“My friends lured me into a cult”
YM magazine, November 1997.
By Sarah Lieu, as told to Anita Bartholomew
One cold, snowy December night my first year of college, I was waiting for a cmpus bus when a red sports car pulled up. A sweet-faced girl who was about a year older than me yelled out, “Want a ride?”. Knowing its not cool to get into cars with strangers, I shot her a nasty look.
“Hey,” she called again. “I’m sorry if I scared you. It’s just that I’m a Christian and we’re supposed to help others. And you look like you’re freezing.”
I was embarrassed for having acted suspicious when she’d just been trying to be nice. And when she said she was a Christian, I became intrigued.
Back in high school, I’d longed for something spiritual in my life. My family is Protestant, but we weren’t religious and never went to church. I started going on my own in high school. It was comforting to hear the pastor talk about heaven, especially since my grandfather, whom I was close to, had nearly died in surgery. Praying made me feel peaceful and secure.
When I’d gone off to college at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I’d looked for a new church to find that same feeling. But the ones nearby seemed superficial, so I’d stopped going. Not having made any real friends, and with my family living two hours away, I felt completely alone.
Now, out of nowhere, here was this friendly girl openly saying she was a Christian. How cool! She told me her name – Ali * – then asked how I liked school. She was so easy to talk to. Twenty minutes later, the bus still hadn’t arrived and we were still gabbing, so I decided to go with her. During the drive she didn’t bring up the church once, but I was curious, so I asked about it. She said she’d been a druggie and a prostitute before she’d found God and turned her life around.
Normally, I’d have been afraid of someone with such a heavy past. But I was touched that Ali was so open and honest with me.
She changed the subject and started asking me more about myself. Since she’d confided her secrets to me, I found myself telling her things I wouldn’t normally have said to a stranger, like how I worried about my grandparents dying, and how lonely I was. When she dropped me off, she told me about her church group, Campus Advance, part of the International Church of Christ, and said they’d be meeting the next night at the student centre. “It might be just what you’re looking for,” she said.
When I showed up, 12 girls were sitting around informally discussing the Bible. Amazingly, they were talking about wheat happens when people we love die. It was as if God were sending me the answers to my questions. At the time, it never occurred to me that this was what Ali and I had been talking about the night before and that the scene might have been staged.
After the meeting, everyone came to welcome me. They were so nice! Almost everyone invited me to do stuff with them. Over the next few weeks I got so many calls that I felt overwhelmed and tried to blow them off. But as soon as one girl hung up, another would phone. I eventually agreed to have lunch with Paula, who was 22 and kinda sweet. She seemed to really get where I was coming from, and she convinced me to attend more meetings.
The more I went, the more I wanted to go. Everyone was so deep; they were just the kind of friends I’d always hoped for. Like Ali and Paula, most of them were Rutgers students, but some, like Roberta, the campus leader, were older and worked or had families. They always talked about how happy it made them to be close to God. Next to them, I felt shallow. But for the first time at college, I had tons of friends whom I respected. Soon I was going to meetings every day, some of which lasted all night.
At first, all the talk about spiritual battles against the devil, who they insisted was trying to corrupt us, seemed flaky. But when I questioned them, they’d show me Bible passages that backed them up. It seemed to make sense: If there was a God, there had to be a devil. I became convinced they were what they claimed to be: the one true church.
Then one night in February, I was studying with a classmate and said I couldn’t stay long because of a church meeting. I was getting used to blowing off school stuff to attend church things, so I didn’t think it was a big deal. But Greg, a cool resident adviser who’d overheard me mention Campus Advance, did.
“That’s not a church,” he said. “It’s a cult.”
“No way,” I said.
He told me he understood why I found it hard to believe but that it always went the same way: This nice person starts talking to you, finds out what you’re into, and invites tou to a gathering where you’re “love bombed” – made to feel great – by the group. The members start calling you and monopolizing your free time until you become totally dependent on them.
“Be careful,” he warned.
Greg’s comments surprised me. But I promised him I’d check into it. By now the group was taking up pretty much all of my free time – calling, dropping by, walking me home from classes and meetings. True, and I had less and less time to study or sleep, but it wasn’t as if they were forcing me to be with them.
That night I told Ali and Paula what Greg had said, “Satan’s using him to persecute us,” Ali explained.
I decided Greg meant well but just didn’t get it. When he’d call to see how I was doing, I’d tell him he was wrong about what he’d said. But he begged me to check it out: Respected newspapers and TV shows had said Campus Advance was a cultlike group.
That made me think. I confronted Ali, but she brushed it off, saying the media always blew everything out of proportion – which was certainly true. Besides, I knew that my new friends couldn’t be part of something so ugly.
The next time I saw Greg, I thanked him for his concern but said that I was going to be baptized and become a full member of the group. He shoved a piece of paper with his number on it in my hand. “If you’re ever in any trouble,” he said, “call me.”
“Sure,” I replied as I dropped the paper into my backpack and walked away.
The next month, April, I got baptized. Even though I’d been going to meetings all the time, now I’d really belong. But I’d have to make sacrifices. For instance, I was told that church members had to abandon their non-believing families and make financial contributions to Campus Advance so the church would have enough money to keep its recruitment programs going. That’s when I was pressured to leave my dorm and live with Ali and Paula off campus.
Ali, I was told, would be my “discipler,” which meant she’d interpret the Bible for me and decide on almost every aspect of my life. That was the first I’d heard of this. I tried protesting to Roberta, but she said that every member had a discipler, even her. They made me feel like I was weird for objecting, so I backed down.
Now that I was living with Ali and Paula, I was constantly surrounded by church members and completely isolated from normal student life. And suddenly everything got more intense: The group started controlling how much I ate and slept, and they insisted I give all my money to the church. I didn’t want to, but since everyone else had, I forked over the $2,000 I’d planned to use for the summer semester and didn’t go to summer school.
Things certainly weren’t working out the way I’d expected. I hardly slept – we had all-night meetings at our place or at other members’ homes almost every day. And when we asked for food at the meetings, we were chastised and told there was none. Besides, at that point, saving my soul seemed more important than eating.
During the day, what I ate was carefully monitored by a group member, and we always went out to eat – nothing was kept in the apartment. By the end of the month I was practically begging for food.
I’ve since learned that it’s a common cult tactic to deprive members of sleep and food. When people are weak, they can’t think straight and it’s easier to control their minds.
It works. Soon I’d been brainwashed into thinking that I’d go to hell if I kept associating with my non-believing family. Ali insisted I tell them that I couldn’t talk to them anymore. As I phoned them, she and Paula stood by me, coaching me on what to say.
I dialed the number, thinking about how loving my parents had always been. But when they got on the phone, I went numb. I knew that if I let myself feel anything, I’d start to cry.
My folks were really confused, because up till then I’d hardly mentioned the church. “Please, let’s talk,” they begged. But I told them there was nothing to say.
When I hung up, I felt more alone than ever. My parents had no clue where I was living and no way of contacting me – since I’d moved off campus my new address and phone number weren’t listed.
While it was hard for me to see my own situation clearly, watching how others were trated made me question things more. Betty, a senior group member, had been trying to recruit Molly, a girl whose dad had raped her. At one meeting Betty told her, “Hell is different for each person. Close your eyes and think about being raped. That’s your hell. And it will go on forever.”
Molly began sobbing and begged Betty to tell her how she could get out of it.
“You need to get baptized,” Betty replied.
I half believed she had to say that to save Molly’s soul. But a feeling of horror kept pushing up from inside me. I was too weak from lack of food and sleep, though, to decide what to do. By then, I’d lost so much weight I could hardly stand for more than a few minutes at a time. I was worried that something was wrong with me and managed to get to the campus health center. They immediately admitted me to the hospital for exhaustion and malnutrition.
A few minutes after I checked in, 20 cult members showed up to “visit” me. Luckily, the hospital director kicked them out, saying I was too weak to have guests.
I was so greatful. For the first time in a month, I could think. I knew that as soon as I was better, I’d be going back to a life where everything I thought and did would be controlled. That’s when I remembered Greg. I rummaged through my backpack, found his number, and called him. He came to the hospital right away.
“I hoped you’d realize that what I told you was true,” he said. “Let me help you.”
But I still thought I’d go to hell if I left. “I’m not ready yet,” I said, though I promised to stay in touch.
A few days later I was discharged from the hospital. When Ali and Paula came to get me, I felt like they were dragging me back to prison. Ali sensed my attitude change and made sure that a church member was always with me.
But one night after Ali and Paula had dozed off, I sneaked out to a phone booth and called Greg again. He picked me up and took me to his dorm, then hid me in a room that belonged to another girl he’d helped get out of the cult. The next morning, Ali and Paula came looking for me. They pounded on Greg’s door, but he ignored them, so they kept on looking. When they finally reached the room I was in, they banged on the door, but I didn’t answer. They left, but I knew it wasn’t over.
I told Greg I had to go back to the apartment because everything I owned was there. Although the cult had taken all my money, I still had things that had sentimental value, and I wanted them.
I went back to the apartment by myself and told Ali I’d just needed some time alone to think. She didn’t buy it – and she put me under an even tighter watch.
Later, I sneaked out past my sleeping guard. It wasn’t hard. The all-night meetings left everyone as desperate for sleep as I was. I met Greg behind my building and gave him some of my stuff. I did that again and again for the next few nights.
After a week Greg suggested getting the rest of my stuff in one big sweep. So the next day he came to the apartment with a bunch of friends. Ali and Paula were there, but we ignored them as I grabbed my things. My heart was pounding as we sped away in Greg’s Jeep. But I didn’t look back, not even when Ali screamed, “God will punish you!”
That was over three years ago. After my escape, I started group therapy with other former cult members. Hearing how similar our experiences had been broke the last threads that held me to my former friends.
Now, I’m really into attending classes again, majoring in physicsm and living with an old friend from my pre-cult college days, who’s been really supportive. I’m also back tight with my family.
For a while, I was scared that the cult would take over my life again. But now I think they’re more afraid of me than I am of them.
Since I left the group, I’ve spoken out on TV shows, given speeches at campuses around the country, and tried to convince other cult members to get out. It’s funny: Campus Advance always told me that my mission was to save souls. And now that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.
* Names have been changed
Editor’s Note: Campus Advance is still very active on the Rutgers campus, according to Reverend Ronald Stanley, chaplain at the university’s Catholic Center. “They’re still trying to pass themselves off as a very dedicated group of Christians who follow the Bible,” he says. “But I continue to come upon students and parents who are concerned about their high pressure and deception.” Campus Advance and its related groups have repeatedly denied that their organization is a cult.
Back to other media reports about the International Churches of Christ.