Caught in a cult
The University Daily Kansan (University of Kansas), 21 January 1997.
By Ashleigh Roberts.
- Good enough for God
- Recruiting aims at students
- A heavy cross to carry
- Rohrig’s family
- Breaking away
- Continuing life
Misty Rohrig woke up in pain. In a week, she thought, she would have enough money for the church.
Her arms were blue and swollen. The needles had left small red scabs on the purple tracks of her veins.
But images of Jesus asphyxiating on the cross erased doubts that her body could give up more plasma. She remembered the words of her church leader; how Jesus was flogged, mocked, whipped and beaten for her sins.
Rohrig, a Sylvan Grove junior, was raising money for God.
She was a member of the Kansas City Church of Christ, which is part of the International Church of Christ. Formerly known as the Boston Movement, the church is one of the fastest growing sects in the world. It is not to be confused with the mainstream Church of Christ.
Its national leader, Kip McKean, has promised to evangelize the world in one generation. Members say they are restoring first century Christianity as it is described in the New Testament.
But KU Religious Advisers call the church a cult and say the group feeds on the student body for membership and funds. In 1991, they forced the church out of the Organization and Activities Office in the Kansas Union because of student and parent complaints. At the time, the advisers thought taking away the church’s status as an organized campus group was all they could legally accomplish.
Now, the religious advisers, who represent 16 religious campus organizations, think more must be done.
Jay Henderson, campus minister for the United Methodist Campus Ministry, said the advisers were tired of watching new students get sucked into an organization that students inherently trusted because it was called a church.
“Every single day that goes by, this rich fertile place that we call campus is being abused incredibly, and students are being abused incredibly,” he said. “We have to get the word out now. We can’t wait another day.”
Henderson said the campus ministers did not want to attack the Kansas City Church of Christ, but that they thought student rights were at stake.
In late 1995, Rohrig donated plasma twice weekly for almost six weeks to raise $200 for an overseas church mission. She had shaped her life around the church’s teachings for about 10 months. Now, a year after she left the Kansas City Church of Christ, she calls it a cult.
“It was the worst, most uneducated decision that I have ever had the pleasure of calling mine,” she said about joining the church. “I assumed that all churches were safe. I was wrong.”
Rohrig said she almost lost all of her friends, family and self-esteem during the ordeal.
She said church members twisted the meaning of the scriptures for their own religious agenda. In fact, Rohrig said, the church brainwashes members to give their time, their money and their soul.
“These are very trained and powerful people,” she said about the church leaders.
Rohrig and the KU Religious Advisers are not alone in their attacks on the International Church of Christ. Other colleges that have banned the group include American University in Washington, D.C.; Boston College; the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta; Marquette University in Milwaukee; Smith College in Northampton, Mass.; and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Richard Dixson, lead evangelist of the Kansas City Church of Christ, said he understood why some people would question the church.
“The church doesn’t have guidelines or rules that are dictated by man,” he said. “Each person is called to follow God’s word and to make their decisions based on God’s word. We’re a group that is committed to following the Bible.”
Rohrig is not the only KU student to reject the church’s interpretation of God’s word. Rick Clock, campus minister for the Baptist Student Union, said he had counseled many former members who had lost their religious faith after their experiences in the Kansas City Church of Christ.
The church, critics say, wants more than a strong following. It demands complete obedience and trust in higher church members, and it monopolizes members’ time.
Dixson said obedience was an important part of the organization.
“The key word is obedience,” he said. “We made a decision to obey what God says; it’s just that simple. It is not a Church-of-Christ teaching. It’s just what the Bible says.”
Despite the charges of brainwashing, Dixson said the church did not require too much from its members.
Dixson was recruited in 1980 while he was a KU student. He has risen to an influential position within the church hierarchy. He is charismatic and sincere, and he talks about the church doctrine with enthusiasm.
“To say the church is too demanding is like saying that God is too demanding. It’s not a separate issue,” he said. “It wasn’t any more demanding than when I was a student here. It will cause you to be a better student because you’re going to do your best.”
The International Church of Christ, which began as the Boston Movement in 1979 when a group of 30 broke away from the mainstream Church of Christ, has always relied on college students to spread the word.
Members often approach students on campus, in restaurants and grocery stores, or at the library. Within five minutes, they frequently have a name and phone number. After a week, they usually have a new member.
The Kansas City congregation, which includes Lawrence, has more than 500 members. It meets in a rented synagogue at 5311 West 75th St., in Prairie Village. Rohrig said between 75 and 150 KU students were members. The church has congregations in more than 200 countries and more than 120,000 members worldwide, Dixson said.
Like many other members, Rohrig recruited in local supermarkets late at night and went door to door in KU residence halls to compete with members of her church group to get the most names and telephone numbers of potential members.
“Your Bible leader takes you out and shows you how to do this,” she said. “In your mind this is the greatest thing that you could possibly be doing. You’re so grateful to them.”
Recruiting weighs heavily on each member’s shoulders and the church has strategies to target students.
Todd Masters, Shawnee Mission senior and former member of the church, said there was always a big push for evangelism at the beginning of each semester.
“The Kansas City ministry would come, and we would develop a plan to evangelize campus,” he said. “The new push was called ‘mission possible’ and everybody got a list of how many people they needed to share their faith with a day to eventually evangelize the entire campus.”
Rohrig said some students were easy to recruit.
“KU freshmen are easy targets,” she said. “It’s a time of new experiences and choices. The people seem so nice and everyone assumes a church is a safe place.”
Rohrig was recruited at the beginning of her second semester at the University of Kansas. A close childhood friend had bugged her repeatedly to attend church with him. Finally she agreed.
“I was shocked by the enthusiasm and friendliness,” Rohrig said. “It was like having 100 instant friends who wanted to know everything about you. Later I would realize they were trying to find similarities that would draw me closer to them.”
In the beginning, Rohrig saw the members as happy and energetic Christians. She felt lucky to have found a caring group of close friends so willing to accept her. She did not expect the group to take over her life.
“I was really excited,” she said. “They were always inviting me to different church activities. We did everything together.”
But those activities and that friendliness may have been part of a recruiting strategy. Masters said members were taught how to convert new members as fast as possible.
“There is a kind of schedule you give somebody when you meet them,” he said. “You try to set up a time to get together and study the Bible, have them over for dinner or show them hospitality.”
After she went to the first service in January 1995, Rohrig began spending all of her time with church members.
“We went on church dates every Saturday night, had church on Sunday, Bible study on Monday, group meetings on Tuesday, a members-only service on Wednesday, and a college singles’ devotional on Friday,” she said.
Although Thursday was her free day, Rohrig said church members often recruited on those days.
Group leaders monitored member activity closely.
“They kept stats sheets on how many non-believers you tried to recruit each week, how much money you donated, and how you spent your time,” Rohrig said.
The church collects a tithe, which is a Bible-mandated donation of 10 percent of a person’s income.
“On a college campus, 10 percent is a great thing to give,” Masters said. “But for people with tight budgets, their money is already gone before they even make it. Giving $10 to $20 a week meant not paying a bill for me. A lot of people found other ways to make their contribution.”
Some members, including Rohrig, chose to donate plasma to meet financial demands. Some church missions required donations 26 times larger than students’ normal tithing levels. Students would pay $300 to $1,000 during a one- to two-month period. Rohrig said she even used some of her scholarship money to meet financial demands.
At first, Rohrig’s mother, Connie Bledso, was happy to hear her daughter was involved with a church. However, Bledso became wary of the group after noticing dramatic changes in Rohrig.
“The church was all there was,” she said. “She could never come home without another disciple with her. She could not date outside the church. She couldn’t even attend services at the church she grew up in.”
After Rohrig tried to convert her Lutheran family, her mother began gathering information about the group.
“Her grandparents and I called the Cult Awareness Network and talked to a lady from Great Bend,” she said. “She could almost finish every sentence I started. I couldn’t believe it.”
The cult network warned Rohrig’s mother not to let the church know that she was investigating the organization or Rohrig could be transferred to another church and her family would lose all contact with her.
- [Editor’s Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was bankrupted and bought up by Scientology since this article was written. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]
At the same time, Rohrig’s old friends grew tired of hearing her tell them that they were going to hell.
“I got to the point that I didn’t want to talk to her anymore,” said Jennifer Sigle, former KU student.
Dixson said Rohrig’s friends’ and family’s reactions were not uncommon.
“If I’m asking you to follow God’s word, it’s going to make you feel uncomfortable,” he said.
Dixson said the choice to follow the church’s teachings was a personal decision that non-believers made independently.
“We can’t make someone do anything if they don’t want to,” he said. “If someone wants to know about God, we are more than happy to share with them. I can’t make you listen to me.”
But Masters, the Shawnee Mission senior who is a former member of the church, compared the group to Hitler’s Nazi movement.
“I know it sounds horrible, but he made millions of German people believe what they were doing was right, and it is the same thing with the one true-church concept,” he said.
Dixson said obedience was probably the key word in the Nazi movement just like in his church, but that loyalty existed in almost all well-run organizations.
He compared the obedient relationship between the members and the church to that between Indiana Hoosiers basketball players and their coach Bobby Knight.
Rohrig’s dedication and strong faith made her a group co-leader after a few months in the church. But the work was taking its toll on her body and her mind.
After about 10 months, Rohrig was tired of the mental control, but had nowhere to escape. She lived with church members, had lost contact with her old friends and began to wonder what she had gotten herself into.
“They back you into a corner and you have nowhere to go,” she said. ” I felt like I had made this commitment, and I needed to stick to it. I didn’t know if I was going to hell or not, and these people had really helped me.”
Rohrig was already doubting the church when her group co-leader had a secret meeting with a higher church leader. The co-leader said he suspected that Rohrig had an unauthorized relationship with a male member of the church. Rohrig said the church would not let members date without authorization from leaders.
Although Rohrig’s male friend assured the higher church leaders that their relationship was nothing but friendship, the church leaders told him to distance himself from Rohrig to avoid lustful temptations. Several weeks later, he was transferred to a church in Dallas.
“I was furious,” Rohrig said. “But it exemplified how much control they had over my life and basic interactions with people I cared about. I knew then that I was leaving, even if it did mean turning my back on God.”
Misty went home to think about the church over the weekend. When she returned, she told church leaders that she was leaving. They said she would go to hell if she did, but she decided she had had enough.
After Rohrig left the church, many members quit speaking to her.
“I had spent almost every day of my life for the last year with these people and most of them turned their backs on me in a week,” she said. “We had been through a lot together, and I was just tossed to the side.”
Rohrig said her problem with the church was the hierarchical structure and methods of recruiting rather than the members or their beliefs.
“I am not trying to get back at the church. Sharing my experiences is not about revenge,” she said. “Students have the right to know what type of organization they are really getting themselves into and the lasting implications it will have on their lives,” she said.
But Dixson questions her motives. The church has no problem with people who leave and don’t come back, he said.
“But when someone leaves and they start attacking the group that they left, that shows me that they have a problem not with the group, but there are things within themselves that they are trying to justify,” Dixson said.
In the world of religious scandals, the Kansas City Church of Christ may seem rather tame. It never has been convicted of violating any state or federal law, and the church leaders do not seem to be taking outlandish sums from member’s pockets for personal use. But criticism surrounding the mental and emotional toll has not abated.
The KU Religious Advisors will have a forum at 7.30 p.m. today in the Sunflower Room in the Burge Union to educate students about the church. Former members of the group will share their stories and answer audience questions.
“The student still has the right to join,” said Jim Musser, campus minister for Campus Christians. “But now he will be more informed about the true structure of the church and their expectations before he is baptized.”
Rohrig said even more needs to be done. She thinks the government needs to intervene.
“These are real people who are getting hurt,” she said. “I trusted them with my life. They become closer than some brothers and sisters, toss you to the side when they’re done, and nobody does a damn thing about it.”
She has not joined another religious organization since she left the Kansas City Church of Christ, but she said she had found a faith in herself.
“Through all of this, I’ve learned to love myself,” she said. “I had to learn it the hard way and at a very high price. But I know who I am and what I believe in.” Return to Table of Contents