Preying on Ryerson students

Although they are not allowed at Ryerson, a banned religious group is recruiting on campus.

The Eyeopener/September 16, 2003
By Sheila Nykwist

Leo has no idea what the two strangers want, but their stares and smiles are slightly unnerving. As Leo passes by the Ryerson Bookstore, he can sense the two young Asians trying to get his attention.

Diverting his eyes, Leo tosses his pop can into the garbage and continues on to the subway station.

"Oh, he's walking away," Leo hears them say from behind him.

He cannot resist. He has to turn back and find out who these guys are.

"Hi, how's it going?" says one of them, while stretching a hand out to Leo. "This is Ben and I'm Steve. We're from the Seven Days Church of Christ and we're wondering if you'd like to join our group."

"Here's my card," says the other one in the group. "Give me a call anytime. Do you have a phone number?"

According to Leo, he and other international students were warned about religious groups that approach students during Ryerson's orientation week.

Leo politely tells them he does not have a phone yet and continues on his way.

Although they did not identify themselves as such, Leo later found out the boys who approached him were members of the International Church of Christ.

The organization, founded in California in 1979 by Kip McKean, has since grown to 430 churches worldwide in 171 different countries, including Russia, Fiji and Canada.

Each of its churches adopts the name of the city it's located in and follows a similar strategy of recruiting, fundraising. Members are encouraged to marry within the church.

Up to half of its members are recruited off university campuses, where the success rate for attracting open, curious, developing minds to the church is high.

Ann Whiteside, the officer of discrimination and harassment prevention at Ryerson, says she has only dealt with a handful of students concerning the presence of religious groups who aggressively recruit on campus. However, the majority of the calls she receives come at the beginning of the year when the recruiters are out in full force.

"People are being approached," she says, "but I don't think they're reporting it."

Whiteside says in some cases students are unaware they've been approached by a religious group.

Ryerson is among the many universities in the Canada and the United States that bans the Church of Christ from recruiting on campus. The church did not comment on the ban prior to the publication of this article.

Ryerson actively warns students about the potentially traumatizing effects of becoming involved with religious groups that practice aggressive recruiting tactics.

"We have a very stereotypical view of cults on campus, a 'Hollywoodized view,'" says Frank Cappadocia, Ryerson's former student programs facilitator. Three years ago Cappadocia did extensive research on the Toronto Church of Christ.

"They're more under the radar than you might think. Their approach is so detailed and defined. They've got it down to an art."

Cappadocia began to realize the scale of the problem as student complaints grew. According to Cappadocia, there is great pressure for members to follow the rules of certain religious groups, and he says he has witnessed changes in the character of several students.

Quiet, shy students are forced to come out of their shell to recruit new members every month. What worries Cappadocia most about recruiters on campus is their tactic of pairing up and approaching a single student, automatically creating a disadvantage.

According to Cappadocia, people who get involved with certain religious groups are constantly watched by a disciple, who begins to make more decisions on their behalf even suggesting changes in a student's program of study.

"Your authority as an individual gets subverted under church goals," says Cappadocia, who cites marketing and advertising as two programs new members are most often encouraged to transfer into.

Cappadocia says members of certain groups are sometimes expected to donate a percentage of their wages to the church. Counsellors at Ryerson have seen students donate all their money, leaving them unable to pay tuition.

The administrator of student groups at Ryerson, Leatrice Spevack, says students who attempt to leave certain religious groups often face an onslaught of harassment from its members.

Tony Costa, a graduate of religion studies and an expert on cults, was invited to Ryerson a couple years ago to give a seminar called: What You Should Know about the Toronto Church of Christ. The event drew the attention of a CityTV lawyer who was a member of the church.

According to Costa, the lawyer tried to intimidate him and stifle debate.

Cappadocia, who coordinated the event, was aware of the Toronto Church of Christ's alleged tactic of threatening lawsuits . According to Cappadocia, they have already tried it on him in retaliation for his own investigations.

Ryerson administration avoids speaking about the group, but records show that there has been an average of 10.4 incidents reported per year over the past five years.

Chris Beninger, a Ryerson supervisor of security, safety and crime prevention, says he has dealt with several incidents.

If a recruiter is a Ryerson student, security protocol requires that their information and identity be recorded. If not, they're barred from Ryerson campus.

Recruiters who continually frequent the Ryerson community can be arrested, although to date it's never happened.

"There're so many individuals working for the group," says Beninger, who has experience informing international students about the potential dangers of involving themselves with the Church of Christ. "They have their lawyers; they know what the law is."

Beninger was surprised to learn nine out of a group of 11 international students interviewed by The Eyeopener said they'd been aggressively recruited by a religious group on campus over the past year.

In addition to his Ryerson job, Beninger lectures high school co-op students about the dangers of suspicious religious groups.

In an instructional video he uses to help teach the seminars, reporters use hidden cameras to capture scenes and conversations at group meetings that exemplify the persuasive, threatening techniques used to manipulate new university recruits.

"The church is a vicious monster," says Brandon Hearn, an ex-member interviewed on the documentary. "They're damaging people's souls and minds."

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