Cult-like evangelist group targeted recent JHU undergrads

University Bible Fellowship had a small contingency on Hopkins' campus, yet it drastically changed the course of one student's life

The Johns Hopkins Newsletter/December 7, 2001
By Lindsay Saxe

Michael Keenan, class of '91, was not unlike thousands of other young men and women who venture off college at the still vulnerable, still immature age of 18. And like so many of his peers, Keenan sought support from a campus organization to quell the anxiety and fears he had as a young adult - a young adult who lacked a definitive direction in life (as so many of us do) and who still questioned his morals and values. Keenan turned to a group called University Bible Fellowship (UBF), a Christian evangelical organization, to provide the comfort and friendship he so desperately needed to cope with his self-doubt and insecurity. The result of his membership, he later realized, was ten years of manipulation and control that forever changed the course of his life. Keenan first met members of UBF in 1990, when he attended a meeting for an alcohol counseling group. In a building on Homewood campus formerly known as "the white house," Keenan met a girl involved with the group who later introduced him to her Bible teacher. The Bible teacher, it turns out, was a doctoral candidate at the Hopkins Medical School. UBF, Keenan found out, was a Bible-study evangelical group that practiced on a plethora of college campuses throughout the world.

After several encounters with the teacher, Keenan recalls, "I liked him, trusted him and felt that [with him] it was going to be more than just a forced march through Bible study."

And he was right. For a while, his teacher would make him dinner and have congenial discussions with him about his problems and concerns. His teacher made him feel comfortable with the group and its members, and as a result, he became engrossed in the group's activities and gatherings.

According to University chaplain, Sharon Kugler, this is typical of groups such as UBF and the Boston Church of Christ who want to attract college students. The group focuses on "love bombing" potential members - that is, making them feel like they finally have a home away from home. However, what students tend not to recognize is that therein lies a hidden agenda. Many young people dive head-first into such organizations without first taking a critical look at what the motivations lie behind the outpouring of kindness.

Kugler first became aware of UBF's existence on the Homewood campus almost eleven years ago, when Keenan along with several other affected students crossed her path. Kugler recalls students coming to her complaining of harassment by UBF's members. Various incidents occurred where young, Jewish men were harangued because they wore yarmulkes. UBF student members would threateningly tell them they would go to hell for their spiritual beliefs. Other students complained that group members told them to ignore all basic principles previously taught to them by their parents or spiritual advisors.

By the time Kugler met Keenan, he had already become a steadfast believer in UBF's mission. Kugler said, "He demonstrated characteristics pretty typical of someone involved in such a group: he owed loyalty to the group, and everyone else [not involved] was wrong."

Disturbed by the various complaints and her meetings with Keenan, Kugler decided to research UBF and find out what it was all about. The group did not have any official standing on campus, as they were neither registered with the Student Activities Commission (SAC) nor the Campus Ministry. Up until then, the religious groups that existed were acknowledged through informal agreements with the Campus Ministry, so it was tough to nail down their exact practices or members. Kugler said, "One of the first things I did was find out who counted themselves as religious no." Kugler then called Keenan back in to discuss UBF's standing. Keenan remembers telling Keenan that she "in good conscious could not recognize it as a religious organization."

Nevertheless, Keenan was not swayed from his adamant devotion to UBF's mission. His transformation began, soon after his induction into UBF, when the general attitude of the group's leaders began to change. Keenan said the turning point was, "probably a few months into [my] involvement when the bible teacher told me not to call him at home. He basically began to shut down all of the personal aspects of our relationship. He just started saying, 'Do what I tell you to do and don't ask questions.'" The teachers, according to Keenan, told him to follow their interpretation of the bible, and not to burden them with his problems anymore.

Soon, Keenan lost all interaction with people outside of UBF, including his friends and family. In an interesting analogy, Keenan likend his membership to a drug addiction. He said that, "Emotionally, you stop growing. They tell you not to question things, and you don't. You are supposed to defer all questions to God's will. You stop confronting, stop asking, and assume it is all God's will."

Kugler had a similar characterization. For groups like UBF, critical thinking was a detriment to their continuing existence. Kugler said, "They pick a part of the scripture that suits their purpose, and fits their agenda. That kind of practice co-ops sacred texts."

The purpose of which, is to obtain unconditional devotion from their disciples. Students like Keenan, who have completely alienated family and friends, are then encouraged to go out, recruit new members, and follow the path dictated by the group's leaders. The group, Kugler said practiced, "the dumbing-down of scriptural texts as opposed to making it the enlightening pursuit it can be."

In fact, this was the sum of Keenan's experience with UBF. Over the nearly ten years Keenan spent with the group, he claims his every decision was influenced by UBF's mission. Group members and leaders went so far as to tell him who he should marry and what career path he should follow. Consequently, one of Keenan's fellow members became his wife, and he said, "they cut off all career paths I would have followed. My whole life had to be focused around the group."

About a year and a half ago, Keenan and his wife finally hit their breaking point. UBF dictated that even your kids were less important than the group's mission. Keenan and his wife witnessed other members leaving their young children at home alone in order to attend meetings. As he recalled, "All sorts of weird things took place. People would just leave their kids in cribs or in cars to get to meetings." Neglecting children was encouraged, because members who demonstrated that kind of devotion to UBF's mission were rewarded by its leaders.

At that point, Keenan and his wife decided to end their involvement. Having recently had kids, they could not justify that kind of gross abuse no matter what the mission at hand. They were encouraged by others outside the group who felt that its practices were bizarre and questionable. People who had been to UBF meetings, or had been members and later quit, compared it to a cult with various ulterior motives.

For both Kugler and Keenan, it was a learning experience. However, Keenan had submitted nearly ten years of his life to UBF's control - hence, it was a costly lesson to learn. Kugler recalled a meeting she had with Keenan just recently where she asked him whether or not she could have changed his mind about the group back in 1990, and he told her no. Kugler said, "It was one of those rare moments in ministry when someone you tried to help comes back and you finally hear the end of the story."

For Keenan, it is imperative that college students like him hear his story, so that they are wary of the people and organizations who solicit their membership. If you aren't careful, Keenan said, "You will go along like you're on cruise control, becoming numb to the people and events surrounding you. I went [like that] for ten years."

Despite their large presence on campuses in California and other states out west, UBF never gained a substantial following here at Hopkins. Kugler credits that to the Campus Ministry's decision not to formally recognize UBF's status as a student religious group.

Kugler, along with other members of the Campus Ministry teach Resident Advisors as well as Campus Security personelle the tell-tale signs of destructive religious behavior. She said that, "The best counteraction is letting people know what's okay, and that their worth is not linked to allegiance to a group."

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