Cult on Campus

Leeds Student Independent Newspaper/October 15, 1993

Ever since the devastating climax to the Waco seige in Texas earlier this year, religious cults have come under intense scrutiny. The Church of Christ, born in the USA 14 years ago, has a new recruiting ground - Leeds - and students are the prime target. Tamzin Lewis examines the Church's dubious methods and Helen Sage talks to some people who have experience with the Church.

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Cult On Campus

"Brothers and sisters, have you hit the wall? Then it's time for you to push through the mediocrity of your lives and the standards the world is setting for you! We are of God! We are not of this world!"

A street evangeliser for the Church of Christ cries out to you to save your soul and enter an elite religious organization which claims to provide fellowship, community, emotional support and protection from this sinful world.

Yet to gain such superficial comfort, a bargain must be struck, which involves complete dedication to the cult and abandonment of former values and relationships.

The 20th century breakaway movement of the Church of Christ was founded in 1979 in Boston, USA and 'planted' in London three years later.

It has since extended throughout British cities, including Leeds, where the militant evangelists are targeting students with a hard sell campus recruitment drive.

Students are particular targets because they are generally living away from home for the first time and in a state of transition. At Leeds, CoC members carried out recruitment activities on campus, in nearby streets and on buses last term, approaching students and engaging them in a friendly, yet sophisticated, persistent and convincing sales drive.

To become a member one must abandon sin: defined as drinking, smoking, lying, disco dancing and pre-marital sex. Members are expected to devote at least three hours a day to prayer, bible study and evangelising. Naturally, academic work suffers. They regularly fast and are encouraged to renounce family and friends who do not approve of the new allegiance.

Many former members of the Church of Christ have described the way the church operates. Initates are closely supervised by a more senior member of the Church - their 'discipler' - to whom they must reveal intimate details of their lives and report to regularly. Relationships outside the church are curtailed and everyone is expected to secure a stable relationship with the church after six months, in order to create further emotional ties.

The central tactic is to bombard new members with love and warmth until they are emotionally dependant on the group. Then, psychological pressure is applied in a drive to make everyone conform to the group and individualism is discouraged.

The Church of Christ condemns the Anglican and Catholic churches by dictating that anyone not converted to its particular interpretation of the bible is not a true Christian and faces damnation. A London minister of the Church, Douglas Jacoby, says: "There are 12 million souls living in London alone, destined to go to hell. There is no time to waste."

According to Kip McKean, leader of the Church of Christ: "The teachings of other churches are sub-Christian and the only way to bring about change is by insisting on an uncompromising adherence to the New Testament."

The pseudo-Christian cult claims to have a monopoly on salvation, baptism into the church and absolute obedience to God.

Financial donations are also necessary and at least 10 per cent of the members income is demanded by the authoritarian leaders.

The Church of Christ also administers a poor fund that is under investigation by the Charities Commission. According to the church's own accounts, œ100,000 was collected worldwide in 1989 for the poor, yet only œ10,000 was recorded as being spent.

Once within the Church freedom of thought and freedom to criticise the cult is restricted as indoctrinated members put the goals of the cult above individual concerns, education, career and health.

In Boston, where the cult contained over 4000 members, classes in the university were cut by a third as students abandoned education for the cult. The Boston Church of Christ has since been banned from campus.

The church systematically uses subtle and sophisticated techniques designed to reform thought and leaders are regarded as friends or peers, which makes sure new recruits are less defensive.

According to experts, even the strongest minded people are deceived and manipulated through weapons like guilt; an emotional lever for producing conformity and compliance.

In addition, fear of damnation and fear of the punishment by the leaders is used to bind the group together. The cult may maintain members in a state of heightened suggestibility through lack of sleep, engineered diet, repetitive indoctrination and controlled group experience.

Waverers or those intending to leave are harrassed by phone calls or regular visits by disciples. They are accused of walking away from God and depriving others of discovering truth through them. Douglas Jacoby said about leavers: "We don't try to short cicuit their free will physically but I would be lying if I said we did not try to get them to stay."

This emotional pressure is responsible for causing breakdowns and ex-members of the church have required psychiatric help.

The director of the Cult Information Centre and a former cult member, Ian Haworth, describes the church as a "sinister and dangerous cult which can affect people psychologically, spiritually, financially and even physically."

It is difficult to come to terms with the real world once you have left, as perception of reality is altered; one former student member remarked: "Being involved with the Church of Christ is like being in a dream, it's a bubble, and when you come out it's really hard."

The Church of Christ has been banned from Birmingham, Aston, Manchester universities and King's College, London, accused of applying unbearable pressure on students and causing underachievement.

The group is also responsible for trying to blur the distinction between the Christian Union and themselves.

The group in Leeds remains small but Simon Robinson, a University Chaplain, views them as a "constant potential danger" and offers counselling to members and their families.

An ex-member believed that belonging to the church brought her peace of mind and peace beyond death. She spoke a lot about life after death. Perhaps this is because the Church of Christ aims at terminating the vitality of life in its members.

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"My daughter says we will all go to hell unless we dedicate our lives to the Church of Christ".

The mother of a Leeds Church of Christ member spoke to Leeds Student this week about "cult fanatics" who have taken her daughter.

The woman cannot be identified for fears of upsetting the cult, who she says, "maliciously targets anyone who speaks out against them."

The Leeds girl, from a non-religious background suddenly announced over the phone last year, "Mum I'm a Christian." But Christianity has taken an unusual and very disturbing slant for this particular Leeds household.

The girl, who has moved away from home, hands over 15 per cent of her income each week and lives with a discipler who monitors her every move.

"My daughter has been told that she will go to Hell if she doesn't conform and dedicate her whole life to the church." The mother laughs cynically as she speaks of the "very subttle and devious methods" of the church. "This cult has complete control over my daughter's mind. I'm her mother and I can't even reason with her."

She refers to Church of Christ members as "Stepford wives. They are all conditioned to be the same, even speaking in the same high pitched monotone voices."

She becomes distressed as she speaks of her daughter's changed character. "She has a split personality. Her real tolerant side is increasingly fading away and what I call her 'aggressive cult mode' is becoming more evident."

While the mother is anxious to expose her daughter to normal life again, the daughter is trying to convert the rest of her family and save them from Hell and damnation. The family were invited along to a conversion service one Sunday. "We were wise to their deceptive methods and refused to be taken in by all the embraces and smilaes." After preaching repetitively for over an hour the church leader asked them to fill in forms declaring personal details such as annual invome. The Leeds family refused and left immediately.

"These days I avoid the subject of religion with my daughter" says the mother. "I don't want to antagonise her. She has become unrecognisable and lost in the cult but at least she is still speaking to me."

"I believe she has become mixed up in something deceptive and evil, which has nothing to do with Christian values but with mking money out of vulnerable people."

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"I was a foreign student new to this country. When I was approached by a friendly face at a bus stop asking me to attend a Bible meeting it seemed all too good to be true".

Leeds Student has tracked down two former Church of Christ members who relate horror stories about how they got trapped in the cult.

Ayman Akshar has become so incensed by the cults activities that he now dedicates a large part of his life to speaking out against them. Akshar, now honorary chairman of Triumphing Over London Cults, a group which offers help to others wishing to leave the church, says: "I believe their methods are sinister. They must be stopped." His strategy is to educate people about the dangers of the church and counsel ex-members.

Akshar said his experiences with the Church of Christ psychological and emotional effects on him. He was initially approaches on the street and invited to a seemingly innocent Bible meeting. Then, he said, he was trapped in the cult for seven years before he finally broke away.

The other ex-member, Pete (not his real name), was also approached in the street. He said: "Initially the church seemed very mainstream and nothing untoward. I was given an exceptionally friendly and interested welcome."

Pete was only 17 at the time of his recruitment and he says: "For young people who are often very idealistic and naive, the Church of Christ offers a tremendous purpose in life, especially in its preachings to save the world." One a more practical level he said the church provides friendships and a lively social life.

Pete described in detail the hold the Church had on him and how it became more difficult to leave from day one. "At first the whole experience was like a roller coaster ride. The whole conversion process was a very strong euphoric experience. I made lots of new friends and was caught up in a whirl of social activity. Suddenly life had a purpose - I was made to believe that everything I did for the Church would lead me to salvation."

He remarked that once you have committed 110 per cent of your life to the cult it is very difficult to break away. "Although intellectually you might know something is wrong, the emotional attachment is so strong you are unable to make a rational decision."

The recruitment process is like a whirlwind and before being baptised members have made firm financial and personal committments to the church. "by the time of baptism I had already put so much of myself into their hands that any more sacrifices seemed irrelevant."

Members unquestionably attend Church meetings three times a week and spend six hours every evening evangelising. "I know of specific cases where members have been admitted to hospital with stress related illnesses, lost their jobs or dropped out of degree courses."

Pete is not so concernedc about the "mind control" tactics the Church is alleged to use, as the tremendous power that the Church and its leaders wield over their members. "Maybe the Church did start off with good intentions but it has become a self-serving power structure... solely concerned with cold, hard productivity - making money and evangelising."

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