Clueless about cults

The Northeastern News/March 3, 1999

Feel sympathy for Jane Freshman. She's had a rough few months. Her hometown best friend recently told her to get lost. Her blind date stood her up, and her parents are redecorating her room into a personal office. And with midterms, a work-study job and her work in two student groups, Jane has no time to make friends.

She wants to believe in something, anything to get her through these lonely college days, but what? One religion seems too strict, another appears too flaky.

Then one day, Jane runs into a charming individual who invites her to a meeting with people just like her. People who like music, movies and contemplating the future. Sure, she thinks as she writes her number on a napkin, I'd love to.

Next thing she knows, Jane is sucked into a cult-like group. A subtle religious group wants all her time, and before she even realizes their intentions and missions, she goes to their every-other-day meetings, pays their dues and chants their prayers. After a few months, Jane is more lonely than before, and she doesn't know how to break free. The members call her at all hours hounding for her attention.

How could she have known? None of this would have happened to our heroine if Northeastern's orientation program had done its job. The program ditched its educational workshops on cults because pre-Northeastern students couldn't decipher between legitimate religious groups and the wannabes. Now the word "cult" isn't brought up at all.

When one path leads nowhere, choose another route. Don't just fall to the ground and do nothing. Orientation leaders need to find another way of explaining it. Use a language these pre-freshmen can understand to distinguish the Boston Church of Christ from the Campus Crusade for Christ. Teach the Janes and Joes not to talk to overly friendly passersby who say the token phrases, "Excuse me, do you live around here?" or "Hello. Do you have any interest in the Bible?" Tell them to be concerned if someone asks for their phone number and then hands them an address of a church.

Ignoring the issue because you're unsure of how to explain it is counterproductive. During orientation, show films with actors re-enacting encounters with cult recruiters, share handouts that clearly break down the church organizations to avoid and the ones to consider. If anything, show these students where to turn if they are unsure (NU's Spiritual Life Office).

Do not let the issue slide. Many of the students at orientation have never lived in the city. They don't know the basic Bostonian habits of avoiding eye contact on the subway and skipping past cup-holding derelicts. Least of all, they may not know to be wary of strangers unless you tell them.

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