Mercy for sinners, welcome for lookalikes, and anxious claims of mind control

The Guardian (London)/May 31, 1994
By Sarah Boseley

"Excuse me," - she was breathless, apologetic, but exuded warmth and a faint perfume across the pavement outside the Albert Hall. "Would you be at all interested in a seat in a box? We've got just one left and wanted to make up the numbers."

It could have been Verdi or Strauss she was offering. But no, it was God, and I was skewered like a moth on the caring gaze, the sincere smile. She and her girlfriend - in the London Church of Christ they call each other sister - almost hopped with joy at the thought thaey had caught what they must have thought was another potential disciple.

Many was immaculate in beige jacket and print dress. A young, middle-class professional, she had targeted her likeness so successfully that we even hailed from the same Surrey town. A glance around the Albert Hall suggested such a strategy. When the clapping and singing became frenzied there were always a couple of faces in a group that looked bemused and lost - but they had clearly been brought along by someone of their own race, sex and age.

Many was an interior designer. She told me how she had been divorced from David, once a production manager, a few seats away. Then four years ago, she joined the London Church of Christ. He turned up, full of suspicion, to drag her away, but was converted.

"We were immature," he said, his face open with the gladness of the convert. They are to be re-married in August.

"Brainwashing?" thundered the evangelical Mark Templar, star turn at the meeting, "Jesus has washed my brain. Some people's brains need to be washed. Some don't."

Everybody laughed. He had the comic charisma of an American Ben Elton.

Behinding the Clinique and Lacoste, he said, we each shut the door on a roomful of sins. Parents who accused the Church of kidnapping their children had no idea what those children had been up to before they were baprised. Lust, drinking, smoking, he hinted...

The place was two-thirds full - not bad for a cult that started in Britain some 11 years ago - and most of them were young.

We were participants in a mini Promenade concert, designed for the sinful. To the tune of Rule Britannia, we sang "Preach the Gospel! Proclaim from shore to shore/The Love of God in Christ for evermore".

There was no attempt to bundle us into minibuses as the meeting ended. Mandy asked for my phone number and gave me hers. She was a believer, heart and soul, and I'm sure she will pray for me.

But non-members are the damned. Outside were the former disciples and parents, fearful of losing their children.

"My daughter Nicola joined just before Christmas," said Dennis Eborall from Chorley, Lancashire, protesting from the middle of a sandwich board. "She is at Birmingham University and used to come home every three weeks. We've seen her three times since Christmas and once was under duress. I was quite ill and my wife was almost going mental so we asked her to come for the weekend."

"I'm afraid of what they are doing to my daughter. I certainly believed she is undergoing mind control".

It is an expression used also by Ayman Akshar, a member of the church for seven years, who is now helping the Charities Commissioners and the Inland Revenue with investigations into the cult.

"Their methods include mind control, psychological coercion and thought reform", he said.

On the whole, it was probably just as well I did not give my real phone number.

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