The alarming growth of Campus Cults

The alarming growth of Campus Cults

Newsweek/Kaplan: How to Get Into College, August 1999.
By Lynette Clemetson

College is a time to embrace new ideas, join communities, discover your place in the world. And that’s the problem.

Shannon Townsend was fired up about college. An honor student in high school, she set out for the University of Colorado determined to become a doctor. At the end of her first semester she had a 3.9 GPA and a full social life: she taught Sunday school and worked in a program to feed the homeless on Saturdays. She called her mom back in Lan- ham, Md., every week. They talked about everything from choosing classes to the cool summer internship she had lined up at an organic farm. Then, a week before second-semester finals, she announced she was dropping out. She didn’t call on Mother’s Day. She disappeared from school without a trace. In June her mother received a postcard with a one-line explanation: “I’m off to follow Jesus.’

The Townsends haven’t talked to Shannon since. She ran off with a nomadic cult called the Jim Roberts Group, a band of fundamentalist Christians who disown their families and possessions to live as they believe Jesus did, roaming the land and proselytizing. The group, also called the Brethren or the Garbage Eaters (because members, who eschew education and jobs, forage for food), seldom has more than 100 members. But experts say it is one of the most dangerous cults in existence because of its fanatical isolation from society. “I admire the fact that they want to follow God,” says Shannon’s mother, Karan, a professor at Washington Bible College. “But the manipulation and rejection of family are unethical. They’ve got Shannon in a box, and there’s no way we can reach her.”

There are hundreds of student in similar boxes. Colleges don’t like to talk about it–chances are you won’t hear about a cult problem during that on-campus visit. But universities are prime recruiting grounds for radical sects like the Jim Roberts Group. Experts say there are more than 3,000 cults operating around the country at any given time, promising everything from spiritual salvation to unlimited wealth to racial domination. Hundreds of college students are wooed into them each year, even by conservative estimates. For most, the experience is just one more undergraduate experiment, a passing flirtation dismissed by semester’s end. But for some, exploration leads to a trap that can wreck grades, families and futures.

So what exactly is a cult? Some experts shy away from the word, preferring the term “destructive group,’ because they say “cult” conjures up images of saffron-robed chanters in airports or black-clad doomsayers in communes. In fact, cults are not defined by appearance or ideology, but by tactics. Whether groups are driven by religion, business, politics or race, they have some common characteristics. They espouse utter dedication to a philosophy or charismatic leader who wields total authority. They often use deceptive recruitment ploys, hiding their identity or ultimate goal from new members. They use guilt and fear to maintain loyalty. They goad members into long hours of exhausting service, to lessen critical-thinking ability. And they encourage alienation from family, friends and institutions like school and church, pegging them as enemies.

They also prey on vulnerability. And that’s why college campuses are favorite haunts. The transition from home to college is often the greatest upheaval in a young adult’s life. It is a time of high insecurity and high idealism. Students want to assert their independence, but they also want something to identify with. “They find themselves suddenly separated from parents, friends, pastors or rabbis, and they walk around looking forlorn and distressed,” says Ronald Loomis, education director of the American Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that monitors cults. “Cult recruiters know what to look for, and they know what they can exploit.”

Among the easiest emotions to manipulate are fear and hate. Authorities suspect Indiana University student Benjamin Nathaniel Smith was acting on behalf of the white-supremacist group World Church of the Creator when he went on an anti- minority shooting spree last July, allegedly killing two and wounding eight before killing himself. Experts are studying the group to determine whether it fits the definition of a cult. So far, the signs suggest that it does.

The groups that don’t play on hate often play on love. The International Churches of Christ, a fast-growing evangelical Christian group founded in Boston in 1979, recruits using a technique experts call “love bombing,’ latching onto potential members with instant and intense friendship.

The church, which has more than l00,000 members in the United States, has been banned from at least 39 colleges, including Harvard, American University and the University of Southern California, for breaking campus regulations like proselytizing in residence halls and registering as student organizations under front names. At various colleges, students accuse ICC members of following them to class and calling at the crack of dawn with prayers and Bible verses. Church leaders say they don’t condone harassment, but they admit that college recruiting is key to their ministry. “We are not operating a cult any more than Jesus was,” says ICC spokesperson Al Baird. “But we are trying to be on every campus we can.”

For some, the sharing seems more like an ambush. Edwin Rodriguez was hanging out in the student union at the University of Maryland three years ago when, he says, an ICC member invited him to Bible study. Rodriguez said no at first, but the guy was so friendly and persistent he eventually gave in. The once-a-week Bible study quickly turned into a daily commitment. Rodriguez, raised a Christian, was told he needed to be rebaptized because he wasn’t truly saved. He was made to confess his past sins to other members, he says, who berated him and told him that without ICC he was damned to hell.

Before he knew what hit him, he lost control of his life. First went his friends — ICC members dismissed them because they weren’t saved. Then went his money, the student-job wages he had been sending to his family, in El Salvador. He says members convinced him it would be better spent on the church. Finally, he almost lost his scholarship: his 3.8 GPA plummeted over two semesters to 1.9. “They put fear in me,” says Rodriguez, who broke from the group with the help of a concerned math professor. “They made me feel so bad about myself and so confused that I was afraid to leave.”

For many schools, high-pressure groups remain a dirty, little secret, Some administrators worry, that warning students about them is like admitting there is a problem, and that may scare some families away. Also, many schools are hesitant to ban problem groups from registering as student organizations for fear they will be charged with violating First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. Opponents say that’s missing the point. “We can’t, and don’t even want to, criticize or control anyone’s faith, says Dennis DiPlacito, a housing director at the University of California, Irvine, who conducts cult-awareness workshops on campus. “But we have a right to criticize and control how groups approach and treat people on our campus.” Still, Irvine, a public university, hasn’t banned ICC.

Other, nonreligious groups with cultish aspects flourish on campuses. All that differs is the vocabulary. Business cults replace “eternal salvation” with “endless wealth.” Political cults swap “spiritual struggle” for “social struggle.”

One former cult member, who asked not to be named, spent six years in a political group called the Western Farm Workers’ Association. She was recruited when she was a student at UC Berkeley, to write stories about abused farm workers for the group’s newspaper. She says that after several indoctrination sessions she learned the group was a front organization for the National Labor Federation. But the cause, organizing workers and feeding the poor, still seemed valid. What she didn’t know was that the upper tier of the group was a cultish circle linked to a single leader and under FBI surveillance. Once she was pulled into the inner circle, she says, leaders encouraged her to quit school. “They said, ‘What’s more important, a meaningless piece of paper or the revolution?'” the former member recalls. She dropped out, and before long she was living communally with other members in tightly guarded warehouses, sleeping on office floors and eating leftover food from homeless-shelter distributions. She says she was prohibited from dating outside the group, and that leaders controlled when she could see friends and family. One Christmas she was granted just four hours to visit her parents. When she finally left the group, she says, members threatened her with physical harm. She hid out in hotels for months.

Once a person joins the life of a cult, getting him or her out is a tricky business. Though movies and books have hyped the arranged kidnapping of cult members, most cult experts agree that the snatch-and-deprogram route is counterproductive. Kidnapped members often return to destructive groups, and many shut out their families completely. Exit counseling is smarter strategy. The process, which takes place over several days, usually in the family home, is conducted by a trained consultant who is often a former cult member. Experts say interventions have a 90 percent success rate.

Of course, you can’t make that point if you can’t get into the same room with your child. That’s why parents like Karan Townsend are seeking systematic changes. Townsend is working with a group of parents in Maryland to make recommendations to the governor — among them, mandatory cult-awareness programs for incoming students and stricter rules about who can recruit on campus. It may not bring Shannon back, but it may save some other families a lot of pain. “I was counting on having her in my life, for all of my life,” says Townsend. “Now I would just cherish a few minutes with her.” That’s precisely what the cult fears most.

Back to other media reports about the International Churches of Christ.