Cults at the University of Maryland
Diamondback Student Newspaper (University of Maryland), 10 April 1997.
By Cory Howell, Diamondback staff writer
When Susan Saniie was a freshman living in the dorms, she never expected her resident assistant’s ‘Bible study’ group would turn out to be a cult.
Saniie, a senior psychology major, was the featured speaker at two meetings focusing on high-pressure religious groups held last week.
Campus students attended the ‘Forced Faith: Discerning Destructive Behavior Patterns in Groups’ conference last Thursday at Memorial Chapel. Local high school students attended a second conference Saturday. The conferences were sponsored by cooperating campus ministries.
Saniie and guest speaker Rev. Gary Leazer warned students against becoming involved in cults. The conference included personal testimony from Saniie and a film about cult recruitment, showing students how to be firm when refusing a cult’s advances.
‘This kind of stuff really does happen, and it happens on this campus,’ Saniie said.
Saniie was recruited into the Washington, D.C., Church of Christ, known as ‘Upside Down’ on this campus. The cult is a branch of the International Churches of Christ, also known as the Boston Movement, which was officially banned from the Boston University campus in 1987 following allegations that they were manipulating members.
Saniie said she was introduced to the cult through her RA, who was her friend and confidante during her first year on campus.
She said she and her RA ‘became friends, but every time I saw her, she’d ask me to come to her Bible studies.’
After about a year of declining these invitations, Saniie said, ‘Finally, I gave in.’
The group quickly eclipsed her life. Saniie said the group members used guilt and mind-control tactics to make her attend worship and discipleship meetings every day of the week. She also was expected to recruit new members.
‘In a group like this, your time is not your own,’ she said. ‘You had to get up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 12 p.m. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, but if I complained, they would ask, What’s more important to you, God or your sleep?’ They made me feel like my life would be better with them than without them.’
Her social life soon was controlled by the group as well.
‘Saturday nights were reserved for double dates set up by and with other group members,’ she said.
Saniie said she was expected to give up 10 percent of her income to the group. But she ended up giving the group $2,500 in one year.
Her grades suffered, too. ‘My [grade point average] dropped from a 3.3 to a 2.3,’ she said. ‘When I stopped, it went back up to a 3.8.’
Saniie left the group after her parents planned an intervention. They took her to a country cabin where she met a couple who had left the group after 15 years.
‘I was very angry at first,’ she said. ‘I told them, I trust my leaders.”
But when the couple showed her documented evidence that the group was financially corrupt and a TV interview in which the cult leader contradicted himself, she changed her mind.
‘Once I decided, I wrote them a letter,’ Saniie said. ‘This was the most heart-wrenching time of my life. They were my social contacts, they were my world. They would have said, You are following Satan, you have entered the dark side.’ If I left, I was going to hell. That’s strong motivation to stay, if that’s what you’re told.’
Saniie left the group and moved in with her parents because she was living with another cult member at the time.
Leazer advised students to talk to someone they trust before getting involved in an unfamiliar group. He also suggested checking whether the group is registered with the Office of Campus Programs.
He said young people away from home for the first time are prime targets for religious pressure groups.
‘If you don’t control your mind and your life, somebody else will,’ Leazer said. ‘[Cults will] find out what your interests are and capitalize on them … I wish we lived in a world where we could trust friendly people, but we live in a world where people try to deceive us.’
‘This presentation brought across the message that you should have your own feelings about your faith,’ Keisha Durette, a senior at High Point High School in Beltsville, said Saturday. ‘Don’t follow what others tell you to do.’