Religious group still affecting students, soliciting on campus

The Vanderbilt Hustler Online (Vanderbilt University's student newspaper)/November 13, 1998
By Jackie Ross

The Nashville Church is the only religious organization ever to be denied a place on Vanderbilt's campus. The latest decision was made last year when University Chaplain Gay Welch rejected the Church's application to be recognized as a student group, thereby prohibiting members from advertising on campus, using university e-mail, or gathering as a group.

Every student organization that wants to be recognized must apply and receive recognition by the Community Affairs Board. As director of Religious Affairs, Welch personally denied the Nashville Church's application because of complaints she had received about the off-campus organization from students, parents and administrators last year. She believes the church violated the University's solicitation policies.

"I regret having to put any limitations on any group on campus, but I had to be pushed pretty far to do takes a lot to not be recognized," Welch said. The Vanderbilt handbook states, "Facilities of the campus may not be used for the sale or promotion of activities that are not related to the University except by arrangement with the appropriate University office."

Welch has repeatedly said that the Nashville Church violates this policy, and that she often hears reports of the group's active solicitation of students on campus.

"I have to make sure that university policy is being followed," Welch said. Doug Lambert, the lead evangelist for the Nashville branch of the International Church of Christ, contends that the church does not promote solicitation or recruitment of any kind.

"We don't do that," he said.

He did say that members invite friends to attend church gatherings and Bible studies, and he believes that it is possible that members have asked strangers on campus to join them in services before.

"I'm sure that does go on," Lambert said. "People have seen their lives changed tremendously - they just want to tell other people about it."

Lambert estimates that there are about 15 Vanderbilt students who are currently Nashville Church members, and he believes that Vanderbilt's decision to deny the Nashville Church's application is unfair and unconstitutional.

"I find it funny that Vanderbilt would seek to take away a right that the Constitution of the United States gives us - that's a pretty scary thing," he said. Associate Dean and Director of Housing and Residential Education Steve Caldwell, Associate Provost of Student Affairs Johan Madson and Dean of Students Larry Dowdy have worked together on the Community Affairs Board to, as Caldwell said, "deal with this."

Caldwell said he has heard that the church is actively involved in "proselytizing students," and he has heard about a flurry of instances of solicitation on campus at the beginning of this semester.

"We cannot allow this to happen," he said. "Whenever various groups pop up, we have to get them to understand the (solicitation policy) and cease activity." According to Welch and Dowdy, the Nashville Church's place on campus has been debated by Vanderbilt students and administrators for over a decade. While Welch has not spoken to anyone with the church, she believes that the dozens of complaints she has received in the past few years are convincing enough to prohibit the organization from becoming a recognized student group.

"It's a judgment call - you have to balance the right to free speech and religion with students' freedom of privacy," she said.

Welch said she has been contacted by students, roommates of students, resident advisers and administrators who complained about repeated unwanted contact by Nashville Church members after initial contact was refused.

"I have had more complaints about the Nashville Church than any other group on campus," Welch said.

Many also expressed concern to Welch about the undue stress placed on students who express an initial interest in the church. Some say that, after early experiences with the church, they were "discipled" - mandated by church members to undergo what were called "Bible studies" - in talks that last more than eight hours at a time.

"I feel like any time any group puts undue pressure on any individual to ascribe to their religious beliefs, to where students feel like they don't have free choice, that's inconsistent with university policy," Dowdy said.

Shannon Hansen, a junior in the College of Arts and Science and a Nashville Church member, said she invites her friends to services.

"If we share our faith, we will grow," she said.

While Hansen said she respects the University's solicitation policy, she still asks classmates to come to services with her.

"She (Welch) is not going to stop me from sharing my faith," Hansen said. Welch said there is a fine line between solicitation and religious conversation, explaining that if the Nashville Church could abide by university policy, the group would be granted official recognition as a student organization. "The last thing I want to do is limit people's freedom," she said.

Welch's decision was made in part after contact with a former Vanderbilt student, who said she transferred after her freshman year because of the Nashville Church's involvement in her life.

The student, who wishes to remain anonymous because she said she fears harassment by church members, said that while in the church, she was told to approach strangers and tell them about services.

"They say it's sharing your faith about God, but it just boils down to recruitment," she said.

Vanderbilt junior Leigh Costanzo said that she was approached by a woman she had never met outside of the Sarratt Student Center.

"I had never seen her in my life, and she told me that they were having a meeting for the Nashville Church in Towers," Costanzo said. "But she was very, very nice about it, and she gave me her name and phone number. Then she invited my friend, too."

Former members say the International Church of Christ uses "love-bombing" - constant praise and attention to their members and prospective members - to make them feel accepted.

The former member's mother said that she witnessed "love-bombing" firsthand when she attended a local ICC service with her daughter for the first time.

"I thought it was so strange for these people to embrace someone so intimately that they had never met," she said.

The former member said that Nashville Church members approach particular types of people - people that they feel will make good representatives for the church. She said the church targets Vanderbilt athletes because they are campus celebrities who can help attract others to the off-campus organization.

A current Nashville Church member's father said that his daughter was pressured when she was a freshman, away from home for the first time.

"Her mother was killed in an accident before college "She needed support," he said. "My daughter thrives on attention and acceptance, and that's what the Church has done for her."

He said that his daughter is now one of the Church's "top recruiters."

"The more she performs, the more praise she gets," he said.

While Hansen was originally invited to a Nashville Church function by another woman on her Vanderbilt track team, she denies allegations that the off-campus organization only invites particular people to their gatherings.

"We reach out to everyone," she said.

The former member, who was also on the track team, said that while she was involved with the Church, there were often quotas for how many people members were supposed to talk with - sometimes as high as 10 to 15 a day.

She said the Church also occasionally held what it called a "LIFE Campaign," an acronym for Love Is For Everyone, in which members were supposed to talk to more than 30 people a day.

"If you didn't (reach that many), they would tell you that you are in sin - that there are all these people out there that are going to hell, and that it's up to you to go out and help them," she said.

According to the former VU student, members would tell her that there was "blood on her hands" for failing to "help" people in the community and bring them into the Church. Members said those people would wind up going to hell because of her inability to reach them.

"I was very, very uncomfortable sharing my faith because it imposes your belief on someone else, and I didn't believe that was right," the former member said. Lambert , who has only been leading the Nashville Church for four months, said he is unaware of anything called the "LIFE Campaign" and any quotas set by the Church.

"I can't remember having done that," he said. "They may have done something like that before I got here."

Caldwell said that what worries the administration is stories of students who felt they could not leave the Nashville Church when they wanted to.

"We are concerned about students that get wrapped up in things they feel they can't get out of easily," he said.

"You can leave whenever you want," Lambert said. "If someone doesn't want to be a part of the Church anymore, we'd respect that."

But the former Church member said that, upon returning home for holiday breaks, members from a division of the ICC in her hometown would call and remind her to come to church. She said that even after expressing disinterest, members would continue to pressure her to attend gatherings.

Her mother grew tired of the constant phone calls by Church members - "keeping in touch, as they say."

"I could not sleep from the barrage of phone calls," she said. "I admit that I finally took the phone off the hook to avoid harassment. I wanted and felt my family deserved privacy during the holidays."

Lambert said that, like in any other church, if friends do not show up, members will call to make sure is okay.

"The reason we're in touch is because we're friends," he said.

The father of a current church member also expressed concern about the Church's demands on his daughter.

"They control her time, activities and the people she associates with, and if she violates that, they will chat with her," he said.

The father also wishes to remain anonymous.

"I really don't want to alienate her so that her 'discipler' will not let her come home," he said. "I can remember my daughter coming home and saying 'I hate you. You're the devil.' She had been coached by her discipler to say these things," he said.

Church members have disciplers whose role is to help them shape their lives around the Bible. Members say there is constant contact with the discipler, often daily conversations in which members confess their sins and ask for guidance.

Hansen said that her discipler is her best friend, and when she has questions, her discipler points to passages in the Bible to help her make decisions. "She helps me stay spiritual," Hansen said. "I can't do it myself. There's no way."

Yet former church members insist that the discipler is just one way that the Nashville Church controls its members.

"They were controlling my personality and changing it to the way they wanted it," the former church member said. "I didn't realize it at first, but the ICC pulls you in little by little, and when you look back, everyone ends up turning into the same person."

The former member's mother recalled a time when she asked her daughter why she needed to ask permission for everything from her discipler.

Her daughter replied, "Because I'm a Christian baby and I need to be led. They know what's good for me."

The former member said that, although she was uncomfortable telling her discipler personal information, the church requires members to reveal everything about themselves.

"If you didn't (reveal everything to a discipler), it meant you were falling away from God, and if you're falling away from God, you're going to hell," the former member said. "It's a scare tactic."

Hansen said that she enjoys her sessions with her discipler, and that although she has been involved with other churches previously, the Nashville Church is the only one that holds its members to the standards of the Bible.

"They're honest with you, real with you," she said. "They tell you the truth from the Bible."

Lambert said the International Church of Christ is unique in that it believes everyone should literally live according to the Bible.

"What we preach can have a controversial message - 'If you call yourself a Christian, live like one,'" he said.

The church expects all members to uphold what it calls a "high moral standard," and Hansen suggests that former members may leave the church because they cannot handle the expectations.

"They feel guilty because they didn't like what the Bible said about their lives, and because the Nashville Church is doing it right," she said.

Hansen agreed with the former member that members are taught that, if their lives are not in accordance with the Bible, they are going to hell.

"It's hard," she said, "and some people are weak."

The former Nashville Church member said that by the end of her involvement with the Nashville Church, she felt spiritually stronger than ever before because she was certain she wanted to leave the Church. But she said that she was mentally weak after 10 months of involvement with the group.

"Eventually, I had a nervous breakdown because of all of the stress and confusion," she said. "I felt like I was going to hell - no matter what you do, you're going to hell - and I contemplated suicide. They're very controlling."

In a 1993 episode of ABC's "20/20", one member of the International Church of Christ echoed the same sentiment. Vickie Spar said that because the group teaches that members must always follow the Bible, she and her husband felt like they were always in sin. She said that their involvement "destroyed (their) faith in God."

"If the process of going to heaven is going to be this difficult, I give up. I quit. I'd rather go to hell," she said.

Ultimately, her husband killed himself, Spar believes because of the pressure the church exerted on his life.

"We're walking dead men, aren't we?" he asked her the night before his suicide. Another member on the episode said that she, too, tried to commit suicide to leave the church.

"I took a knife, and I was scratching my wrist back and forth until it started to bleed," she said. "I felt that the only way to escape them was to kill myself."

The Vanderbilt student's father expressed similar anxiety about his daughter's involvement in the Nashville Church.

"My biggest fear is that they will manipulate her until she is frustrated about not being able to perform accurately," he said. "That could lead to depression and then to giving up Christ."

Al Baird, an ICC elder interviewed on "20/20", said that the church's suicide statistics are far lower than the national suicide statistics.

And Hansen said that members who may have felt stress "put that on themselves." "If I felt that, I would be open about it and someone would change it," she said. "Some just get overwhelmed."

Lambert contends that, although the ICC does maintain high standards, the organization has few requirements.

"We ask our members to love God and other people with all their hearts," he said. "That's all."

Unlike Lambert, the former member said the Nashville Church expected her to participate in Bible study multiple times a day and spend all of her time with church members. She said members can date only other members, and they can read only materials the church supports. She recalls one time when she had a test, and members told her to skip studying and attend Bible study with them instead. "You give up your time, studies, money. You start falling apart," she said. "Everything is church-related."

The former member said that, while most churches are very flexible and understand the need for balance between church, school and a social life, the Nashville Church does not.

The former member's mother remembers that, gradually, the church began to isolate her daughter from her family. After her daughter had been involved with the church for 10 months, she said she felt her "slipping away."

The mother found a letter her daughter wrote to her discipler in which she prayed for the strength to leave her family and move in with church members. "I sank to the floor in a heap and sobbed hysterically," the mother said. "For the first time in a long time, I didn't know what to do."

The former member believes that the church separates members from their families so they can have more "mind control."

"They continue to hammer away at their victims when they are exhausted and not thinking clearly," her mother said.

But Hansen said that the Nashville Church has given her a purpose for her life, despite the fact that, she said, she lost friends after joining.

"I changed so much - I changed for the better, and they (her friends) didn't like it," she said. "I'm different because I have a different standard, but I am the same person inside."

The former member said that, before joining the church, she had few friends at Vanderbilt. She felt that she didn't fit in, and when a member of her track team invited her to a picnic, she was happy to be accepted. At the time, she had no idea that the function was sponsored by a religious group. She was an atheist. "You think, 'It's Vanderbilt. I've got my head on straight. I'm bright. I can figure these things out,'" she said. "And then you get sucked in, and it's like, 'Whoa, if I can get sucked in, a lot of other people can get sucked in as well.'"

But Hansen does not believe that she was "sucked in," and she said that the church encourages its student members to be involved with school. She is a member of both the Vanderbilt women's track team and the Kappa Delta sorority. "It's up to you how much time you spend (with church activities)," she said. "If you have a class or something, you just don't go (to church function). It's never a problem."

Lambert pointed out that many of the Vanderbilt students involved with the church have busy schedules, and they seem to have no problem managing their time.

"I don't feel we place unhealthy demands on people's time," he said. "We encourage people to be part of the University."

Other universities around the nation report similar problems with local divisions of the ICC.

Former Vanderbilt Chaplain Bev Asbury recalled frequent phone calls from other universities during his time on campus.

"I heard every year from different universities who wanted to know what we had done to deal with the church," he said.

Asbury said that while he was chaplain, Nashville Church members and ministers insulted other religious groups in an effort to convert students. When administrators and the chaplain confronted church members about their concerns, Asbury said they admitted they were using these tactics. Asbury was also concerned because students complained that church members were in violation of Vanderbilt's solicitation policies.

"(Nashville Church members) lied about what they were doing, and they harassed students," Asbury said. "The Church takes over students' lives, and students end up becoming full-time missionaries on campus, violating Vanderbilt's policies." Asbury said that Vanderbilt modeled its policies about the ICC after those of the Rev. Thornburg, chaplain at Boston University. Because the ICC initially began in Boston, Thornburg's university was one of the first to witness its effects.

The ICC has been in the center of controversy nationwide since its offshoot from the Church of Christ in 1988. Under the leadership of minister Kip McKean, the Boston Church of Christ transformed from a traditional, conservative church into a modern, evangelical congregation in 1979.

McKean's movement established a division in Nashville in 1988, sparking controversy because it was so vastly different from traditional Church of Christ congregations. Later that year, the Church of Christ formally disassociated itself from the Boston movement, and the new congregation began calling itself the International Church of Christ. Initially headquartered in Boston, McKean moved the ICC base to Los Angeles, and local divisions now exist in most major cities in the country.

The Nashville Church does not yet have its own structure in Nashville, so it rents space large enough to hold its congregation.

Lambert said that the Nashville division of the ICC cannot yet afford to build its own church to house its 900 to 1000 members, so it currently holds its services in the Nashville Convention Center.

Much of the controversy surrounding the ICC stems from what the Cult Awareness Network calls its "questionable tactics."

The network reports that the church urges members to ignore sources of information outside the church, equates thoughts of leaving the group with leaving God, and convinces members to trust church leaders because they are "stronger in the Lord."

The Cult Awareness Network found that for every three people that join the ICC in one year, two drop out.

The "20/20" episode also reported that the Cult Awareness Network documented more complaints about the ICC between 1988 and 1993 than any other religious group other than Satanism and the Church of Scientology.

"That's probably because we're very rapidly growing," Baird said on the "20/20" episode. "We're one of the most rapidly growing churches in the world."

Lambert said that the controversy surrounding the ICC "just isn't fair."

"We help people and have a positive influence on people's lives," he said.

Hansen said she thinks the negative stigma attached to the Nashville Church is "hilarious."

"It goes directly with the Bible, because disciples were not liked for following Jesus, and Jesus' church was called a sect, too," Hansen said. "It makes me feel that I'm following the Bible the right way."

She said she feels sorry for former members who chose to leave the ICC. "It saddens me because they aren't leaving the church, they're leaving God," she said.

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