College becomes a religious battleground

The Journal News/April 3, 1999
By Bill Varner

A Purchase College student and an evangelical church that has been called a cult are challenging what they say is the school's unconstitutional crackdown on their freedom of speech and religion.

A lawsuit brought by student Andrea Lark and the New York City Church of Christ alleges that Purchase College, SUNY, violated their rights by prohibiting the church's Westchester congregation from meeting on campus and by suspending Lark, a leader of the church's Bible study group.

The church is affiliated with the International Churches of Christ, which reports 150,000 members in 153 countries. Some former members and cult-monitoring groups say church leaders practice mind-control techniques.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in White Plains, is the first brought by the International Churches of Christ or an affiliate. It demands the formal reinstatement of Lark, a 28-year-old junior from Fairfield, Conn., who was suspended in July after the college said she violated its community standards of conduct.

It also asks that the church's Westchester congregation be formally permitted to resume Sunday services at the college's Performing Arts Center. Purchase stopped the services, which had regularly attracted several hundred people since summer 1997, in October.

Lark and the church are seeking a preliminary injunction that would allow her back on campus and allow the group to resume its Sunday services, pending the outcome of the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon heard arguments last week and at the time promised a decision within two weeks.

In any event, the college has allowed Lark to resume her studies and the church was recently permitted to hold services on campus. The local congregation met there only on Feb. 7 because other dates had been booked.

The college, which is being represented by state Assistant Attorney General Richard Lombardo, would not comment on the case.

One of the lawsuit's critical points of contention centers on whether Lark prevented a member of the Bible study group, Dionne Walker, from leaving campus to see her family, a charge Lark denies.

Walker testified during a Purchase administrative hearing in August that the group's intense pressure on her, including Lark's riveting eye contact from uncomfortably close range, amounted to coercion. She also said she thought of Lark as "God."

"Whenever I'm in front of (Lark), I could never say no to her," Walker said, "cause [sic] she's usually like up in my face, eye contact all the time, and it seems like whenever I have eye contact with her, it's like I can't think."

Lark was ultimately found guilty of "intimidating ... harassing ... and detaining" Walker, according to the suspension letter.

Aggressive Recruiting

Lark, who grew up in Rochester, has been living in the metropolitan area since 1994, when she joined the Westchester congregation. She became an employee of the church and currently works for the Southern Connecticut Church of Christ.

Lark and another student, Michael Dundie, formed a Bible study group at Purchase after she began taking language courses there in the spring of 1997.

The group's weekly meetings, occasionally attended by congregation leader Jeff Schachinger, were held in a college lounge. Other activities included informal Bible study sessions, early morning prayer walks around the campus and Sunday services at the Performing Arts Center.

The study group never numbered more than 10 students, but it quickly attracted the attention of school officials concerned about the church's reputation and aggressive recruiting tactics.

Church general counsel John Bringardner said the sect has had problems on some campuses because its leaders refuse to sign pledges not to actively recruit. That goes against church doctrine, he said.

William Frankel, Purchase's director of student development and campus activities, began monitoring the group. The school newspaper reported student complaints about aggressive recruiting by Lark and Dundie, among others.

The college has initiated disciplinary proceedings against Dundie and another leader of the Bible study group, Matthew Woodworth. That process is on hold because the college is waiting to see how the Lark case is resolved.

Charges Denied

The college became more concerned last year, when Frankel received a visit from Walker, whom he described as crying and very upset over an incident in March.

According to Frankel's testimony at the administrative hearing, Walker told him about a trip she took with Lark and other members of the study group to Springfield, Mass., for a church conference.

Walker, who also testified, said she wanted to visit her family after the group returned to Purchase, but instead stayed on campus and attended a church service the next day. She said group members had told her that they saw the devil on her during the trip and that she needed to go to church to confess her sins. At the time, Walker said, she wrote a letter indicating she was considering suicide.

"I started to write a letter to the Heavenly Father ... 'cause pretty much I didn't want to be around anymore 'cause I felt pressure and it was like they were saying to me ... that I was doing wrong 'cause I don't want to confess my sins and I have love for my family that I should have for the Messiah," Walker testified.

Lark, who said she offered to drive Walker to her family's residence, denied there was any coercion involved. She testified that Walker voluntarily joined the Bible study group and that she did not take seriously Walker's references to her as "God."

Lark also accused Frankel and other college administrators of "bias against me and my religious views." She described herself as "traumatized" by the experience.

"Every aspect of my life was uprooted," she said. "I was told I'd be arrested if I came on campus. I feel hurt, disappointed and attacked."

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 12, includes declarations supporting Lark and the church from four other students, a woman who acted as the church's agent in renting the Performing Arts Center and two of Lark's friends, who stated they were not church members.

It Is Brainwashing

But the college's concern was supported by Linda Estarbrook, a sophomore from Sharon, N.H., who joined the study group last year but left after an intervention organized by her family. Estarbrook agreed with Walker's description of the coercive nature of the group.

"It is really subtle, but it is brainwashing," Estarbrook said. "I remember in one study group when it was supposedly proven that I was not a Christian and I was going to hell, and so was my mom, my dad, my brother. They were separating me from my family."

Purchase attempted to counter the group's influence by inviting Ronald N. Loomis, who serves as a consultant to colleges on such issues, to give two lectures on cult awareness last spring. Loomis is the director of education for the American Family Foundation, a cult-monitoring group based in New London, Conn.

"The (International Churches of Christ) is the most active cult on college campuses all over the world," Loomis said. "Most of the requests I get from campuses to come and give lectures have been precipitated by awareness that the ICC is on their campus."

He said he has received more than 50 such calls from colleges in the 20 years since the church was founded.

Loomis, who said he personally confirmed the decision by 38 colleges to ban the church, said there were study groups at colleges throughout the metropolitan area. He said Rutgers, Columbia and Hofstra were among the colleges that asked the groups to disband.

Lark said Pace University, Mercy College and Westchester Community College have church study groups.

A WCC spokesman said there was a small group on campus, but it had "trickled off and disappeared." Spokeswomen for Pace and Mercy said their schools had no knowledge of a church group meeting on campus.

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