Students, staff disagree on religious organization
The Eagle, American University, April 8, 2002.
By Andrea James
When Washington College of Law student Paolo Ugolini first came to college, he was on a path to destruction. “I was into drugs and cutting class,” Ugolini said. “I was doubting my possibilities for the future and unwilling and unable to control a lot of irresponsible and destructive habits in my life.
However, Ugolini says that he turned his life around by finding Christianity through the D.C. Church of Christ, which also has a club on AU’s campus.
The club, recognized by the SC, is called Students Advancing Christianity Today, or Students ACT. The organization is banned on many campuses across the country, including Boston University’s, because of its ties to the Boston Church of Christ, or BCOC, also known as the International Church of Christ, or ICOC. The D.C. Church of Christ is a sect of the International Church of Christ.
Campus ministers and religious scholars have identified the ICOC as a dangerous religious cult, according to Randy Frame in his 1997 article “The Cost of Discipleship.”
Ugolini says that the ICOC and Students ACT has been the target of persecution on other campuses because they adhere to the Bible and the high standard held for Christians. “That ticks a lot of people off and we get painted as exclusive, closed-minded, and fanatical, but it just comes with the territory,” Ugolini said.
The negative accusations toward the ICOC do not discourage, but validate the members, according to Ugolini. The group maintains that they are walking in Jesus’ footsteps, because Jesus was never fully embraced by society either, Ugolini said.
Still, Ugolini is surprised at the resistance that Student ACT has received at other universities.
“With all the drug use, immorality, and Godless humanism, you’d think they’d spend their efforts doing something else besides throwing stones at Christians,” Ugolini said.
Ugolini knows that the group and its members are rumored to be an AU cult. However, he said that they are just like any other group on campus. “We are a committed and unified group,” Ugolini said. “But so are fraternities and sororities but you don’t hear anyone calling them cults.”
Many AU students, when questioned, have never heard of Students ACT, but have heard rumors of a “campus cult.” “I’ve heard that they are supposed to be Christian, but not essentially what you or I would call Christian,” junior Matthew Hall said.
Freshman Rachelle Wilson has also heard of the rumor. “They think they are the only ones going to heaven,” Wilson said.
American University Chaplain Joe Eldridge said that Kay’s ministries do not recognize Students ACT.
Kay does not recognize the club because the leaders would not agree to an AU covenant stating that they will refrain from harassment or intimidation, Eldridge said. “They will follow students across campus,” Eldridge said.
Ugolini, now president of Students ACT, said that the group does not harass students but they do try to ardently recruit new members. “We exercise our freedom of religion and speech to the fullest extent,” Ugolini said.
Eldridge maintains that that the group has hurt students in the past. “I’ve had students crying their eyes out because of the tumultuous relationship that evolved with this group,” Eldridge said. “I think it’s plum wrong.”
A former member and AU sophomore, who wished to remain anonymous, described her experience with Students ACT as very traumatic.
The former member became involved with the Students ACT because she was exploring Christianity during her first year at AU. “I wanted to meet students from other schools, and I wanted to meet guys,” she said.
Soon however, she realized that the group required more commitment and time than she had originally expected. “They made me go to intense Bible studies where there were two or three of them and one of me,” she said. “The studies were very late at night.”
She also became suspicious when the group informed her that her original baptism in her hometown was not sufficient and that her family’s denomination of Christianity was wrong. “They told me that my other friends were a bad influence on me, and I believed them,” she said.
University Chaplain Eldridge stated that Students ACT is too exclusive in believing that their way is the only right way to worship God. “The group has a fierce dichotomy of acceptance,” Eldridge said. “If someone doesn’t adopt their ways, that person is going to Hell.”
Eldridge also maintains that the group encourages students to break relationships with non-members. “The group has a coercion ideology which confronts people and pressures them into breaking off relationships with others who are not in the group,” Eldridge said. “This includes parents, family, and long time friends.”
Ugolini said that the group’s actions have been misinterpreted, and that while becoming a Christian does result in some lifestyle changes, members do not have to separate from their families and friends. “Obviously, I couldn’t go cruising around town smoking dope in the clubs anymore, but that’s not `turning my back on my friends,’ that is `setting an example and doing what is right'” said Ugolini.
However, a former member of the group disagrees. “They asked if I would be willing to give up my family,” she said.
When the former member told her parents about this, they became worried, and she decided to leave the group. “My parents were scared,” she said. “My Dad was literally minutes away from getting on the next airplane and taking me home.”
However, she soon found that leaving would not be easy.
“I tried to get out,” she said. “They called me to the point that I couldn’t answer my phone, they sent letters, sent e-mails, put things in my mailbox, and came by my room. They tried to tag team me.”
The former member also stated that members of Students ACT are strongly encouraged to recruit new members. “They would say things like `make a list of 20 people you know and make sure that they are here next month at this time,'” she said.
The former member feels that she is now a stronger Christian than when she was a member of Students ACT. “I felt really far from God, I felt that I dishonored Him,” she said. “I was misled and misguided in so many aspects.”
Ugolini invites students to judge for themselves. “Be fair, be sincere, be open-hearted and you will see that rumors are just rumors.”
Although Eldridge thinks Students ACT has done destructive things, he would not go so far as to call them a cult or wish them to be banned from AU’s campus. “I don’t know what they are. There are many ways to define what makes a group destructive,” Eldridge said. “I don’t know if they are a cult.”
Eldridge also stated that some of Students ACT’s leadership has tried to make adjustments, and he has not had any complaints about the group this year. “We don’t regulate religion, we regulate behavior,” Eldridge said of Kay Spiritual Life Center. “When behavior breaks established protocols, they should be reprimanded.”