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By Clinton MacSherry
Baltimore Free Press
May 15 – May 21, 1997
Cover Illustration by John Kachik
Photos by Louis Rosenstock
Baltimore County-based Friends of Freedom wants to fight for your right to keep the faith – any faith – despite anything a derogrammer might try to tell you. But cult watchers claim the group is merely an attack dog serving destructive sects, such as east Baltimore's Greater Grace World Outreach, that make it their business to mess with minds. Both sides say they're trying to protect the innocent, and both are waging unholy war against each other.
Around 7:30 on a warm Wednesday evening, the retail stores appear nearly deserted in Frankford Plaza, a slightly run down shopping center on Moravia Park Drive in East Baltimore. But cars are rapidly filling the parking lot, and people – mostly young, white, and neatly dressed – are streaming into the former supermarket that now houses Greater Grace World Outreach. Inside, there's an enormous hall for church services and separate space for Greater Grace's administrative offices. Located next door is the Maryland Bible College and Seminary, an institution with approximately 400 students that's unofficially affiliated with Greater Grace. Elsewhere in the shopping plaza are the Greater Grace Christian Academy, a private school with roughly 275 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and Greater Grace's Fellowship Hall, which occupies the site of a former chain restaurant franchise.
In the church hall, a congregation of close to 1,000 people waits for the Wednesday evening service to get underway. The dull bluish gray of the carpeting and seat covers contrasts with the colorful assortment of state and national flags that hang around the room. Some parents and children mill around the back of the room, while nearly 30 musicians stand on a long platform in the front of the hall playing soft music.
With his head bowed and his eyes closed, a man standing at a podium in the center of the platform prays quietly into a microphone. After a few minutes, he finishes and steps away. A moment later, another man approaches the podium and opens the service with a greeting to the congregation.
During the first half-hour or so of the service that follows, prayers and church announcements are interspersed with music, light, country-tinged songs with Christian-oriented lyrics. Then Pastor Carl Stevens, founder and spiritual leader of Greater Grace, rises from his chair on the right side of the platform to preach. First, however, he notes that he's about to embark on a trip to visit Greater Grace missions in Finland, Russia, and Hungary. He asks the congregation to help “balance the budget” when it's time to make an offering.
Stevens' sermon centers on his exegesis of a selection from the New Testament. He identifies a theme – “holiness precedes love” – and repeats it frequently. He draws an anecdote from his own life to illustrate a point about “making tough decisions based on absolute conviction.” Many people in the congregation take notes as he speaks. Stevens preaches in a soft, paternal voice; he sounds like Eight Is Enough's Dick Van Patten with a New England accent. His tone is monotonous in a soothing sort of way, rarely rising or falling for dramatic effect. He makes a pitch for attendance at the “rap”, a group discussion that will follow later in the evening, and brings the service to a close around 9:15.
From outward appearances, Greater Grace is nothing more or less than it declaers itself to be: “a fundamental, evangelical, Bible-believing church… a New Testament church,” in the words of church spokesman Daniel Lewis. As an independent church, Greater Grace is not part of a larger denomination, but “our doctrine is very Baptistic,” notes Lewis. He says that the church routinely draws 1,500 people to its Sunday morning and Sunday evening services, and another 900 to 1,000 for services on Wednesday evenings. Headquartered in Baltimore, Greater Grace claims to have 250 satellite ministries around the United States, plus 50 missions in other countries. The church does not consider people who attend its services to be members, per se, and Lewis says that national and worldwide attendance has never been counted.
Greater Grace has evolved from a ministry established in the early 60s by Carl Stevens, a former tannery worker and bakery truck driver, in rural Maine. An often quoted passage from a booklet published by some of Stevens’ early followers (but never sanctioned by the church according to Lewis) describes a crucial point in Stevens' life at the time: “God called him one day to the back of the woods near a lake. Then the Lord Jesus baptized him with what Pastor described as liquid waves of love. Along with this experience, God promised him several things. First and foremost, God promised an anointing upon every message he would preach from then on.”
During the 60s and early 70s, Stevens preached and served as pastor at churches in a succession of small Maine towns. By 1968, according to a report in a 1987 issue of New England Monthly, Stevens' services “were drawing as many as five hundred believers.… The congregation was an eclectic mix of older families and counterculture Jesus freaks.” He began a radio ministry (which continues today as The Grace Hour, broadcast locally on WFEL-AM, 10 to 11 a.m., Monday through Friday). In South Berwick, Maine, in 1973, Stevens launched The Bible Speaks, a multifaceted church organization that included the Northeast School of the Bible and a “bus ministry” to provide outreach to rural children.
In 1976, The Bible Speaks purchased the campus of a defunct private school in Lenox, Massachusetts, and several hundred of Stevens' followers reportedly moved there from Maine. In Lenox, as a 1987 Boston Globe Magazine article pointed out, the Northeast School of the Bible became known as Stevens School of the Bible. The day school for children was named the Stevens School. According to a researcher for the California-based Christian Research Institute (CRI), “The Bible Speaks was becoming the biggest [evangelical) ministry in New England.”
Following the 1978 tragedy in Jonestown, Guyana (in which more than 900 people committed suicide or were killed under orders from People's Temple leader Jim Jones), many out-of-the-mainstream religious groups came under increasing scrutiny. But Stevens' teachings and the devotional demands he placed on his congregations had already stirred some degree of controversy at different points in his career. CRI, a cult-research organization with an evangelical Christian orientation, had already been receiving negative reports about The Bible Speaks from former members and other evangelical groups, and in early 1979, CRI began an investigation of The Bible Speaks in cooperation with church officials. The investigation led to an initial report in 1980 and a follow-up in 1983.
While both reports credited The Bible Speaks with saving many souls and praised the sincerity of individual church members, the reports also presented considerable evidence of what CRI termed “errant concepts of leadership,” “authoritarianism,” and “excessive devotion of some members to Stevens and other leaders.” Making extensive use of quotations from Stevens' sermons and published writings, CRl took particular issue with The Bible Speaks' concepts of “anointing” and “delegated authority” (which CRI said exalted Stevens as an elite man of God deserving of unquestioned obedience), and with Stevens' “elaborate theology apparently calculated to suppress criticisms of his ministry that were being voiced by some of his former followers.”
In 1983, CRI noted that The Bible Speaks appeared to have “made some effort to change.” However, the report stated, “we believe sufficient action has not been taken to counter the unhealthy psychospiritual situation that [the teachings] helped to establish.... The ultimate problem is more an attitude in Carl Steven, which he has passed on in various degrees to many of his associates. This attitude has been directly responsible for abuses of power.”
CRI concluded that “there arc currents within the organization that are quite orthodox and evangelical, and there are other currents that have definite cultic tendencies. The decisive question has always been – which element within the organization will ultimately prevail?... [Stevens] has had this excessive, exaggerated view of his own importance, mission, and authority which has bordered, in some respects, upon the attitude that is typically found in cults.
Four years after the final CRI report, The Bible Speaks found itself the subject of a more secular evaluation. According to court records and press accounts, Elizabeth Dayton Dovydenas, a young heiress to a department store fortune, had moved to the Lenox area from Chicago with her husband and baby in 1981. Dovydenas, who disliked many of the staid conventions of her upperclass upbringing and was attracted to more spontaneous forms of religious expression, was introduced to The Bible Speaks the next year by her housekeeper. She and her husband attended a few services; impressed by what they saw, they dropped a check for $600 in the collection basket during one service. Shortly afterward, two ministers from the church paid them a visit. Later. Stevens dropped by for talk.
Though her husband soon pulled away from the church, Dovydenas was gradually drawn into it more deeply. She took courses at the Stevens School of the Bible and became a zealous church worker. She also received private counseling from Stevens and became close friends with Stevens' fiancee (later his wife) and a church bookkeeper. In 1984, she donated $1 million to The Bible Speaks. She and her husband fought over the gift. When she gave the church $5.6 million the next year, she didn't tell her husband, though he and her family later learned of it. At the end of 1985, Dovydenas revised her will, making The Bible Speaks her primary beneficiary.
In early 1986, Dovydenas was lured to a rented house in Minnesota, ostensibly for a surprise party for her father. Along with Dovydenas family, David Clark was present. Clark, a Philadelphian, performs what some would call “deprogramming” – Clark himself uses the term “exit counseling.”
After five-and-a-half days of exit counseling, Dovydenas decided to break from The Bible Speaks. Before leaving Minnesota, she again rewrote her will, this time cutting out the church.
Later that year, concluding that she had been unethically manipulated by Stevens, Dovydenas considered filing suit to recover her donations. In an attempt to preempt any legal action on her part, The Bible Speaks asked a Massachusetts state court to declare that the gifts were legitimate. The church's request was dismissed, and Dovydenas filed suit seeking damages and restitution of the donations, on the grounds of undue influence. Church spokesman Daniel Lewis says The Bible Speaks then filed for bankruptcy because its attorneys “felt that was the easiest way to protect the assets.” Dovydenas, in turn, filed a claim for restitution in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
In a strongly worded decision issued in May 1987, Judge James F Queenan, Jr., sided with Dovydenas. Her contributions….
…..deliberate deception by Stevens and others. (Queenan noted that after the $1 million donation in 1984, for example, Dovydenas was told that the gift had led to a miraculous cure of a migraine condition from which Stevens' wife suffered, when in fact the condition persisted. By leading Dovydenas to believe otherwise, Queenan wrote, Stevens and his wife attempted to convince her that she was “anointed by God to promote good through gifts of her money to the Church” and should therefore continue to give generously.)
Queenan stated that the case had revealed “an astonishing saga of clerical deceit, avarice, and subjugation on the part of the Church's founder, Carl H. Stevens,” and awarded Dovydenas $6.6 million. In subsequent appeals, the church succeeded in having the amount reduced to $5.5 million. The Bible Speaks ultimately sought an appeal before the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. According to a recent report in a Lenox area newspaper, Dovydenas has managed to recover between $4 million and $5 million, although the amount does not take into account legal expenses and other costs from her action against the church.
Church representatives have argued that Dovydenas was turned against The Bible Speaks by a family that resorted to “deprogramming” out of embarrassment and greed. To this day, the church challenges the validity of Queenan's ruling. “It was a gross violation of our constitutional rights, absolutely,” says Greater Grace's Lewis. “We have clearly proven over the history of this particular ministry that we have helped people. We have done what we could to be fair and honest.”
Within a few weeks of the announcement of Queenan's decision, Carl Stevens left Lenox for a satellite Bible Speaks church in Baltimore. Shortly afterward, the Lenox campus closed, and many of Stevens followers relocated to this area. (Estimates are disputed, but the number of followers has been pegged at a few hundred.) In July 1987, Greater Grace World Outreach filed articles of incorporation with the State of Maryland. Carl Stevens and other church members signed the articles of incorporation. A man named George Robertson was listed as Greater Grace's resident agent.
George Robertson says Greater Grace is his place of worship. Additionally, he teaches religious education at the Maryland Bible College and Seminary, and he is executive vice president of the Cockeysville based Friends of Freedom, which he describes as an “association of ministers” with a very specific objective….
….Deprogramming, as Robertson defines it, is “the process of taking someone and holding them against their will in an effort to change their freely chosen religious beliefs, political beliefs, or whatever beliefs by means of this psychological harassment, haranguement, even torture."
Robertson has a horror story to tell – not his own, not anybody's in particular, but one that he claims is typical of what happens in deprogramming. “Its like you're leaving work today,” Robertson says, “and somebody pulls up in a black van and absolutely snatches you. And they hold you in a basement of a house or something in a remote area, Harford County or wherever, for five days – or in one case I know of, as much as eighty-three days.”
“You're captive, not able to see the light of day, not able to call anybody, not able to talk to anybody, stripped of all rights and all privileges, not even able to go the bathroom by yourself. And you're constantly barraged by a team of people parading in and out, invading on your privacy, constantly badgering you, harassing you, haranguing you with verbal abuse, cussing at you, taking those things which you hold dear to your belief system and ripping them to shreds, and bringing you to the point where you feel that there's just no way out of this except to go along with them. It's not right. I mean, I consider this as serious a crime as there can be.... No one has the right to kidnap a twenty-five, thirty, forty year old person off the street, hold them against their will, and put them through psychological torture to get them to recant their beliefs.”
Though Robertson doesn't force the comparison, the scenario he's just described bears a resemblance to a recent case in Boise. Last November 20, according to reports in The Idaho Statesman newspaper, LaVerne Collins was allegedly abducted from her home by people posing as pizza deliverers. During the week that followed, Collins later said, she was shuttled between different homes and hotel rooms by people attempting to force her to abandon her religion. (A 39-year-old mother of four, Collins is a member of the Montana-based Church Universal and Triumphant, a group described by some observers as a cult. The Church Universal and Triumphant is best known for its underground bomb shelter near Yellowstone National Park.)
Collins returned home on November 27. That same day, her mother and sister were arrested and charged with kidnapping. Since that time, seven other people (including two or three alleged ‘deprogrammers') have been charged in connection with the case. Trials are scheduled to begin in September.
According to press reports, Collins was physically unharmed and spiritually unshaken by her ordeal. “The deprogrammers held her for days,” says Robertson. “She was rock solid and did not break down. They finally said 'This isn't worth it' and let her go.”
But that is not usually the outcome, Robertson notes grimly. By his estimate (albeit one that's subject to dispute), approximately 400 to 750 forcible deprogrammings take place each year, and 90 to 95 percent of them are successful. “This is a crucial, crucial issue in America today,” he states.
The rhetoric of Robertson and his organization rings with references to freedom of religion. A Friends of Freedom pamphlet notes that many of the Europeans who colonized this country came specifically to escape religious persecution in their homeland. The pamphlet quotes Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Robertson also cites divine authority. “God has given us free choice,” he says. “Nobody has a right to take that away from us – nobody.... I believe it's constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. I don't believe that [the First Amendment] merely restricts government from being opposed to or doing anything to help, hinder, or promote religion, but also individuals – after all, government is made up of individuals.... And based on what [new Supreme Court Justice Clarence] Thomas calls 'natural law,' I don't think that an adult individual his a right to impose or restrict or hinder another individual's right to believe. Religion is like politics – it's very near and dear to our hearts to be able to choose what we read, what we see, what our religious beliefs are, what our political leanings are.... I'm very definitely a freedom advocate.”
Critics of Friends of Freedom – primarily members of the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), a national nonprofit advocacy organization headquartered in Chicago – agree that free choice is very much the issue. But they contend that Friends of Freedom is an apologist, even a front, for cults that use mind-control techniques to manipulate and exploit their members. Through deceptive recruiting methods, CAN members and others argue, cults introduce vulnerable individuals into environments in which their access to objective information is restricted and their abilities to think and judge independently are impaired. Critics say that while cults may claim freedom of religion, they in fact trample the free will of their members, who often wind up with horror stories of their own-lost money.
Steven Hassan, a former member of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church who was deprogrammed in 1976 and who now practices exit counseling, summarizes the issue in his book, Combating Cult Mind Control. “I fully support people's rights to believe what they choose, no matter how bizarre or unorthodox their beliefs. If people want to believe that Moon is the Messiah, that is their right. However – and this is a crucial point – people should be protected from processes that make them believe Mr. Moon is the Messiah.... It is ironic that the United States, a country that cherishes freedom and liberty, does more to protect a person from sales pressure at a used-car lot than from organizations whose intent is to cripple a person's ability to act for himself.”
To a large extent, Friends of Freedom, CAN, and their allies on either side of the issue are dueling with definitions. Terms such as cult, mind control and deprogramming and mind control are both loaded and slippery. As Robertson puts it, “Everybody's a Cult. Is City Paper a cult newspaper? I bet the Sunday papers sure think so. I've not yet found an organized group that does net have some other group that they think is a cult.... Heretic might be a better word. Sects may be a better word. Aberrant may be a better word, as far as describing those people who have gone out from us and don't want to believe like we do.”
Intolerance, says Robertson, can be more dangerous than the behavior of groups perceived to be cults. Citing the example of Jonestown, Robertson says, “Jones would have never left the United States and gone to Guyana in the first place if it hadn't been for pressure put on him by the [anticult] people in California at the time. I hold them as much responsible for the deaths in Jonestown as Jim Jones himself.... I don't excuse what Jim Jones did. I definitely think Jonestown was a travesty.
“So was Masada [a fortress in Israel in which First-Century Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans]. So were a number of other things that have been done in the name of religion over the years. But the fact of the matter is that it's not an excuse to go around kidnapping people from some local church, or even from the Scientologists or the Moonies, and deprogramming them.”
CAN executive director Cynthia Kisser agrees that the term cult can be used broadly. “There are many organized groups that may have odd beliefs,” Kisser says. “There could be a cult made up of people who revere Elvis – traveling to Memphis, holding candlelight vigils outside of his mansion on his birth date. But it's clear as to what their purpose is. They're not overly harmful. They may be cults in the classic sense of the word but they're not destructive. On the other hand, you have groups that CAN defines as destructive cults. We look for two criteria in offering that definition: number one, it is unethical and deceptive in how it recruits and indoctrinates its members; and number two, it uses behavior-modification techniques, or mind-control techniques, on the recruits without their consent or knowledge. CAN and other cult watchers generally divide destructive cults into four (sometimes overlapping) types: religious cults, political cults, therapy cults, and commercial cults.
Chip Berlet, an analyst with the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Political Research Associates, which studies authoritarianism and right-wing cults, says that “the key” in defining cults “is deception. One of the hallmarks of cults is that whatever they call themselves at a given time, they tend to reinvent themselves, rewrite their history, and change their name a lot. But basically, it's the same core group, with one or a handful of leaders. There's an authoritarian hierarchy in which all knowledge flows from the top down, and they usually misrepresent the amount of the freedom that exists inside. And there's deception about what's expected of you after you're inside. That's why the U.S. Marines and the Catholic Church are not cults. The Marines aren't saying 'Boy, have we got a summer camp for you!' and then when you show up, it's boot camp. The Catholic Church isn't saying 'We don't expect much from you.'“
The mind-control aspect of CAN's destructive-cult definition is more difficult to demonstrate. Steven Hassan concedes in Combating Cult Mind Control that it is “scientifically impossible to determine whether a person is under mind control.” But Hassan notes that mind control often goes unrecognized because it is confused with brainwashing, a coercive process usually involving direct physical abuse. Brainwashing has been used on prisoners of war. for example, to induce them to denounce their countries and confess to fabricated war crimes. Mind control, as practiced by destructive cults, says Hassan, is both more subtle and more deeply internalized by the victim than brainwashing.
The explanations of mind control offered by Hassan and others vary in some particulars, but there are several common elements. Contrary to popular conception, people victimized by mind control arc not necessarily unintelligent or inherently gullible. However, they are usually in vulnerable or transitional stages of their lives away from home for the first time, for example, or suffering through the breakup of a relationship. They are typically approached and befriended by a cult group discussion or a Bible study.
If they attend, they are subjected to what is known among cult watchers as “love bombing.” Says Chip Berlet, “All cults use love bombing – making the new person the focused center of attention. The person is brought into the group in a familial way. That's the cult framework: they build a family around that person so that the person transfers loyalty to the group. Then it becomes a betrayal to leave.”
Once recruited, cult watchers say, new members are gradually removed from their normal environments and routines for increasing periods of time – through either out-of-town retreats or a heavy schedule of activities designed to keep them preoccupied with group business. As new members become more deeply involved with group activities, they become increasingly isolated from the “impurities” of outside people and concerns. New members may undergo individual or group counseling (and confess to sins or reveal personal information that's later used to manipulate them). In some cases, through lengthy, repetitive lectures or services, members are subjected to a form of hypnosis and placed in a suggestible state. They're regaled with jargon specific to the group's doctrine, which is valued and emphasized over personal thoughts or experiences. They are instructed to ignore negative evaluations from “biased” outsiders and may also be encouraged to move in with other group members and donate labor or money to the group.
Robertson and others point our that many of the traits used by critics to characterize cults could apply equally to a wide range of legitimate groups, especially religious organizations. “Looking at some of those criteria, you'd have to say that they're true of a lot of religions,” says Stuart Comsttock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland. `There's confession, certainly, and lots of religious groups go on retreats. Every religion has its own special phrases and [stresses] doctrine over the personal.... All religion is about convincing people that your God is the God.”
“Granted,” explains Robertson, “there's a great deal of influence out there. There's influence from newspapers, and there's influence from political parties, and there's influence from religion. But to start restricting that influence, I think, starts infringing upon our basic, God-given rights, and I don't think anybody should interfere with that.” Even in cases in which a person chooses to accept a religion that he or she later rejects as a negative influence, says Robertson, “we all have the right to make mistakes.”
Doris Quelet, vice president of CAN's Baltimore chapter (one of 22 CAN affiliates around the country), counters that “something's happening [in cults] that goes far beyond a normal church experience. These are groups that habitually work you or involve you in so many church activities and teachings and Bible groups and that kind of thing that your leisure time is completely taken up. You are indoctrinated in a way that excludes receiving any other information from any other source. They exhaust you, they burn you out, and you don't get to personally reflect on your own. They also create a dependency on the group so that disassociating from it is extremely painful for people.”
Such manipulation is rarely explicit, says Quelet. Instead, she adds, “there's great pressure exerted to make you understand what decisions the group expects you to make. They don't hold a gun to your head and say 'You must do this.' They do it in a very kind, gentle way, and they present those who are obedient to the group as the truly good people. They take away your options in such a subtle way that you don't realize that you have not really used your own decision making.”
While legitimate organizations may use similar tactics to indoctrinate members, adds CAN's Kisser, “the difference is that is all disclosed initially. You know going into it that you're going to have a rigid schedule. Any legitimate organization – be it a religious organization, a political organization, a military organization – is clear about what they are doing. You know the limits to it, and they stick to those limits.”
Citing religious orders as an example, Kisser continues: “You are frequently asked as you proceed through [initiation] to examine your commitment, and if you have the least bit of doubt, you are encouraged to not take your final vows and not make the commitment. In a cult, all that is kept from you until you are sufficiently under the influence of the group. Then you begin to have [doctrines] suggested to you, and by that point you no longer see them for what they are.”
While Friends of Freedom, CAN, and their respective supporters dispute the nature and extent of deprogramming/exit counseling, they agree that the process was pioneered by Ted Patrick, in California, in the early 1970s. As it was commonly practiced at that time, deprogramming involved abducting and holding cult members against their will while the deprogrammer aggressively challenged the validity of the cult member’s beliefs. As a result, early deprogrammers (as well as those who continue the practice)….
….charges brought by cult members who were unsuccessfully deprogrammed. Patrick, for example, has reportedly been arrested on numerous occasions and was convicted at least once on criminal charges related to deprogramming. Other deprogrammers have faced civil suits filed by cults or cult members. Although cumulative statistics are not readily available, sources on both sides of the issue estimate that there have been 10 to 20 court rulings against deprogrammers over the put two decades.
But according to many people in the anticult movement, forcible deprogramming has fallen increasingly out of favor since the 70s – partly due to the threat of legal action against deprogrammers and partly due to the emergence of nonceoercive exit-counseling methods that some consider more ethical and more effective.
Doris Quelet of CAN 's Baltimore affiliate says that the exit-counseling process is typically initiated by concerned parents seeking information about groups that their children have joined. (While that has traditionally been the scenario, says CAN's Kisser, “I think that it's changing – we're getting more and more spouses calling us about a partner who has entered a cult.) If the group in question is one “that we consider a destructive cult from the information we have received,” adds Quelet, “of course they want to know what they can do about that or how they should talk to their child. I always encourage parents when they have a problem of this kind to get all the information that they possibly can get and not to make any decisions about what they're going to do about it impulsively. Cults are very much into alienating young people from parents who disapprove of the group, and if you can learn how to talk to your loved one in the group in a nonthreatening way, sometimes you can get them to run on their critical-thinking abilities.”
If parents find the young person “unreachable,” says Quelet, “we will recommend [professional] exit counseling for them. We do not recommend anything illegal, which of course is what the cults would like to accuse us of. Exit counseling is really presenting information to people that these groups very skillfully withhold from them. What we recommend is that the person be asked to be willing to receive the information, and you give them guarantees up front. You tell them 'What you choose to do is entirely up to you.' The presentation of the information can in no way be coercive. You must give them the information and let it do its work – let the person make the determination on their own as to what part of that information applies to them.
Although in exit counseling cult members are not kidnapped or detained against their will….
….much the same as in deprogramming, see Kisser. “It usually involves three components,” she notes. “Number one is giving basic information about the group in question. Number two is providing informal on mind-control techniques and how they operate so that parallels can be drawn, if they're there, between the [person's experience in the] specific group and how the techniques work in that group. And numbee three, it generally involves an overview of other groups that are considered by most people to be destructive cults and an examination of how those techniques might be used in those groups.”
Most exit counselors arc themselves former members of cults. For assistance in some parts of the counseling process, they may bring in a former member of the same group to which the person receiving the counseling belongs. Exit counseling usual takes three to five days, and counseling fees can range from $300 to S 1,000 per day plus expenses, depending on the counselor says Quelet. Forcible deprogramming, in comparison, often takes more time and can involve sums ranging from $25,000 to $50,000. Exit counselor David Clark explains that the cost disparity is based on the legal risks involved in deprogramming and the “composite costs” of hiring a team to kidnap and detain the cult member.
Robertson says he appreciates exit counselors who work in strictly voluntary counseling situations. “As a matter of fact,' he says, “when potential victims contact me because they think they may be deprogrammed, I tell them 'If you don t want to go through that, if at any point in time you don't want to hear it, you just tell them you demand to be released, and if they do not release you, they arc then liable for detainment and/or kidnapping.'“
However, Robertson adds that the distinction between exit counseling and deprogramming generally breaks down in practice. “From our perspective, there is [usually] no difference whatsoever,” he states. Although exit counselors may claim to operate only in voluntary situations, he notes, many condone or participate in ruses designed to get a cult member in a setting in which exit counseling can take place. Like Elizabeth Dovydenas, the group member may be asked to join his or her family for a birthday celebration or a weekend vacation, only to discover the family has in fact planned an exit-counseling session.
“If someone deceives people in order to gee them into an isolated situation and bombard them with all this antireligious litrature and videotapes and what have you to convince them to leave their belief system,” says Robertson, “I believe that's at the very best unethical proselytizing, even inviting them into some other group or into CAN....The deception is justified on the basis of 'Well, they wouldn't be in that group if they weren't deceived in the first place.' That's not necessarily true.”
And despite exit counselors' claims that people arc free to leave the process at any time, Robertson asserts that “in many cases, I've found they are not led to believe that they could go if they wanted to. There's an intimidation-type thing that takes place, a la prisoner-of-war-type thing. It's that kind of a feeling that takes place there, even though there may not be actual physical restraints.”
While cult opponents say almost universally that they disapprove of using deceptive means to bring a cult member into exit counseling, many seem to regard it as a necessary evil.
“I personally abhor deception,” says exit counselor Steven Hassan. “1 would always prefer that the person know everything in advance. But the problem is that the groups – especially the well-formed groups – indoctrinate their people to counter any measure that would get them out of the group. A lot of these people already know my name, so if their parents ask them to meet with me, the person tells the group. Then they're pressured not to meet with me and to break off relations with the family.” (When cult members do visit their families, they often bring a friend from the cult as a precaution, or make periodic calls back to the group, says Quelet.)
Hassan says he sometimes tries to have the family “set up a dialogue” without necessarily informing the cult member that Hassan has been asked to help. “I may get them to talk in the morning,” he says, “to see if the person will be willing to talk with me later that day. I will not come in until the person agrees to meet with me.” Hassan likens this approach to family interventions in drug- and alcohol-abuse cases. And while he admits that families may psychologically pressure a member to undergo exit counseling, he says that it's quite different from the forceful “intimidation” Robertson describes. “Maybe something like guilt is used, in the sense that a family will say 'Please don't walk out on us,’” Hassan notes, “but that's how people interact in families anyway.”
Whether the use of deception is ethically justifiable in such cases “is difficult to answer in the abstract,” says Kisser. “How a family handles a cult-related problem, assuming they're not doing anything criminal, is a family matter. I don't think it's appropriate for us to say 'Use this strategy' or 'Don't use that strategy' As long as parents are not resorting to anything criminal, I think that's really a family decision.”
No hard data exists showing the number of deprogrammings and exit-counseling procedures in this country, but there is a tough consensus on some estimated figures: 30 to 60 practitioners, 15 to 25 of whom practice full-time, performing 500 to 1,000 total procedures per year. There is wide disagreement, however, about how many of those procedures involve coercion. Robertson claims that kidnappings occur in 25 percent of the cases and that an additional 50 percent contain elements of “deceptive coercion –where [group members] have been deceived into participating and then made to feel like they're not allowed to leave or physically restrained from leaving.” In the remaining 25 percent of the cases, says Robertson, group members voluntarily seek out exit counseling.
Most anticult sources maintain that 10 percent or fewer of the procedures are involuntary. According to Bill Alnor, who coauthored a recent critique of ethics in exit counseling for Christian Research Journal, 40 percent of voluntary exit-counseling procedures initially rely on ruses to obtain the participation of the cult member. Exit counselors claim success rates of 90 percent or more, a figure that Robertson acknowledges is probably accurate.
The overwhelming majority of people who leave cults do so of their own accord, without deprogramming or exit counseling. In groups such as “the Scientologists, the Unification Church, the Krishnas,” says Robertson, “there are thousands and thousands who have come and gone.... We arc a very transient religious society these days. We have been for the last ten or fifteen years, and we are becoming more transient all the time. Religion is almost a supermarket type thing these days.”
“If people like CAN and parents would just leave their adult children alone when they get mixed up in a group like the Unification Church or the Scientologists, [a lot of them] would leave on their own. What happens is whenever someone starts challenging you on your beliefs, then you have to start defending them, and that just anchors them that much more in your thinking.... If everyone just leaves you alone, you would probably find out for yourself that it's not for you, it doesn't have the answers you wanted it to have for you, and just walk out the door and leave.”
But Hassan argues that former cult members who have left their groups without benefit of exit counseling “frequently suffer psychological problems and depression. There are huge walking-wounded populations.” Because of the dependency cults instill in their members, adds Quelet, the members “have tremendous stress when they leave.... The thing that people need most of all when they come out of these groups is information on mind control, because they can't understand why they're experiencing the kind of stress they do.”
“They are hurting people, and if they don't get that kind of help, they have a lot of difficulty. The groups really prepare them for failure in the outside world.... It's much easier
if they've had counseling to help them understand the experience and to separate from it more easily.”
Although it is not exit counseling in the formal sense, Quelet says, she and an undetermined number of other cult watchers around the country frequently volunteer to provide some form of informational counseling to former cult members. Still, Quelet says she finds that “most people who leave [a group] do not want to discuss it. A lot of people feel very embarrassed that they've had this experience. They feel like they've been conned.”
The belligerents on both sides of the cult and deprogramming issues hurl charges and countercharges at each other frequently and ferociously. Both sides apparently maintain extensive files on opposing organizations and individuals, and both use the information in attacks that are sometimes personal. Each side, in turn, accuses the other of being extraordinarily vicious.
In person, Robertson alleges that CAN is an organization that coordinates and controls illegal activities and is “the primary agent behind the deprogrammings.” Friends of Freedom literature, which Robertson says he researches and writes, hedges on the subject, stating that CAN officials and staffers “do not, as a part of their official duties for the organization, organize, control, or execute deprogrammings.” However, the literature then goes on to cite anecdotal accounts suggesting CAN “involvement” in the practice.
CAN executive director Kisser steadfastly denies that her organization supports illegal actions associated with deprogramming. “We support all voluntary means,” says Kisser. “[Forcible deprogramming] is criminal. We don't advocate. it, we would never be a parry to it, we would never arrange it for someone.... There are no accusations coming from any other quarter that we're engaged in anything criminal. Robertson's been saying this for years, but I haven't seen him yet convince any federal, state, or local officials in law enforcement that we're worth even a phone call [to investigate his charges].”
Kisser argues that Robertson's attacks on exit counseling and CAN have to be examined in context. “He is trying to focus on a controversial subject that, frankly, is only controversial because the cults whip it up,” she says. Moreover, Kisser claims, Robertson and Friends of Freedom have “direct ties to destructive cults. They have a vested interest in attacking us.' According to Kisser, Robertson's group has received financial support from such cults as the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, and the Church Universal and Triumphant.
Robertson does little to refute this criticism. Beyond very general descriptions of Friends of Freedom's mission, membership, and activities, he is admittedly secretive about the organization. “All you need to know about Friends of Freedom for a newspaper article,” says Robertson, “is that it's an association of ministers who banded together to fight deprogramming.” Secrecy is necessary, he claims, to protect the organization's activities and members from “covert actions” on the part of CAN. “I've seen the results of information getting out and being used, and I'm not about to do that,” he says. “You'll just have to take my word for it.”
There is little else to go on. Friends of Freedom “is not incorporated,” says Robertson, “and it's not incorporated for good reason.... You can go and pick out corporate papers and find out anything you want to about a corporation. You can't do that with an [unincorporated] association.”
According to Robertson, Friends of Freedom “started functioning as a research organization in 1988. It was in 1989 that we became more formally structured. Initially, we were just doing research for different target groups, groups that were under attack by CAN.” Since then, he says, “we have refined our focus to strictly deprogramming.” In addition to its research activities, Robertson says, Friends of Freedom publishes booklets and newsletters, provides information to attorneys prosecuting cases against deprogrammers, and makes speakers available for lectures, press conferences, and media appearances.
“My own personal priority,” says Robertson, “is any area that directly stops a deprogrammer from being involved in a deprogramming.... If I had knowledge that a deprogramming was coming down here in Baltimore tomorrow, I would do whatever I could with whatever means I had to stop it, including probably punching the deprogrammer's lights out if I could.” Robertson claims he's able to thwart 10 to 12 deprogrammings a year, mostly by “counseling parents who were planning to do a deprogramming or hire a deprogrammer.... On other cases where there's been a kidnapping or one is taking place, I've been able to provide information that helped to stop the kidnapping or the deprogramming while it was in progress.” Robertson declines to offer details, saying, “I'm not going to give [deprogrammers] any breaks.
Robertson says that Friends of Freedom has 300 active members and 12 directors, though he names only one, a minister with a Christian TV station in York, Pennsylvania. Friends of Freedom has no paid positions, he adds. He claims that the organization runs on a budget of “less than $10,000 per year, and an awful lot is my own personal funds.” The association also receives some compensation for research and donations from “friends who believe wholeheartedly in what we're doing,” says Robertson, although he refuses to provide more specific funding information.
The secrecy extends to Robertson's own background. A profile of Robertson included in a Friends of Freedom booklet provides little biographical detail, although it states he was ordained a Baptist minister in 1976 and has been a Bible School instructor since 1982. Robertson says he is in his 50s and is originally from the South, but he refuses to discuss his background further.
He claims that CAN uses such information for “character assassination to shift the blame or shift the emphasis from the issue of deprogramming.” For example, when CAN discovered “where I got one of my degrees,” he claims, “three different people called the dean of the school and tried to get the school to rescind my degree. I don't need that kind of harassment, and I'm not going to open myself up to it. And where I have my degree or my ordination has absolutely no relationship to my involvement with Friends of Freedom.... I'm not the issue, [Kisser] isn't the issue, the organizations aren't even the issue. The issue is this business of deprogramming.”
Indeed, CAN has challenged Robertson's ministerial credentials, although Kisser states that CAN could not have made the phone calls Robertson mentions because it knows of no school currently in existence that Robertson attended. (CAN suspects that Robertson spent at least some time at a now-defunct Bible college in Georgia.) Kisser makes no apology for questioning Robertson's background, however. “I think it's perfectly appropriate,” she says, “to ask to see his credentials in terms of his ability and qualifications to speak to the issue.... There's nothing wrong with taking a look at those issues that would directly give insight and understanding into why he holds the positions he does and how credible that position really is.”
According to Kisser, Robertson's questionable credentials and his unwillingness to divulge information about his organizations operation aren't the only things that call his credibility into question. Most important, she asserts, are Robertson's ties to Greater Grace World Outreach, which CAN classifies as a destructive cult.
Greater Grace spokesman Daniel Lewis contends that church leader Carl Stevens has been misunderstood and quoted out of context by CRI, CAN, and others who have criticized his teachings and labeled his ministry a cult. (Reportedly, Stevens himself rarely grants interviews; a phone call to his office was returned by Lewis.) The notion of “anointed messages,” Lewis explains, arises from “a New Testament understanding that the men of God – pastors and teachers – who preach and each [do so] in the power of the Holy Spirit. So the anointing would basically be the same thing as the power of the Holy
Spirit and having a real heart-touching communication that comes through the Holy Spirit.... In other words, [it would be true of] anybody who would be in a position as a pastor and would be obeying the Holy Spirit and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Their messages would have that power of authority.”
Although in that sense Stevens is a man of God, says Lewis, “he's just like anyone else. Obviously, he makes mistakes and has failed, as anyone else would have done. He just believes God, and he's like any one of us who loves God. He's a sinner saved by grace.” Stevens is no more God's voice on Earth “than anyone else who would be teaching and preaching would be considered that,” Lewis says. “In other words, if someone was to...quote the Scriptures and say `This is what God says,' they would be quoting God, not themselves.'”
Asked about charges of mind control and authoritarian teachings by Stevens, Lewis replies, “I'm a responsible individual, and I certainly understand what mind control and brainwashing is, based on what 1 understand from the classic, communist type thing. Furthermore, a superstrong type of delegated authority thing – certainly I would reject that. The thing is I've never felt that way, and I don't think that anyone who's genuinely objective who comes here and listen or sits in on the services or is around [Stevens] or meets any of the people here feels that they're under any of those types of things.” Lewis suggests that critics of Stevens and Greater Grace arc “just a bunch of people either jealous or envious or whatever of church growth.... They want to blame it on something.”
In addition to the church, the radio program, the Christian Academy, and the Bible college, Lewis says, Greater Grace has “a tremendous outreach to the homeless, to the inner-city people. Every week, we give out free food and clothing to the homeless on the streets. We have a bus that goes into the inner dry, we work with the illiterate.... We have twenty-nine Bible clubs, in which we meet Saturdays with children and teach them the Bible – probably 1,200 children easily, from Flag House, Hollander Ridge, all over the city.” The church buses in approximately 200 of those children for Sunday services, Lewis adds. In all, he says, the church engages in more than 60 different outreach programs.
And Lewis proudly points to letters and citations commending Greater Grace on its community service and good works. One (apparently a form letter) is signed by George Bush; others are signed by such officials as Governor William Donald Schaefer and Brenda Pridgen, AIDS coordinator for Mayor Kurt Schmoke.
Doris Quelet of CAN's Baltimore chapter acknowledges that some of Greater Grace's activities benefit the community. And the individual people “within the church,” she says. “really believe they are serving their fellow man and serving God.... Your heart goes out to these people. They're really trying to do a good job.”
On the other hand, Quelet contends that church leaders and Greater Grace as an institution emphasize, above everything else, recruiting new members and expanding Stevens' influence. “The name of the game is getting people in the church,” she says, “because that increases the money and increases the power of the person at the head of it. It makes it look like you're thriving.... They get kids to go to that Bible college and then start a little church someplace, and all of them will have their allegiance to Carl Stevens, and then they will in turn send young people down here to go to school.”
According to Quelet, Greater Grace members “are out beating the bushes for new members every day.” As a result, she says, among cults or cultlike groups that are active locally, “Greater Grace is the one that has the most people.” Recruitment (or “soul winning” as it's called inside Greater Grace) takes place in several ways, Quelet says, primarily through door-to-door neighborhood blitzes or canvassing in busy areas such as the Inner Harbor. The idea behind Greater Grace's Bible clubs and bus ministries, she asserts, “is to get the children, and through the children, to get the parents.” In other cases, recruitment takes place through random encounters. “I know a person who was recruited because he had a flat tire and a couple of recruiters came along,” says Quelet.
Recruiters will typically “invite you to go to the church,” says Quelet, “and they will speak in glowing terms about it and hope that they can get you interested in coming. Most people who go don't have a church affiliation, and these [recruiters] are treating them wonderfully, like they're so interested in them and so glad to have them. Initially, there is a great deal of contact by the person who invited them in – befriending them, taking them under their wing, and keeping in constart touch with them. If they got them to go to a program on Sunday, they call them the next day and invite them to go Wednesday night. There's evangelizing over the phone – sharing their faith with them, making everything there sound so wonderful. They really do a selling job.”
Quelet concedes that most of the people recruited are adults, and they are capable of making their own decisions. “They make a decision to go there, but they don't realize it is a mind-control environment.... It's a gradual process. When you start, you don't realize you're going to be exploited; you're just being invited to participate in things. It isn't long. They create a tremendous amount of enthusiasm amongst the members, but you don't see a lot of what goes on while you're very enthusiastic.... Stevens is [purportedly] speaking to you from God, so you re encouraged to share anything that you have – its looked upon as God's blessing. All churches do this, of course, but [in Greater Grace] there's a great deal of self sacrifice expected as far as time and as far as your material goods. They're mentally segregating you from the rest of the world and constantly asking for contributions for everything.” Quelet and others say that Greater Grace's regular churchgoers arc pressured to tithe – that is, to give 10 percent of their incomes to the church on an ongoing basis.
According to Greater Grace controller David Duff, the church received roughly $2.75 million in income last year and had $2.77 million in expenses. The $20,000 budget deficit was covered by Greater Grace's cash and equity reserves, which at the end of the year stood at $1.21 million. The majority of revenue came from churchgoers’ contributions, the sale of books and tapes through a church bookstore, and donations received in exchange for books and tapes offered to listeners on The Grace Hour; the church’s greatest expenses were incurred in the production of The Grace Hour and the payment of office expenses and salaries for the church's administrative staff.
Lewis denies that Greater Grace pushes the practice of tithing. “The Bible says that you should give a tenth of your income to the church,” he notes. “I don't know how many [churchgoers] do that. I'm sure there’s a measure who do.... Its just a free-will thing. If you choose to tithe, fine; if you don t, fine. There are many people who don't have the (spare] income who come, and obviously they're treated as equals.”
Lewis also says that Steven receives no salary from Greater Grace. (The Sun reported in 1988 that the Parsonage was a $168,000 home near Fallston.) Stevens apparently benefits from the generosity of church supporters in other ways. In 1987, shortly after moving to Baltimore, Stevens reportedly was given an expensive Sterling automobile; currently, says Lewis, Steven receives consulting fees that help cover his living expenses. (Lewis says he does not know for which companies Steven does consulting work, but they are presumably owned or run by Grater Grace members.)
In any case, although Stevens and his church received unflattering press coverage when they first arrived in Baltimore, Greater Grace has for the most part avoided controversy since then. The Maryland Bible College and Seminary, however, ran afoul of the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the Attorney General's Office in 1990. The Bible college is technically an independent nonprofit corporation, although its president, Kent Sutorius, says, 'We see ourselves as an arm to serve the church in terms of teaching and training.” (Most of the approximately 400 students at the Bible college also attend Greater Grace, Sutorius notes. Tuition varies with course load; a full-time student pursuing a degree pays roughly $900 per semester.)
Under Maryland law, postsecondary educational institutions may not operate without approval from the state's Higher Education Commission. The law makes an exception for religious degree-granting institutions that offer “sectarian instruction only designed for and aimed at persons who hold or seek to learn particular religious faiths or beliefs of churches or religious organizations, and [provide] only educational programs for religious vocations.”
Such institutions must declare the religious nature of the education they provide on any certificate or diploma they give to graduates in order to distinguish that degree from an academic diploma awarded by a state-approved school. The exemption from approval exists because “the state doesn't want to interfere if [the instruction program] is something purely religious,” says William Howard, an assistant attorney general who represents the Higher Education Commission.
While the Maryland Bible College and Seminary is certified to operate under the state exemption, it suggested in some of its catalogues that it had in fact been approved by the state. In promotional spots for the Bible college that aired on The Grace Hour, Stevens also referred to the school as state approved. “They were operating within the exemption,” says Howard, “but we wanted it clear that they weren't claiming more [to the Bible College].”
Howard says that the Higher Education Commission received a complaint about the Bible college's inaccurate claim in 1990 from “a member of the public,” whom Howard declines to identify. The commission began investigating and then contacted the Bible college. According to Howard, representatives of the college argued that the error was based on a semantic misunderstanding. They also contended that the school had no control over the radio broadcasts. Howard says the state took no punitive action against the Bible college, but in June 1991 the state and the school signed a legal agreement requiring the school to publish a disclaimer in its catalogues and in other literature, and to attempt to have a similar statement read over the air at least twice on The Grace Hour. (The statement was in fact aired.)
According to Lewis, the matter is settled. “There's a technical terminology involved here,” he says. “The confusion that might have arisen was certainly clarified by our legal counsel. There was some misunderstanding as to the state's definition of us, but it's certainly been cleared up.” Meanwhile, Lewis adds, the Bible college is pursuing recognition from two independent accrediting associations. Accreditation would not necessarily have any bearing on State approval, but it would perhaps allow the Bible college's students to transfer credits to similar institutions and give the school's degree-holders more stature in the community at large.
George Robertson is one of approximately 25 faculty members at the Maryland Bible College and Seminary. In fact. Robertson says he moved to Baltimore (though he declines to say from where) in 1987 “to help start Maryland Bible College and Seminary with Pastor Carl Stevens, who has been a very, very close friend of mine for twelve, fourteen years – a long time. And [Stevens is) a man I admire greatly, a tremendous teacher and a tremendous preacher. I really have had a long admiration for him and have worked with him on a number of projects. I make no bones about that whatsoever. He came to Baltimore – God led him to come to Baltimore when CAN helped destroy the property of the ministry he had in Massachusetts.”
In addition to his faculty position. Robertson is listed as the Bible College's resident agent – the same designation he has with Greater Grace World Outreach – in articles of incorporation that were filed with the state in October 1987. According to Joe Stewaart. an attorney in the state, resident agent may or may not be an officer or a paid employee of a corporation. Technically, Stewart says, a resident agent is obliged only to receive service of process in the event of a lawsuit, complaint. or court summons against the corporation, and to guarantee that the papers are delivered to the proper corporate officials.
Robertson downplays the significance of the designations. “I handle a lot of the corporate affairs for all kinds of nonprofit organizations,” he says. Asked to name some, he replies. “That doesn't matter – just people I've done favors for.”
CAN members frequently assert that Robertson deliberately omits mention of his association with Stevens and Greater Grace when he appears in public or discusses the issue of deprogramming with the media. At the very least, Robertson's critics say, those relationships call into question his claim to be fighting deprogramming purely out of principle, as well as his motives in attacking CAN. More pointedly, Quelet says, “You can't talk about George Robertson or Friends of Freedom without realizing that he is a product of [Greater Grace]. I believe the reason Robertson has formed Friends of Freedom is directly related to the fact that Carl Stevens moved to this area after the demise of [The Bible Speaks].”
Robertson argues that his affiliation with Greater Grace is simply not pertinent. “1 just attend church there,” he says. “1 certainly freely admit that I go there. I always have. I've never denied it, never tried to hide it. I don't go out and say, 'Hi, I'm George Robertson, executive director of Friends of Freedom and a member of Greater Grace World Outreach' because it's irrelevant. It has nothing to do with it. But if anybody asks me – and [CAN] makes great bones about letting everybody in the world know where I teach and go to church – that's fine. I really don't care.”
CAN tries “to intimate that I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if it wasn't for my association with Greater Grace World Outreach, that I'm only involved with Friends
of Freedom to protect Greater Grace, or something like that,” says Robertson. “That has not even a semblance of truth. It has no relationship to my job.”
Greater Grace, he adds, “has historically had less attempts at deprogramming than any other group we work with. Our people, generally speaking, arc very rock solid. There's only been one successful deprogramming attempt. and that's [Dovydenas].... part of that is because I keep our people well prepared, but it's also because we're just not a major target. We really are a run-of-the-mill, fundamentalist, evangclical church. Every church has its critics. Big deal.”
Whether the specific criticism leveled at Robertson and Stevens or Friends of Freedom and Greater Grace has any validity is not entirely the point, notes Stuart Comstock-Gay of the ACLU. “It's been clearly established that some tactics on the part of religious groups go overboard,” he says, “but that doesn't mean you can throw out religious freedoms.
“On the other hand, I don't object to CAN saying 'Be careful about this or that religious group – we think they're dishonest and we think they mislead people.' In the first place, the First Amendment allows them to say that. And secondly, religion is a very powerful force. In a lot of cases, people who get involved in religious groups may not be aware of how powerful they can be. A little skepticism about religions of all sorts is a good thing.”
Side – Article I
Jill Came Tumbling Down
Jill remembers the first night she spent at the Stevens School of the Bible in Lenox, Massachusetts. She was 18 at the time, and she'd just had what she calls a “horrendous” confrontation with her parents, who couldn't understand why she was dropping out of college to attend the unaccredited Bible school. A close friend who was already a student in Lenox – the same friend who had gently prodded Jill to be “saved” during their last year in high school – drove to her parents' home to help her move. “I had to take everything with me from my home that I wanted,” she says, “and I just went.”
Jill (who asks that her real name not be used and that some identifiable details of her experience remain off the record) arrived at the Lenox campus late in the day. “I was just put in a girls' dorm,” she says. “There were ten of us who lived in this one section. We had iron bunk beds with the real thin mattresses....I met the dorm head – an older student who fit the stereotype of what a woman was supposed to be in that group – and she sort of told me where to put my things and where to sleep and sort of the general rules that I'd be expected to follow, and I met a few of the other girls who were there.... People were very friendly in the beginning, but if you couldn't keep up, it didn't take long for the negative stuff to start setting in.”
In the days that followed her arrival, “I was approached by the dorm head,” Jill says. “It was like, 'You're listening to rock; don't you know that's wrong?' It just started in right away. Wearing dungarees and sneakers and T-shirts wasn't completely [forbidden] – I was never told 'You can't wear those.' It was just encouraged that you didn't. A lot of it was very subtle in the beginning.”
The Bible college's regimentation surprised her. “If you left the dorm,” she says, “you were supposed to sign the sign-out sheet – where you were going, who you were going to be with, and what time you were going to be back... When we signed up for classes, we had to submit a schedule showing by the half-hour what we were doing – when we were in class, when we were studying, when we were sleeping, when we were doing our dorm chores, when we were showering. They wanted everything on there.... They had dorm inspections to make sure that you'd made your bed correctly and your clothes were neat and you didn't have the wrong kind of things in your room.”
In addition to going to school, Jill says, she and most other students had to work full-time on campus or in Lenox to pay their tuition bills. It was taken for granted that she'd attend church services and group discussions (called “raps”) and participate in outreach. “Everything was within the group,” Jill says. “It wasn't like you could say your outreach was volunteering at the Methodist soup kitchen down the street.... You were exhausted. You were kept completely busy. If you had any free time, they had something to fill it with.”
Messages that students received in the classroom were reinforced in nonacademic
activities, and vice versa. “One of the basic classes you had to take as a freshman was
Introduction to Theology,” says Jill. “They had one [course] for the guys and one for
the women.... We were taught that a godly woman was submissive and that you had to have a [spiritual] 'covering.' If you were single, it was your pastor; if you were married, it was your husband, and he was accountable to the pastor. There was a chain of authority, and if you were a woman, you were the lowest, unless you were a child.” Much of the teaching in the course “had nothing to do with theology,” Jill adds. “It was like, 'Should you spend your time with unsaved friends? Well, what are the dangers? They can pull you away from your calling. You'll end up worldly and backslide if you get too involved with them.'... 'In what order should you pay your bills?' - that question was on my final exam. The answer is you tithe first – God expects that – then you pay your tuition and any bills that you owe the school; then if you have outside bills, you pay those; and if you have anything left over, you can give it in the offering.”
From the outset, Jill says, “I didn't like it, but I went along with it. I really didn't feel I had much choice.” Having fought bitterly with her parents, she didn't feel she could return home. Moreover, students were taught both subtly and explicitly to repress criticism. “You'd get the message from class or from the pulpit,” she says, “about people who were complaining; things were the way they were for a reason – it was so you wouldn't be so pampered and selfish.”
Though Jill now believes her feelings were shared by other students, she says that at the time, “everyone else was so positive about it that I felt kind of guilty for not liking it, so I didn't really say anything or protest. I put the blame on myself, not the group, and tried to work harder to make up for it.”
Despite rules to discourage such things, Jill fell into a romantic relationship with a fellow student and decided to get married. She and her husband lived in a small apartment on campus. Eventually, Jill dropped out of school because she was working too many hours, but she continued to audit classes, attend services, and participate in outreach. “Soul winning” made her extremely uncomfortable, she says, but “as you were there longer, they started wanting you to bring people in. They didn't call it recruiting, but that's what it was.”
The Elizabeth Dayton Dovydcnas case began a few years after Jill had joined The Bible Speaks. She recalls “turmoil” and “a lot of praying among the group during the trial; newspaper boxes were removed from campus. When Carl Stevens moved his ministry to Baltimore, Jill and her family (by now she'd had children) followed. “There was an attitude that people who didn't [move] were somehow backsliding or weren't following God anymore,” she says.
Jill's family settled in Northeast Baltimore, as did other Bible Speaks refugees, and ministry leaders quickly moved to reestablish church activities. But things
were different. “It wasn't like being on campus anymore, being right in the middle of everything all the time,” Jill says. “Now everyone was scattered.” In some ways, she notes, “the pressure was off a little bit; they weren't looking over your shoulder all the time. You had more freedom to question things, to not like things. I could listen to music I wanted to listen to. There was still guilt, but it was a between-you-and God thing.”
In other ways, however, pressure intensified – as if the church were attempting to counter the dispersal of its members with stronger group discipline, Jill Says. The emphasis on attending services and raps and participating in outreach was redoubled. At the same time, Jill was sorely pressed by the demands of raising children, and her husband was working long hours to make ends meet. They saw less of their fellow churchgoers, some of whom grew cold toward them. And Stevens' message was changing too, Jill says – if people were still sinning, his sermons seemed to be saying, perhaps they had never been saved. “That set up an awful lot of doubt and conflict,” Jill says. “For me a depression started to set in.”
Her depression eventually grew severe. At times, Jill felt suicidal. With the support of her husband, she sought counseling outside the church. “My husband recognized the effect things were having on me,” says Jill, “and I was more important to him than the group was, which is unusual. For the men, your calling is supposed to be the most important thing. Couples would break up over something like that.” Counseling was a breakthrough for Jill, she says. Though her counseling didn't pertain directly to her church affiliation, it encouraged her to read material other than what the church prescribed. Gradually, says Jill, “we just kind of decided it wasn't the right place for us, based on the way it was affecting us emotionally, and we stopped going.”
It took a while, Jill says, but she grew curious about her experience in the group. She contacted the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) for information and spoke with Doris Quelet, vice president of CAN's Baltimore chapter. But for the most part, Jill says, the process of coming to terms with her experience has involved “reading stuff on our own, weighing our situation, looking at the [group's] doctrine booklets and class notes and all these things we accumulated and trying to sort it out ourselves.”
Although Jill says her life has been “great” since leaving Greater Grace, there have also been some lingering difficulties. “You have the feeling of 'How could I have ever given all this time to this group?' – blaming myself and trying to sort out the loss,” she notes. “I lost six or seven years.... My whole adult life was in this group, and now I come out and I'm married and I have a family, and I need to find out who I am. What do I believe, what don't I believe?... I was giving [the church] the benefit of the doubt, and there's a lot of anger, because I feel I was taken advantage of.”
Side – Article II
God's Own Singer
Jeff Karowich, 32, grew up in the Detroit area, and as a teenager in the late 70s, he became a part of that city's punk/progressive scene. “I bartended in the first punkrock club in Detroit,” he says. “My girlfriend worked for The Romantics, so I got to know them.... I knew a guy who produced Iggy [Pop].” In 1979, Jeff says “things weren't going well” for him in Detroit, so he hitchhiked to Florida, where his mother had moved previously. He quickly found new hangouts and wound up doing a lot of artwork and interior design for clubs in Miami.
Looking back, he says, “The whole scene was pretty depraved. When you get so heavily involved in it, it's bizarre. It's more than just the music – the scene gets to be your whole life.... There was a lot of sexual promiscuity. I tried every drug imaginable.” Now a student at the Maryland Bible College and Seminary, Jeff says that he was “saved” at the age of 15, “but it takes time till you really get to know God, really get to dialogue with God. Back then, I was just too wild.... My life was corrupt. That's something Christ took me out of.” After seeing the TV movie Jesus of Nazareth, Jeff recalls, “I cried out to the Lord. I said, 'I don't want to live my life this way.'... I was twenty when I recommitted my life to the Lord.”
Jeff joined a nondenominational charismatic Christian church in Florida. Despite some lapses into his previous lifestyle, he always returned to the church. Through a friend he met while working with a Chinese Baptist youth group in Miami in the late 80s, Jeff was introduced to a pastor who had graduated from Greater Grace's Bible college and had gone on to establish an independent ministry. Jeff later accompanied the pastor on a missionary trip to China. “It was in early '90,” he says. “They had just reopened Tiananmen Square.” In Beijing and Shanghai, Jeff met a team of missionaries, some of whom were Greater Grace members, and found that he “liked them because they had fervency, they cared about winning souls for Jesus.” On a train in China, Jeff says, he was first “called” to attend Bible school.
Back in Florida, Jeff tried to determine his next step. He felt attracted to Greater Grace because it was “more evangelical” than the church he belonged to at the time. Jeff spoke to two pastors from different ministries about Greater Grace and received conflicting advice. The pastor who gave him the positive assessment, Jeff says, “told me, 'The devil really hates Greater Grace’” – an apparent reference to the controversies that had plagued the church. “I said, 'That sounds like a good reason to go there.’” He moved to Baltimore in the summer of 1990 and enrolled in the Maryland Bible College and Seminary.
Jeff now lives in the Rosemont neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore with three other Bible school students. During the day, he works as an electrician; four nights a week, he spends three or four hours in classes at the Bible college. On Wednesday nights, the classes are combined with the midweek church service. On Saturdays, Jeff does outreach, frequently on the Block. Between morning and evening services on Sundays, Jeff teaches English to Chinese immigrants.
At the Bible college, he double-majors in theology and missionology, which he defines as `the study of the building of the church ... and being able to interrelate with people in other cultures.' After he graduates in 1994. he hopes to give up his electricians job and return to China as a missionary. In the meantime, he's taking six courses, including The Book of Revelation, Methods of Evangelism, and Survey of Doctrine. He pays $900 in tuition per semester, the standard cost for full-time students enrolled in a four-year program.
The Bible college's lack of accreditation and state approval makes no difference to Jeff. “It's not like somebody in a secular job is going to give a hoot if you have a theology degree, even from an accredited Bible college,” he says. “I have my career.... A Biblical degree is what I wanted.”
Similarly, Jeff puts no stock in the criticism that Greater Grace and its leader, Carl Stevens, have received. “We're a pretty hated ministry,” he says. “That's because we work hard for God. Our emphasis is on making Christians. We don't back off about what the Bible says about your salvation.” Greater Grace isn't the first church to face such challenges, Jeff adds. Different Christian groups have faced persecution throughout history, he notes, even at the hands of other Christians.
Asked about the issues raised in the Christian Research Institute reports and the Elizabeth Dayton Dovydenas trial, Jeff replies, “I don't know the specifics real well, but it doesn't matter much to me. The conduct of the people [in Greater Grace] does not match the accusations. Nobody here is telling anybody to do anything.”
Greater Grace is misunderstood on several levels, Jeff maintains. Of Carl Stevens, Jeff says, “He's just the head pastor. He's the one who started the ministry.” The “anointing' of Steven messages, he adds, is the same “with any pastor. It's like a gift of being able to communicate better. Don’t worry – there are people who fall asleep during his services, just like anybody elses.” And while Greater Grace is accused of heavy-handed recruiting, Jeff argues, “We're not saying go to our church, we're saying go to a church. Were not into growth [as a congregation]. Who wants rabbits? We're on fire for God. That's not for everybody. You've got to be called here, and that's between you and God.”
Nevertheless, the media are quick to report “evil news,” Jeff points out, and groups such as the Cult Awareness Network “do not like charismatic Christians, people winning souls to Jesus – they just dont.”
Despite the negative images others may have of Greater Grace, Jeff says, “I love the church, I love the people here – I really do.... I've been a better Christian because of the love and the consistent example of the staff and the leadership of the church.” While he despises the concept of deprogramming, he doubts that he’ll ever have to combat it personally. “My mother hopes I never leave,” Jeff says. “She's pretty pleased. My life's changed a great deal. I'm not as wild.”
His taste in music has changed too. Jeff says he listens to some “mellow Christian music,” but he really loves listening to jazz. “My flesh – this is just an expression – still likes progressive and hardcore,” he says. “I sort of compromise with jazz.”