Cult-like group targets campus
Group seeks to double numbers by end of month, says ex-member
Varsity, University of Toronto, September 23 1997
By Julie Gibson and Sarah Schmidt
Aggressive religious recruiting on campus this fall has left some students wary and annoyed and others devastated.
With the International Church of Christ, an evangelical Christian church founded in Boston in 1979 with over 170 congregations worldwide, aggressively looking for new converts amid a sea of students, questions are being raised about the church’s recruitment methods as well as the church itself.
The Church of Christ has already been banned from Ryerson and York University.
Natasha Klukach, a third year Trinity College student, says she’s been approached every September on campus. “It’s accosting on the street and it’s unwelcomed,” she said.
“But they’re so friendly, so you feel rude. It’s as though you’re condemning God. And if you dismiss them, you’re dismissing Christ or something.”
Another student entering her fifth year at University College says she’s been approached over the years while walking across campus or studying in the library. “They’re really pushy, persuasive. It’s annoying,” she said.
“I feel bad for the first years,” she added, explaining that her age and experience has left her better equipped to deal with the recruiters. “It’s an obstacle course just getting down St. George.”
Susan Addario, executive assistant at University of Toronto’s Student Affairs, says the university won’t ban these groups because of its commitment to freedom of assembly and speech.
“University of Toronto tries to protect freedom of speech, uncomfortable as it is,” she said.
Student Affairs annually launches an awareness campaign to educate students about the dangers of aggressive religious recruiting.
But a recent arrival to Canada from her home country on the African continent was not prepared enough when she was approached on the subway in August after being in Toronto for only a few weeks.
The 20 year-old woman, who left the Church last week after a brief experience, just started high school this fall.
“This girl started asking me if I love God, do I believe in Him. She asked if I wanted to go to Church, so I said ‘Why not?'”
After her first Sunday service, held weekly on the University of Toronto campus, the demands on her time became intolerable. “I went there everyday,” she said about her new schedule which began with a bible study between 6 and 8 a.m.
“I’d go to school, come back tired, sleep and go back again at night. I had no time to do my work. I was so tired,” she said.
The Church’s reaction to the woman’s desire to spend time with her sister after her arrival from an African country following a six week separation, clued her in to the controlling nature of the group, she says.
“They said ‘It’s not possible, you have to focus on God,'” she said about the Church which baptized her shortly after she joined.
This came after an alarming incident when Church members found out she had a boyfriend from her home country. Since members are encouraged to date other Church members, they offered to compose a letter to her boyfriend to end the relationship.
The Church of Christ went beyond dictating her choice of mate. “They wanted money. They asked me how much I could give per week,” she said explaining that she could give five dollars a week from her weekly budget of thirty dollars. “They said it wasn’t enough,” she added.
The woman’s host family stepped forward after their own son was recruited and the controlling nature of the Church became obvious. “When I saw her cry, that’s when I realized it was a cult,” said her host mother.
The host mother was careful about offering support for the two to leave the Church of Christ. “They’re going to think I’m in league with the devil,” she said.
Campus chaplains, who intentionally distance themselves from aggressive religious recruiting, and serve as the support network for students who leave, say these experiences are not atypical.
Karen Bach, the Presbyterian and United Church Chaplain at University of Toronto, says she has worked with many students attempting to pull out of cult-like groups since she arrived at the university in 1990.
Bach says she’s seen many students’ lives enveloped by the Church of Christ. “That’s pretty cult-like,” she said, adding other students are intimidated into staying. “One student I helped was afraid to leave. They told him he’d be damned to hell.”
But members of the Church of Christ disagree with this take on their work.
Ken Trinh, a first-year University of Toronto student who has been part of the Church’s Toronto chapter for two years, says the group has tempered his high school rebelliousness.
“The fellowship, the openness, the message is really practical,” he said. “We sort of preach and evangelize to get people to check it out.”
Trinh adds the group is often unfairly labeled. “I wouldn’t say that it’s a cult. It depends on how you look at it.”
Eldon Pemberton, a third year George Brown student, echoed Trinh’s sentiments, “I always had an interest in the Bible. I found out this was for me.”
Trinity college chaplain Robert Black says academia’s tendency to value reasoning and logic over emotion is paving the way for cult-like groups to fill some students’ emotional needs.
“They enter from the feeling side because it is not being attended to in our culture, and not valued at the university,” he said.