Cult or Personality?
A radical religious group has a hold on students at Penn
Daily Pennsylvanian (University of Pennsylvania), April 12 1995.
By Ben Hammer
A cult controversy has quietly simmered at the University since last June, as administrators and affiliated clergy struggle to determine how to respond appropriately to concerns about the activities of the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ on campus.
Founded in 1979 by Kip McKean, the International Church of Christ — also known as the Boston Movement — has been labeled a cult by many.
The Church’s Philadelphia branch operates a campus ministry for Penn and Drexel University. And according to current and former members, between 15 and 30 Penn students are involved in the Church at any given time.
The Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ rented Irvine Auditorium three times last semester for its weekly services, according to Director of Student Life, Activities and Facilities Fran Walker.
Former Church of Christ members say the group uses deceptive methods to recruit new members, discourages critical thinking among its ranks and isolates those within the group from non-believers. Former member Clayton Lane, an Engineering junior, said the group recruits people by inviting them to “staged” Bible studies which the members say are non-denominational.
Before each Bible study, Lane said, members give the leader details about people they thought would be coming, like their race or religion, which the leader uses to tailor his talk to them. Lane said the members also sit in between those new to the organization — without the recruits’ knowledge — to influence them during the session. “We never sat down to devise a plan, but everybody knew this,” Lane said. “We all knew that the purpose of this talk was to get people to come to the devotional [church service].”
According to several students who have left the Church, each member receives “advice” — guidance the members are highly pressured to follow — from a “discipler,” who is their superior in the Church. The member seeks advice about almost every aspect of his or her life, including questions of spirituality, who to date, how long to visit home and more mundane, daily activities. “Over time it’s kind of disempowering because you lose the ability to think critically for yourself,” said Engineering senior Arnshea Clayton, a former Church member and Lane’s roommate. Clayton says his discipler once told him not to sleep with a fan on because it was unholy to do so. Lane said that while he was in the group, he was often told that he thought too much and should do and feel more. “We were taught to obey our leaders even when we didn’t understand,” he said. “We were taught to trust our leaders and not trust ourselves.”
According to Clayton, if a member’s family or friends are hostile to the Church, the discipler advises him to have less contact with the non-believer.
Clayton, who had been involved in the group for two years, was living with fellow members of the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ when he decided to leave last January. “Over time, the pressure [of being in the group] just built up to a point where I thought ‘I just can’t do this anymore,’ ” Clayton said. To escape the Church’s influence, Clayton hid away in a computer lab for three days, where he gathered strength to return home and tell his roommates he was finally leaving the group. After getting some much-needed rest, he packed up his belongings and walked out, ignoring his friends’ pleas to stay in the Church. This was not Clayton’s first attempt to break from the Church of Christ.
When he considered leaving six months earlier, several members of the group met with him and convinced him to stay by quoting scripture and telling him how bad his life would be if he left the Church. Lane said the group uses this kind of “breaking session” to deal with a “struggler” — a member who questions the group’s doctrine or methods. “It’s called a breaking session because your will is broken,” he said. “And it’s very emotional.” After almost a year in the group, Lane left after attending an “involuntary exit counseling” — or deprogramming session — when he returned home to Florida to visit his family for several weeks in the summer of 1994.
When he stepped off the plane at the airport, Lane did not know his mother would take him to his aunt’s house, where he met his deprogrammer, who worked with him for the next two weeks. The deprogrammer confronted Lane with videos of the Church’s leaders contradicting themselves in different interviews and saying things Lane knew not to be true from his experience in the group. “I could see finally the manipulation, the deception, the abuse of authority [in the Church],” he said. “It was such an eye-opening experience.”
Despite Lane’s new-found perspective on the group, he actually planned to return to the Church after the session, hoping he would be lauded by Church leaders for his faith. But after staying home longer than the group advised him to and seeing the Church’s leaders briefly when he returned to campus in September, Lane dropped out of the group.
Another former member in her mid-30s, Philadelphia resident Debra McKenzie, left the group after members quizzed her about the religious beliefs of a life-long friend she was about to visit. McKenzie said she was crushed when group members said her best friend was not a Christian and told her not to stay with the friend. “The feeling was like a knife being thrust in my stomach,” she said. “And they twisted it.”
McKenzie said she thought about what her disciplers had said during her vacation and talked about it with her best friend, who advised her to consider leaving the group. “The only thing that made me come to grips with coming out is my belief in the depth of what true friendship is,” McKenzie said. “My friend was insulted without them even knowing who she was.”
All three former members reported that Church members pursued them after they left the group, aggressively imploring them to return until they made it clear they were no longer interested in the Church. “It can get really drawn out if you don’t confront them,” Clayton said. Lane said he received phone calls from group members for several months after leaving the Church.
Current Church of Christ member and College junior Paul Pscolka said criticism of the group is unwarranted. “I think it’s been good and tough [to be in the Church],” Pscolka said. “But the good things in life are usually difficult to come by.”
And Clayton said that while he chose to leave the group because of bad experiences, there were some good times and a lot of closeness in the group.
After University officials received more than a dozen complaints about the group’s activities at Penn, administrators began considering how to respond last summer. “There was some concern that this organization does not have a right to be on campus,” said Assistant Vice Provost for University Life Barbara Cassel.
But the University is restricted in its handling of the situation because of its non-discrimination, open expression and rental policies. “At an academic community where we encourage academic thought and freedom, you can really be challenged trying to prohibit [a group],” Cassel said.
Last June, Cassel convened an ad hoc committee of University administrators to review the complaints they received about the group and examine how the University could legally respond to the situation. At their first meeting, the committee decided the University should educate students about making informed choices when joining any group. Soon after, the committee reconvened with new Interim Chaplain Frederic Guyott and wrote a socio-drama play for freshman orientation depicting students being deluged with information from different people asking them to join groups. The play attempted to teach the new students how to cope with the pressure.
Cassel also asked Religious Studies Professor Stephen Dunning, who has taught a course on cults since 1985, to lead a session for residential staff about issues involving the Church of Christ and how to help students they are concerned about who are involved in the group. While Dunning said he is concerned about some of the allegations about the Church, he also urged the University to be tolerant in its approach to the group. “The University has to be extremely careful to avoid giving any appearance of infringing on the religious rights and opinions of its students,” he said. Dunning said he has been “impressed” with the University’s handling of the situation so far.
Cassel said her office also created a brochure that includes a list of warning signs that a group is a cult. The pamphlet outlines the academic and counseling support services the University provides.
In addition to the University’s educational efforts, Cassel and Guyott have also organized counseling services for those who leave the Church.
Elizabeth Droz, a Counseling and Psychological Services psychiatrist, said her unit has been working with a small number of students who have left the group. Droz said counseling services focuses on helping the students adjust to the lifestyle they want to lead and reconnect with family and friends outside the group. But while helping students cope with life outside the Church, Droz said her unit does not try to stop students from returning to the group. “Even though we may have values about what certain groups do in terms of their effect on students’ lives, we still believe in people’s rights to make decisions,” Droz said.
While the University’s counseling services help students with their mental health needs, the Christian Association has also been providing spiritual counseling for former group members.
University and local clergy, such as the Rev. Beverly Dale and the Rev. Andrew Barasda, have been working with a small group of former Church of Christ members. “The hideous part of it for me is when they squash questions and insist that they are the only ones with the answers,” said Dale, the Christian Association’s executive director. According to Barasda, the rector of St. Mary’s Church in Superblock, the sessions are aimed at assisting those who have left or are considering leaving the group to refocus their energy and spirituality. Barasda said he is concerned that the Church of Christ’s form of religion “enslaves people rather than liberates them.”
Guyott said he is concerned that some of the Church’s members are so involved in its activities that they “neglected other aspects of their lives,” including studying, sleep and their relationships with friends outside the group.
But Pscolka, who is on the wrestling team and has a job, said he finishes his school work and keeps in touch with friends outside the Church.
In December, Guyott, Cassel and other members of the ad hoc committee met with several adult members, including Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ leader Chris Reed to share the concerns parents and friends of Church members raised. Since the meeting, the University has received no new complaints about the group, Guyott said. And according to Walker, the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ has not approached the University about renting Irvine Auditorium during the spring semester. “We were very strong about our concern,” Guyott said. “It could be possible that they decided to pull back in their focus on Penn and decided to work on other universities.”
But while Guyott is optimistic that the group has curtailed its work on campus, he says he will be vigilant if any new problems about the group come to his attention. He added that if the complaints increased again, he is poised to consult the ad hoc committee and several other advisory groups he works with to develop another response to the group’s activities.