With just a gun, a pint of Jack Daniels whiskey and a bag of marijuana, 21-year-old Jeff Harshbarger checked into a motel room not far from where he attended college at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. It was 1981, and he had spent the previous four years involved in Satanism, rising quickly to "priest in training" and co-leading his own coven, or grotto.
Now, however, Harshbarger was so miserable he wanted to commit suicide. The whiskey and pot, he supposed, would give him the nerve to shoot himself with the gun he had just bought.
His plan didn't work. "I tried to pull the trigger and couldn't," he says.
He returned home, determined to try again the next night. This time he threw a rope over a rafter in his garage and put his head through the noose. He kicked the chair out from under himself but fell to the floor with the noose still around his neck.
What a failure! he thought. I can't even kill myself. He retreated to his room, collapsed on his bed and "bawled like a baby."
"But it felt good, like there had been a release," he told Charisma.
When he heard a voice say, "Get out!" he thought it was a demon coming to rip him apart for not being a good Satanist. He heard the command again, and this time he went into his backyard where he encountered the presence of God.
"I got down on my face," he says. "All I knew to pray was just: 'Jesus, I can't take it anymore. Make my life OK.'"
That night, Harshbarger came back to Christ. "Boy, do I know the grace of God," he says today.
Harshbarger, 43, and his wife, Liz, 41, now devote their lives to working in youth ministry. They recently took their ministry a step further by moving to Georgia where they've turned a fish camp into the home of their Refuge Ministries. Making use of the slow, country pace of life, they minister to people who are in the same kind of spiritual bondage Harshbarger endured.
Recent studies that reveal Satanism and the occult are growing rapidly in popularity are an indication there is a desperate need for such a ministry. Harshbarger firmly believes teens and young people who lack a strong family connection are most at-risk for being swept into the occult. He knows this from firsthand experience.
Growing up in Marion, Indiana, Harshbarger says he longed to be just a normal kid who played baseball and went to Cub Scouts. Instead, he was lonely and from a dysfunctional family. He says his dad, a Marine, had returned from the Vietnam War "pretty messed up."
Harshbarger did what he could to escape a turbulent home life, and in third grade he attended a vacation Bible school. There, over stale cookies and warm lemonade, he heard about Jesus and accepted Him into his life. On Sunday mornings he would hop on his bike and head off to church by himself.
"I just wanted to know more about Jesus," he says.
Although as a youngster he had no idea of the spiritual battle being waged for his soul, Harshbarger was aware of a strange presence in his home.
"I would get up at night to get a drink of water, and something else was there," he says.
He discovered he had paranormal abilities--he could read minds, he had premonitions that came true, and he even had a few out-of-body experiences. He told his mom about it all, but she didn't believe him. As much as he longed for a normal childhood, Harshbarger was also intrigued with his special abilities.
"I didn't know if I was The Amazing Kreskin, but I was sure going to find out, " he says, referring to the mentalist and entertainer.
By 1976 Harshbarger was in high school and no longer attended church. His mother did, however. She had given her life to Christ, had been baptized in the Holy Spirit, and was holding morning prayer meetings in her kitchen.
"It drove me bananas to wake up and hear them praying in tongues," Harshbarger says. Furious, he decided to sever all ties with God, throw away his Bible and delve deeper into the paranormal.
Two months after turning his back on God, Harshbarger was befriended by his manager at his after-school job. "He was the coolest person I had ever met and had everything I wanted--prestige, power and control of his life," Harshbarger says.
Satanism, he found out, was the source of his new friend's success. Convinced it was what he had been searching for, the 17-year-old gave his life to Satan, and his manager became his teacher. He learned how to communicate with demons.
"I became totally possessed," Harshbarger says. "I would look in a mirror and not see me--only the spirits."
He and his teacher would visit churches to disrupt services--until one congregation caught the pair off-guard by praying for them right on the spot. After that it seemed Harshbarger couldn't get away from them.
"I'd be at a drive-in restaurant," he says, "and one of them would pop their head in and say: 'Well praise God! How ya doing, Jeff?'"
Harshbarger and his mentor moved to Muncie to attend Ball State and start their own satanic coven. They recruited six young men as disciples and lived in a house off campus where they held satanic rituals, cast spells, and desecrated Bibles and other Christian material.
But Harshbarger found himself often counseling the 17- and 18-year-old disciples through their many problems while worrying about them--an unheard of sentiment in Satanism.
"This is not a warm and fuzzy religion," he says. "You're supposed to become like Satan, but I was turning into a softie. My heart wasn't dying like it should've been."
Harshbarger went to his teacher for advice and was told he had become "angelically oppressed"--that there was an angel around him who was not allowing anything to happen.
The explanation contradicted everything Harshbarger had been taught--that Satan is god, Jesus is dead and Christians are weak--and caused him to question his beliefs.
"If I'm serving Satan, why aren't Christians and angels afraid of me?" he asked.
Harshbarger reached his breaking point, he says, when the demons turned against him and wreaked internal havoc upon him. "It was like I was locked up in a room in hell," he says. When he couldn't take it anymore, he decided that as a "respectable Satanist" his only option was suicide.
Harshbarger credits God's intervention and the prayers of his mother and numerous other Christians for his two failures at suicide. He was promptly kicked out of his coven, but all he cared about was finding a church. He was cognizant enough to know that only prayer would deliver him from the torment.
Rising From a Fallen Life
Harshbarger ended up at Faith Fellowship, a small charismatic church in Muncie, where he met Harry and Jo Richardson, a senior couple who took him under their wings. "God used them to save my life," Harshbarger says. The first thing he did after he had prayed with the Richardsons and been delivered of the demons was look at himself in a mirror.
"For the first time in four years I saw me and not demons," Harshbarger says. "I bet I smiled nonstop for weeks."
For three years the Richardsons prayed with, counseled, and fed meals and the Word of God to Harshbarger.
A year later Harshbarger met golf pro Liz Galvano at Indiana Christian University in South Bend, Indiana, a school affiliated with the Lester Sumrall Evangelistic Association. The couple married in 1986 and have worked in youth ministry the last 16 years.
Delron Shirley, dean of the university, has known Harshbarger since the mid-1980s and keeps in touch with him. He's seen Harshbarger transform over the years from someone just set free from Satanism to a man with a heart and calling for the ministry.
Harshbarger understands why today's kids--including many church kids--are attracted to Satanism.
"It's very hip, very cool to say you're a Satanist," he explains. "There's a pseudo-intellectualism in the Church of Satan. They believe they're higher-level creatures and that Christians are ignorant and weak-willed."
Satanism is all about having power and control, he explains, and it promotes indulgence rather than abstinence.
"The satanic Bible has a ceremony for everything," he continues. "If a guy is looking for a girlfriend, he can say a certain incantation. He can talk to a demon and say, 'I bid you to do this because I belong to you and you belong to me.'"
Another attraction, he notes, is that Satanism is very secretive. "I know from 16 years in youth ministry that many teens lead a dual life," he says. "There's what they show and tell Mom and Dad, and then there's their hidden life. In Satanism they don't have to hide anything. It's OK to indulge in greed or lust and be the most obnoxious sinner."
What really disheartens the Harshbargers, though, are the young people they see in the occult who are from Christian families.
"They've grown up in the church, went to Sunday school," Liz says. "But they never really grasped who God is and how much He loves them. They're not fully educated, so they don't know that the devil's been defeated. Otherwise they'd be able to say no to Satanists and Satanism."
Jeff agrees. "Satan has a designated place that God gave him," he says. "He's been judged a fallen angel--that's all he is. He takes what God has done and perverts it."
The Harshbargers are also concerned about a preoccupation with Satan's influence that they see in some churches today. It amounts to a misconception, they believe.
"There are very sensational teachings going around right now about Satan's power and abilities--about curses and powers of the devil coming on Christians," Harshbarger says. "They're giving Satan a whole lot more credit than he deserves.
"I met the devil," he adds. "Satan is on God's leash and judged condemned. I see God as in complete control."
It is Harshbarger's firm belief that Satan actually was used by God in his own life. Satanism drove him to the brink of death, but God wouldn't let it happen, and Harshbarger now realizes just how gracious God has been to him.
"I definitely have not received what I should of," he says. "I've been obstinate and stubborn enough to say no to God to His face, but then later that same strength was used for good when I said no to Satan."
The Harshbargers know there are others out there who need to be set free from the same bondage that trapped Jeff. "Harry and Jo [Richardson] were used by God in a very present time of trouble for me," he says. "Now Liz and I offer ourselves to be God's agents to whoever else is in trouble."
Fighting the Darkness
Jeff and Liz Harshbarger use their Web site to pull young people out of the occult.
After four years in Satanism, Jeff Harshbarger was a mess. He was severely underweight, had to wear dark sunglasses because of an intolerance to light and couldn't even speak in complete sentences. Enter Harry and Jo Richardson, a senior couple who taught at a local college. They befriended Harshbarger when he showed up at their church, Faith Fellowship in Muncie, Indiana.
Harshbarger had just rededicated his life to Christ and was desperate to get plugged in to a church. "Some churches I visited didn't know if I was a druggie, psycho or both," he says.
He ended up at Faith Fellowship where he sat on the back row. He had no clue what was going on in the service. "I wanted prayer so badly that I forced myself to sit there," he says.
The Richardsons prayed with Harshbarger, took him to a meeting where he received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and for the next three years "laid down their lives" for him, he says.
That's the basis, he says, for starting Refuge Ministries in Thomson, Georgia, where Jeff and his wife, Liz, minister to those trying to escape occult bondage. "We want to be available to whoever has the sunglasses on," Jeff says.
Refuge Ministries' location makes it a great spot for someone trying to escape the bondage of Satanism. It's peaceful, quiet and has no distractions. "There's a lot of wide open space to get alone with God," Jeff says.
Jeff and Liz hold other jobs, but they eventually would like to give Refuge Ministries their full-time attention. Lately their Web site, www.refugeministries.cc, has been receiving a steady stream of inquiries from people looking for help to leave the occult.
Kate (not her real name), a young woman in St. Cloud, Minnesota, can't afford to travel to Refuge Ministries. Jeff and Liz minister to her via phone and e-mail. She read Jeff's testimony on the Internet and wants out of the occult, but she doesn't know how to leave it.
At this point, Jeff says, he's just a voice on the phone on the other side of the country telling her about God. He needs someone to reach out to Kate in person.
"I'm looking for someone from a good solid church in St. Cloud, Minnesota, to knock on Kate's door and tell her about Jesus," Jeff says.
Eventually he would like to establish a network of local churches to reach those trapped in the occult.
"There are people in your town you may not be able to reach, but they'll find me on the Internet, and I can hook them up with your church," he says.
There are other Kates out there, Harshbarger says, and Refuge Ministries is all about helping them. "We want to be there for whoever needs help," he notes. "That's what we're called to do, and that's our heart and passion. We'll just open the door and come on in."
For more information, write to Refuge Ministries, P.O. Box 1273, Thomson, GA 30824; or visit www.refugeministries.cc.
Nancy Justice is a freelance writer and a former associate editor for Charisma.