Student Affairs warns of cult involvement

South Florida Church of Christ under fire from University officials

Miami Hurricane (University of Miami)/March 30, 1999
By Denise M. Krakowski

The face of a cult is 16 years old.

Melissa, a Braddock High School student, whose last name has been withheld for privacy reasons, clutches a hardcover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird as the Metromover speeds towards the Wyndham Hotel Sunday.

Neatly dressed and smiling amid the bright sunshine and big buildings of downtown Miami, she is a member of the South Florida Church of Christ, a group labeled a cult by University of Miami officials.

Alfonso and Jessica Gloria are married and studying theatre at Florida International University. They are a young, good-looking couple who sit in the front row during the church service at the Wyndham. They clap their hands, murmur encouraging words during the sermon and sing along.

They are also members of the South Florida Church of Christ, a non-denominational Christian group that relies on the Bible for its religious beliefs.

The church is vilified by former members and UM administrators for using high-pressure tactics to get members and keep them involved in the church.

"It's kind of scary," said Fr. Frank Corbishley of the University Chaplains Association at UM.

Corbishley said a female UM student three years ago wanted to leave the group but found that the members would not let her.

"They would be waiting for her outside her classes, in her dorm, badgering her to come back to the church," he said.

Preacher Anthony Battle tells in his sermon at the Wyndham the story of the blind man that Jesus cured. The first time Jesus touched the man, he only saw a little. It took a second touch to get him to see clearly.

"Sometimes we need a second touch," Battle said. "Sometimes we need a third touch, and sometimes we need to be pounded until we see."

His choice of words is jarring, but his point, however frightening to some, is clear. These Christians believe that it is their job to "make disciples" by bringing many members into their church.

Pamphlets and posters produced by UM's Division of Student Affairs warn students to beware of high-pressure groups that fill them with guilt and shame, and isolate them from family and friends.

Guilt and shame were topics discussed during the opening Bible reading of the service, Psalm 139, which contains the words "I feel so guilty" and "the debt was mine to pay."

The reading was followed by a woman singing "it should have been my hands, it should have been my feet where the nails were [when Jesus was nailed to the cross]."

The next Psalm asked God to "create in me a pure heart," and search the soul to find evil. Although it may sound extreme, this is the exact text of "Proba me Deus," the opening piece in the UM Chorale's last concert.

Messages of guilt and shame in the sermons were followed by messages of God's love and forgiveness, common themes in any major Christian religion.

Corbishley said another of his concerns was that each new member of the church receives a mentor, a person who acts as confessor. The new members tell their mentors every sin they commit.

However, the group points to a passage in the Bible (James 5:16) that clearly orders Christians to "confess your sins to each other and pray for each other that you may be healed."

"Seek advice from someone you trust," said Dean of Students William Sandler. He said he tells this to students who are thinking about joining a group.

The Church of Christ is banned from recruiting on campus because they have violated University policies concerning harassment, solicitation and passing out pamphlets without permission, said Sandler.

The same advice comes from Corbishley and the Division of Student Affairs. Until they learn enough information about the group, students are strongly urged not to give out their name, phone number or any other personal information. University officials say they encourage students to ask questions about the organization and its beliefs.

Andrew Giambarba, lead evangelist at the Wyndham sermon, said he would only answer questions that had been faxed in advance. When asked about the group's alleged policy of discouraging contact and/or marriage to members outside the group, he cited past problems with the press as the cause for his reticence.

Many religious groups are looking to recruit students to invest their time and money.

University officials said students should be careful and collect as much information as possible before rushing into decisions. Students should not let a religious group force them into cutting off relationships with trusted family members and friends, officials said.

Melissa's parents are Catholic, and that was the religion she was raised in until her cousin brought her into the South Florida Church of Christ a year ago. When asked if the religious difference caused conflicts within her family, she shrugged and did not give an answer.

Melissa said she likes her new church because she learns through Bible study how to apply stories such as Noah and the ark to her daily life.

"I used to go to [Catholic] church every Sunday, for what?" she said. "A lot of people are 'God this, God that,' but they don't really know Him."

"You have to know Jesus and follow him in order to be saved," said Melissa.

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