Williams: I spent six months in a cult. They’re still here on campus.

The Northwestern/February 24, 2022

By Camille Williams

When I underwent the Christian rite of baptism in 2017, I did not consider I would need another. But on Feb. 26, 2020, I was baptized again. It was basically the same ceremony: being submerged underwater in a pool in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But this time, I joined a cult that hijacked my spiritual, social and academic life for six months.

The good news is I got out safely with my spirituality intact. The bad news is the same group is at Northwestern luring in other students — and its members are more persistent than ever.

Many students have complained about people from a group called “Meta” harassing them to join their Bible study. They are everywhere: Norris, the Lakefill, the library, Sheridan Road and even Downtown Evanston. They often won’t back down unless you run away or thoroughly convince them of your disinterest. However, approaching students is one of their least concerning behaviors.

Beware of “Meta Campus Ministry.” It is not a student organization, though that doesn’t justify their aggressive solicitation. Its leaders aren’t even NU students. It’s gone by many names, but Meta is really the International Christian Church, a fundamentalist cult that recruits and controls members through emotionally and spiritually manipulative practices.

No one ever willingly joins a cult. People are drawn, deceived and trapped into them, often by other people who are victims of the same exploitative system. Some of the main traits sociologists and theologians identify with cults are a charismatic leader, an indoctrination program into a distinct belief system, exclusivity from other groups, secrecy and systems of authoritarian control. At first, I liked how the ICC ardently set itself apart from the other Christian groups on campus by taking the model of the first-century church so literally. In reality, their doctrine claims that they’re the only true church in the world. Of course, I didn’t know anything about that when I first encountered them.

I met the girl who would eventually recruit me for the first time on Jan. 6, 2020 as a sophomore at the Winter Student Organization Fair. I was the representative for one of the organizations at the fair, and she said she was a prospective transfer student from University of California, Los Angeles who wanted to learn more about the Christian groups on campus. We met up for Starbucks the following Monday, where she and her friend bamboozled me with their life journeys from spiritual darkness to lightness with exceptional vulnerability. I didn’t know they were both full-time ministry students and campus missionaries at this point. When they offered to do a Bible study with me all about seeking God, I said yes, yearning for the certainty with which they talked about their faith.

For the next month, I spent lots of time with the different ICC ministry students to study the Bible using their specific plan. Their teachings led me to a terrifying, life-upending and, in hindsight, deeply theologically unsound conclusion: I was outside the Kingdom of God (e.g. the body of bonafide Christians on earth and in heaven). The only way in was on their terms. I eagerly accepted their rules, which I then also saw as God’s.

I was love-bombed for six straight weeks by this fervent community of believers with the promise of genuine community and eternal salvation. When my own campus ministry pastor tried to get me to see why the ICC’s beliefs were heretical and dangerous a couple of weeks after my baptism, I rejected it. In fact, I argued with him for over an hour, regurgitating their points about salvation.

By this point, Pastor Todd shepherded me for a year and a half. But my ICC disciples had persuaded me to trust them within just two and a half months. It is not that I was naive or that getting entangled with ICC was any fault of my own, but that cults are effective in exploiting people’s vulnerabilities.

The ICC ministry interns deceived me from day one by controlling information about who they were and what they believed. Their Bible studies cherry-picked verses and misapplied them. Many values they emphasized were biblically supported: whole-hearted devotion to one another, unity and openness about sins.

But taken within the context of their extreme doctrine, this amounted to harmful practices like monopolizing my time at the cost of my academic performance and other social relationships, or forcing me to confess all the sexual immoralities I’ve committed (which they defined broadly) in a group setting in order to be saved. It was the overwhelming pressure to submit to group norms that determined my actions, not God or my own introspection.

Once, the lead pastor of the Chicago branch personally called to remind me to give my weekly financial commitment, which I had forgotten the past week, and also to raise hundreds of dollars for missions. His tone was: “We expect you to do this, and we will hold you accountable every step of the way.” In fact, every one-on-one meeting with my discipler, the person charged with shepherding me, included a reminder to do my weekly tithe.

I am all for sacrificial giving, but that power dynamic is unacceptable. And any church that is zealous about collecting financial contributions, particularly from its part-time employed, 19-year-old student members, borders on cult territory. But truthfully, I never questioned it until I decided to research the ICC and what made a cult a cult. Even when the evidence mounted against them, I still stayed involved for months because I couldn’t reconcile this fact with all of my positive experiences.

So, you are probably wondering: how did I get out? Ultimately, it was the expectation for me to forego my living arrangements with my friends a month before the quarter started, to join their “sisters’ household” north of Ryan Field. Some may call it a gut instinct; I call it the Holy Spirit within me squirming in revolt. After that conversation, I ran out of my bedroom and yelled to my mother, “I accidentally joined a cult.” After she went from confused laughter to vowing to throw hands with these people, I finally started to feel this burden release.

Church hurt is the worst hurt, whether it is related to an international cult targeting college students or not. And though none of the many registered Christian student organizations are dangerous, it’s still important to acknowledge how institutions can cause harm, even if the people in them have good intentions.

My Christian and non-Christian friends, my family and religious mentors all helped me heal and rediscover a firm foundation in my faith. But I know not everyone may have these resources. If you or someone you know has been involved with Meta or a similar organization, especially on this campus, I recommend reaching out to a university chaplain or staff ministry with your shared identity, as that was what helped me.

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