Aggressive religious group worries staff and students

Recruiting techniques alarm some, annoy others

The Manitoban Online/January 21, 1998
By Peter Jones

A Winnipeg religious group known for its aggressive recruitment techniques has recently come under fire from U of M staff and students who worry that the group's tactics are putting the religious freedom of others at risk.

Since founding a church in Winnipeg last September, members of the International Church of Christ (ICOC) have been seen patrolling Winnipeg streets, especially in the Osborne Village and Corydon areas, encouraging and occasionally pressuring citizens to attend their weekly services.

"They made me feel curious and at the same time violated," said Rudy Narvas, a U of M student who was approached three times in one day by members of the group.

"I don't like the idea of people approaching me on the street - I felt it was very rude. It feels like a throwback to missionary days [and that's] something that isn't needed or called for today."

Earlier in the year, a reported offshoot of the ICOC called Christian Advance attempted to gain student-group status on the U of M campus, but their application was rejected after the University of Manitoba Students' Union (UMSU) received numerous complaints from students and parents.

"We were concerned about their recruitment practices," explained UMSU Vice-President Andrea Pratt. "Student groups are not supposed to be something that you are harassed into or not able to get out of."

Pratt says that some members of Christian Advance were also reportedly claiming to be representatives of UMSU. On another occasion, certain representatives of the group were asked to leave the grounds by security officers who had received various complaints about the allegedly forceful demeanor of the recruiters.

Because of incidents like these, rumours about the group have begun to circulate on the U of M campus, including allegations that it is a cult.

But the group wholeheartedly denies these allegations.

"This is not a cult," stated one member who wished to remain anonymous. "I mean, that would be ridiculous."

"If you want to know about the International Churches of Christ, look in the Bible and find out."

According to the member, the ICOC is the only Christian organization which follows the true interpretation of the New Testament. Once fully inducted into the ICOC, members are asked to give a percentage of their annual income - usually between five and 10 per cent - in the form a of a contribution to their respective ministry. Members are not, according to one source, expected to sign a contract with the church, and they may leave at their own discretion.

"If you could look in the Bible," the member continued, "and you find out that we're not doing something that's in there [the Bible], then you tell me - because I follow the Bible."

The Winnipeg division of the ICOC holds services each Sunday at the Convention Centre. The ceremony itself resembles more of a Southern Revivalist meeting than a traditional orthodox religious gathering. Parishioners are encouraged to vocalize their praises passionately and sing out loud while clapping and sometimes even stomping.

Although the Manitoban reporter who attended the ceremony was treated with the utmost of kindness and cordiality, he did witness several ushers promptly reseat one patron who attempted to leave mid-way through the ceremony.

According to the member of the ICOC that the Manitoban reporter spoke with, the Winnipeg Church of Christ does not and has not used any sort of strong-arm tactics to gain or retain members. When asked about the one parishoner who was not able to leave the service in the morning, the ICOC member denied any knowledge of such an occurrence.

Lutheran Minister Art Leichwitz, the U of M chaplain who has dealt with the majority of the concerns about aggressive recruitment on campus, attempts to be the voice of calm in a sea of unfounded and often untrue rumours.

"As chaplains, we see part of our role and our mission as being advocates for the safety of students [in regards to] the process of religious group recruitment [on campus]," Leichwitz said.

According to Leichwitz, he has heard no one explicitly state that representatives of the ICOC are recruiting on campus, nor has he had any of the rumours about the group being "cult-like" confirmed in any way, shape, or form.

"We take an interest in wanting to keep students and others aware of the need to be very forthright," he said. "[Students need] to be open about what they are about as individuals and as a group, and [also] what they believe and what their expectations are of people."

"Our feeling is that it should be as easy to leave a group as it is to join," he said, adding that this comment was not in reference to any particular religious sect.

The Boston Church of Christ was formed in 1979 by Kip McKean. He and several other members revitalized their own doctrines and soon grew on an international scale as a Davidian sect, separate from the Church of Christ.

The ICOC now boasts about 100,000 members worldwide, and aims to have strong centralized churches for each major city in the world. The Winnipeg Church of Christ, a division of the ICOC, has been in formal existence for about five months.

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