealth of evidence -- members and the Irwins had documented so many of their meetings, sermons, even their meals together that there's tons of actual dialogue. It's chilling and gives a glimpse into this kind of organization that the outside world doesn't usually get. Simply incredible.
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