Dirty Sects

An Interview With Cult Expert Rick Ross

Synge.com/September 13, 2000
Interviewed By Ekua Hagan

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After his 83-year-old grandmother almost fell prey to a radical religious group in her nursing home, Rick Ross decided to make it his life's work to attack the influence of cults across the country by way of lecturing, consulting, and deprogramming hundreds of cult members. We recently talked to Ross about his work, and specifically those annoying International Churches of Christ people that harassed the hell out of us during our college years.


What happens during a cult-member intervention?

Most typically parents retain me to work with an adult child. I'd say most interventions run about three to four days of actual work, eight hours a day. There are breaks. And there may be an ex-member that may accompany me from that group, or a group like it, though most of the time I work alone. Sometimes I may set up a speakerphone so they can talk to former members. We may watch educational documentaries either about the group or a similar group, and we really dig into how coercive persuasion techniques work-in other words, what's commonly called brainwashing or thought reform.

Don't cult leaders already prepare the members for arguments against their group though?

Not really. Some of the groups that have been around a long time and have dealt with intervention, exposure in the media, and scrutiny by various people, have developed some answers. But most often, even those answers don't stand up well to a dialogue in which they don't control the environment. In other words, when you're in their environment, those answers can stand very easily, because there's no one there to say, "Well that doesn't make much sense given the following facts that we're aware of."

What do you think about the International Churches of Christ [ICC]?

The International Churches of Christ is certainly a group that I get an enormous amount of calls and inquiries about. They're probably the fastest-growing group that has been called a cult in the world. They're currently sitting at about 200,000 members, which is a phenomenal growth considering that they began with just a dozen people in 1978. I've probably done between 50 and 60, and maybe even 70, individually interventions regarding that particular church. In fact, just this past year, I brought about a half dozen people out.

Do they only target college students?

They seem to primarily target college and university students. If there's a large campus with dorms, they're there, typically. I mean, I lecture at universities, and I don't think there's any major campus I've lectured at that does not know who these people are, and has not been confronted by them repeatedly.

What would you say are some of the red flags when it comes to the ICC? Which of its qualities point to the idea that it's a cult?

One of their teachings is that only those who are involved in their organization can be saved. In other words, if you do not have a discipling partner that is part of the International Church of Christ, you will go to hell. There is no salvation outside of the organization. And when it becomes so apparent that salvation is dependent upon the organization to that extent, that should be a warning flag. Another is that the leadership has no meaningful accountability. There are no elected boards, there are no bylaws, there are no provisions of checks and balances for the leadership. Kip McKean is essentially the founder and continuing leader of this organization, and he's a virtual dictator. People serve at his pleasure, and he can remove anyone from leadership or the group at any time, when he decides. Another thing would be the lack of financial accountability. They really don't disclose where all the money goes. And Kip McKean lives in a half-million dollar condominium in a gated community in Pacific Palisades [California]. I think it's significant because they demand sacrifice, financially and otherwise, from their membership that they themselves are not willing to provide.

But how is this different from regular religions, whose members may believe that followers of other religions are going to hell?

The Catholic Church in its encyclicals has gone to extraordinary lengths to say that even if you are not a believer in the Catholic Church, you have salvation. And among born-again Christians, there's a sense that they may disagree on various issues of doctrine, they may represent different denominations and churches, but they all agree that the focus is not the organization; the focus is Jesus. [But] what Kip McKean is saying is, "I don't care if you believe in Jesus, it isn't enough. You need to have a discipling partner that is provided by our organization." And what's very telling is when [the ICC] talks about baptism, they'll say, "X number of people were baptized into the kingdom of God." They're referring to people who have been baptized into the International Churches of Christ, but they equate that to the kingdom. So what they're saying is, "Unless you're baptized into our church, you're not in the kingdom of God."

When ICC members go out to recruit on the street, what types of people do they look for?

Well, they look for people sitting or walking alone, and then they'll invite them to a volleyball game, or to shoot hoops. It isn't necessarily true that when a person is initially approached that they have even a clue as to what's going on. I remember I did an intervention in California a couple of years ago, and the mother was very relieved that her daughter had decided to leave the group, but she also felt somehow guilty and responsible. She said to her daughter, "Honey, what is it that we did or did not do that made you end up in this group?" And the daughter said, "Well, I just wanted to play volleyball. These people came up and asked me to play, and some of the guys were cute. Then they started talking about their church, I thought, Well they've been so nice, why wouldn't I return that courtesy and just go? And when I went to the church initially, everyone was so nice, they were singing, they were all young, a lot of the guys were really good-looking, there were a lot of college students from where I was going, and it just seemed so wonderful to find such a nice group of people."

And is this all calculated?

Yeah. In fact, they like people to look, as they say, "sharp." In other words, they can come down on pretty hard on someone who's overweight, or on grooming. One guy I know was forced out of the church in L.A. because he wouldn't shave his beard.

What if you know someone that's involved? Is there anything you can do?

It depends. If you're family, you can put together an intervention, and hopefully it will be successful very likely, it will be. But on the other hand, if you're not going to do an intervention, you have to recognize that if you're confrontational and argumentative, the group may advise them to cut you off, and so your communication will cease.

So they don't tell you explicitly to cut off your friends and family?

It's a gradual process. They approach that on two levels. One is that there's a hyperactivity level in these groups, where you're so involved in group activities that you really don't have that much time left to visit with your old friends and family, and I believe that's often by design.

Also, when you can't "talk the talk" with your old friends and family, and if they're critical of your membership, then you find yourself reluctant to associate with them because you just don't want to hear anything negative. Also, the leaders and your new friends in the group are telling you, "They don't understand," or, in the worst-case scenario, "They're under the influence of the Devil," and "You really need to get rid of negative influence in your life." They essentially label and dismiss people who offer an alternative frame of reference or critical feedback.

I think most people don't recognize how dependent we are on other people to help us sort through things. [But within a cult] the only people you get feedback from are those in the organization. For example, in one documentary I frequently show in intervention work, there is a woman who talks about People's Temple, the followers of Jim Jones who died in Guyana in 1978. She said, "You know, people don't understand why we stayed as long as we did. We didn't go to Guyana, but we stayed almost until that point. And people will say, Why would you be involved in such an insane group? What were you thinking? And I often tell them, We had no outside frame of reference."

And she explained it this way: One time, her daughter was taken up in front of the group to be disciplined by Jim Jones, and he beat her 75 times with a wooden board. And she said, "While I was watching my daughter being beaten, I thought, I hate Jim Jones, and I'm leaving this church. But when I looked around me, there was no one reacting to this in a negative way. Everyone was acting like this was perfectly reasonable, that it was normal and necessary. And when my daughter came back from being beaten, she said, You know, Mom, now I know how much Jim Jones loves us, and how much he loves me. She wasn't critical-and in the absence of any other feedback, I thought my feelings were wrong."

So if you submerge yourself in a group where they have a single mindset, which is essentially determined by the leaders at the top, you're constantly with these people, and you have little meaningful contact with others outside this milleu, then what we see as abnormal can be normal in the group. And what we see as normal, to them can seem demonic, crazy, evil.

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