Distorted devotion

High pressure religious groups often target students for recruitment

UCLA Daily Bruin/October 6, 1998
By Michelle Navarro

For Calvin Kwan, joining a religious organization seemed innocent enough.

"I thought that it couldn't hurt to meet new people," he said.

"I thought to myself, 'These people are so nice, and they are really interested in my life.' They were able to convince me that I really hadn't done all of what Jesus had commanded of me."

But then Kwan started to doubt the integrity of the organization that manipulated his mind.

"I still felt like my questions were not answered; instead, my loyalty was questioned," he said.

As the fall settles in and students holler from all sides along Bruin Walk for others to join their organizations, there is one type of club that will make these words your own.

It is the kind of group found on almost every campus in the nation that manipulates, controls and asks for the utmost devotion from students.

And despite the amount of literature warning people about cults, the number of students joining them continues to grow.

Kwan's testimony refers to his four-year experience as a member of a cult while attending Long Beach Community College and Cal State Long Beach.

For years, campuses across the nation have held workshops, seminars and handed out brochures by the droves in attempts to prevent students from joining cults.

Sadly, many students like Kwan still get taken in and end up trapped in the grip of these high-pressure religious groups.

One reason students still continue to naively submit to these groups is because they are unable to initially identify a group as a cult.

"Most cults are not suicidal or violent in any way. Most cults are very normal looking on the surface," said Kwan, who is now an official representative for REVEAL (Research, Examine, Verify, Educate, Assist, Liberate), a global support group for former and current cult members and their families.

"Most cults will not come straight out and tell you some of their beliefs. Some of the true hidden beliefs and practices are only reserved for the more mature members," Kwan said.

Naturally a group will not identify itself as a "cult," so researchers have determined several typical cult characteristics.

The American Family Foundation, a non-profit research center that studies high-control cultic groups, generally defines a cult as "a group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion to some person, idea or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control with the design to advance goals of the group's leaders."

And that's just the basics. The whole process a new member goes through is another story. It begins with being recruited.

Members often approach students on campus who are alone or appear vulnerable and lost. It is there where they will begin to employ what Kwan considers their most dangerous tactic, "love bombing."

"They will often invite you to fun activities without letting you know that the purpose of the event is to try to recruit you into their church," Kwan said.

"All of a sudden people you hardly know will want to spend enormous amounts of time with you. People you hardly know will tell you they 'love you.' They will call you all the time and compliment you every chance they get," he said.

Being loved usually isn't dangerous, but it can be when it is transformed into a strategy for obtaining new recruits.

Kwan said "love bombing" may not be sincere and it works off of the insecurities of new students and ones with problems.

Once someone has shown interest in the group, a special meeting or Bible study occurs where members proceed to convince the new member that they are weak in their faith and will not be saved spiritually unless they follow the group's beliefs.

"In the discipleship study, they told me that I was not saved because I was not a 'disciple' according to the scriptures," said Yun Kim, a former cult member and current representative for REVEAL.

Once committed to the group, there are several conditions or rules that members are expected to adhere to achieve salvation.

A few of the most common ones include submitting to a leader or "discipler" who keeps surveillance over that member's actions, heavy recruitment of new members, giving 10 percent of one's gross income to the group, only dating members of the church, confessing all sins to the leaders - which are not kept confidential and may even be used against victims later.

The expectations and demands run high, and to not meet them is a blow to that member, who would then be considered weak or bad at heart, Kwan said.

And it was under such extreme pressure that Kwan tried to recruit over 500 students and gave more than $10,000 to the group.

The power of control mostly stems from the use of the Bible, which frightens members into following the rules.

"They used scriptures to tell me that I was to submit to my leaders and obey them," Kim said. "Since I was new in the church and didn't know the scriptures well enough to respond to them, I quickly shut up and did what they told me."

Kim said she eventually studied the scriptures herself and realized there was something wrong.

"I discovered that they had strange practices that I was not used to," said Kim, who grew up in a Baptist church.

"When I questioned these practices with the members, I was rebuked. They told me that I needed to obey the leaders and not criticize them," Kim said.

Kwan also became suspicious when he observed how many people had left the organization, for reasons like failing grades or not having enough money to buy groceries

Typically, cults isolate members from their families and former friends. The cult is seen as the only family.

For Kim, this effect took its ultimate form when her mother disowned her for her involvement in the cult. Both Kwan and Kim decided to do research and read up on critiques of their groups that led them to break away.

Questioning is something which REVEAL, as well as Janja Lalich, education director for Community Resources on Influence and Control in Alameda, California, recommends students do when doubting the practices of their group.

"The most important thing is for people to try to check out all the information they can about the group - both pro and con," Lalich said. "It's helpful to speak to critics and former members. Remember, group representatives will always give you 'the party line' in response to your questions."

"Also depending on the group, taking precautions for your safety might be necessary, and make sure you have a safe place to go to when you leave," Lalich said.

Always ask questions and always get background information on the religious group in question appears to be the best advice.

Although enduring an experience similar to that of Kwan's and Kim's may be traumatizing and damaging, there is another problem that Kwan says is just as worse.

"The most disturbing thing for me is that I truly believe most of the members are searching for a relationship with God," he said. "Unfortunately their good-heartedness has been used and misled. Some might be so emotionally and psychologically scarred that they would need counseling for years," Kwan said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.