Cult’s grip often invisible, but breaking it is possible

Cult’s grip often invisible, but breaking it is possible

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 18, 2001
By Lawrence A. De Marino

I arrived in Valdosta early one Monday morning in May 1998, having driven down from my home in Peachtree City.

As I parked my car at the apartment complex, I was filled was a strange sense of foreboding, mixed with anger. I was on a mission, to save a young girl, a relative of mine, from a cult.

It was not an obviously evil cult, not a satanic cult, or one we all had heard about — the Moonies or the Manson family or the Jonestown group that committed mass suicide.

No, this cult was actually appealing in an insidious and destructive way, particularly to the young and unsuspecting. This was one of the fastest-growing cults in the world: the International Church of Christ.

A cult is defined not so much by its beliefs or doctrine as by its tactics in recruiting and holding members. So, even quasireligious organizations can and do operate as cults. Despite all of its lofty rhetoric and its paying lip service to the teachings of Jesus, the ICC was a cult.

I should make something perfectly clear: The International Church of Christ is not related to or a part of the mainline Protestant group of churches known as the Church of Christ. The ICC is a splinter group, founded by self-proclaimed prophet Kip McKean. To summarize its doctrine: The ICC believes that McKean is the only true prophet of Jesus Christ, that only ICC members will go to heaven, and that all nonmembers, including Mother Teresa, the Pope, the Rev. Billy Graham and the rest of us, are going straight to hell.

Like most cults, the ICC operates as a giant pyramid, with McKean at the top, middle managers in the center and new recruits at the bottom — the worker bees who hustle money and new recruits.

In order to maintain control over this structure, the ICC operates megachurches. Members of the Tallahassee church actively recruited on campus at Valdosta State University, where my relative was a sophomore.

When she had first gone off to VSU the previous year, we were so proud of her. But we were nevertheless filled with apprehension about the pitfalls that might befall her: away from home for the first time and extremely vulnerable. Dire thoughts concerning pregnancy, alcohol, drugs, even physical danger, filled us with anxiety. However, the thought of her becoming the target of a cult never entered our minds.

You are probably telling yourself that you have nothing to worry about — your son or daughter is strong-willed, sharp as a tack and may be devoutly religious, and could never fall for this cult stuff. Beware. The person I’ve just described fits the target profile for the ICC.

Assume for a moment that your child has joined the ICC. How would you know?

At first, the signs are subtle and innocuous. You may hear from your child that he or she is attending nondenominational Bible readings, a volleyball game with a really neat bunch of kids or some other similar event. These first meetings bear no hint of what is to come and may not even have anything to do with religion. But they are designed to entice an unsuspecting college student into a new sphere of friends.

My relative was snared by her roommate, who became a member of this cult after they started rooming together at VSU.

Once involved, your child may relate how he or she has met some wonderful people, who really care and are full of love. Beware, for this feeling describes a cult technique known as “love bombing.” It’s designed to make the new recruit’s first experience with the cult enjoyable to keep him or her coming back for more. My relative experienced this and much more at Valdosta at the “church” in Tallahassee.

Once the new recruit is firmly in the cult, things turn more serious. A “discipler” is assigned to each convert. Ostensibly, the discipler’s job is to counsel the new member on following the Christian path. In reality, the discipler ensures that the new member conforms to doctrine, attends services and actively recruits more new members. My relative was subjected to this technique as well as others employed by the ICC hierarchy through the discipler.

This “discipling” quickly becomes an intrusion into the life of the recruit, to the point where the discipler is hearing “confessions,” including details of sexual behavior and family matters. This information is often used to intimidate the member into adhering to doctrine, or against members who want to leave the cult.

As a parent or relative of an ICC recruit, you might notice that the student may be missing classes during the week or is absent from campus during weekends. In my relative’s case, she would miss class every Thursday morning because they were taking her from Valdosta to Tallahassee every Wednesday night for services.

On the weekend, she would go to Tallahassee again for “overnighters,” which allowed them to place her in a controlled environment where they could brainwash her without interference or “outside” influences, such as family or teachers.

Unfortunately in our case, we all missed the first danger signs, and by the time we finally realized something was wrong, she was deeply involved. She announced that she was going to give up her own religion (we are Roman Catholics) and join this ICC. Like everyone else in the family, I pushed the panic button; we had nowhere to turn for help.

Finally, I did a Web search on the International Church of Christ and found the Web site for an organization called REVEAL, which gave me all the information I needed to fight back against the ICC. All I needed was an opening — an opportunity of some sort — to step in and save her. The opening came when she phoned and invited everyone in her family down to Valdosta for her “christening” into the ICC.

Since I had done all the REVEAL research, I was elected to go first.

These thoughts and hundreds of others crisscrossed my mind as I walked across the parking lot to her apartment. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

When she opened the door, I was calm, agreeable, smiling. She was smiling and outwardly happy, but behind her smile, I could see the storm of turmoil inside her.

That afternoon, when we were alone, she related to me the emotional and psychological abuse to which had been subjected by the cult members. I was furious, then steeled myself, determined to get her out of the cult. Her plea for help was all it took motivate me. Within minutes, I had enlisted the help of the manager of the apartment complex, arranged for a new apartment in the same complex and informed the roommate that she was moving out.

I contacted some former ICC members through the REVEAL Web site, and they came up to Valdosta to help. They lectured at the student centers about the dangers of the ICC and gave me much-needed background about how the cult operated.

It took me five weeks to get her out of the ICC and back on her own feet. I moved her into her new apartment, stayed with her constantly, went with her to classes and almost became her bodyguard. I told her professors what had happened.

My story has a happy ending; this dear girl has overcome her experience, is now working for Delta Air Lines and is engaged to be married. Others are not so lucky. Don’t wait until your college student falls victim to the ICC. Go to the REVEAL Web site, get the information and discuss it with your child today.

Lawrence A. De Marino is a writer living in Peachtree City.

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