For Christ's sake: Cult-like groups pose potential threat to college students

Syracuse Daily Orange/May 9, 2002
By Linda Ober

After a month of participating in activities offered by the Syracuse Church of Christ, Drew Miller decided it wasn't the right place for him. He stopped going to Bible study classes, didn't attend church services and no longer returned the SCC's phone calls.

Yet weeks after breaking his ties with the SCC, church members continued to call him, Miller said. He claims to have been confronted one night in late March by three SCC members, one of whom is a resident advisor in Miller's dorm and whom he said allowed the others access to the building after the 8 p.m. sign-in time.

He talked briefly with the men. "I told them 'Whenever I'm around you guys, I don't feel comfortable,' " said Miller, a junior broadcast journalism major.

The SCC stopped the daily phone calls and "harassment" after that night, Miller said.

Miller's harassment allegations are concerning, said Kama Parlour, an administrative assistant for the SCC. "The church as a whole, we try very, very hard to respect people and what they want," she said.

Though Miller may have been friends with some of the church members, Parlour said he was never a member himself. "I know every person that is a member and I didn't even recognize his name," she said.

SCC's minister, Chris Broom, and his wife, Theresa Broom, were out of town and unable to comment on Miller's claims.

The SCC is one of approximately 430 member churches in the International Churches of Christ, an organization that has often been cited by college deans and online associations for inappropriate behavior and practices. According to its official Web site, the ICC began in Boston in 1978 and now has approximately 135,000 members in more than 155 countries.

The organization advocates adherence to the Bible, and hopes that its members choose to be baptized and become disciples of Jesus' words.

The church is not related to the 200-year-old Protestant denomination also called the Church of Christ, said Thomas Wolfe, dean of Hendricks Chapel.

Student Impact, a small student group of ICC followers, was kicked off the SU campus in the early 1990s, Wolfe said, adding that the group was constantly proselytizing and did not adhere to the university's ethical framework for religious groups.

"They preceded to violate every rule in the book," Wolfe said.

Rick Ross, an expert in radical and extreme groups, noted that approximately 20-30 other university campuses have also banned ICC groups.

"The reason they've been banned at scores of colleges is not because of what they believe but how they behave," Ross said.

Miller was happy to have gotten out of the group by himself, but Ross said not everyone chooses this option on their own. Ross has done more than 80 interventions, sometimes called deprogrammings, on behalf of the families of ICC members to try and get them to leave the group.

"I have seen countless people hurt by this organization," Ross said, noting a "20/20" special that reported on individuals who had attempted or committed suicide due to the stresses of the ICC.

College students around the nation have reported that ICC church members don't respect privacy in residence halls, disrupt students during study hours and harass people with repeated phone calls, Ross said.

Constant pressure

Miller said that he knows all too well about being harassed, even while he was still a member of the SCC.

"These people were calling me every day and sometimes twice," he said. After leaving the group, he began screening his phone calls, letting his answering machine pick up the constant calls.

Miller first found out about the SCC while researching a paper at Bird Library one night in mid-February. A man named Alex introduced himself as a Cornell graduate, and the two men made small talk about computer viruses and college majors. A few minutes into the conversation, Miller said that Alex asked him about his church affiliation and invited him to attend a Bible study conducted by the SCC.

Miller, who described himself as an open-minded person, was curious to see what the organization was about and was "looking for some way to get back into the church scene."

But he soon found that SCC activities took up much of his free time. In a typical week, Miller said he would spend eight to 15 hours or more at church functions. These events included two services, three Bible studies and various social gatherings.

"I was falling behind in my studies," he said. The continuous cycle of attending classes during the day and SCC functions at night led to a drop in his grades, Miller said.

But Miller stayed with the group, fearful that if he didn't, he would go to hell.

"The ICC believes that all churches outside of their own are not saved," Ross said. "Everyone outside of 'the kingdom' is lost and going to hell unless you become a disciple in their system."

Because the SCC does not own a building, meetings are held in churches and hotels, Miller said. The group often met in the minister's house and occasionally held Bible studies at Kimmel Food Court, Miller said.

The leaders would sit down with a small group, teach a Bible lesson and ask for the members to interpret it, Miller said. If Miller or another member offered a different interpretation than the SCC's, the leader would restate the SCC belief. The next time the group met, the leaders would reaffirm the SCC's strict interpretations, Miller said.

"Their thoughts would become my thoughts," Miller said. "The thing that makes them dangerous is that they don't allow you to think freely and they cut off your ideas."

The SCC's expectations extended beyond Bible interpretations, Miller said, claiming the minister expected all members to abstain from taking drugs, smoking, getting drunk and having sex.

The only good thing about the SCC was the diversity of its members' races and ethnicities, Miller said.

Soon the rules and time commitment to the SCC worried Miller's friends, girlfriend and parents, and his roommates were annoyed that the organization called so much.

By early March, Miller too felt something wasn't quite right. He called Wolfe and asked him what he thought of the group.

Wolfe told him to stay away from the SCC and to not return their phone calls, Miller said. He took the dean's advice and did not return repeated calls during Spring Break.

According to Miller, the group continued to call until the late March confrontation in his residence hall.

After talking to Miller and another student who had come to him with a similar complaint, Wolfe contacted the Department of Public Safety to alert them of the SCC's presence on campus.

Target market

The 100-150 attendees of SCC services are mostly young people, Miller said. According to Ross, this scenario is not unusual. The 18 to 26-year-old bracket is the largest single target for groups that have been labeled as unhealthy, Ross said.

Young people are more open to new ideas and vulnerable because they are in a transition period, Ross explained. Most of the recruitment activity takes place at universities with dorms because students are away from home, sometimes for the first time, and organizations like the ICC offer them instant friends, he added.

Other organizations that have been known to target college students are the University Bible Fellowship, Christian Fellowship Churches, Sri Chinmoy, Lyndon LaRouche, the Unification Church and Syda Meditation, Ross said.

Such organizations have even been labeled as "cults" for the tactics they use to recruit new members.

Ross recognizes three criteria for a group to be considered a cult: there must be one person, or driving force, that is the center of the group, the original precepts of the organization become secondary to what this leader wants and people are hurt either emotionally or physically by the group's actions.

There are approximately 1,000 cults worldwide, according to the American Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that studies cultic groups and other forms of psychological manipulation.

Ross described the ICC as "almost militaristic in its discipline and authority," but like other experts, he is hesitant to call the ICC a cult for reasons of libel. ICC leaders Kip McKean and Al Baird run the group from Los Angeles and have little if any accountability, Ross said.

Wolfe also chose not to call the ICC a cult but said he disapproves of the group's behavior. "This is not about religion," Wolfe said. "It's all about power and control."

Miller noted how the ministers and church members would often talk about how people think the ICC is a cult and how they employ mind-control tactics such as brainwashing. But the acknowledgement only seemed to strengthen the members' convictions that they were the only people who would receive salvation, Miller said.

Parlour disagreed with allegations that the ICC is a cult in any way. "I think the best thing we could do would be for you to see for yourself," she said. "Anybody's welcome to come at any time."

Cutting the ties

The ICC has grown at a rapid pace, but the member churches have also lost more members than they currently have, Ross said. He estimates the number of former members at more than 250,000. "They have more ex-member support groups than any group that I can think of," he added.

Ross' interventions usually last eight hours a day for three days. During this time, the confronted individual is shown pamphlets and material explaining their organization's practices and how they may possibly have been manipulated. The interventions are voluntary, and the person can leave anytime they wish.

Some ICC members have left the interventions because the group's leaders coach them to run away or call their local church if someone confronts them, Ross said. He has a 75 percent success rate with ICC interventions.

On the SU campus, the need for such interventions and the threat of unsafe groups is minimal, Wolfe said.

"It's subtle," he said. "Do we have a huge problem? No." Only about five students within the past two years have come to him with concerns about groups harassing them and practicing inappropriate behavior.

But no matter how small the numbers, Wolfe believes the issue of groups practicing unhealthy behaviors must be addressed. "What happened to Drew Miller was very inappropriate," he said. "It was a clear crossing of boundaries."

Wolfe recently conducted a training session about disruptive groups with Public Safety, and he is working on instituting mandatory training for RAs. He will attend a conference this June in Orlando to learn more about destructive groups and how to stop them from infiltrating campuses.

What can students do to ensure they don't get involved with a dangerous organization? "Do your research on the Internet and through the library before you become so involved that you're not objectively able to evaluate things," Ross said.

Wolfe agreed. He encouraged university students to research the history of any group, whether religious, business or political, before joining, adding how "these unhealthy groups will use any means to justify their ends."

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