“I got caught up in a cult”
Donna Buckmeyer was a college freshman, 2500 miles from home, hoping to find a few new friends. Instead, they found her – and pulled her into a zealous religious group that took over her life.
Seventeen Magazine, September 1995.
By Jeanette Batz
In high school, Donna Buckmeyer, was totally into dance. She had trained since she was 8, and she performed with a local company. She was an honors student – math and physics were her favorite subjects – who also knew how to have fun: seeing movies, going out with guys, hanging with her friends.
But when she was 18, she stopped dancing. She swore off boys, ditched her friends and gave away her favorite dress – a cobalt-blue strapless – because she was convinced it would “tempt men into sinful desires”. She also gave away nearly $4,000 of her hard-earned money.
What changed Donna? She had found a new group of friends – or at least they seemed like friends. Feeling lonely during her freshman year at college, she joined the New York City Church of Christ.
“All of a sudden, this group seemed to meet all the needs I had,” Donna says. “It gave me a purpose in life, a way to help the world and, most of all, friendship.”
The church, which met in an old theater, is one of 193 International Churches of Christ around the world. A fundamentalist, Bible-based rewrite of traditional Christianity, the Church of Christ places a heavy emphasis on recruiting and “discipling”. After you join, as Donna found out, it all but takes over your life. Former members have accused the Church of Christ of “mind control” and “brainwashing” and two cult-awareness groups – one secular, the other Christian – have called it a cult.
But it wasn’t like the cults that have been in the news lately. Donna encountered no power-mad guru who tried to control every aspect of her life. No one like David Koresh, who led the Branch Davidians’ doomsday sect until April 1993, when their compound in Waco, Texas, was raided by federal agents and more than 80 people died. She found nothing about the Church of Christ that extreme or bizarre. No one ever spoke of committing a crime like this year’s fatal subway gassing in Tokyo, the alleged act of a Japanese cult. And it wasn’t as if anyone deliberately tried to cut Donna off from the rest of the world. “At least, it didn’t seem that way to me at the time,” she says. Enthusiastic friends, clear-cut beliefs, a focus for her energy – the Church of Christ offered Donna all this, and more: a direct link to God.
Experts say there are more than 2,500 groups across the country making similar offers. They operate on college campuses, in informal “churches” or on the street. They present themselves as true Christians, political action groups, campus ministries or self-help groups. They promise certainty, confidence, the group high of shared beliefs.
The prospect is very seductive – especially if you’re depressed or lonely, or making a scary transition, say, from high school to college, like Donna was. “Almost anyone can be picked up by these groups at a vulnerable period in her life,” says Margaret Thaler Singer, a clinical psychologist who has studied cults for almost 30 years. “They don’t go out looking for crazies; in fact, they screen against them. They want civilised people who look presentable, who get along well in a group situation and who will obey.”
Donna Buckmeyer was “kid of a basic middle-class kid with a mom, a dad and a sister, growing up in Portland, Oregon.” In grade school she loved math and always tried to beat boys at sports – but that didn’t keep her out of her tutu. She started ballet lessons at 8; added tap, jazz and modern dance at 12; and by her junior year of high school, she was dancing with a preprofessional company.
“I loved music and movement,” she says. “I didn’t really want to be a professional dancer – I knew I wasn’t the right type to be a superstar – but I decided to go to college in New York so I could be around the dance world.”
So there she was, a freshman at Columbia University, 2500 miles from home. “It was kind of overwhelming going to this place where I didn’t know a soul,” she recalls. Her boyfriend was at school in Georgia, and at first they spent a lot of time calling and writing. “Then I started to realize we were going our different ways.”
She had started to realize she didn’t want to major in math and computer science after all. The calculus class was way over her head, and as she looked around at the math majors, it dawned on her: “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with these people. I mean, they were nice, but…”
So Donna had no major, and no clue. She was lonely and confused, and she hadn’t been to church all semester. “I grew up going to the little Methodist church a mile from home, ” she explains. “Religion wasn’t talked about a whole lot, but it was an important part of life – not just my own spirituality, but being part of a faith community, seeing the same people at church every week.”
One day in sociology class, a pretty, extroverted Korean-American woman with dark shoulder-length hair and a pleasant smile struck up a friendly conversation with Donna. “As we left, she said, ‘I have a Bible discussion group. Would you like to come?'”
Donna didn’t really want to go, but she felt guilty because the woman had been so nice. “She seemed genuinely interested in being friends,” Donna says. “Plus, I had a pretty stereotypical female upbringing – I was taught to always be nice and polite. I didn’t feel assertive enough to say no.”
Filled with dread, Donna walked to the woman’s dorm room, where about a dozen young women were gathered. They were of different races, had different majors, came from different places – one was a blue-eyed, blond dancer from Kentucky, another a dark-haired, streetwise New Yorker. “The most striking thing was that they were all very friendly and outgoing,” Donna recalls. At first their enthusiasm startled her; then it captivated her. “It was the most exciting Bible discussion I’d ever been to,” she says. Afterward, several of the women asked for her phone number, suggested lunch, wanted to study together.
A few days later, she found herself studying the Bible with a few of the women. “The first session was very general, about what standards you’re going to live your life by – society’s, your parent’s or the Bible’s,” Donna recalls. “The message of a later session was, ‘Well, now that you’re going to live your life by the Bible, this is what the Bible says the church is like, and the only group that does this is our group.'” Yet another session was about sin and repentance, which meant “confessioning everything you had ever done – and that could be quite a lot!” By the time shy Donna had finished dregging up her life’s small shames – and a few of the bigger ones, too – she felt bonded to her new friends, who had confessed just as freely.
Donna attended Church of Christ services each week at on old theater just off Broadway. They were incredibly lively, with everybody singing songs from memory, a cappella. “The songs were church-related, but they weren’t hymns – just simple, spirited songs you could easily learn by heart,” Donna says. The service didn’t differ much from what she had grown up with: prayers spoken in unison, communion adn a man giving a sermon. “He was a little more forceful than what I was used to; he made things a little more personal.”
After a few weeks, Donna firmly believed her new “friends” were the only people on the planet who were going to Haeven. “That meant my family wasn’t – not even my step-dad, a Presbyterian minister,” she says. “I felt this burden. I had to save them.”
Donna soon learned how to direct Bible studies herself and recruit new members. Discussion leaders used only the New International Version of the Bible, whose passages they could use to “prove” that theirs was the only true church, Donna notes. “It all seemed to make so much sense. They had figured out the best way to present their information and had fine-tuned it, so the verses were very direct and to the point. It was all or nothing: You were going to either Heaven or Hell; either you were in the group or you were out. You knew their expectations very clearly. There was only one right way to live.”
Donna found comfort in this way of thinking – it left no room for uncertainty, which she had felt a lot of recently – so she decided to formally join the church. The woman who had recruited her became her “discipling partner,” her “big sister in the faith.” To this woman Donna confessed a long list of “sins” – including “impure thoughts” – and the woman offered advice about improving her character and recruiting new people.
Discipling partners learned how to elicit the “right” behavior, Donna says, “sometimes by being gentle and sometimes by saying, ‘How dare you do this. That’s like spitting in Jesus’ face!'” Choices were described carefully: “‘You can do A or you can do B, but of course you’ll do B because that’s the only way'” “Doing B” made life a lot easier. “The longer you were in the group, the more you became like everybody else,” she observes. “Once I learned the mind-set, I didn’t have to think.”
Given how hard she had to study to keep up with her coursework, not having to think was bliss. Rercruiting, on the other hand, was incredibly stressful. Donna, whose heart pounded just from meeting someone new, was expected to approach strangers on the street and win them over. “It was not easy for me at all,” she says. “But I would get advice from this discipling partner; she would go out with me. And there was this sin on omission: If I was shy, I wasn’t helping people.” Gradually she learned to be bolder. “There were days when we’d go blitzing. A whole bunch of us would just go out, get on a subway car and invite people to church in a really loud voice,” she says. “If people thought we were weird, we knew we were doing something right – persecution was good.”
The pressure built steadily. “You needed to be excellent at everything,” Donna recalls, her voice tight. “If you were a student, you needed to be an excellent student to set a good example, so when people looked at you, they would think, I want to be in your group.” As a freshman, Donna had taken a dance class five days a week, but at the beginning of her sophomore year she gave up dancing altogether. She switches her major her junior year to pscyhology and arranged to room with another church member.
Worried about the drastic changes they’d seen in Donna, two friends she’d met during freshman orientation decided to talk to her dorm counselor. When the counselor asked about the Church of Christ, Donna smiled and said it was a Christian church. She had no idea why people might be concerned. “Well, yeah, I’m giving them money,” she said, “but only what I want to, it isn’t a big deal.” Later she added up the checks she’d written; they totalled nearly $4000.
During the school year, Donna asked for a work-study job in the library so she could meet more people to recruit. She only dated within the group: “Why would you want to date somebody who was going to Hell?” She tried to lure friends into the group, and if they weren’t interested, she stopped seeing them. “I just put everything on hold and did church stuff,” she explains. “If I wasn’t in class, I was at a church service or recruiting, and if I had free time, I was reading the Bible and praying.”
Several times she went to Boston to hear the church’s leader, Kip McKean, speak about God. McKean wasn’t what you’d call attractive – he was short and had a pock-marked face, as well as a wife and kids – but Donna was captivated by him. “He was so intense when he preached, you’d think the veins were just going to pop out of his neck,” she recalls. “He would never take any credit for himself, and he was always talking about giving up his life for God. He spoke so authoritatively. He was held up as this incredible example of a man of God – so willing to give up his time and money for the church.”
After nearly three years in the Church of Christ, Donna returned home her senior year for Christmas vacation and traveled with her family on their annual winter trip back to a beach house on Oregon’s northern coast. One day her mother said out of the blue: “You know how we’ve been having a hard time talking to you about all this church stuff? Well, we brought someone – a few people, actually. Would you talk?”
Instantly Donna thought, Oh, no – deprogrammers. “We were taught that these people were awful and terrible and if we listened to them, we’d go to Hell.” Before Donnad could say no, though, her mom started to cry. Donna had never wanted to hurt her parents, so she decided, “I’ll just listen to this garbage, and then I’ll go back to New York, and everything will be the same.”
Donna, two high school friends, three counselors, her mom and stepdad, her dad her sister and a former Church of Christ member spent the next three days together. “I did feel kind of scared,” she admits, “but I also thought, Gee, if I get through these three days, I’ll go back to New York a hero, because I’ll have survived this intense persecution.”
First they watched a videotape about the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, whose members are known as Moonies, and Donna thought with relief, Oh, my gosh, this is not at all like my group – of course the Moonies are part of a cult. More general information about cults followed, equally uninteresting. Then, halfway into the second day, they readsome newsletters from the Boston Church of Christ. “One article said that death was the result of unresolved sin, andd that this man’s aunt had died because of his unresolved sin,” Donna recalls. “I thought, Whoa, that’s not right.”
Until then she’d been listening with only one ear. Now she paid full attention. “Things the counselors had been talking about started coming back,” she recalls. “We looked at different translations of the Bible, and I saw how different words had different meanings. That’s when I realized the Church of Christ people had been choosing and interpreting texts just to make their own points.”
By the end of the third day, she didn’t want to go backward or forward. “I’d built up my whole life around this group,” she explains. “I felt overwhelmed, really stupid and confused: If this wasn’t true, then what was?”
Life in the church hadn’t been all bad, after all. By then all her friends were members, and they’d had fun together: staying up late talking about their past or dreams, playing Vivalidi with rock dubbed in, going on double dates (with men in the group, of course), dyeing T-shirts in park (to raise money for the group, of course). The church had become her entire world.
From Oregon, Donna called her roommate, also a church member, and left a halting message saying she would be staying home a few extra days. “That evening, everyone from my Bible group called and left messages on my answering machine,” she says. “Friendly, casual messages – but I knew what had happened. They’d all gone to service, and my roommate had told them something might be wrong.” The following week, Donna returned to her campus to pack her things and withdraw from classes. “They sent one of the Bible-study leaders to talk to me,” she says, wincing. “It was a woman I’d always liked, but she kept trying to get me to talk to one of the church leaders. She said, ‘See how hard your heart is?'”
“Whenever someone leaves the group, it’s implicit that there’s something wrong with that person,” Donna adds. “Either your heart is too hard, or you’re too worldly and you want to make money.” Shaking, she made her voice as firm as she could – “I’m leaving” – and finally the woman left. Donna returned home and, with the help of her family, slowly rebuilt her life, her worldview, her self-confidence.
Life outside the church has been tougher in many ways, but Donna says she’ll “take freedom over ease any day.” She’s 27 now, working as an executive secretaru to a Catholic priest, and she’s getting married this summer.
Donna is convinced that if she’d known more about groups like the Church of Christ before she got involved, she would have seen through the enthusiasm to the the techniques: McKean’s fiery preaching and total devotion to the cause, the emotional highs, the black-and-white certainty, the strict rules, the confessions and shame and vulnerability, the repetition of simple “truths,” the guilt and social pressure…
“They seemed like such wonderful people. I never suspected anything could be wrong,” Donna says with a sigh. “I was on the lookout for people who could physically hurt me, mug me or steal my purse. But not for people who would befriend me.”