Experience raises questions of 'cult'

The Metro West Daily News/September 30, 2002
By Jon Brodkin

Natick -- She knew breaking up with the boy she was dating was her decision, because that's what they told her.

What Natick High School student Lisa Guild didn't realize until months later, she says, is that the "disciples" at a Christian group she now calls a cult were slowly taking control of her mind and life.

"I never felt anything was amiss," Guild said in an interview at her family's home.

It has been six months since an intervention organized by Lisa's parents led to her leaving the Boston Church of Christ, the local affiliate of the International Churches of Christ.

Now the family plans to convince Natick officials to stop renting space to the church. Guild says she went to several services at Natick High School, and more in school buildings in surrounding towns.

Already, the family has persuaded Sam's Club in Natick to cancel two fund-raisers, which were scheduled to be held Aug. 17 and Sept. 7 by Hope Worldwide, an affiliated charity.

The church has been told not to proselytize (try to convert people), on some college campuses, and former members have organized a non-profit group to distribute information about the church.

Guild is one of many who call the church a cult, but her criticism is met with impassioned support by church members.

Gordon Ferguson, an "elder," who teaches and writes for the church, says the Church of Christ is controversial because of its literal interpretation of the Bible.

"We don't just say we follow the Bible. We actually are very committed to doing it," Ferguson said. "To the world, it is an unusual thing to view the Bible as a standard rather than simply as an ideal."

While some people say the church proselytizes too aggressively, Ferguson counters that members, like anyone else, simply talk about the things that are important to them.

"It's very clear we are not in the business of trying to control someone's life or do their thinking for them," he said. "We're trying to teach people to think biblically."

The Boston church's approach was at first appealing to Guild, but she now looks back on her experiences with dismay.

From the time she was in fifth grade, Guild occasionally went to Boston Church of Christ services with a friend.

She became heavily involved about a year and a half ago, going to services two days a week, becoming immersed in what she described as a loving culture.

She often had dates with boys who went to the church, the only ones she says she was allowed to see. She feverishly studied the Bible, talked regularly on the phone with church superiors, and gave the church whatever money she didn't need for lunch. Her time taken up by church activities. Her grades dropped, she said.

Shortly before her baptism last October, she said, church officials told her to break up with a boy she was seeing who wasn't a church member. He was not yet her boyfriend, but he would have been had they been allowed to continue seeing each other, Lisa said.

"I called him up and said, 'Hey, I'm sorry for leading you on but I'm going to get baptized and that means I can't do anything with you or have this relationship go any further,' " said Guild, who is now an 18-year-old senior.

She told him it was her decision, "because they told me it was my decision," she said.

Ferguson said he does not know Guild. While the church encourages members to date other members, telling people to end relationships is not standard practice, he said.

"We encourage people to have relationships that line up with the morality of the Bible," Ferguson said. "We do encourage people to date inside the church because of the shared commitment to the Bible."

Guild's father, Stephen and his wife, Marty, tried to be supportive of their daughter's involvement of the church at first.

"Everyone seemed so nice," said Stephen Guild, a salesman for the Natick roofing company WaterTite. "I didn't want to stand in the way of a religious development."

But he decided to look into the church shortly after Lisa's baptism, when his daughter got phone calls from three different church superiors in the span of 20 minutes, he said.

"I thought that was a bit much, you know," Stephen said.

Stephen was also disturbed by the fact that Lisa was encouraged to ask for "advice" before doing anything, whether it was seeing a movie or going away with her parents for a weekend. The family said "advice" was permission.

Once, the church leaders told her not to see the movie "40 Days and 40 Nights" because they said it was sinful, Lisa said. The plot of the movie features a young man who vows to abstain from sex for 40 days and 40 nights.

Ferguson said asking for advice about whether something is allowed under the Bible is a common practice in the church, and is not the same as asking for permission.

"I get advice a lot," he said. "I'm 60 years old but I get a lot of advice because I want to make sure I'm making a good choice."

Breaking the habit of asking for permission was difficult for Lisa, even after leaving the church, she said. For a while she was asking her parents for permission to do ordinary things, like eating a snack.

But with the help of a therapist, she is learning to make decisions on her own once again.

"I feel more together than I did a month ago. I feel more together than I did a week ago," she said.

During Stephen's research, he discovered Reveal, the organization of former members of the church, which publishes information about it on a Web site, www.reveal.org.

With the help of former members, Lisa's parents spent months planning the intervention, which lasted four days, and took place on Cape Cod, near where a friend of Lisa's has a house. The family wanted Lisa to be in a place where she knew her surroundings, but was remote enough that church members would have trouble contacting her.

"We did a tremendous amount of planning and preparation for this," said Marty, an occupational therapist.

Lisa was furious when the intervention began, but eventually what she was told by the former members began to make sense. She prayed to God to show her what was right. She describes the realization that being in the church was wrong as the prying away of a cocoon.

"I saw Lisa come back," Marty said. "That smile she gave me when she saw the light was the most wonderful thing I ever saw."

Lisa noticed her always-serious demeanor quickly fade into her former, cheerful personality. While she felt better, former friends at the church said she had "fallen from grace," she said.

"I could breathe again. I could see again," Lisa said. "I could see myself before the church."

Lisa credits the church with giving her a deeper appreciation of religion, but says they also did "terrible things" to her.

Now, Stephen says he wants to protect others from becoming "victims of the cult," by convincing the school administration not to rent to the group.

Natick Superintendent of Schools James Connolly confirmed that the Boston Church of Christ has rented space at Natick High School.

He said the school system rents to many religious groups, but does not make judgments on religious content. School officials would have to consider federal laws against discrimination when considering requests not to rent to a particular group, he said.

The International Churches of Christ has a congregation in every nation that has a city of at least 100,000 people, according to its Web site. Without churches of its own, it rents space from schools and other organizations for services, the Guilds said.

The church aggressively tried to recruit members on the Boston University campus, until it was instructed to stop proselytizing there, a BU spokesman said.

"It's the only instance that that has ever happened with any group," spokesman Kevin Carleton said. "It was a very, very difficult decision for the dean of the chapel to make."

Church officials were targeting emotionally fragile students, Carleton said. They often refused to take no for an answer, trying to wear people down in attempts to get them to join, he said. The prohibition has been in place at least a decade, he said.

Ferguson called the criticism unfair.

"People talk about the things that are important to them," he said, denying that church members pressure those who have turned them down. "If people say 'thanks but no thanks,' that's it," he said.

Sam's Club in Natick decided to hold off on allowing Hope Worldwide to raise money at its store, but is not ruling out future events, general manager Jason Pellenz said.

"We actually put them on hold so we can research the organization," he said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.