Divided Family - Court will air couple's religious conflict

The Cedar Rapids Gazette/May 2, 1983

Sometime next year, a husband and wife, and their respective attorneys and supporters, will take seats on opposite sides of a Minneapolis courtroom. There a sad and conflicting story will unfold.

It's a story about and man and a woman, once united in love, who are now divided by the cult controversy.

Bill and Sandy Eilers, their relationship with each other and their relationship with a group called the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, will be the focal point of a $5 million civil suit brought by

Bill against 16 people, including his parents and in-laws.

His suit stems from the pair's abduction last August in Winona, Minn. Bill says he was "kidnapped," and suffered physical and mental abuse at the hands of deprogrammers. Sandy says she was "rescued" from a cult, and was treated in a caring way.

They spent a week with deprogrammers at the Tau Center, a retreat house connected with the College of St. Teresa in Winona. Bill escaped in Winona as they were about to be moved to an Iowa City halfway house, Unbound, Inc. Sandy spent the next two weeks at Unbound.

Today Sandy, 23, and the couple's five-month old son, Matthew, live with her parents, Lloyd and Charlene Morin, in Fairmont, Minn. Bill, wt, continues to reside on the Bob Steenlage farm near Galesville, Wis., 10 miles east of Winona. He's afraid to leave, fearing he will be kidnapped by cult deprogrammers. Sandy is afraid the Disciples will attempt to force her back into the group.

"I wrote to Bill, but he won't write back or take my calls," said Sandy. "In Bob Steenlage's words, I'm one of the enemies. I'm still worried about Bill. Do I still love him? Oh yes.

Bill is reluctant to talk, especially about his feelings for Sandy. "My wife is in for some surprises," he said in a telephone interview. "She will have her eyes opened up at the trial in 1984.

Sandy's parents are Catholic. Bill's mother, Marilyn Kadling of New Ulm, Minn., is Lutheran. The couple met while students at Mankato State, and were married in September of 1981. The joined the Assembly of God Church. A year ago Steenlage, one of Bills' high school teachers, invited them to visit his farm.

"They wanted us to come for Christian fellowship," said Sandy in a telephone interview. "They said they were just a friendly group of believers, and they told of the fantastic miracles on the farm. The told of family members being healed and livestock appearing out of thin air. Since Bill trusted them, I couldn't see why they would lie to us.

"They told us about Rama Behera," she continued. Behera, a former Hindu who leads the 300-member Disciples group that is concentrated in Wisconsin and Minnesota, lives on an acreage near Shawano, Wis., northwest of Green Bay. Disciples is not a commune, as some think. "They said he was a man of God, that he was unselfish and prayed for members all the time. God would reveal things to him that He wouldn't to other people."

The Eilers arrived at the Steenlage farm on a Thursday, stayed the weekend, met Behera at Shawano, and were convinced to stay at the farm an extra week, Sandy said. After that, the couple decided to quit their jobs in Mankato, and moved permanently to the Steenlage place. "I didn't want to go back, but Bill said he would go with or without me."

We'd only been married eight months," she said, "and I was three months pregnant, so I went with him. I didn't realize the seriousness of it, that once we were there we wouldn't be able to leave, that we would be held there by mind control."

During the first week, according to Sandy, they were told much about miracles and "Rama's greatness. They said we shouldn't talk to friends or family because Satan would use people closest to us to keep us from the truth. Then came the rules."

Sandy said she had to get rid of her jeans, that women could only wear long dresses. "Mrs. Steenlage said my clothes were too worldly. Women couldn't get their hair cut, so (they) wore it in a bun. Bill had to get his hair cut." She said though they weren't physically detained, "I was afraid to leave because of mind control." What sort of mind control?

"They controlled your communication and environment. We couldn't have TV's, radios or newspapers. My phone calls and letters were screened. They were read aloud. We were never left alone with our families. There was no way to touch reality. We heard only their viewpoints. When we went to town we were supposed to talk only about our beliefs. Everything else was ‘junk talk'." Sandy said the group believes in Jesus Christ, but not the Trinity. "There is a big emphasis on the wrath of God. If you mention, ‘what about love?' they get angry. We couldn't express affection in public. We prayed with our faces on the floor like Hindus." She said Behera made most of the decisions for people.

"Rama does not claim to be the Messiah, but he said he talked with Jesus several times and receives revelations from God daily," Sandy said. "We were encouraged to call him on decisions. He would then pray to God and supposedly get an answer on the spot." She said Behera would prescribe home remedies, recommended infant formula, arranged marriages and named children of members.

"Ego destruction is a big thing," she continued. "they want to make you feel that you are so terrible that you couldn't get along without their help. Your self-image is torn down, so you don't trust your own judgment. I came to feel very worthless, that I didn't deserve to live. I thought of suicide."

Sandy said the group told her, her doubts were rooted in Satan. "I was encouraged to confess my doubts in front of the group, in front of 200 at Shawano. The longer I was there, the more indoctrinated I became. It got to the point I had to give up fighting. I knew I couldn't leave."

Bob Steenlage laughed when told of her comments. "For sure she was changed," he said in a phone interview. "She had a born-again experience. Sandy was never happier in her life than while she was here. We are born-again believers," he emphasized. "We are not a cult. We tell the truth."

"We never ran Sandy down," said Mrs. Steenlage. "We had hopes she would see the truth. There were changes (in Sandy), but any time you give your heart to the Lord, there will be changes." There is no coercion, she said. She said a number of people have left the Disciples fellowship.

She said it infuriates her that "Brother Rama" has been categorized as a wealthy cult leader. "We have tried to give our tithe to him, and he's never taken it. As for naming our children, we asked Brother Rama to pray over names, but it is our decision."

Steenlage said he is reluctant to talk to the press "because we've been burned so many times." He said people call and threaten to kill his family. He said livestock has been stolen when they are away. "Bill gets threatening calls. Helicopters fly low over the place. We're living in a life like Communist Russia."

Bill Eilers, too, said the media has been unfair. "I spill my guts and everything gets twisted around." He said. "I'm here on the farm because there is no other place to go. It's sort of like a sanctuary. The plain and simple truth is that I've committed my life to the Lord Jesus Christ.

As for the miracles, Steenlage said there have been many. He recalled the recovery of his wife and daughter, Sarah, when Sarah was born in 1975. Doctors, he said, gave his wife a 50 percent chance of living and Sarah none. Steenlage said he promised the Lord he would turn over his life to Him if his wife and daughter lived. At the same time he came into contact with Behera who assured him the Lord would heal both, and both recovered.

"We see the power of prayer every day of our life," said Steenlage. "Sandy says the miracles are false, but she's a liar and of the devil. If someone is right with the Lord, the Lord will answer their prayers. Miracles are so precious. Most people try to say we're crazy, so we don't like to talk about miracles. "I will tell you another example." Steenlage said and described how a sow farrowed in the hot sun, and all 10 pigs died. "My heart grieved because we figure we're just caretakers for the Lord. I felt I failed Him, so I fell on my knees for forgiveness." Steenlage said he took the sow to the barn. "Several days later the same mother pig had an identical litter of 10 to replace the others. Surely it was the work of the Lord."

Steenlage expressed strong anti-Lutheran and anti-Catholic feelings. "I came from the Methodist Church. We left because they were not teaching the true gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. But it's the Catholic and Lutheran churches that are openly supporting deprogramming." He said the motive behind deprogramming is to make money.

"The true definition of cult is when someone is not of the truth but of the devil," said Steenlage. "The biggest cults are the Lutheran and Catholic churches. The Pope has said the church is losing members, so they are pushing deprogramming."

Parents Horrifier After Visit to Wisconsin Farm

"We were scared to death. I lost 20 pounds and my wife 30," said Lloyd Morin. "It was something we couldn't live with after having been there."

Morin, father of Sandy Eilers, recalled the times he and his wife visited their daughter at the Bob Steenlage farm in Wisconsin. Sandy and Bill Eilers a year ago joined the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, a group Morin is sure is a cult. How does he know?

"Once you've been there and see they (Bill and Sandy) weren't making their own decisions, you know," Morin replied. "Parents know immediately. It's a complete change in the person. Sandy had always spoken up about things. Up there she just stared at the ground.

"Bill would just scream at you. Neither seemed to have any life in their faces. When you get yelled and screamed at like she was, and not allowed to cry or show emotion, you accept it or go crazy. They call it snapping," said Morin. "When you're under that much pressure, it has to happen. There is no way out. I believed it, but I didn't understand it."

Bob Steenlage argues that he and his group do no proselytizing, that they just want to be left alone. A Wisconsin man Steenlage has come to trust classifies the group as "old-time, fundamentalist Christian. They are gentle people who resent being called a cult."

And so the debate goes. Steenlage does not want the Disciples to be lumped in "with the Moonies." Instead of the Disciples being the culprits, Steenlage sees the other side as evil. Instead of his group being dangerous, he views mainstream religious - especially Catholics and Lutherans - as the ultimate "great persecutors against the true believers."

"Sandy has regained her former personality," says her father. "She is still afraid of the group," said her mother. "We were in Mankato recently when we passed this car that she recognized (as being owned by a member of the group). She ducked down. She just doesn't want to meet up with them.

"We had a lot of emotional feeling," Mrs. Morin said about last summer's events. "We had to get her out of there. My father and stepmother visited there, and they were afraid for Sandy's life. Unless you see the change," she said, "you don't understand it."

Bill Eilers' mother, Marilyn Kaping of New Ulm, Minn., said she has had no contact with her son since last August. "I have written, and continue to write, but receive nothing back. Bill became a different personality," she said, "even his physical appearance."

"He was fun-loving, an imaginative person. He was expressive even impulsive. That's gone. His expressions are rigid. Tension is reflected in his face. He now only talks the language of the cult. Things are repeated over and over. When you are not allowed to use your mind freely, you get tunnel vision. It limits use of the mind.

"We're not talking about religion here," Mrs. Kading continued. "I wouldn't oppose his worshipping another way, but he is not free. He is limited to what the leader tells him." She was referring to Rama Behera, the ex-Hindu who is leader of the disciples. She said she hopes her son "will walk out on his own. I don't think he trusts anyone, especially his family."

But Steenlage said Behera is no dictator. He said the influence of "Brother Rama" is "greatly exaggerated. No matter what I say, people get it all mixed up. Sure, I talk to him (Behera) frequently, because he is a man of God and I value his advice. But he doesn't tell me what to do."

Neither, said Steenlage, does Behera live any better than others in the group. He said the addition being made to Behera's ranch home near Shawano, Wis., is not expanded living quarters for him, but a meeting room for the group. "In time you will find that our comments are the truth."

Lloyd Morin says he knows the truth, too, now. "I didn't know there was mind control. I would say a cult is a modern form of slavery, and we're doing our best to warn people about it. Some still think it isn't real, that it's fantasy."

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