True Believers: The International Church of Christ provokes controversy

True believers

The Boston Phoenix, June 18-25 1998.
By Jason Gay

When an extreme religious group came to the North Shore, some residents were rattled. But it wasn’t the first religious controversy to hit this region. A little more than a year ago, the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore, published a front-page story carrying the headline “IS A CULT COMING TO BEVERLY?”. The piece reported that the Boston Church of Christ, a controversial Christian group known for its aggressive proselytizing tactics and membership requirements, was about to move into a large space at a local office park in the city. The story didn’t soft-pedal the Boston Church of Christ’s troubled past. “The church,” wrote Citizen staffer Bill Woolley, “has been the target of many authors in numerous books, periodicals, and newspaper stories, and was once characterized, in a 1993 segment of the ABC-TV news magazine 20/20, as a ‘destructive cult.’

The news triggered a small but definite ripple of action through the seaside community of 37,000. Cult specialists from Boston were brought in to brief Beverly’s elected officials on the BCC’s history. Parents, noting that the BCC had been banned from universities, including Harvard and BU, for allegedly harassing students, worried that their teenage children would be targeted as recruits. Local clergy, aware of the church’s history of denouncing other religions, particularly other Christian groups, moved to avoid potential confrontations with the BCC. “This group has a way of giving healthy religion a black eye,” the Reverend Paige Blair, an Episcopal priest in Beverly, would say later.

At the same time, some Beverly residents saw the BCC’s arrival as just a part of a larger spiritual landscape. Beverly is a religious city, home to a Christian college and dozens of churches and faiths. A seminary is next door, in the town of Hamilton. As a result, intense devotion to God is not unfamiliar to the city’s residents. And in recent years, there have been rumblings about the rise of Christian conservatism in Beverly’s public life — a development, some alleged, that had been evidenced by impassioned clashes at the public high school over curriculum topics such as homosexuality, AIDS, and sex.

That a religious organization like the BCC would choose to settle in this kind of spiritual environment, then, was unsurprising. Indeed, Beverly residents who were eager to warn their neighbors about the BCC wondered how they could raise awareness about the group without offending other devoutly religious people. They also worried, naturally, about crossing the fine line between alerting people to legitimate concerns and persecuting a religious group on the basis of its beliefs. The latter remains an especially delicate issue in Beverly, which lies in the historical shadow of the Salem witch trials.

BCC leaders declined to be interviewed for this story. But the church’s first year in Beverly provides a portrait of exactly how difficult it can be for a community to confront religious controversy. It’s a struggle that is witnessed every week in this country, on issues ranging from classroom prayer to sexual education to the simple act of placing Christmas decorations in city halls. Despite our Constitution’s insistence on the separation of church and state, cities and towns throughout this nation continue to find that the two are often stubbornly, inexorably tied.

Convincing people that a religious group is dangerous is a delicate task. It’s not sufficient simply to point out that a particular group or sect has unusual beliefs — after all, what religion doesn’t? References to the extraordinary and the paranormal (resurrection, water into wine, burning bushes) abound in virtually every faith, from the most mainstream of Judeo-Christian denominations to the newest and most esoteric of religions. Likewise, it’s hard to criticize people for being devout; every religious tradition has followers who are passionate about their beliefs, and some who are dogmatic.

“As a Baptist minister, I’m very aware of the fact that 200 years ago, we were considered lunatics,” says Jim Maynard, a chaplain at Salem State College, which has had problems with BCC recruiting in the past. “Now we’re considered to be mainstream, but that wasn’t always the case.”

Labeling a religious group a “cult” is even more problematic. A cult is defined as any group that deliberately exercises major control over the thoughts and actions of its members, without their knowledge or consent, through deception and manipulation. But no group — not the Branch Davidians, not Heaven’s Gate, and not, for that matter, any mainstream Judeo-Christian sect — would freely call itself a cult. If questioned, members merely respond that their beliefs may be more zealous than others’. And if they are criticized, they charge their critics with persecution.

Almost from its inception, however, the BCC has been labeled a cult by some. “It’s the most destructive religious group I’ve ever seen,” the Reverend Robert Watts Thornburg, dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, has said.

Founded in 1979 in Lexington, Massachusetts, by Kip McKean, a young, charismatic evangelist, the BCC — which is not related to the mainstream Churches of Christ scattered about the US — attracted converts who were drawn to the church’s highly disciplined approach to Christianity and its intense, family-like congregations. The church’s membership rapidly grew. McKean’s first Church of Christ began with 30 people; by the early 1980s, he was holding services in Boston Garden for more than 2000 followers.

From the standpoint of religious beliefs, the BCC, with its emphasis on traditional values and Bible study, isn’t particularly different from other hard-line, fundamentalist Christian groups. What makes the church dangerous and cult-like, critics say, is the way it recruits, indoctrinates, and retains its membership: its methods tend to be far more aggressive than those of traditional faiths. “It’s not the beliefs that are the problem,” says Paige Blair, the Episcopal minister in Beverly. “It’s the behaviors.”

Indeed, few faiths are more consuming and demanding than the BCC. Former members say that to join the BCC is to immerse one’s whole life in the group; followers’ spiritual, financial (there are major tithing requirements), and social lives almost always orbit exclusively around the church. Each new member is baptized by church leaders and assigned a “discipler” who serves as his or her mentor. This member/discipler relationship is intense, sometimes extending beyond issues of Bible study and church protocol and into personal behavior, even grooming: it’s not uncommon for a mentor to advise his or her disciple on clothing and hairstyle decisions.

And unlike most religious groups, the BCC relies heavily on its rank-and-file membership to recruit new followers. The BCC proselytizes constantly, and its recruiting drives are particularly aggressive. Former members say that the church especially targets young people seen as “sharp” — that is, clean-cut, intelligent, articulate, and outgoing. According to a national Web site maintained by ex-members (http://www.reveal.org), recruiters also look for vulnerable people — individuals who have recently lost a close relative or friend or who are in personal or financial trouble.

“They are very controlling of people’s lives, and some people are drawn to that,” says the Reverend Elizabeth Emery, the chaplain at Beverly’s Endicott College, who has counseled individuals affected by the BCC. “Here are these people who care about them, love them, and want to spend time with them.”

But critics say that the BCC’s standard recruiting tactic — “love-bombing,” or showing an unusually intense interest in a potential member’s life and activities — is manipulative and deceitful. For a young person, particularly one at a vulnerable stage, such attention can be flattering, but ex-members say it represents an early attempt at mind control.

“Mind-control techniques such as love-bombing are designed to bypass a person’s intelligence and especially his critical-thinking skills,” the REVEAL site states. “When a lonely or hurting person suddenly receives an overwhelming amount of love and acceptance, it is extremely difficult for him to stand back and assess the reasons for this or question something he desperately doesn’t want to have disappear.”

But the BCC itself can become isolating, too. Even the most traditional churches recognize the presence of other faiths, but the BCC holds that its members are the only true Christians; therefore, anyone outside the church is considered unsaved. This position distances BCC members not only from other religions, but also from family members and friends who are unaffiliated with the church. It also allows the BCC to label its critics “non-Christian” — and therefore unworthy of consideration.

“[They believe] you can’t have salvation unless you are a member of the BCC,” says Emery. “They would look at me, an Evangelical, as not saved.”

Most religions are sensitive to outside criticism, of course. But the BCC leadership does a thorough job of dismissing criticism from within its ranks, as well. Chris Lee, a former BCC leader who joined the church as an MIT freshman and left in 1994, says that there is an often impenetrable wall between the church’s leaders and its members. Legitimate criticism of church decisions is ignored, Lee says, and members who remain unsatisfied are shunned.

“There’s sort of a corporate mindset,” Lee says. “You’re not going to be told anything you don’t need to know.”

Yet the BCC continues to experience phenomenal growth. As the International Church of Christ, it has expanded both nationally and worldwide to become one of the fastest-growing nondenominational Christian groups in the country. According to a story last fall in Christianity Today, the ICC counts its membership at 142,000 people in 292 churches, including 34 with weekly congregations of at least 1000 people. The ICC is active in more than 100 countries, with outposts in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.

“I will say they are a smart people,” Paige Blair says. “And they know exactly where to branch out and expand.”

Beverly is a city of many parts. Though more than 90 percent of residents are white, it is a surprisingly diverse brew of neighborhoods and social classes, from the blue-collar Italian families in Rialside whose grandmothers and grandfathers worked at the United Shoe Machinery Corporation plant to the upwardly mobile young parents in Centerville who commute to jobs in Boston to the aging clans that preside over the sprawling, multimillion-dollar waterfront estates in Beverly Farms. Downtown, there are low-income housing tracts and duplexes; North Beverly and the Cove are mostly middle-class neighborhoods, where parents drive cars with honor-student and youth-hockey bumper stickers.

Likewise, Beverly is home to a rich blend of faiths. You name it, and Beverly’s got it: Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, fundamentalists, Christian Scientists, Evangelicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Jews, Quakers. There’s a four-year Christian college, Gordon College, and across the town line in Hamilton is Gordon Conwell Seminary. It is a place accustomed both traditional and nontraditional beliefs. To the north is Gloucester, a long-time stronghold of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. To the south is Salem, and its lingering fascination with witchcraft and the occult.

Indeed, the Boston Church of Christ’s new North Shore home is a place where religion has always been part of the community discourse. But in the past several years, controversy has surfaced over the place of religious faith in civic life — most notably, in several high-profile battles at the local public high school. And that debate, some residents suspect, has left public officials wary of confronting the city’s spiritual identities.

Much of the controversy revolved around the appropriateness of several topics in the high school’s health education curriculum — specifically, sex education and AIDS prevention — as well as sensitivity training about gay, lesbian, and bisexual lifestyles. The latter was part of a statewide “Safe Schools” initiative, sponsored by then-governor William Weld, to increase awareness of gay issues and promote student safety in public schools.

To be sure, Safe Schools was groundbreaking stuff, and Beverly wasn’t the only district that had difficulty embracing it. Likewise, sex education in the public schools — especially discussions of AIDS, STD prevention, and birth control — is invariably a lightning rod for controversy.

What surprised longtime Beverly educators, however, was the strength of the public’s opposition. Parents went to school committee meetings and complained that students were going to be instructed in how to live gay, lesbian, or bisexual lives. Sex education topics and instructional materials were harshly condemned. One particularly controversial item was “Pop-Up Pete,” a “flip book” that demonstrated how to put on a condom.

Tony Witwicki, a popular teacher at Beverly High for more than 29 years, helped push for the new health curriculum. He says he expected some parental reaction, but not the ugly debate that ensued — which was at times led by elected school committee officials. “It was scary,” Witwicki recalls. “When you run into real hatred, it really puts you back on your heels.”

Another target, Witwicki says, was the Unity Coalition, a high-school club that promoted diversity and occasionally protested against local outbreaks of racism, sexism, and homophobia. It was also known as a safe haven for gay students. Witwicki, who was the faculty adviser to the group, says the club’s confrontational spirit made some school leaders and parents uncomfortable, and they successfully pushed the coalition off campus.

At first, Witwicki thought the community opposition was simply the result of homophobia. But today, he thinks it was something else — a push by local Christian conservatives to take over the school. Similar drives have occurred in other communities, especially in the South; most notably, the Christian Coalition has urged its national membership to seek seats on school boards.

Although he admits his suspicions are “paranoid-seeming,” Witwicki alleges that the same thing was occurring in Beverly. “The real issue in Beverly wasn’t sex, sexual orientation,” or homophobia, he says. “That was just the fuel for conservative elements to come in and try to transform a community through its school.”

Though many residents dismiss these sensational charges out of hand — “I find it kind of laughable that there’s some kind of sinister plot to take over town government,” says Woolley, the Citizen reporter — the issue continues to simmer. Last fall, the Boston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union printed a article titled “Is This Happening in a Town Near You?” that addressed Christian activity in the schools. (The story, which for the most part was anonymously sourced, was roundly criticized by city leaders. Beverly school committee member Russell Bjork, a Gordon College professor who was mentioned in the piece, calls it “99 percent false.”)

The suggestion that there is a Christian-right conspiracy in the Beverly public schools may indeed be outlandish, but even local Christian leaders acknowledge parents’ recent effort to influence public education. Bonny Loring, a Beverly resident and the publisher of a quarterly Christian newsletter, Network News, that is distributed to 146 churches on the North Shore, says there is an effort to return “traditional values” to local schools.

But though she’s heard the charge now and again, Loring rejects the Christian-conspiracy allegations. “I’m offended when people refer to parents who are simply trying to retain traditional values as part of the Christian right,” she says, pointing out that the North Shore’s Christian community is not monolithic and includes left-leaning progressives. “I think parents are very concerned about their children, and anything that has to do with the welfare of children is a hot issue.”

Loring notes that many other communities around the country are growing less rigid about the separation of church and state and are recognizing the effectiveness of faith-based values. Whether it’s the Reverend Eugene Rivers of Boston appearing on the cover of Newsweek for a story about cities and gang violence, or hundreds of thousands of men gathering for a Promise Keepers rally on the Mall in Washington, DC, spirituality is trickling back into American civic life, embraced by people from a range of political persuasions.

“I think the pendulum is swinging back,” Loring says. “We are finally giving some credibility to faith-based opinions.”

Still, there’s no question that religion remains a thorny subject for city leaders, who, unlike the public, are responsible for holding up that church-state divide. In many respects, religion represents a double-edged sword for public officials: to embrace religion in civic life is to violate the separation between church and state, but to shun it is to reject the core beliefs of one’s constituency.

That may account for some of the silence on the part of public officials surrounding the BCC’s arrival in Beverly. When asked about the BCC’s move to the city, Beverly’s mayor, William Scanlon, replied hurriedly: “All I can say is that it hasn’t been a huge topic. We had a meeting. There won’t be any decisions or actions. And beyond that, I don’t have anything to say.”

Hearing this, Witwicki says that the quiet from City Hall on the BCC is similar to the silence he noticed several years back, when the high school was under siege. “Without question” it’s the same, he says. “I think it’s the fear of stirring up what happened before at the school. No one wants to get caught in the crossfire again.”

Paige Blair didn’t want to keep quiet about the BCC. Blair, a Harvard Divinity School graduate student who moved to Beverly in the spring of 1997 to join the staff at St. John’s Episcopal Church, was more than familiar with the BCC’s controversial past. She had attended BU as an undergraduate and seminary student and studied under Dean Thornburg; while living in Allston, she had been approached by BCC recruiters on the street several times, and she even attended a meeting of women BCC members in Boston.

“I think it’s a religion that breaks people down instead of building them up,” Blair says. “It’s a religion that doesn’t allow someone to become who he or she truly is — it makes them into someone else’s version of who they should be.”

Blair felt that to ignore the BCC’s settlement in Beverly was potentially risky. Following the Citizen story last May, there were plenty of questions in the community. And later, stories began flying around: that teens were being approached by members of the BCC while walking around Beverly, that late-night proselytizing was occurring outside Nick’s Roast Beef, a popular neon-lit hangout near the Wenham border that stays open until two in the morning. Though the BCC is not known to actively recruit adolescents — generally, it sticks to college students and twentysomething professionals — the rumors frightened parents, including some in Blair’s congregation at St. John’s.

There were also personal stories of local lives that had already been disrupted by the BCC. One woman wrote an anonymous letter to the Citizen describing how her young marriage had been shattered when her husband joined the BCC and proceeded to turn his back on his family and friends. “Is a cult coming to Beverly? I believe so,” she wrote. “I believe it is a cultic aberrational group which uses mind-control techniques and doctrines which instill fear, guilt, and anxiety among its members.”

The author of that letter, Diane P., a North Shore resident who attends a local Baptist church, says her husband (from whom she is now divorced) was having financial difficulties when he was introduced to the BCC by a friend, a lawyer who was a member of the church. For a while, she recalls, his interest in the church seemed harmless; she even recalls joining him at a BCC gathering in Danvers, at the Sheraton Tara. “They did have a passion for the Lord, and that was very important to him,” Diane P. says. “And they had answers for his [troubles], which was comforting, too.”

Soon, however, Diane P. began noticing marked changes in her husband’s personality. Church life consumed him, and he was rarely at home, she says. When he was at home, he was constantly pressuring his wife to join the church. When she resisted — Diane P. had recently become a born-again Baptist and was reluctant to abandon her faith — her husband grew angry. “He started to threaten me, saying things like, ‘Unless you join this church with me, we’re not going to have any kids,’ ” she recalls. “He withheld affection. For a long time, he didn’t share our bed. There was a lot of sexual manipulation.”

Diane P. says her husband also turned his back on his own family, which had tried repeatedly to persuade him to leave the BCC. Eventually, Diane P.’s marriage crumbled under the weight of her husband’s commitment to the church. She still holds out hope that he will someday leave the BCC — “I’m not angry with him; I forgive him for what he’s doing,” she says — but she has little positive to say about his church.

“They are hurting people,” Diane P. says. “I saw how my husband was being deceived and manipulated . . . just because there aren’t any scars on the surface, there is spiritual abuse, there are families being destroyed and marriages breaking up. They may not be breaking any laws, but they are causing a lot of destruction.”

Paige Blair hadn’t read Diane P.’s letter to the Citizen when she and Kevin McGrath, a high-school librarian, organized an informational meeting at the Beverly Public Library in early December. Titled “When Religion Becomes Destructive: Increasing Cult Awareness on the North Shore,” the meeting featured statements by Thornburg, Blair’s BU mentor, as well as by Steven Hassan, an ex-Moonie turned cult critic and author of such books as Combating Cult Mind Control.

Blair says she expected the library meeting room to be half-full at best. But the room was packed — not only with concerned Beverly parents, it turned out, but also with members of the BCC. Hassan and Thornburg didn’t soften their criticism, however, and the session degenerated into a joust involving church members, the public, and two of the BCC’s sharpest critics. “It got vocal and a little antagonistic toward the end,” McGrath says.

The last person to speak was Diane P. As she looked around the library, she says, she recognized many of the people in the audience as her husband’s BCC associates, but she didn’t hesitate to condemn the group. “Afterwards, a lot of people came up to me and asked questions,” Diane P. recalls. “And I looked around and saw them [the BCC members] just heading for the doors.”

Although December’s meeting was intense, the fallout from the testimony of Diane P. and others was surprisingly minimal. The session barely registered a ripple in the local media; the daily Salem Daily News ran a brief story, but the Citizen didn’t cover it. Neither paper’s letters-to-the-editor page burned up with correspondence in the following weeks. A few months later, in March, Thornburg returned to Beverly for an informational meeting with clergy and public officials, including Mayor Scanlon, but again, there were no fireworks. The Citizen hasn’t done a story on the BCC in months.

Ultimately, the failure of the cult-awareness meetings or the efforts of people like Paige Blair to ignite the issue of the BCC isn’t surprising. For starters, it’s very likely that a large number of people in the city remain unaware of the group’s history. But it’s also true that a person’s religion remains a delicate subject in contemporary American civic life.

Bill Woolley, the Citizen reporter whose story last May gave the BCC its only substantial brush with local controversy, thinks that people are uncomfortable with true religious believers.

A graduate of Gordon Conwell Seminary who later left the ministry after growing disillusioned with institutional religion, Woolley says he was approached by a BCC member — an old colleague from his ministry days — shortly after his story was published. The member took Woolley out to lunch and spoke to him at length about the BCC’s history and perspective.

“After talking to him, I came to realize that this is a dedicated group,” Woolley says. “They are extraordinarily committed about proselytizing, and sharing with other people what they feel is the proper way to do Christianity.”

In many parts of America, that kind of behavior seems radical in 1998, Woolley says. These days, he observes, most people aren’t comfortable with that kind of zealousness about God — or that of kind of zealousness about anything, for that matter.

Says Woolley: “From where I sit, with some perspective on Christianity and matters of the church, if Jesus Christ came to our earth right now, he’d be locked up in some bin right now.”


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