Group awaits word of its fate

UNC-CH revoked its fraternity status 28, 2005
By Jane Stancill

Chapel Hill -- "Slaves to Righteousness" reads the slogan on the cover of the handbook of UNC-Chapel Hill's Alpha Iota Omega fraternity.

The three-member chapter has a mission of leading members of other fraternities to Jesus Christ. It may be better known for leading UNC-CH to federal court.

The fraternity sued last year, claiming the university had violated members' First Amendment rights. The fraternity had refused to sign UNC-CH's anti-discrimination policy on grounds that it didn't want to accept non-Christians or gay students.

The university responded by revoking the fraternity's status as an official UNC-CH group, cutting off its access to money and facilities.

The case could end this week. A judge told the two sides two week ago to negotiate because they weren't far apart; he asked lawyers to report their progress today. The case could go to trial if a settlement is not reached.

The accompanying publicity has not been entirely pleasant for the brothers, said member Carlon Myrick, a sophomore from Hampton, Va.

The group has been skewered in letters in the campus newspaper, and the fraternity's president has received a stream of angry e-mail messages.

"People say, 'If you guys are really Christian, you would accept people,' " Myrick said last week. "The issue isn't so much that. If our purpose is to help people know Christ, how can a nonbeliever even cooperate with that?"

The fraternity also has its defenders, including Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican from Farm-ville, and the Alliance Defense Fund, the Arizona-based team of lawyers that took on the legal case.

'He has chosen us'

Alpha Iota Omega was formed in 1999 by a group of UNC students who thought the best way to preach the Gospel to fraternity men was to start their own Greek-letter organization. The only other chapter of the fraternity is at N.C. Central University.

The UNC-CH fraternity's Web site states its mission: "He has chosen us/To spread his message to the world/We embrace his great commission."

The fraternity handbook prescribes a weekly meeting, a weekly prayer meeting and two hours a week of hanging out with fraternity members, "looking for open doors" to start discussion groups or Bible studies.

"You want them to join something that will last after we graduate," said Myrick, a soft-spoken history major. "You just want them in a church that will help them to grow."

He acknowledges that some people don't react well. Last fall, he said, one student was uncomfortable enough to send him an e-mail message, saying, "I feel like you're trying to recruit me."

The fraternity's Web site has flashy graphics with themes from the hit movie "The Matrix," in which a character takes a red pill to find the truth.

The introduction to the Web site includes an audio clip that says, "You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: All I'm offering is the truth, nothing more."

One way the group reaches out is by conducting discussions using the "Red Pill Forum," a "Matrix"-inspired DVD that sparks conversation through topics such as genetic engineering or sexual ethics.

Campus ministries often use modern music and pop culture to transmit Christian ideas. Last week, at a gathering of Victory Campus Ministries, about 50 UNC-CH students swayed, raised their arms and sang, "Sweep me away," to guitar chords and bongo-drum beats. Two Alpha Iota Omega members were in the audience.

Such campus ministries can be vehicles for college students to explore faith, but some say they can have a negative effect on vulnerable young people if they stifle free thinking.

"Being a part of a group that's small and intimate makes you feel wanted," said Darrell Lucas, a 2000 UNC-CH graduate who joined a group called Waymaker Christian Fellowship when he was a freshman. "I think that's what sucked me in."

One day while walking near his dormitory, he said, he was approached by someone who said God had a plan for him. He began going to church with other Waymaker members.

But the meetings, church services and Bible studies began to eat into his academic time. His grades dropped and he fell off the honor roll for the first time since fifth grade, Lucas said.

He left after six months, he said, because he began to feel that the group was trying to control him.

"I finally decided the longer I stayed there, I was going to lose my humanity," said Lucas, who has written about his experiences on an Internet Web blog.

Code of conduct

Behavior control is part of the message of Alpha Iota Omega, according to the handbook's code of conduct for members, which includes oversight from a board of directors.

Members shall be above reproach at all times, the handbook says, and they should have "accountability partners or covenant brothers" to encourage them on their Christian journey.

The fraternity has a penalty system that recommends demerits for being late to meetings, missing class, using profanity, gossiping or any behavior that reflects poorly on the fraternity's image.

The rules say students should not date, though serious courtship and engagement are acceptable. "We reject the notions of casual dating and flirting," the handbook says. "We also discourage any physical activity that stirs up passion that cannot be righteously fulfilled at that time."

Regular church attendance is expected.

Victory Campus Ministries and Alpha Iota Omega both have ties to King's Park International Church in Durham, where many members and former members worship. One of the fraternity's founding members is listed as a youth minister there.

King's Park founder Ron Lewis said the church -- originally called Triangle Christian Fellowship -- grew out of his campus ministry at UNC-CH. Lewis, a UNC-CH graduate, says there is no formal relationship between Alpha Iota Omega and his church, and no effort to recruit students.

"Students come to our church based on invitation and desire," Lewis said.

In the 1980s, Lewis was affiliated with Maranatha Christian Church, a national organization that disbanded after complaints about cultlike practices.

Records of the N.C. Secretary of State's Office show that Lewis incorporated the Maranatha Christian Church of the Triangle in 1986. In 1990, the documents were amended, changing the name to Triangle Christian Fellowship. In 1997, the name was changed to King's Park International Church.

Lewis said he left Maranatha in the late 1980s because some of the church's practices "weren't the most healthy for Christians to live and grow by."

Campus ministries are mostly positive, Lewis said, though there are mind-controlling groups out there. "Young people are a lot more vulnerable to things such as drugs, alcohol, tobacco -- bad things like drunk driving -- than they are to being a religious kook," Lewis said.

Myrick said God knocked on his door in the 11th grade. When he got to UNC-CH, he knew he would join a Christian group. He said he has never felt coerced by Alpha Iota Omega.

"We're not a cult or anything," Myrick said, laughing. "I don't think my Mom would let me be in one."

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