Growing up in an end-times religious community, Shawna Kay Rodenberg renounced her earthly possessions and spoke in tongues. She was whipped for the smallest infraction, such as using a marker to underline passages in her Bible.
And yet, “there was a camaraderie there,” Rodenberg said. “We all were trying to navigate growing up and balancing being good with being free.”
She details her life in her memoir “Kin” (Bloomsbury), out now, starting in Seco, Ky., the Appalachian region where her family dates back 300 years. Rodenberg’s mother, Debbie, watched as the coal mines destroyed her father and older brother Jesse, who would get so violent that she sometimes had to lock him in a cage overnight so he wouldn’t kill her.
Rodenberg’s father, Shorty, was from a more stable family. He went off to college but dropped out and floundered before being drafted to Vietnam.
Shorty and Debbie married and eventually moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he learned about The Body, an end-times Christian community. He quit his job managing an asbestos plant and moved the family to one of the group’s compounds in rural Minnesota. That’s where Rodenberg and her younger sister, Misti, spent their early childhood in the late 1970s.
The family gave up nearly everything, including their house, their toys, their TV and half their money — which went to the church — for an uninsulated room in a bunkhouse with no indoor plumbing.
Rodenberg and her sister dressed modestly, in long denim skirts or corduroy jumpers. (Only men could wear pants.) They spent their days learning the Bible with the other 10 or so kids in the compound, doing chores around the farm and playing outside. During their nightly praise service, Rodenberg sang and played hymns on her guitar, one of her only prized possessions, along with her “Little House on the Prairie” books. They listened to taped sermons about the end times — both “terrifying and boring” — as they fell asleep.
Rodenberg was mouthy and rebellious, and her father often hit her. Once, when she was about 5 or 6, he thrashed her with a fly swatter when he caught her highlighting passages of her Bible. Afterwards, he held her and cried: “He said this was how God must have felt watching Jesus be whipped … it was all for my own good.”
But life in The Body proved difficult for her mom and dad. Debbie missed her family in Kentucky, and Shorty’s rebelliousness often clashed with the stringent demands of the group. They left the sect when Rodenberg was 10 and eventually moved back to Seco. (The Body, also known as The Move, still exists, but its numbers have dwindled since the 1990s.)
Even during her father’s more secular periods, Rodenberg found him impossible to please. He bought and discussed books with her and encouraged her to run cross-country, and yet he “monitored my movements like a private detective who’d been hired to catch me with my pants down.”
The pressure proved too much. Like her father, Rodenberg went off to college but flunked out. She ended up getting pregnant and agreeing to a shotgun wedding at 19.
That marriage would not last, but it took her to Virginia Beach and gave her two children. Rodenberg would go on to have three more kids, marry her college sweetheart, earn three college degrees, and become a nurse, a teacher and a writer.
Today, Rodenberg, 48, returns frequently to Seco to see her father and her younger sister. (Her mother died in 2018.) Researching the book, particularly discovering the letters her father wrote while in Vietnam, “changed me and helped me understand him,” Rodenberg said.
“I have never been able to abandon my background,” said Rodenberg, who is now a Catholic. She adds that though her upbringing was unique, she believes many will relate to her struggles. “I hope people see it as an American story.”