News that a group considered a cult by many and banned from most college campuses is holding services at three Cambridge public schools has prompted the City Council to order an inquiry into the school department's screening practices.
"They are a very destructive religious group," said Robert Watts Thornburg, dean at Boston University's Marsh Chapel, speaking of the Boston Church of Christ, which rents space at the Harrington and Tobin schools, as well as at the high school.
"They lie and cheat and they really destroy kids," he went on. "Mind control is the methodology and they do mind control by the way they recruit and the way they hold on to kids and the way they turn them into zombies."
A City Council order passed Monday asks for closer scrutiny of any churches holding services on city property "to prevent groups which have been associated with cult-like indoctrination and mind control from using city space."
Councilor Kathy Born, who presented the order, said she was alerted to questionable practices going on in some schools by a constituent.
"I received a letter from a constituent who characterized one of these churches as a cult and expressed concern that her brother had been in this group and removed and deprogrammed," said Born.
"I certainly understand that there are First Amendment rights and the city can't discriminate," Born said, though she added, "I wouldn't want to think we were using city space for mind control organizations."
The Boston Church of Christ has been banned from the campuses of Harvard, Boston College, Tufts, Northeastern, BU, and many other campuses nationwide, said Thornburg.
The council order does not ban any churches from schools. Rather, it directs the city manager to consult with the superintendent of schools regarding the policy on churches renting schools.
"I could not say anything about the Boston Church of Christ because I don't know anything about it," said Superintendent Bobbie D'Alessandro. "My office is not responsible for that part of scrutinizing the [churches]."
It is the facilities department that screens churches or other groups interested in renting school property, she said. The only screening done at the moment is through an application form.
"If there were any report that they were anti-American, or perhaps related to a cult, we would certainly look at that," said D'Alessandro. "We've had no reports on any of the churches of this kind of thing. But I'd certainly be happy to look at it."
Harrington School Assistant Principal Barry McNulty said the church, which uses the building on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, causes little or no disruption in the school.
"I would just say we have a good partnership," he said. "The time that they use the building, the staff and the students their not around... If they're in the building, we're not. If we're in the building they're not. I would say there's minimal to zero contact.
"For all I know they could be the biggest cult in the world," he joked.
The Boston Church of Christ also uses the Tobin School on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. It is at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School on Sunday mornings.
The group pays for the custodial and security costs it incurs at the three schools, as well as a rental fee, totaling $1,700 a week. The rental portion of the fee, $710, goes to a fund for school maintenance.
Thornburg said other school systems, including Randolph Public Schools, have broken their rental contracts with the church because of aggressive recruiting tactics.
Even though regular classes are not in session when the church is in the building, Thornburg said, "kids come into schools, even on the weekends, for other purposes, and they're proselytized and harassed then... We've had kids hiding under beds."
This charge was flatly denied by Boston Church of Christ minister Roy Larson.
"We do not recruit elementary children," he said. "Absolutely not."
Larson also said the BCC is not a cult.
"Absolutely not," he said. "We're a Christian Church. We follow Jesus and the Bible and try to put the teachings of Jesus to work in our lives. I've been a member of the church for 16 years. I'm very happy and very thankful."
Because of his experience with the Boston Church of Christ at BU, Thornburg said, he has "tragically" become an expert on their activities. He has published papers on the subject and is often used as a source for news stories on the organization.
"Dean Thornburg has been a very vocal opponent of the church for a long time," said a BCC official who wanted to remain anonymous. "I don't know that Dean Thornburg has ever been to one of our services, yet he is constantly quoted talking about us. I don't know how you become an expert on something you've never seen."
The official also rejected the "cult" label.
"They're typical church services like you might have at any church you might attend," he said. "We have doctors, lawyers, every type of person, all nationalities, black, white, Asian. I guess if someone feels like that could occur among highly trained professional people, I would certainly like to have them explain that to us."
Yet Thornburg tells horror stories of church members coercing students into an organization he says brainwashes them.
"I would say there are seven or eight thousand ex-members in the Boston area, many of whom are too injured to come out," he said.
At BU, he said, members have deceived freshman into thinking going to the church was a part of mandatory orientation, and even impersonated university officials.
"They're equal-opportunity recruiters," he said. "They're all over the place in terms of their recruitment policy. If you read the Bhagavad Gita they read the Bhagavad Gita. If you like to ski, they ski."
Recruitment is a process of "love-bombing" and guilt-inducing techniques, according to a pamphlet produced at Thornburg's chapel.
"They say that they're interested in you," the pamphlet says. "They want to be instant best friends.
"Once hooked, however," the pamphlet warns, "members are told what their priorities are to be... After gaining total use of your time, a large amount of money is usually demanded as another sign of faithfulness."
The church also isolates members from their friends and family, Thornburg contends.
"[Church members] might be told that no one who does not hate their mother and father can ever be a sincere part of this group," the pamphlet says.
Getting out of an agreement with the Boston Church of Christ was complicated in the case of BU by threats of legal action against the university.
Though the threats were never carried out, Thornburg wrote in a paper on the subject, he says he is convinced that "the Boston movement is using these veiled threats of legal actions to shake some positive responses from university administrations who are reluctant to allow them admission to the university as recognized religious groups."