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Cults on Campus

For students who get lost trying 'to find God,' the road can be rough and long

BY RICHARD L.  DOWHOWER

(Pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church, Bowie, Md.  He counsels recovering cult members and their families and leads workshops on counter-education for clergy and youth.  Dowhower also is an advisory board member of the OLD Cult Awareness Network.)

In 1992 two 20-year-old Maryland women believed they were finding God in campus "Bible talks" to which classmates had brought them.  Today they believe they were subjected to "a rape of the mind."  They're still recovering.

Steffi Rausch was searching for "true love, true friends" and biblical truth uncontaminated by denominational divisiveness when a University of Maryland classmate invited her to Wednesday evening Bible talks of The Boston Church of Christ in College Park, Md.

Laura Weber felt a growing desire "to find God, to learn about the Bible and to find out what else there was to life."  She asked another student at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., why she was so enthusiastic about her church.  Laura didn't know it was part of an organization that counter-cult groups such as the old Cult Awareness Network and the American Family Foundation consider the highest flying abusive religious movement in the country today.

This shepherding/discipling type of cult was known first as The Boston Church of Christ and now, The International Church of Christ.  Congregations are known by area names, such as The Baltimore Church of Christ.  For the next three months for Steffi and the next 18 for Laura, the followers of the "church" founder former Disciples of Christ campus minister Kip McKean monopolized their lives.  That time, they say, was unbelievably pressured, totally consuming and loaded with guilt and fear.  They were driven by the question: "Am I ever going to be good enough for God?"

Making 'sin lists'

The immediate goal was to have Steffi and Laura compile a "sin list" and prepare them to be re-baptized and, eventually, to have them drop out of school, move into the group's residence and work full time at this ministry.

Steffi's Roman Catholic family in Columbia, Md., moved quickly to engage her in conversation with a priest.  After just three hours of dialogue on key Bible passages, he convinced her that she was in a dangerous cult.  Steffi had gotten only as far as the "sin list" session.  She remembers "a lot of crying," some sense of forgiveness and a bonding with the other two women who exposed similar sins of drinking and promiscuity from their own lists.  An initial feeling of "refreshment" turned into fear and guilt as the group demanded that "there be no hint of sin in my life."  Steffi says that led her to withdraw from old friends, who now represented the threat to fall again into sin.

Laura's experience was different.  "I was not refreshed by the sin study," she reports.  "I was devastated."  Having no significant childhood religious background, Laura "never realized the things that were sin, even in the real [secular] world like sleeping with your boyfriend.  I had no idea!  I was shocked I had been going against God all this time!"  And so she continued further into the Boston process re-baptism, residence in group-approved housing and full-time service in the movement.

ABC-TV's 20/20 reported in 1993 that "sin lists" like those of Laura's and Steffi's are computerized and made available to group leaders.  This abuse of confession and absolution is a common denominator of most destructive groups, especially in dealing with young adults who have problems managing their sexuality and relationships.

Such mistreatment is an intentional part of cult standard operational procedure, states sociologist Ronald M. Enroth in Churches That Abuse (Zondervan, 1992):

"A profile of pastoral and spiritual abuse will emerge ... characterized by strong, control-oriented leadership.  These leaders use guilt, fear and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line.  Followers are led to think that there is no church like theirs and God has singled them out for special purposes.  ... People who don't follow the rules or who threaten exposure are often dealt with harshly."

Spiritual abuse

In his sequel Recovering From Churches That Abuse (Zondervan, 1994), Enroth offers hope for recovery from the spiritual abuse that damages the core of one's personhood and leaves the person "emotionally cut off from the healing love of God."

I've provided pastoral care to people caught up in cults including Laura and Steffi and their families for 19 years.  Recovering a healthy spirituality that's rooted and grounded in the unconditional love of God called grace always has been the biggest need of everyone.

I worked with Laura and her family in 29 sessions over 20 months.  These sessions followed her professional exit counseling on an island in Canada during a family vacation and one month's residential treatment at the Wellspring Retreat and Resource in Albany, Ohio.

Laura reports that she "still has a lot of religious issues" the most difficult from the key Scripture passages used by the group.  When she hears these read or quoted in public worship, she often is overwhelmed with emotion and must hurriedly leave.

It's an experience Steffi shares.  Her post-cult experience has come less from professional sources.  She's part of a support group of other former cult members.  She reads, and quotes, counter-cult pioneer and University of California-Los Angeles professor Margaret Singer: "You have one belief system before the cult which is proven false by the group who puts you into a second belief system.  When you come out, the second is proven false too.  Then you have to build a third one, often drawing upon elements of the first and the second."

Steffi told me recently: "At this point I don't want to be in a religion.  I believe in a Higher Power and I pray to him daily.  I'm looking at a lot of religions."  This Easter she did attend mass with her family at her childhood Roman Catholic parish.

Laura, by contrast, has become active in a Protestant congregation that offers a lively group for young singles and expects that she will continue her love for God through participation there.  Last year she and her father studied Paul's letter to the Romans with a group at All Saints Lutheran, Bowie, Md., the church I serve.

Both Steffi and Laura, now 24, are pursuing their education toward careers in essentially the same directions they were before their excursions into the Boston movement.  Laura is finishing her psychology degree at the University of Maryland and plans to enter graduate school in social work.  Steffi is back at Maryland in mathematics education. 

"Rape of the mind" is how Steffi describes her experience.  "No one should take another's mind.  They took away my ability to make choices.  I never thought anyone could control another that way."  She says that her parents wish they had taught her to think more critically.  "I was easily persuaded," she acknowledges.

Laura urges youth and parents to learn "the principles of influence and their subtle techniques."

 1995 Augsburg Fortress.  All rights reserved.  Duplication in whole or in part in any form is prohibited without written permission from the publishers: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 426 S.  Fifth Street, Box 1209, Minneapolis, MN 55440.  (800) 328-4648.

Updated 2009 by CAIC to clarify that his involvement was with the old Cult Awareness Network before it was sued and subsequently overtaken by Scientology.  See here for more information on the history of CAN.