Looking for God

The Grand Rapids Press/December 10, 1994
By Charles Honey

As Christy Henderson emerged soaking wet from a tub of water, about 30 people cheered her, sang songs and joined in an emotional prayer. She had just been baptized into the Boston Church of Christ. For a 19-year-old college student from Coopersville, it felt tremendously exciting.

"It's just like you won a big game, and you're the star," recalls Henderson of that euphoric day in fall 1992.

It was also just what she needed, or so she thought. After moving to Boston the previous summer to work as a nanny, she had tried in vain to find a church.

"I was desperate, I was lonely. I was looking for friends." she says now. "I was looking for God to be in my life."

She thought she found God and plenty of friends at the Boston Church of Christ, an evangelistic and rapidly growing congregation. Unlike other churches that received her coldly, here hundreds of young people seemed to offer love, enthusiasm and purpose.

But gradually. she came to feel controlled by fear and guilt, and the initial excitement turned into a demanding discipline that took over more and more of her life.

It took too much.

So on December 3, 1993, she suddenly and inexplicably flew to Spain without notifying her family or friends, setting off an alarmed search. They didn't hear from her until eight days later, when she called from the US Embassy in Madrid. Her family brought her home the next day, dazed and disoriented.

Henderson doesn't remember much about Spain, except passing out in a boarding house after chugging a bottle of wine and intending to slit her wrists. She's still not sure why she flew there on a one-way ticket, saying, "The whole thing is a blur."

But she suspects her irrational flight was a subconscious escape from a church that seemed to fill her need for belonging, but also filled her with fear of leaving.

"I was running away from the control," says Henderson, now living with her parents in Newaygo and attending Grand Valley State University. "If I had told them (church members) I was leaving, I'm sure they would have talked me out of it. They're very convincing."

Church leaders say they had nothing to do with her disappearance. But she is still angry at them.

"I gave them everything - my time, my money, my life." Henderson says.

Christy Henderson's story is not unusual among ex-members of the 170-plus congregations of the International Churches of Christ, according to critics who have long studied the church.

They say the church, founded in 1979 and separate from the mainstream Churches of Christ, distances members from their friends and families, erodes their individuality and exerts too much control over their lives. Some charge it has characteristics of a cult: harboring a hidden agenda, expecting more from members than they're initially told and threntening them with damnation if they leave.

"They're the nicest people in the whole world," says Robert Thornburg, dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston Univcrsitv and a persistent critic. However, he adds, "They are really the most controlling organization I have ever seen."

Yet many members, including well-educated professionals, say the church has helped them find fulfillment and practical applications of Christ's teachings in their lives. Church officials acknowledge they demand strict discipleship and that some church members may make mistakes. But they deny they engage in mind control or cult practices.

"We're trying to be disciples (of Christ) and we're trying to be the church of the Bible." says Al Baird, a church world sector leader in charge of law and media. "We're not perfect, because we're people. But... we wouldn't be growing the way we are if all these horror stories were universal."

Cases such as Henderson's point up the vulnerability of young adults to highly persuasive religious movements, observers say.

"College-age students are often very idealistic, and therefore might be more prone to join a group making vast spiritual promises," says Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network.

[Warning--Since the publication of this article the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was bankrupted by Scientology sponsored litigation. Subsequently its name, phone number and mailing address were purchased by a Scientologist. The current CAN now seems to be largely run by that organization.]

"They're at a point in their life where they're perhaps inexperienced and somewhat unaware of just how difficult those promises really are to fulfill".

Touched by friendliness

Christy Henderson found the Boston church's promises intoxicating at first, but increasingly hollow as time went on.

She had moved to Boston on a whim, answering a newspaper ad for a live-in nanny. A 1991 Coopersville High School graduate who had attended Grand Valley State for a year, she thought taking a year off in Boston sounded "kind of exciting."

Raised in the Coopersville United Methodist Church, she had found people unfriendly in other Boston churches she visited. But at BCC, the people were friendly and the services exhilarating.

"It was very upbeat... lots of hand-clapping and singing," Henderson recalls. The enthusiasm rubbed off on her. She felt her shyness fade and her self-confidence increase.

"I was just happier," says Henderson. "I became an extrovert, willing to talk to anybody, anywhere." She says the church met "my need of belonging, my need of friends."

She also liked the good works of the church, such as a trash clean-up in Boston. Adding to her excitement was the fact that her high school boyfriend was also involved with an affiliated church in Kansas.

But she already felt uneasy with some aspects of ihe church, such as the lengthy membership process. This entailed a series of several "studies" examining her faith and life in detail, including "every sin vou can remember." She says she was asked extensively about her sexual history.

"They just make you feel so guilty ... for making mistakes," she says. "They say if you leave, it's oniy going to get worse."

'Religion was your life'

She also found the church was soon demanding a great deal of her time. Besides long Sunday morning services, she was expected to attend meetings and devotionals three nights a week, and to read the Bible and pray every day.

She also spent a lot of time with her "discipler," a woman who advised her on everything from how often she should wash her hair to whom she should date. She was expected to date only men from the church, and men needed the discipler's permission to ask her out, she savs. When she dated she was expected to invite waiters and others she met to church.

Sermon topics also could be quite personal, such as the amount of jewelry a woman should wear, Henderson says. Services featured extensive reading of the Bible and applying it to issues such as child-raising. Henderson took detailed notes, along with other members.

"Everyone said it was very practical. because it told you how to fit religion in your life," Hendersnn says. "Well, religion was your life. You had nothing else but religion."

Baird of the International Churches of Christ says the church does expect members to attend services and meetings, share their faith with others and to "spend time with God every day."

Those expectations are clearly spelled out to prospective members, and people are free to leave if they want to, he adds.

"I don't think there's an exorbitant amount of time involved," Baird argues. "It's certainly more than the average church does... We believe in the commitment. Jesus said,'You can't be my disciple unless you give up everything you have.'"

Growing unhappiness

By the following fall, Henderson had moved in with three women from the church, had gotten another nanny job and was taking a class at Northeastern University. Despite her misgivings, she says, "I was just trying to convince myself things were great because I wanted them to be."

But they weren't. Church members increasingly criticized her for everything from how she dressed and talked to not bringing enough visitors to church. They even made up a list of traits she should change if she wanted to lead a church group.

Henderson began making up the names of people she said she had invited to church, and lying that she had prayed and read her Bible. In reality. she spent most of her time watching TV, watching the baby and shopping. "My whole life was an act," she says.

She said she never consciously decided to leave. In fact, leaving was not something she wanted to think about, because church members had warned her of dire consequences if she did.

"They said. 'If you leave this group, you're going to spend the rest of your life in hell. You are going to do very sinful and hurtful things to people,'" Henderson recalls soberly. "It's amazing what that can do to a person, being told God is going to cast you off and forget about you if you leave."

Baird says people who leave the church generally are not going to another church, and he believes those people are lost.

"If a person says. 'I no longer want to be a disciple of Jesus,' I think they've left the way to God," Baird says. "Absence of God is damnation."

A few weeks before she left, Henderson heard a talk by a missionary who had just gotten back from Spain - the last place Henderson remembered being happy before moving to Boston. She had taken a trip there after her first year at Grand Valley. She had also talked often of wanting to do missionary work.

She decided to go on a Wednesday night, bought her ticket Thursday and left Friday. As she sat on the plane, she says, "I hadn't a clue what was going on. It kind of felt like a dream."

Back in the Boston suburb of Newton. Henderson's roommates contacted the police and her parents. They said Henderson's room had been ransacked, and that she had said she thought she was being followed. A neighbor said the telephone line had been cut. Police found her car the next day, abandoned and broken down.

Her parents, Larry and Cheryl, feared the worst. Through Boston-area TV stations, Cheryl pleaded for Christy to call home. Police launched a search.

Henderson now says she never thought anyone was following her, and that her car broke down on the way to the airport. A couple of other apartments had been broken into the sime day, and it's possible hers was too, she says.

Newton Police Lt. Robert McDonald says it was never determined whether the room was broken into or whether Henderson was being followed. Once she was found safe in Spain the investigation was closed, he says.

Leaders of the Boston Church of Christ declined to be interviewed about the disappearance. But Dr. Douglas Webber, an associate lead evangelist, issued a statement that they cooperated in the search, offered to fly her family to Boston and provide housing during the search, and "rejoiced with her family after her return."

Webber also denied accusations he said were made in the Boston media, linking Christy's disappearance with a secret mission or abduction by the church. He insisted there is "clear evidence pointing to personal reasons" Henderson left, but would not elaborate.

Henderson says she doesn't know what reasons Webber referred to. In fact, she says the reason for her sudden flight is still a "big mysterv" to her. All she remembers is being cold, scared and depressed in Madrid, renting a room and sleeping a lot. It wasn't until after the day she contemplated suicide that she decided to call her parents.

"She said, 'Mom, I want to come home,'" Cheryl Henderson recalls. "She cried and I cried."

Through a contact in Spain and a friend in Germany, she and Larry arranged for her return flight.

'Exit' counselors

When she got off the plane in Detroit, she looked thin, tired and scared. She wouldn't leave the house. Cheryl says, because she was "terrified someone vas going to come get her." And she told "fantastic stories... right out of some romance novel" about her time in Spain. Cheryl now thinks Christy may have made up the stories because she was afraid people would be angry with her.

That was when Christy and her old boyfriend, home on break from college, were reunited - for a painful four days of exit counseling. Her boyfriend's parents had arranged for two counselors, one an ex-church member to meet with the two students and get them out of the church.

"Between the two of them, we learned what had happened to us over the last two years," Henderson says.

Rick Bauer, an ex-church leader whose wife counseled Henderson, says her seemingly irrational flight was not unusual. Members often behave in bizarre ways to escape the church's control, he says.

"I think going to Spain was a cry for help," says Bauer, of Bowie, Md. "I think she knew she couldn't handle what was going on, yet she still had a lot of the fear of leaving within her."

Her impulsive flight was unnecessary, Baird contends: "She could have just said. 'I don't want to be part of the church anymore.' and then left."

Henderson knows she doesn't want to be part of the church anymore, although she admits, "I think there are some people they really helped."

But for her, the Boston Church of Christ left a residue of anger and suspicion toward organized religion. She believes the church is a cult, and that joining without first checking it out was "kind of a dumb thing to do."

"I was actively looking for God, and I just feel like by allowing me to get involved in a cult, he kind of turned around and laughed in my face," Henderson reflects.

She also feels she's not ready yet for any kind of church. So she's going to school to be a teacher and giving herself time to recover.

"I have a really hard time trusting people now," she says, "especially people in church."

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