Trapped by faith?

NBC San Diego/November 2, 2001
By Vic Salazar

San Diego -- A relatively new religious movement finds itself in the center of controversy. The International Church of Christ was established more than 20 years ago in Boston and has spread across the country to San Diego. But as the church grew, so have allegations its members are "trapped by faith."

The San Diego International Church of Christ (no relation to the Churches of Christ) admits it recruits members using the hard sell. When you become a member of the church, there is a lot of one-on-one contact and guidance from other members. Critics say this practice amounts to mind-control and manipulation. And when someone chooses to leave the church, some say, they are made to feel as if they are trapped by faith.

Former International Church of Christ member Ali Ghashghaee has found a church much different than the one he felt trapped in four years ago.

"After I was fully committed, I was told to constantly check in and the pressure really came on for me to be "110 percent" committed," Ghashghaee said.

Ghasghaee said services or meetings were held almost every night.

"I would pretty much try to blow off family functions so I could go to Wednesday night devotion or bible studies of things like that," he said.

And Ghashghaee said once you're in, it's tough to leave.

"People were telling me I was going to hell," he said. "I was lost."

It started innocently enough on the SDSU campus. Ghashghaee said he was approached by a San Diego International Church of Christ member.

"We talked (and) over the next month, I was slowly recruited into their church," he said. "I was baptized into the church (and) after that I was assigned somebody to talk to."

New church members are guided by a "discipler."

Steve Smith is the financial administrator of the San Diego church.

"You lead by example and try to help other people get closer in their relationship with God," Smith said.

But at what cost? Even personal relationships are connected to the church.

"They really encouraged double-dating, or triple-dating with the girls within the church," Ghashghaee said. "Almost to the point where it was pushing it on you."

There were also demands to start recruiting others. At first he brought his sister. "And after that the pressure came on to me to start recruiting guys my age," he said.

Scholars said this is how the International Church of Christ differs from other mainstream religions.

"I think most Christians would approve or agree with what is being taught in the church itself," SDSU Religious Studies Professor Rebecca Moore said. "I think where disagreement occurs is in some of the practices, some of the recruitment techniques."

"I just started getting tired of the same questions: did you share your faith today, did you have your quiet time, how much bible did you read?" Ghashghaee said.

After six months it was too much. Ghashghaee tried to leave the church, and found resistance. Church leader Steve Smith was asked: Is there an effort put on to try to keep them in the church?

"Absolutely, because we feel that's where they are going to get the help for their life, to stay close to God," he replied. "I think it's a very positive experience for most people, (but) some people don't have a positive experience, who knows why?

Ghashghaee said, "They really broke me down." It took family intervention for Ghashghaee to leave, but now he's happy in a new place of worship.

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