Church Cult on Campus?

Escape (California State University)/Winter 98
By Jackie Kochaphum

Joya Brandon, a young African-American student at Calif. State Hayward (CSUH), got more than she bargained for when she decided to study the Bible with student members of a controversial religious organization that recruits on campus. The ICC regularly holds worship services on Sundays in the Music Building recital hall at CSUH.

Joya, a self described apprentice of indigenous religions, sought to dispel the negative image she had of Christianity. So when her good friend was approached by CSUH student members of the ICC last year, they decided to take the opportunity to learn more about the Bible together.

Joya and her friend began by studying with the ICC members on campus, usually outside on the upper deck of the University Student Union.

But a note of harassment entered the picture when the ICC members began waking Joya up early in the morning, when they would call to see if she had studied the lessons they had given her, said Joya.

After a few lessons Joya and her friend agreed to meet at the apartment of one of the church member's for a Bible lesson.

When Joya and her friend arrived, they were surprised to be greeted by six female ICC members.

After a period of studying the Bible, Joya said she mentioned certain similarities between the Bible and the "Egyptian Book of the Dead" and stated her belief that it formed the basis for the Bible.

Joya said that is when she and her friend were separated and taken to different rooms of the apartment. Three of the women surrounded her and "started speaking aggressively and just drilling," her with statements like "if you don't believe that Jesus is the Son of God, you are living in darkness," said Joya.

Joya decided to leave. However, Joya said they tried to convince her to stay by changing their behavior.

One of the members who is African, "turned on some African music," and said she would prepare some African food, said Joya. But Joya had already decided to leave, and she went to get her friend so that they could leave together.

When she approached the room her friend was in, Joya said she was able to hear her friend "yelling at the women," through the closed door.

Joya collected her friend and they left the apartment, severing their relationship with the ICC members.

The ICC, which should not be confused with the mainstream United Churches of Christ, has been the subject of extensive criticism in the media, primarily due to charges that they are a cult. They are charged with deceptive and coercive recruiting practices and using mind control tactics on members. The ICC has some 143,000 members and is growing at a rate of 10 percent per year, the fastest growth of any religious group in North America.

Carol Giambalvo, a cult specialist and co-editor of "The Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of Christ," says the ICC is a damaging cult organization. Giambalvo is also a former member of the ICC.

Members undergo "drastic personality changes," Giambalvo told Escape. They stop "interacting with family, and take to themselves. They drop courses or drop out of school... Some members sell material belongings to give [money] to the church... and there have been suicides due to guilt feelings at not being able to live up to," the church standard of living without sin, said Giambalvo.

The purpose of the Bible studies that Brandon and her friend participated in is to lead individuals to the ultimate conclusion they must join the group to become a true follower of Jesus Christ, said Giambalvo. This is the ICC's version of the purpose of the Bible studies.

The ICC teaches that it is the one true church. The only means of being saved from going to Hell is to be baptized after participating in its 10-step Bible study plan, even if you have already been baptized at another church. The ICC teaches that members who leave the church lose their chance for salvation, according to former ICC members.

"The studies start with getting you to agree that the Bible is not open to human interpretation," said Giambalvo. Once that happens the "scripture is taken out of context," and is used as a means of controlling individuals.

The ICC maintains that it is not a cult, doesn't harass potential recruits or control its members. "You don't have to shave your hair and give all your money to the church," Kip McKean, ICC leader, told a reporter for the Miami Herald. "But you do have to give your heart. In our minds, we're just trying to get back to the Bible."

That wasn't the experience of Jaime Dotson, a student at CSUH, who is a practicing Seventh Day Adventist. She had a brief encounter with the ICC recently.

Her encounter began benignly when Elsa, a young and attractive woman, who is not a student but is the campus Bible study leader, caught up to Jaime as they both walked away from their just parked cars in lot 'C'. Elsa never revealed her last name, according to Jaime.

Elsa commented on the attractiveness of Jaime's umbrella and Jaime thanked her. Then Elsa asked Jaime if she attends church, and what church she attends. Next Elsa asked Jaime if she had any spare time for a Bible study.

Jaime agreed to study the Bible with Elsa that same day. The two were joined by Melissa, an ICC member and a student at CSUH, who also never gave her last name.

Elsa and Melissa asked Jaime what she thought about two scriptures that are known to be used by the ICC as the first study in the process to recruit members. Jaime said Elsa and Melissa agreed with her interpretation of the scriptures, and then "added a little bit more," said Jaime.

"Their explanation sounded kinda cool or different," said Jaime. It was "like Shakespeare. When it is translated you go 'oh, that's what that means.'"

After securing Jaime's phone number, they wrote out the meaning of the scriptures for Jaime to keep, and set-up a date to meet and study more the next day.

In the space of a week, Jaime had two Bible study sessions, and they planned more. "They are nice people, and I don't mind studying with them, but I don't plan on going to their church," said Jaime.

Jaime said it is difficult to tell them she doesn't want to go to their church because she "does not want to be rude."

However, she has received pages on her pager, phone calls at her home, and invitations to meet off campus for further studies, including an offer to come to her home.

Both Jaime's and Joya's experiences with the ICC, are typical examples of the reported recruitment practices which have led to them being banned from at least 22 college campuses across the country.

The ICC has been banned from Boston University, the University of Maryland, George Washington University, and Marquette University, among others, chiefly due to its recruitment practices.

"The number of campuses that have banned the ICC is much higher than reported" said school dean Robert Thornburg, of Marsh Chapel at Boston University in an Escape telephone interview. "I know because I worked with other campuses" regarding the ICC.

Thornburg was instrumental in getting the group banned from Boston University, one of the few schools that actually obtained a legal ban, according to Thornburg.

The Boston ICC repeatedly disregarded a signed agreement between Boston ICC leadership and university officials. Among other violations, the ICC went door-to-door recruiting in student residence halls, despite agreeing not to after numerous students complained of harassment.

Despite such controversies, the ICC continues to recruit on many campuses. It's presence at CSUH has caused little concern.

In 1987 the ICC applied for official recognition as a student group at CSUH. The group called itself "Campus Advance," and was associated with the San Francisco Church of Christ.

Recognition as a student group grants organizations the privilege of using campus facilities, ability to legally recruit members on campus, and use of the university's name to indicate affiliation.

In the early 1990's the Hayward group changed its title to the "Upside Down Club," a common alias for ICC student groups.

A former ICC student leader told Billy Curtis, acting director of Student Life Programs, that the group changed names in order to "turn the campus upside down", said Curtis.

According to Barbara Aro-Valle, director of Facilities Reservations, the university "found out they were not actually a student group" about a year and a half ago. The ICC currently is allowed to rent meeting rooms as an "off campus" group.

Although both Curtis and Aro-Valle said that they know of the controversy that surrounds the ICC, they said no one has complained about the group's recruitment practices or church services on campus.

Without complaints against the church, "the university as a state institution cannot discriminate" against groups requesting to rent rooms, "unless they are the KKK or something," Aro-Valle said.

"They are really nice people," said Aro-Valle. "They always are prompt in paying their facilities rental fees." Aro-Valle did say that she has found it odd that they use school facilities instead of a church to hold their services.

Curtis explained that the university will not tolerate peer harassment, or hazing of any kind, but that the criticisms of ICC's recruitment practices could be attributed to other mainstream religions as well.

"A cult is not easily definable," said Curtis, who went on to express his opinion that when accusations like that are thrown around, he is automatically turned off.

However Curtis stressed that the university "needs to know," about any harassment students may be facing. Students need to know that they "can report problems to us," said Curtis.

In 1996 Student Life Programs reported that the ICC student membership consisted of nine active members, however Elsa said there are currently only two ICC members who are students at CSUH.

Darren Holland, the lead ICC minister of the Fremont region, which includes Hayward, said that his church is open to anyone who is interested, and said he was not aware of improper recruitment on CSUH students.

"We hold to the great commission of the Bible, Matthew 28," which says to go and make disciples of all nations, said Holland

Holland claims that many of the critics of his church are "former disciples" who left during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the church was going through restructuring.

They "do not know of the considerable changes that have taken place," says Holland. He urges people who read critical reports about the ICC to check for publishing dates.

Holland likened bad apples in the church to bad apples in the U.S. Army. Referring to the army sex scandal, Holland said that the entire Army cannot be judged by the wrongful acts of individuals, who happen to be in the Army.

Joya has a different opinion. She considers the church members she had contact with to be representatives of the entire organization.

"I did some research on them," said Joya. After her experience she doesn't want to have any further contact with the ICC.

On the other hand there is Jaime. While she is not ready to switch faiths, she will still agree to study the Bible with the ICC members.

But first they have to call her. ICC contact with Jaime ceased after she was approached by both Elsa and Melissa separately while she was talking with an Escape reporter.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is a student journalist who was a member to the ICC and left the group 11 years ago.

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