Controversial group recruiting on campus

The Beacon (University of Portland)/March 18, 1999
By Jenny Schroedel

Most of the students on campus slept while two women sat in the Mehling lounge with bright early morning light on their faces.

Cherie Rainwater, a UP freshman, looked at the woman sitting on the couch kitty-corner to her and asked, "Who is in the Kingdom and who isn't?"

That was Sept. 21, 1996. Rainwater had a lot to learn.

She did not know that this woman was leading her through 15 prepared Bible studies culminating in baptism. She did not know that she would eventually be expected to make a list of her sins and share them with one of the church's leaders. She did not know that if she joined this church, her weekly commitment to services and activities would be about 30 hours a week, and she would be expected to tithe 10 percent of her weekly income.

Once a year, she would have to make a "special missions offering," which could be from 15 to 20 times her weekly tithe.

Rainwater is one of many students who have been pursued by the International Church of Christ on campus. Currently, an undisclosed number of UP students are expressing interest in this unique church.

The ICC has been banned from more than 20 American universities because of its aggressive recruiting techniques. The ICC broke away from the mainline Church of Christ in 1979. Like many Christian Churches, the ICC believes that Jesus is God and Savior. It believes the Bible is the inherent message of God inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Believers also say that after baptism every new Christian needs to be "discipled" by another member. They teach that only baptized disciples are members-of Christ's Church.

The ICC does charity work throughout the world through its official charity arm, HOPE Worldwide. According to international spokesperson Al Baird, the ICC is the fastest growing church in the world.

But critics claim the ICC is a cult.

Kent Burtner, who has counselled numerous former cult members, said the ICC targets people who are vulnerable, like college freshmen. He said the Bible studies are designed to hit on every sin a person may have committed, to overwhelm potential recruits with a sense of guilt and inadequacy.

"The message is 'you failed, you don't have anything better, but I'll show you something better. Here's the way,"' Burtner said.

Meanwhile, warm loving friends shower you with affection and support, he added. Cult critics call this part of the process "love bombing."

"The corruption of the individual is the ultimate tragedy, the loss of the creative choices that person could have made," Burtner said.

The Rev. Ed Obermiller, C.S.C, director of campus ministry, expressed similar concerns about the ICC after a student complained to him about daily phone calls from an ICC member.

"When there's not a choice there, or its seen as the only way ... that's a warning sign," Obermiller said.

Ex-member Lewis Johnson joined the ICC in Portland while recovering from a drug addiction. He said the ICC helped him stay clean because of the accountability it offered. But he is concerned about the weekly tithing and special missions offering. He says the burden falls heavy on college students, who often live together in cramped conditions.

"One of the guys staying at one of these houses was kind of weirded out that I had food in the fridge," Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the ICC's leader, Kip McKean, lives in Pacific Palisades, an exclusive gated community outside Los Angeles. He sends his three children to Brentwood Academy, a private school thatcharges about $12,000 per year per child. His housing was purchased by the ICC for $483,000.

"And where's it all coming from?" Johnson asked. "It's coming from people sleeping on mattresses on the floor and eating Ramen noodles."

Baird said the ICC does not put an unfair burden on any of its members. In Los Angeles, the special missions offering is 20 times your weekly tithe, he said. Members have a year to save, and the church gives suggestions to help members pay this offering, such as working a few extra hours, not buying an extra pair of Nikes, or cutting off cable service, he said.

Baird was questioned about a 1998 special missions contribution suggestion list included on a web page posted for the American Commonwealth Region (New England).

The statement included suggestions such as taking out loans, liquidating savings, selling stock and donating plasma. Baird said the church is against taking out loans, but that people can be very creative in the ways they raise funds for the special missions offering.

"I have known several people that have given blood. I don't advise that, but I wouldn't be against that," said Baird, who sold his home one year to raise funds for the special missions offering.

"What we're trying to do and be is an ultimate submission to God," Baird said.

This ultimate submission is not just about money, though.

Sometimes members sacrifice sleep. After six months of sleeping six hours a night, staying up late because of church activities, rising early to study the Bible, and putting in 10 hours a day at work, ex-member Johnson was ragged.

"Constantly getting six hours of sleep a night gives you glassy eyes and dark circles under your eyes," Johnson said.

He was looking so worn that two years ago his boss at work pulled him aside and asked if he was doing drugs again because of his appearance and work performance. "I was sluggish and forgetful," Johnson said.

One student on campus who is a member of the ICC made daily phone calls to another student she was attempting to recruit. The student was polite, but expressed no interest in joining the ICC. Two times calls came at midnight. The ICC UP student started requesting that her potential recruit call her every morning at 6 a.m. to report what she was learning in her quiet times.

According to Burtner, sleep deprivation is a common tool employed by cults. Tools like this help to short-circuit a person's thinking process, he added. A cult strives to make a person ignore the little red flags going off in their mind; to discredit the ability to discern.

"It is an assault on your emotions much more than an attack on your intellect," Burtner said. "It becomes a profoundly ethical question," Burtner said. "Ethics is now redefined. It is defined as 'that is ethical which is beneficial to the well-being of the group.'"

Last week at Elmer's, Rainwater paged through her journal trying to remember what it was like when the ICC pursued her. She left UP after spending last year in Salzburg. She is now a student at Multnomah Bible College. She never did join the ICC.

After one of her Bible studies, Rainwater was given an assignment. She was to take a list of sins home with her. As she looked over the list, she was expected to remember all of her sins and write them down.

She began to have a funny feeling about the ICC, which was confirmed when she met with the friend who was leading her into the church.

Rainwater was told that before she was baptized, she would meet with the women's leader at the church and confess her sins to her. Rainwater was also told that the leader "would help her to realize feelings she didn't know she had."

Rainwater was told that people outside of the ICC were not Christians, and that the people at the Athena Christian Church, which she attended during high school, were deceived. She was told that the Kingdom was here and now, and she wasn't a part of it.

That was Oct. 13, 1996. As her friend drove her home to UP, Rainwater told her she thought the ICC was wrong and she didn't want to be a part of it. She got out of the car and walked up to her Mehling dorm room. She hasn't heard from that friend since.

According to Burtner, the methods employed by the ICC are part of a much larger phenomenon. He said diverse groups with different ideologies can be described as cults if they employ basic cultic methods.

Burtner began his cult research with the Moonies. After being quoted in an article, he got phone calls from a variety of people who said things to him like, "I know you were talking about the Moonies, but my daughter just joined another group and her behavior and personality have changed in the same way."

Burtner began to extend his research to other groups, and he found that some non-religious personality improvement groups could be classified as cults. He found that the advice he offered to parents whose children joined one group could be equally useful to parents whose children joined other groups.

"That was my wake-up call," Burtner said. "I began to see that we were dealing with a cultural phenomenon."

Todd Pozycki, an ex-ICC member who lives in Portland, had this word of advice to college students about the ICC: "Know that being a part of this church means dying, seriously dying. You don't have a life anymore. My philosophy has become 'live and let live.' If being a part of the church makes you happy, then go for it. But as I learned, if it makes you feel more dead than alive ... get out."

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