The Love Bombers
The devout crusaders of the International Churches of Christ have made inroads on some local campuses, but they’ve been banned on others. Is the ICC a cult?
Philadelphia City Paper, 25 February 1999
By Blair J. Davis
Clayton Lane began his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1993, full of hopes. Bright, clean-cut, nice-looking, he’d come to Philadelphia from Miami, planning to study engineering. This was a big transition for him – a new city, new friends, all the schoolwork. With time, Clayton would manage. Or so he thought.
One day, Clayton left his daily planner in class. A fellow student stopped by to return it; with her was a friend, John (not his real name). The woman and John invited Clayton to a Bible study. They were members of a then-16-member student group called Campus Advance (now known as Campus Christian Movement) affiliated with a local church. But they didn’t mention the name of the church – they just said it was nondenominational.
Clayton hadn’t been brought up in a religious home but was curious about Christianity, so he accepted. He enjoyed the Bible study and started going to activities and church services with John. Soon, John and others in the group were calling Clayton every day. Although spending so much time with Campus Advance cut into Clayton’s study time, he valued his developing friendship with amiable, lighthearted John and enjoyed the group’s social activities. After about a month, Clayton decided to join John’s church, the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ (GPCC). That decision would dramatically affect the next year of Clayton’s life.
“When I joined the church, they told me the sort of attitude that would be required,” Clayton, 23, says today. “They said I had to devote my life to Jesus. But I didn’t realize the practical ramifications. I didn’t understand the sort of submission I’d have to undergo.”
Yun Kim, now 31, joined the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ in the spring of 1994. She’d been brought up in a Christian home and had spent several years searching for “the right church” after moving to Philadelphia from Maryland to attend grad school at Drexel. She was a serious, religious young woman and sought a church where the members were as devout as she was. A colleague at Temple University Hospital, where Yun worked, invited her to a GPCC Bible study.
Yun found the study stimulating, and after attending the GPCC’s Easter service, she was impressed by the church’s dynamic preacher and the zeal of its members. She felt this was a place where people truly dedicated their lives to God, as she had been trying to. Soon, she became very active in Bible studies and other church activities.
“I was excited about the things I was learning,” says Yun. “I was surprised that these things were never taught to me while I was growing up in a Baptist church.”
Later, after becoming a member, she found out all she didn’t know about the GPCC – but by that time, she was already hooked.
The GPCC is a part of the International Churches of Christ (not to be confused with the “mainline” Church of Christ or the United Church of Christ). An evangelical sect, the ICC has been labeled “cultlike” by some observers because of its strict regulation of members and emphasis on growth. Like most Christian faiths, the ICC believes in Jesus as savior. Other main points of the church’s theology are that the Bible is the only true message of God; that people are saved not just by faith but also through obedience; that only baptized disciples are Christians; that after baptism, every new Christian needs to be taught, or “discipled,” by more experienced Christians; and that every disciple must be committed to helping the church grow. Generally, ICC churches do not have their own buildings: Services are held in rented halls, schools and convention centers. At last count, the GPCC had almost 850 members in the Philadelphia area.
The ICC looks for twentysomethings and college students like Yun and Clayton: young, dynamic, well-intentioned people searching for a strong religious community who will grow in the church and bring in other recruits. Students are especially attractive. Intelligent yet impressionable and prone to self-doubt, they’re attracted by recruitment tactics like “love-bombing,” in which newcomers are showered with compliments, attention and invitations to give them a sense of connection to the church. But the ICC’s recruitment efforts can backfire: According to Janja Lalich of Community Resources on Influence & Control, a cult education group in Alameda, CA, “The ICC ranks among the top two or three groups that I receive complaints about among college-age people.”
In fact, the ICC has been banned from more than 20 U.S. colleges and universities, including Villanova University, for its high-pressure tactics. According to Villanova Dean of Students Father John Stack, groups that aggressively solicit students are not welcome on the school’s campus. Stack says the ICC has been banned from Villanova since the early 1990s because the church’s recruiters “were seen as engaging in disruptive, cultlike behavior.”
Tom Recchuiti of the GPCC reports that some of the larger schools in the area, such as Penn, Temple, and Community College of Philadelphia, have their own campus chapters. People from these schools, as well as a handful from other local colleges, participate in special church activities for students and also attend GPCC services; the GPCC has about 80 student members in all. According to Reverend Ronald Stanley, the chaplain at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, the ICC’s chapter at that school, Campus Advance, is a big problem and has been since the early 1990s.
“Nothing compares to the aggressiveness of this group,” Stanley says, comparing the ICC with other groups active at the school, such as the Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas, which he says are much more low-key in their recruiting.
Over the past few years, Stanley has seen increased vigor in ICC recruiting at Rutgers. He says the ICC sent a special mission team to Rutgers in 1997, after bad press threatened the group’s activity at the school. Stanley tries to educate students about the dangers of Campus Advance, saying the key is to “get people attuned to it, to get that little voice inside of them talking and making them think more critically. But if people are told early on that little voice is Satan or that it is selfishness, they lose their ability to think critically.”
Reverend William Gipson, Penn’s chaplain, also expresses concern about the ICC’s targeting students. He complains that the ICC’s group at Penn uses pressure and deception to attract new members. Gipson says he recently had a talk with Josh Ewing, the group’s leader, about being more upfront with potential recruits. “Whenever you don’t come forward to say what’s expected of members, that’s false advertising,” says Gipson. “If a group is going to be on campus, it must follow the rules.” (Ewing could not be reached for comment.) While Gipson does not believe that the ICC should be banned from Penn, he does see its approach as deceptive.
One of the most vocal university chaplains has been Reverend Robert Watts Thornburg of Boston University. (It was in Boston University’s chapel where the church that would become the ICC met for the first time, in 1979.) Thornburg has spoken out in the media against the ICC on numerous occasions and states that despite increased negative publicity, the group continues to employ deceptive and aggressive methods to get new recruits. He considers the ICC to be the most troublesome cultlike group on college campuses today.
Dave Woods, 28, who has led the GPCC’s Campus Ministry off and on for the past three or four years, says the criticisms of the church are a matter of perspective.
“It’s not our job to combat all this negative publicity,” says Woods. “We’re not in a publicity battle.”
Like all new recruits, Yun Kim underwent a carefully orchestrated series of Bible studies with members of the GPCC before she joined. According to Clayton Lane, these studies are intended to make a potential member “rethink his or her life, to come to terms with [the ICC] doctrine.” According to other ex-members, the person orchestrating the Bible studies often “plants” people in study groups who have something in common with a newcomer, to make it seem that God has specifically chosen the novice to be with these certain people in this specific church.
Once Yun was deemed ready to join the GPCC, she was baptized. (Baptism by the ICC after one has accepted its ideology is mandatory for membership.) After this initiation, she was assigned a “discipler” – someone to “be responsible for helping her to grow as a Christian.” Yun was also informed she’d be expected to “tithe” (give the church 10 percent of her gross income) and to evangelize and bring in new people. None of this had been mentioned to Yun before she joined the GPCC, but she liked the church and wanted to serve God, so she agreed.
Within four months, Yun was asked to co-lead the single women’s ministry. As time went on, leaders ratcheted up the pressure: Bring in more members, give more money, follow an elaborate set of (sometimes unspoken) rules. Members who didn’t obey the leaders were often chastised or ridiculed (“rebuked”) and told that “to disobey the leaders was to disobey God.” Members weren’t allowed to complain or raise questions, and Yun noted that many lacked either the courage or the theological education to challenge church authority.
As a leader, Yun discipled several women, meeting with them frequently to monitor their spiritual growth, keeping track of their activities, and making sure they’d been evangelizing. Her own life was also highly regulated: She lived with other GPCC members; was only allowed to date men from the church on group dates on Saturday nights; had mandatory meetings, worship services and other activities each night and on weekends; and was expected to evangelize to at least 10 new people daily. “I liked being busy and social,” says Yun, “but someone else was setting my schedule. There was no time for personal stuff. My bills were piling up – I was always late paying them. And we were always made to feel guilty for being alone. For example, if I wanted to go grocery shopping, they said, ‘Take someone with you and evangelize in the grocery store.’ They thought being alone was a waste of time.”
Although the church’s grueling schedule and emphasis on recruiting bothered Yun, even more troubling to her were theological problems with the church. She felt many of the ICC’s doctrines were not justified by the Bible and that many of the scriptures used to justify the church’s strict rules were taken out of context. For example, Hebrew 13:17 is translated in the Bible the ICC uses, the New International Version, as, “Obey those taking the lead of you and submit.” But it can also be interpreted as, “Be persuaded by those taking the lead of you.” Yun feels the ICC uses the former translation to justify its leaders’ authority.
Yun’s doubts about the church grew. “The things they taught were not of the Bible,” she says today, “and that was something I just couldn’t work out.”
Dr. John Vaughan, owner and director of Church Growth Today, a demographic research group, says the ICC is one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States, despite the high number of dropouts. (Tom Recchuiti, the administrator of the GPCC, says that although the Philadelphia church gained 220 new members in 1998, it lost 230.) The official ICC Web site says the group has almost 175,000 members in more than 300 churches around the world. The ICC’s short-term goal is “to plant a church in every nation with a city of at least 100,000 people by the year 2000.”
Both the ICC’s nonprofit charity, HOPE Worldwide, and the leader and founder of the ICC, Thomas “Kip” McKean, 44, have links to the Philadelphia area. HOPE is based in Wayne; McKean was fired from a campus ministry position in a college in King of Prussia.
HOPE, founded in 1991, has been touted by such world leaders as Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela for its humanitarian efforts. The organization feeds, clothes and educates the poor; houses the homeless; treats the sick; and immunizes children around the world. Founded and directed by Robert and Patricia Gempel, HOPE boasts more than 150 programs in over 50 nations worldwide, including a free clinic on North Broad Street where the needy receive health care. In 1996, the charity was granted special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. HOPE’s 50,000 volunteers are primarily ICC members: Robert Gempel himself is an elder in the GPCC.
The ICC grew out of the Crossroads Movement, an offshoot of the traditional, or “mainline,” Church of Christ, a conservative Protestant denomination. The Movement was founded in Gainesville, FL, in the late 1960s and sought to increase church membership, often focusing on intensive recruiting on college campuses.
While attending the University of Florida, Gainesville, in the early ’70s, Kip McKean joined the Crossroads movement. After graduating, he briefly served as the campus minister at Northeastern Christian College, a school affiliated with the King of Prussia Church of Christ. The lead minister at the church chastised McKean for his “narrow view of the Bible” and later fired him for using authoritarian methods.
McKean’s Crossroads beliefs again came into conflict with traditional Church of Christ ways when he became a minister in 1976 of the Charleston, IL, Church of Christ. Although McKean helped the church grow, the Charleston church elders withdrew his financial support in 1977 for “teaching doctrines and following practices that were not in accordance with God’s Word.”
In 1979, McKean moved to suburban Boston to lead a struggling mainline Church of Christ. Although more than half the original congregation left in protest of McKean’s approach, the church grew exponentially throughout the early ’80s and established churches in New York, Chicago, London and other cities, which became known as “Boston Movement” churches.
In the mid-1980s, church members and leaders, both from within the Boston Movement and from the mainline Churches of Christ, began to question the Movement’s theology and complain that McKean was too authoritarian, assuming global control over all of the Movement’s congregations. Allegations that the group was a cult began to arise.
In 1985, Dr. Flavil R. Yeakley Jr., then of the Church Growth Institute at Abilene Christian University in Texas, was asked to do a study on the growth and dynamics of the Movement. He ran a standard psychological test, the Meyers-Briggs, on a large number of members of the Boston Church of Christ and on a control group of members of the mainline Church of Christ and other Christian denominations. The findings indicated that an extreme level of “personality shift,” a sign of mind control, had occurred in members of the Boston Church compared with members of other groups, thus suggesting that the Movement was using cultlike methods. After Yeakley presented his findings, he was “marked,” meaning ICC members were not to have any contact with him.
Today, Yeakley, a professor at Harding University in Arkansas, says at the time of his study, he “saw an awful lot that was good – as well as some dangerous tendencies” in the Boston Movement. He had hoped the findings of his study would prompt the church to become less controlling. However, he says, from the mid-1980s on, the group “took on more and more cultic tendencies. Their fundamental problem is that the way they thought to make people good was to control them.” Yeakley works with many cult counselors and says they receive more complaints regarding the ICC than any other group except the Church of Scientology.
In the late 1980s, the mainline Church of Christ officially denounced the Boston Movement. In a 1992 ICC publication, an indignant McKean responded to the split, claiming the break was caused not by theological differences but by “jealousy over our growth, which exposed their lack of growth.” The name “International Churches of Christ” was officially adopted by the Boston Movement churches in the early ’90s.
In 1990, McKean moved from Boston to Los Angeles, which became the center of the Movement. Kip’s brother Randy took over the Boston church. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Movement’s growth was rapidly increasing, but so was burnout. The ICC began to garner more negative press, mainly in college papers, but also in the national media, most notably a brief article in Time in 1992 and a segment on the TV newsmagazine 20/20 in 1993.
Initially, McKean was quick to dismiss the bad press as “attacks by Satan.” He said that as Christians, ICC members were to expect persecution. However, responding to allegations, both from within the Movement and from the media, that the ICC’s structure was too authoritarian, McKean did admit in a 1992 article in the ICC’s UpsideDown magazine that he and other leaders had made some mistakes: “I was wrong on some of my initial thoughts about biblical authority. I had felt that church leaders could call people to obey and follow them in all areas of opinion. This was incorrect.” Still, reports of abuses of power in the church continued to surface, and the ICC continued to grow.
Before Clayton Lane would be allowed to join the GPCC, he was told, he would have to break up with his girlfriend, who was still living in Miami. She was not a member of the ICC and therefore was not an appropriate partner. “We were only supposed to date people we intended to marry,” says Clayton. “And we could only marry people in the church. So, we could only date people in the church.” The ICC has strict policies on male-female interaction: Disciplers and disciplees must be of the same gender, and men and women have separate Bible study groups. And there’s the matter of Saturday night group dates, permitted only with others from the church. Even couples allowed to “go steady” have limits placed on how often they can date and even talk on the phone. These strict rules lead to what one ex-member calls “weasel dates” – unofficial get-togethers under the auspices of studying or other seemingly innocent activities.
Having one’s personal life scrutinized and controlled is standard in the ICC. The church’s vertical structure results in dictation of orders (called “advice”) from leaders to lower-level members. The discipling process is a large part of this phenomenon. One controversial aspect of discipling is the “sin list.” Each new member must confess all sins – past, present, large and small – to the discipler, who writes them down and shares them with other leaders (without the knowledge of the disciplee). And while some discipler-disciplee relationships are more like friendships – Clayton says his discipler, John, was a good friend and not overbearing – many evolve into situations in which the disciplee experiences mental and spiritual abuse at the hands of the discipler. Clayton says, “The mentoring idea is good, but in the ICC, the discipler is superior.”
Yun agrees, and admits that as a discipler, she was hard on her first few charges. “I probably wasn’t very loving, and I feel badly about that,” she says. “But no one had taught me how to disciple others, and being without experience, I just modeled what other leaders were doing.” Al Baird, an elder in the Los Angeles Church of Christ and spokesperson for the ICC, says that the church does not condone this level of control. He insists that although such abuses are bound to occur periodically in a group as large as the ICC, they are the exception rather than the norm.
Another area of contention in the ICC is the apparent disparity between the financial burden placed on rank-and-file members and the comfortable lifestyle of many of the church’s elite. Members are urged to sacrifice, sometimes even sell their homes and jewelry, so they can give more to the church. Yet ex-members claim an ICC “lead evangelist” can earn a salary of $80,000 to $140,000 a year (McKean himself complained in a 1994 leadership conference that some leaders make $80,000 a year but aren’t satisfied with that), and many have quarter-million-dollar homes and two or three cars – all paid for by the church. Kip McKean, his wife, Elena, and their three teenage children live in a condo worth over $400,000 in the posh Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades. (In a recent letter responding to these and other allegations made in a January 1999 segment of Fox Files, Baird said the McKeans’ condo was indeed bought by the church but that it was not excessively expensive by L.A. standards and that the McKeans pay fair market-value rent – they don’t own it.) What’s more, ex-members report that in addition to earning high salaries and having their cars, homes and travel expenses paid for by the ICC, leaders have church members act as unpaid housekeepers and nannies. In contrast, some lower-level members are too poor to even pay their bills. On one occasion, in Florida, church members were instructed to “sell blood to a blood bank” or “fast for a week” to save money to give to the church. One ex-member of the New York Church of Christ has described a studio apartment in Manhattan in which 12 men were living.
Not everyone agrees that ICC leaders are overpaid. The McLean, VA, firm of Gammon & Grange, P.C. conducted a review of the ICC salary structure for 1997 and determined that compensation was “fair and reasonable” in relation to that of “comparable positions in similar organizations.” Dave Woods of GPCC’s Campus Ministry says low-level leaders such as himself earn a very modest salary. Baird says that all ICC employees’ salaries are based more on need than on level of seniority. “A couple with teenage children earns more than one with infants, and they earn more than a single person,” says Baird. “I have three grown daughters, and I earn much less than I did when my children lived at home, even though I have more responsibility now.”
It is a warm Sunday morning in November 1998. Stragglers are rushing into the foyer of Norristown Area High School, doling out quick hugs and greetings to other latecomers. Inside the school’s auditorium are about 500 people, singing and clapping. They represent all age groups, many races. Some are on crutches or in wheelchairs. Some have babies or small children.
There are vocal soloists, both black and white. There is a blustery African-American man named Henry Wells, better known as “the Rev,” who talks about One Day at a Time, a substance abuse recovery program, which he says is the most effective of its kind in Philadelphia. There is a middle-aged, clean-cut white minister, Walter Evans, who encourages the audience to have “an attitude of gratitude” and peppers his sermon with words like “awesome” and “disciple” and “cranking” (as in, “The church is cranking!”).
Throughout the service, calls of “Ayyy-MEN!” and “You go!” and “C’mon!” ring out. Applause is frequent and enthusiastic. The preacher brags about the church’s growth; about HOPE Worldwide; about how the GPCC got involved with the Presidential volunteer summit a couple of years ago. He name-drops, although the ICC doesn’t have quite the star power that the Church of Scientology does. (The minister laments that the GPCC’s big celebrity, Jerry Spradlin, former Phillies relief pitcher, was traded to Cleveland. Spradlin’s agent reports that the baseball player is still active in the ICC and attends the Los Angeles Church of Christ in the off-season.) It’s as though the service, with its barrage of spirited songs and lengthy self-congratulatory messages, is a sales pitch. Which, ex-members say, it is.
In the summer of 1995, Yun was taken out of leadership because her superiors didn’t consider her “fruitful” – she wasn’t bringing in enough new members. Yun says losing her leadership role was a blessing in disguise: “A lot of the pressure was now off, and I was able to enjoy being a basic member without all the responsibilities.” However, one of Yun’s roommates was assigned to her as a new discipler. Yun found her to be “spiritually immature” and “harsh” and her constant nagging intolerable. Plus, she says, the discipler’s reactions to seemingly insignificant incidents seemed out of proportion: When Yun missed a mid-week church service to take a depressed friend out for dinner on her birthday, she was rebuked, not only by her discipler but by other church leaders as well. One man told Yun he was “concerned about her salvation.”
Another time, a male member with whom Yun was friends came over late in the evening to talk. When he was still there a few minutes after the church’s midnight curfew, Yun’s discipler angrily entered the living room and ordered him to leave. The next day, the discipler talked to church leaders, and the “lead evangelist” reprimanded both Yun and her friend.
Increasingly unhappy, Yun sought advice from religious experts outside the ICC, as well as ex-members of the church. She was appalled by what she heard: accounts of spiritual and verbal abuse, questionable financial practices, lies and deception. Eventually, she got in touch with Rick Bauer – a cult counselor and ex-ICC member – and his wife, Sarah. When the Bauers told her about their own negative experiences in the ICC, Yun was convinced she should leave the church.
The stereotypical image of cults involves saffron-robed zombies selling flowers in airports or gun-wielding crazies preparing for the Apocalypse. But the signs are not always so obvious, the line between religion and cult not always clear. In his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Dr. Robert Lifton advocates examining what a group does rather than what it believes when determining if it is a cult. If a group meets several of Lifton’s criteria – including employing deceptive recruiting or fundraising techniques; using phobic indoctrination to keep members in the group (“If you leave, you’ll go to hell”); having a false theological stance; practicing information control and manipulation; and breaking members’ ties to family, friends and environment – he calls it a cult.
All of these elements can be found in the ICC. However, Stephen Dunning, professor and chair of Penn’s religious studies department, who teaches a class on cults, is hesitant to call the ICC a cult. And he cautions that just because some ex-ICC members report emotional and spiritual abuse, one can’t assume that all those in the church experience such abuses: “Ex-members tend to generalize from their own experience and assume that everyone was abused if they were abused. Some people have negative experiences; some have positive.” He also says different people join cults for different reasons: some seek enrichment and fulfillment; some seek order; others join to fulfill personal agendas; still others “just back into it” or are tricked into joining.
Despite these cautions, Dunning says, “When members of a group are given leadership roles before they are mature enough to handle them, that can lead to abuse.” He also says that the ICC’s policies and doctrines differ from those of other Christian groups and that the group pressures members to conform.
When Clayton Lane first joined the GPCC, he enjoyed it: “All those good things I’d joined the church for were there.” But he soon learned that more was expected of him than he’d previously realized. A large part of every day was monopolized by church activities and recruiting. His behavior was strictly monitored by the leaders. Important decisions – who to date, who to be friends with, when to visit family – were not to be made without consulting his superiors. “I felt smothered,” Clayton says. “I lost control of my own life. I lost the ability to think critically about making decisions.”
For Clayton, the GPCC had taken over his life. His studies were suffering. “I lost all motivation for school,” he recalls. “I was supposed to put the church first.” Formerly close relationships with friends and family were supplanted by new friendships within the church. “The church was my father and my mother,” he says.
Clayton’s mother, Doris, says Clayton told her he’d joined a church his first year at Penn but didn’t say which one. She began to suspect something was wrong. Her son was calling less and drifting away from the family emotionally. She tried not to pressure Clayton about his newfound religion, but he could tell she wasn’t happy about it. Church leaders cautioned him: “Watch out for your mom – make sure she doesn’t take you away from us.”
When Clayton announced he would not be coming home to Miami for the summer on the advice of the church, alarms went off for Doris. “It was like he was going to disown me,” she says. She flew to Philadelphia several times to visit Clayton and find out what was going on. The behavior of Clayton’s churchmates during her visits didn’t put her mind at ease.
“When I was visiting, Clayton was over at my hotel, and one of the leaders, Chris Reed [who was then Student Ministry leader and lead evangelist of the GPCC], came over and made Clayton leave,” says Doris. “It was 1 o’clock in the morning – on a school night – and he took him to play basketball.” Doris believes the ICC, like many cults, deprives members of sleep to make their minds more open to suggestion. Many ex-members confirm that their sleep schedules were set by the church. Yun Kim says when she was a leader of the women’s single ministry, she typically had to stay up until midnight or 1 a.m. and get up at 6 a.m. “I was told six hours of sleep should be enough,” she reports. “If you slept more than that, you were called a glutton.”
Clayton gradually became more unhappy in the GPCC. He resented the church’s close scrutiny of his life and the requirement that he be “completely and unequivocally subservient to the leaders.” Those leaders pressured him to give up a close friendship with a female classmate who was also in the church, convincing him that his feelings for her were not platonic and that the relationship might distract him from his church duties.
A few months after Clayton joined the GPCC, he came across some literature by Jerry Jones, an ex-ICC member, that criticized the church. Curious, Clayton wrote to Jones. Jones sent more literature, which Clayton shared with John. “I needed feedback from my discipler,” Clayton says. “I was afraid of my own thoughts.” Clayton and John began to have doubts about the ICC after reading the materials, but eventually, church leaders found out about the literature and cautioned them “never to look at those books again.” Clayton says the ICC controls information very tightly, and being curious or having doubts is seen as being weak. When negative press does surface, ICC leaders often dismiss it as “spiritual pornography.” Although Clayton admits that the GPCC leaders’ reaction to Jones’ literature troubled him, he decided to put his doubts aside and try to have a more positive attitude about the church.
In the early spring of 1994, the GPCC stepped up efforts to bring in new members. The church’s primary method of recruiting is to approach strangers and casual acquaintances, engage them in friendly conversation, then invite them to church social events. Clayton says he felt timid about approaching strangers because he felt so insincere: “You’re pretending to have these deep, meaningful conversations. Only half the time we told people the things we were inviting them to were church-related.” Clayton was unhappy, and his doubts were resurfacing. However, his feelings changed when he met Brendan (not his real name), a fellow Penn student who showed a great interest in the church. “I was excited,” says Clayton. “This was my first potential recruit. I devoted all my energies into getting Brendan into the church.”
Clayton and Paul, John’s discipler, spent a great deal of time befriending Brendan. The three ate together every day. Clayton and Paul took Brendan to social events specifically designed to impress and attract potential recruits. They played pool. But as Brendan underwent the usual series of Bible studies with Clayton and Paul, he became increasingly apprehensive and nervous. What Clayton didn’t realize was that Brendan had psychological problems. “He was functional,” says Clayton. “But he had some hangups. The ICC set off his triggers. It set all the wrong things off in Brendan.”
Although Brendan was fervent in wanting to join the GPCC, the leaders felt he was “not ready” and that he “needed to show commitment” before he could be baptized into the church. The church’s decision tormented Brendan. He began to exhibit strange behavior – “baptizing” himself in bathtubs and under faucets and twitching uncontrollably. Haunted by the fear that he might die before he could be “saved,” he became obsessed with trying to suppress bad thoughts and refrain from sinning. Clayton recalls once, when he and Paul were having lunch with Brendan, he was “on the brink of tears from nervousness” and “several times suddenly and violently dropped his food or fork or pushed his food tray away.” The next day, Brendan left Penn. He took the rest of the semester off to get psychological help and support from his family.
When Clayton agreed to come to Miami for two weeks in July 1994 (the church advises members to spend no more than two weeks at a time with family), his mother decided it was time to take action. Doris hired an “exit counselor,” a professional who specializes in helping people leave high-pressure groups such as cults, to speak with Clayton while he was home. Clayton met with the counselor, and after listening to what he had to say and reading some literature, he decided to leave the church. Some of his friends, including John, left the church soon after.
According to Clayton, the leaders didn’t make a big deal about his dropping out at first. “My relationship with the ICC was tarnished already because of my lack of getting new memberships,” he says. “They did want me to meet with Chris Reed before I left, but I said no, because I knew he’d try to manipulate me. I’d heard stories about him doing that to other people who left.”
However, once church leaders realized Clayton was not coming back, they began calling repeatedly, trying to change his mind. “They used my trust against me,” says Clayton. “They had my ‘sin list,’ so they knew all kinds of dirt about me, and they used it to manipulate me. They spoke meanly, chastised me.”
Clayton grew tired of the group’s continued communication with him, so he sought help from Penn’s Christian Association. He got counseling there and later helped spread the word on campus about his problems with the ICC. His crusading against the group earned him more phone calls, even several years after he’d left the church. But he doesn’t regret his decision. Although just after he left, he had doubts and regrets (“I felt I’d lost a year of my life,” he says), he now feels leaving the ICC was the right move. Today, he considers himself spiritual but does not participate in any organized religion.
“Thank God I got him out,” Clayton’s mother says. “I think it’s worse for the parents, because at the time, the children are happy. They think the gates of heaven are opening for them.”
Yun Kim left the ICC in 1996. Leaving was hard for her. Church members would call, send e-mail and show up at her apartment, saying she was going to hell if she didn’t come back to the church. Eventually, she had to break off contact with her former friends. She sent an open letter to the church, detailing many of her concerns and asking that she receive no further contact. Finally, Yun quit her job and moved to California for a fresh start. Now, although she still struggles with her feelings about the ICC, she is active in helping others leave the church and adjust to life “outside.”
To those seeking religious truth, Yun says, “Just because your parents or your teachers or your pastor or someone that you respected told you something, don’t just take it verbatim. Examine it. Question it. Know what you believe and why you believe it.”