Christian group’s tactics spur probe at University of Massachusetts

Christian group’s tactics spur probe at University of Massachusetts

The Boston Globe, April 4 1999
By Karen D. Brown, Globe Correspondent

AMHERST – Joe Lastowski had always considered himself a good Christian. So when he found himself sitting alone at the campus center at the University of Massachusetts here, away from home for the first time, he thought nothing of the two people who approached him.

They identified themselves as members of a campus Christian group, the Upside Down Club, and invited him to Bible study meetings. He thought it sounded harmless – until he started going.

“Most of them were in very secluded places,” said Lastowski, a clean-cut, journalism student. “They would come and drive me somewhere off campus. They weren’t places I would happen to see someone I know walking by, or have any contact with anyone else except for the people studying.”

The club members started to call him frequently, shower him with concern, and keep track of his friends and his movements.

They kept him separate from other recruits, and they told him every other religion was wrong.

“Eventually, what they were telling me equated to, if I didn’t join them, I would burn in hell. It was an incredible guilt trip,” he said. “That’s when I started to get really worried.”

In fact, he learned that they were part of the International Churches of Christ, a fast-growing global organization known for aggressive recruitment and dictating members’ personal lives. Just before Lastowski was to be baptized into the church, he decided to quit.

“They challenged every belief I had in God, and they wanted me to disown my parents and join their church, and if my parents wouldn’t join, I would have to leave them,” he said. “And they really just wanted to isolate me from everything else that made me feel good in society, so the church was all I had left. And that had a big psychological toll on me.”

The Upside Down Club is now under investigation by the UMass student government. The student attorney general, Jesse Burchfield, has filed a petition with the student judiciary, asking that the club’s status as a “registered student organization” be rescinded.

Burchfield is focusing on ways the group technically violates the student constitution, in this case, he says, by posing as a student-run organization while fronting for the International Churches of Christ. A hearing is expected this month.

But a broader issue on campus is whether the Upside Down Club, in its affiliation with the larger church, is a cult that harasses and intimidates students. And if so, how far does the freedom of religion protect such behavior on the campus of a state university?

But Tom Franz, minister of the Springfield Church of Christ – closely affiliated with the Upside Down Club – says it’s just a group of students sincerely stricken by the word of God.

“You say the word Jesus and you’re going to send a panic through half a room of people. It’s the nature of the subject,” Franz said. “There’s no unorthodox teachings in this group. We believe that the Bible is the word of God, that we need to commit ourselves to God, as adults we need to be baptized for the remission of our sins.”

Defining a cult is tricky business. Specialists say that practices, rather than beliefs, make a cult. The International Churches of Christ holds views about the scripture that are not unusual – a near-literal interpretation of the Bible, the need to cleanse the soul through adult baptism, separation of the sexes. It’s the church’s zealous evangelism, strict hierarchical structure, and tight control over the personal lives of members that serve as red flags to cult experts.

University administrators are guarded about what they can or wish to do about the Upside Down Club. Officially, the university says it can do nothing to ban a religious organization. Officials acknowledge there is a fine line between harassment and freedom of speech.

UMass spokeswoman Barbara Pitoniak said that inviting someone to Bible studies, even several times, is not against the law. A student would have to feel physically threatened to warrant university action – and few students have ever made that formal complaint.

“It would become a matter of grave concern if someone filed charges against individuals in the group,” Pitoniak said. “But there would have to be egregious charges for action to be taken.”

Privately, administrators say they worry about the tactics of the Upside Down Club, which has been on campus since 1989. In some cases, parents have called the Dean of Students to complain of losing contact with their children who joined the church. But, on advice from legal counsel, the administrators cannot appear to be trampling on the group’s freedom of speech.

The International Churches of Christ has been dogged by charges of harassment and manipulation since it was founded in 1979. It has been banned from more than 30 colleges, including Harvard, Boston University, and Smith College. In those cases, administrators said club members were caught going door to door in the dorms, accosting people in dining halls, refusing to accept no for an answer, denigrating other religious faiths, putting so much pressure on students’ time that they suffered academically, and forcing them to cut off communication with families.

“The freedom of religion is not absolute,” said Herbert Rosedale, president of the American Family Foundation, an educational organization focused on cults. “You’ve got a privacy right.”

Rosedale, an attorney, says UMass not only has a right to ban the Upside Down Club, but an obligation to do so. “The university certainly is a marketplace for a range of ideas, but it’s also an institution of learning, and people have a right to an atmosphere in which they can learn and not be put upon.”

On its Web site, the International Churches of Christ boasts more than 138,000 members worldwide. It urges aggressive recruitment of new members, who are expected to devote their daily lives to the teachings of Jesus.

Each member answers to a personal guide, or discipler, who monitors their actions. They are expected to donate at least 10 percent of their salary to the church as “sacrificial giving.”

Formerly known as the Boston Movement, the International Churches of Christ was based in Boston until 1990, when its founder, Kip McKean, moved to Los Angeles. McKean is the only member not assigned a “discipler.”

The church has also spawned a community of former members, who run a Web site dedicated to unveiling the alleged deception and thought-control of the ICC.

UMass polymer science professor Robert Lenz is one local crusader against the Upside Down Club. Twenty years ago, he said, he “rescued” his college-age son from the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Lenz has since been on the boards of several cult awareness organizations, and lectures about cults on campus.

Lenz says that every time he gives a lecture, several students raise their hands and admit to being taken in by the Upside Down Club. “College students, away from home, are uncertain in what they want to do,” he said.

But Don Bathon, regional spokesman for the International Churches of Christ, says this is much ado about nothing. “It’s just part of the Christian walk,” he said. “If someone invites you to go to a concert, you wouldn’t object. It’s nothing more or less than people who don’t agree or have similar views.”

Carol Giambalvo, co-author of a book on the Boston Movement, says the university should be more focused on the rights of families. “If you get enough calls from parents who say,`I just had to spend $12,000 to get my kid out of this group, and they joined on your campus. What are you going to do about it?’ Then maybe this isn’t a religious issue. It’s a behavioral issue.”

But Franz, who joined the church 15 years ago as a student at the University of Minnesota, says club members are simply enthusiastic about their faith.

“Jesus lived a life where he shared his faith and that’s what they want to imitate and do,” he said. “Maybe they asked someone one too many times, and that was wrong. But is that harassment? Is that harmful? Boy, I sure don’t think so.”

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