Cult Following

Evangelical groups are recruiting hard on Britain's campuses

The Guardian/June 20, 2000
By Wendy Wallace

Parents who are sending children off to university this autumn are likely to have drummed in warnings about safe sex, spiked drinks and careful management of student grants. What few tell their young adult offspring is to beware the friendly fellow student who approaches them in the corridor to talk about Bible study groups, or hands out leaflets on world peace.

Yet these are the kind of techniques favoured by the fringe religious and esoteric groups whose numbers appear to be mushrooming in tandem with the expansion in higher education. As one university chaplain put it: "Any campus now is a bazaar with different groups screaming for the minds and hearts of everybody."

While some movements are harmless or benign, others exert heavy psychological pressure to divert students into a life of fundraising and recruiting for the cause. Sarah Cope-Faulkner, now 30, was recruited to an evangelical Christian group by a fellow student who was "very friendly, very open, always wanting to spend time with me".

Then a second-year student of business and economics at Wolverhampton University, Cope-Faulkner describes herself as from a typical "non-religious C of E background." But under the influence of her new friend she quickly progressed through a series of bible studies and meetings to "repentance", baptism and full membership of the church.

"You joined when you were baptised, and your duties were recruiting, giving 10 per cent of your income and 'love gifts', and attending meetings," she says. "You were made to feel you had to do these things or God wouldn't love you."

Sarah dropped her old friends, became distant from her family - "they said I shouldn't visit because I wasn't spiritual enough to be in that sinful environment" - and increasingly withdrew from university life.

"I attempted to carry on with my studies, but my marks were getting lower and lower because in thought you were never away from it. None of my tutors knew me well enough to have any idea what was happening."

She broke away from the International Church of Christ after 15 months, £1,500 the poorer, had a nervous breakdown and left college without taking her finals.

"It took me a year to begin to function properly and to come off anti-depressants," she says. "It was a form of mental rape. They got inside my head and it is very difficult to get them out again." The Cult Information Centre, run by former cult member Ian Haworth, stresses that students are prime targets for cults. "The likely candidate for cult membership is someone of average to above-average intelligence, well-educated, idealistic and intellectually alert," he says. "University campuses are saturated with people like that - smart people, who care."

The problem, he says, is that students don't see themselves as cult recruitment material. "If you turn up and give a lecture on cult awareness," he says, "students don't show. Because they assume, wrongly, that people join cults rather than being recruited, and that they join because they're vulnerable, because there's a problem."

The International Church of Christ (known also as the London Church of Christ, Birmingham Church of Christ etc) makes no secret of the interest undergraduates hold for them. In a 1990 publication Shining Like Stars, campus ministry is described as "the goose that laid the golden egg" and student recruiters are urged to "set personal goals of between 10-20 new acquaintances each day": "Take special note of those who seem open and try to see them daily. The key is not spending a lot of time with them but making the time you do spend exciting. In general, 30 minutes or less is sufficient."

Once contact has been made, ICC members are persistent. One student who recently attended a Sunday meeting in north London already had two messages from the group on her mobile phone by the time she got off the underground on her way home.

In 1998 chaplains at Cardiff University issued a strongly worded warning to students about ICC practices and methods. Paul Overend, Anglican chaplain at Cardiff, says: "We all find meaningful paradigms by which to live and if that's not abusing us, fine. But we can sometimes be offering too much freedom in order to be loved, and students are very vulnerable to that." The ICC were banned at the University of Birmingham ten years ago.

"They were recruiting aggressively on campus and interfering with students as they went about their business," said a spokesperson. "Once recruited, students were subjected to intense pressure, which interfered with their studies."

But some people in higher education now believe that attempts to ban groups are ineffectual. Some have been intimidated by threats of legal action; others fear that cults have abandoned a stall at the Freshers Fair for the more sophisticated and harder-to-police tactic of student plants in halls of residence.

With 50,000 students in the city, Leeds is a good hunting ground. "It's certainly a matter of concern," says Leeds University chaplain Simon Robinson. "We've had a number of new religious movements recruiting just off campus. There is no policy of banning but a strong policy of raising levels of awareness about the potential difficulties of joining such groups."

Inform, a government-funded charity providing information on new religious movements, have more than 2,000 groups in their database, ranging from large international organisations such as the Scientologists to individuals with a handful of followers. "Clearly there are groups that focus specifically on university students," says information officer Amanda Van Eck. "Often students have no responsibilities, so it is much easier for them to drastically change their lives around. And they're young and energetic, so if the group is looking for missionaries, students are going to be popular."

"I supply university chaplains with leaflets on movements including the School of Economic Science, Rajneeshism (now called Osho) and the Jesus Fellowship." The University Bible Fellowship is a name that crops up regularly in relation to student recruitment, as is the Unification Church - and the ubiquitous International Church of Christ.

Questions about what constitutes a cult and what a new religious movement, what is exploitative and what a matter of individual choice, are crystallised around young adults' membership of sects and belief groups. Stephen Williams, senior Anglican chaplain to universities in the diocese of London, takes a dispassionate view, telling parents not to be alarmed when they come to him with concerns about the group their son or daughter has joined.

"It's an exploration, finding oneself and one's purpose, a relationship with God, and not in itself a bad thing," he says. "Most use this as an entry point into some sort of belief system and don't get stuck." When young people do get stuck in manipulative and isolating groups, the results can be agonising for their families. One parent who had an adult child in a cult described it as 'like a hostage situation'.

"Parents are very, very vulnerable," he says. "My son was with the Unification Church for nine months but it seemed like nine years. We put on a tremendous amount of pressure and he was eventually sent home to pacify us." Another parent, whose student daughter was recruited over a year ago and has not been in direct contact since, says it is 'a living bereavement'. For those concerned about NRM activity on campus, there is little they can do. Student union bodies may choose not to recognise organisations on the grounds of equal opportunities, but there is a presumption in favour of free speech on campus which militates against banning organisations.

Some who have tried to initiate bans on letting premises to unwelcome organisations have been threatened with legal action; many cult-like groups are litigious and rich enough to pursue court action. "Every cult in creation can come and set up in a UK university without let or hindrance," said one university chaplain. "And for students, who increasingly tend to be spiritually ignorant, confronted at 19 by different religious pundits they have no way of assessing what is mainstream and what is a wacky and way-out cult."

'The need to study was no excuse'

Student Sally Eyden 22, attended a recent meeting of the International Church of Christ in London.

"The North London sector of the ICC uses the facilities of South Camden Community College for its Sunday services - they have a separate service for students. There were about 50 people there, all young, all dashing about greeting each other and giving each other these sideways hugs. They all speak in the same way, using this pseudo-American drawl and using the word 'awesome' a lot.

"It wasn't your traditional church service at all. It was very jolly with tea and coffee and nibbles being passed around, and when people in the audience were moved by something they'd call out 'preach it' to the person giving the talk. It was more like a team-building exercise than a religious event.

"Everyone seemed incredibly happy and alert. But these are not ordinary students. No one smokes, gets drunk or has sex before marriage; people are even discouraged from kissing. One girl told me she wouldn't kiss her boyfriend until they were at the altar: Well, we all know where kissing leads to - immoral thoughts and then weakness [sex],' she said.

"The preacher filled his sermon with references to 'being fruitful' - going out and recruiting new members to the church. The service was specially tailored to students: they were saying that the need to study was no excuse, you still had to come and worship, that God comes first and that Christ died for you.

"They talked about one particular guy there, how he had a new recruit who hadn't turned up for bible study because he had an exam the next day, and how this guy had gone round to his house to do the bible study there, till 11 pm. That was considered very good."

"I felt uncomfortable and self-conscious. Everybody seemed to know my name, although I'd only told it to a couple of people. I returned home emotionally and physically drained and found I already had two messages from members."

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