Looking for God

Daily Nexus (University of California, Santa Barbara Student Newspaper)/November 30, 1994
By Olaina Gupta

Editor's note - Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of lndividuals.

Lesley, a student at Ventum College, believed the had found the ideal religious experience with the Los Angeles Church of Christ.

"Everybody seems like they have it all together, and everybody's life is perfect,'"she said. "It's really attractive, this perfect little life where you love God and you're a disciple, and you're helping people."

Lesley's time was soon filled with church activity. There were Bible studies, a Bible talk class with finals and midterms, two-hour services on Sundays followed by leader meetings, devotion time spent with her leader, quiet time in the morning for about 45 minutes, and she was supposed to share her faith with everyone and invite them to church. Also, every Friday she would do something with the congregation, and every Saturday she had a date with someone from the church.

Lesley later felt, like many other former members, she had been manipulated by a persuasive religious group.

"You just don't get the whole story, though. At the beginning, when you study the Bible, I think people fall in because of the friendship," Lesley said. "It's a family for people who don't have a family. It's a lot of black and white for things that aren't black and white. Things are always either right or wrong."

The group, which has been officially banned from several universities throughout the United States, has a registered Associated Students club at UCSB. Santa Barbara is the home of a Los Angeles Church of Christ congregation about 100 members strong. While followers of the LACC believe they are the only true Christians, some consider the church a cult.

The organization is is an offshoot of the Boston Church of Christ, which began in 1979 with 3O members, and has experienced a membership explosion over the past decade.

In 1990, the movement spread to Los Angeles. The group, which has evolved into a global movement called the International Church of Christ, does not build churches, believing that could limit the number in its congregations.

While some critics readily call the group a cult, experts are wary of this label because such strong terminology can create a stigma the LACC believes may not fairly represent it, according to Darcy Jensen, a campus Lutheran pastor.

Ronald Enroth, sociology professor at Westmont College and author of Recovering From Churches That Abuse, prefers to call the LACC an aberrational Christian group. Although its primary doctrines are not outside the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy, its practices are often seen as extreme, according to Enroth.

A highly exclusive and elitist attitude, aggressive attempts at converting people and extreme emphasis on converting others - which can involve high degrees of control and authoritarian, if not actual, abuse - are outside traditional Christian practices, he said.

The group is not involved with the University Religion Center, an off-campus collection of devotional entities, because the LACC believes it must convert people in order to be saved from damnation.

On the other hand, URC groups respect the beliefs of others and agree not to proselytize, according to the Rev. Mark Gardner, pastor of St. Miichael's Episcopal Church in Isla Vista.

LACC maintains a very strict hierarchy, in which men are authority figures. Part of the controversy surrounding the church lies in how the community life controls behavior and experiences of church members, according to Jensen.

Often acting as a counselor, Jensen aids individuals who are uncomfortable with the group. "The point at which I get involved most of the time is when their relationships with others who aren't in the group change very dramatically," he said. "Ihe person gets absorbed more and more in the activities in the group, and disengages themselves from other activities and friendships that aren't related to the group, so it becomes an exclusive occupier of their time."

It was at this poin that Lesley's mother, Susan, became concerned about her daughter's involvement in the LACC.

"At first we were really naive, and just believed that it vas a Christian church, and it would be be really good for her to join," Susan said. "Everybody in there seemed really nice and wholesome. She was living at home at the time, and within a few months you could just see the changes in her, and how hard it was for her to maintain all their standards."

According to Susan, Lesley's goals had changed. Her focus was no longer on school or her job, but on being a Christian.

"Her goals as a human being were definitely not as centered as they were previously," Susan said. "You see a lot of people who might be in the church drop out of school - their jobs become not as important."

Enroth attributes part of the group's popularity to many individuals' lack of religious understanding. "Many Americans are what I would call religiously illiterate," he said. "They lack discernment skills. They are not able to ask the right questions, and they think all religion, especially enthusiastic religion, is good. They fail to recognize that there may be an underside."

Critical thinking is not encouraged by the LACC, according to Lesley. One of the attractions to the group is that there is a simple answer to every question, she said.

"Love bombing" is a trademark of high-pressure groups. In the beginning, a person is bombarded with affection, but once accepted, the manipulation and guilt trips overshadow the love, according to Gardner.

Enroth speculated about what type of people this group attracts. "They seem to be able to target highly idealistic people," he said. "I think people who get involved are sincerely seeking something, probably on a spiritual search, and they seem to be able to pick out those people.

"Many of the people who are attracted to them come from nominal traditional religious backgrounds. They pick up on people who are disillusioned with or disaffected from their churches, and they see in these people a kind of religious enthusiasm."

One current member, who expressed dissatisfaction with other religious groups, was four-month-long church member Fernando Heredia, adviser of FOCUS, a UCSB club affiliated with the LACC.

"One of my disappointments in other churches was that I was in church, and the people leave as soon as the church finishes. They don't try to establish a relationship with you and friendship," he said. "There is a lot of hypocrisy going on [there]. Here it is different. I found that the church was what I always told about about how paradise would look like. The fellowship, the group of people, this has got to be the closest thing to paradise."

While Heredia maintains LACC members are encouraged to have friends outside the congregations, critics counter that members seem isolated. According to Enroth, the church disrupts healthy relationships. Members become isolated from their family, sever ties with friends, and denounce past affiliations and religious ties.

"I know people whose marriages have broken up because one spouse who is involved in this group has made an ultimatum - either you come and join this church, or it's the end of our marriage," Enroth said. "Of course, they don't see themselves as a cause of that they spiritualize, they rationalize disruptive relationships, and they've got a Bible verse for everything you can think of to back up what others perceive as being negative."

Student members are encouraged to live with fellow church members, according to Lesley, who had been living at home when she joined the LACC. Soon she moved into an apartment with other women in the congregation. Later, she moved in wiih church leaders without telling her parents.

Social life is also restricted by the LACC, said Debbie, a former member. The strict dating rules allow dates only on Saturday nights, except on special occasions. Members have to go on double dates, and cannot be alone with a person of the opposite sex. There is no holding hands or kissing until you are announced as a couple to the congregation.

"You can only hold hands," she said. "You can peck on the lips, but you can't kiss with tongue because that means that you are thinking other things."

LACC tradition involves several rituals to illustrate the belief that the organization's disciples are the only saved Christians. All members of the church are baptized by immersion, regardless of whether they were previously baptized. Before baptism, members have to learn about what God wants from them, and they have to count the cost of living the faith, according to Heredia.

"Does a baby count a cost to be baptized?" Heredia asked. "To count the cost means that you have to be aware of things, of where you are and what you do with life."

Lesley outlined the lessons taught on the way to baptism, including Discipleship, the Word, the Kingdom, Light and Darkness, the Cross Study and Counting the Cost.

According to Debbie, the Bible studies are not like the ones she had experienced in a traditional congregation.

"We went to an apartment and we went into her room, and one person and her friend fed me what they believed were the most important parts of the Bible," she said. "It was about the importance of discipleship. They said that the most important way to get saved was to bring other people to the church. And they also stated that people who weren't in their church weren't saved."

However, the different steps towards baptism are an important part of accepting the faith, according to Heredia. In Light and Darkness members confess to a group. "You repent by telling your sins, not saying you'll speak for yourself and say I'm going to pray. You have to tell your sins to your peers, in this case your brothers and sisters, all the people you are studying with. That's a very tough part," he said.

"[In] many other churches you don't do that. As a matter of fact, when you get baptized, you just confess your sins to one person when you don't see their face. Here, it's face-to-face, the way the first disciples did it," he said.

This is regarded as a psychological weapon by critics of the group. According to Merle Lehman, campus minister for the United Methodist Church, leaders write down all members' sins, and if they stray, threaten to reveal the private information.

Members who cede from the LACC often believe they have been taken advantage of and missed out on other aspects of life. According to Lesley, though members may believe they are happier than they have ever been, deep down they are exhausted. Afer time, the importance of recruitment diminishes the spiritual meaning.

Former members believe the friendships they thought they had established were based solely on their membership. "I think it was really hard for her, leaving the friends and people she thought that really cared about her," Susan said, "... and she found out that wasn't the case with them."

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