What happens when your child joins a cult?
Guildford Diocesan Herald, February 1993.
by Sally Hastings
When young people leave home, change of some kind is bound to follow. Most of us fear that that they will take to drink, drugs, wild living… or all three. But what happens when they get involved in a cult, instead? The effect on themselves and their family can be just as devastating.
Depending on what form the cult takes, the emotional blackmail, induced largely by a sense of guilt, and pressure to conform, can be quite literally mind-bending. Even if the person does eventually withdraw from the cult the emotional damage can take years to overcome.
I spoke to a Surrey mother whose son became involved with the Central London Church of Christ while he was studying at university.
Over the past 18 months she has watched him change from a normal, outgoing youngster with a zest for living into someone who: “Quite honestly, I wouldn’t like very much, if he weren’t my son.”
Some of the cult’s rules are commendable. Drink, drugs and illicit sex are taboo. They encouraged the youngster to work hard at university and pass his finals. They also encouraged him to keep in regular contact with his family, which many cults do not.
Other aspects are more chilling: “It is the way they have completely taken over my son’s life which I find so appalling,” said his mother. “He lives in a house with other church members. He doesn’t make any decision at all, about anything, unless he has discussed it with his ‘discipler’, and got his permission.
“When he met a girl and wanted to form a steady relationship with her this had to be approved by the church leader. Such a relationship would have been disapproved of if she had not been a member of the church.
“I feel I have lost my son. The person I talk to now is very polite, but there is a barrier between us. He has completely taken over. He talks about love but in fact he has become very judgemental, and seems to see sin lurking in every corner.
“It also concerns me that he has no real plans for the future, everything is tied up with this Church. His whole time is devoted to it. He gets up at 2.00am for prayer and Bible study. Then he is encouraged to get up at 5.00am for more of the same.”
What is the difference between belonging to this cult and a Christian religious community?
“It does not appear to have enriched him at all, it has just obliterated his personality, and I find that very disturbing,” she said.
Cult members believe that only they will attain ultimate salvation, provided they keep to the Church’s strict rules.
These include baptism by total immersion and strict obedience to CLCC authority. Every member is allocated to a disciplier who has full control over him or her in church matters and in personal affairs such as finance, how time should be spent and whom to date. Disciplers also act as confessors. Fasting is encouraged, with seven-day fasts not being uncommon.
Attending frequent late night Bible studies and discussions seems to make members appear permanently tired. This has caused under-achieving among students, one of the main reasons why the two London universities, swiftly followed by the two Birmingham universities, decided to ban the church from canvassing itsstudents.
But groups have been set up in Manchester, Bristol and other university towns.
Because of adverse publicity name changes have taken place and may cause confusion, the CLCC is also known as North (South) London Christian Fellowship, or Manchester Christian Church.
Church services are described as “lively.” The cult offers its members a strong sense of community and belonging. There is a sense of elitism (after all, provided they stick to the rules, members are the only ones in the world who are ‘saved’). A firm authority structure means there is no need for decision making.
This mother has received a good deal of support from FAIR, a London-based group which offers counselling and support to families as well as individuals who have been adversely affected by cult involvements. It publishes a quarterly newsletter; it also provides fact sheets and specialist information on cults and their characteristics.
FAIR was founded in 1976 in response to requests for help and information from distressed relatives and friends of young adults who had joined extremist cults. It is a voluntary body, composed of parents, ex-cultists, doctors, clergy and other concerned persons.
FAIR is not committed to any specific religious or political stance and does not approach the problem of cult involvement from an academic or doctrinal angle, but sees it in the Human Rights and Social Concern context.
“FAIR does not seek to convert cult members to any other belief. It merely aims to restore them to that state of mind in which rational judgements can be made,” explained its secretary, Mrs Ursula MacKenzie.
Among other things FAIR publishes a useful guide to relatives on how to react if you are concerned about a young person’s involvement with a cult.
- Do everything you can to keep in touch with your relative. Keep on writing and phoning even if there is little or no response.
- Try to make sure that your manner is calm and affectionate.
- Try to find out why your relative has joined a cult. What are they seeking?
- Be informed about the cult. FAIR can usually provide information.
- Try to get your relative to think and question for himself. It may be helpful to produce evidence of the number of Messianic leaders at large at the moment and their extraordinary wealth.
Many young people are attracted and held by the warmth and acceptance of the group they have joined, and the opportunity offered by communal life to escape the problems and difficulties to be faced in the world outside. Could your relative have joined to escape painful problems?
If a son or daughter comes hom for a visit do all you can to renew their former friendships and memories of the past. Tell them what is going on in the world, particularly the good things. It is important for cult members to be reminded that the cult does not hold a monopoly of goodwill or religious feeling and their claims to be reforming the world have yet to be substantiated.
In the end it is up to your relative to decide whether or not to join a cult.
For further details contact FAIR, BCM Box 3535, PO Box 12, London WC1N 3XX. Or telephone 0181 539 3940