Student tells story of cult involvement

Officials work to limit influence

The Gamecock, University of Southern Carolina/April 30, 1990

Kirkland Thomas was a sophomore when she became interested in the Bible.

"I wanted to find out more about religion, and I started going to a Bible Study group on campus," the studio art senior said.

Thomas attended a Campus Advance meeting, which is the student group of the Columbia Church of Christ.

The church on Devine Street is not to be confused with mainline Church of Christ, though - it is part of a splinter group known as the Boston Movement, and is identified, along with the Great Commission of Students, as a cult by both the American Family Foundation and the Cult Awareness Network.

But Thomas didn't know that when she joined the church.

"The people were so loving, so clean-cut," she said. "I thought they were really interested in me. I was learning about the Bible and having fun."

Thomas's family, however, became concerned during the nine months she was a member.

"I was always so close to them, and then I stopped talking with them as much," she said. "How could I ask them for advice when I was being taught they were going to Hell?"

Thomas's mother got in touch with exit counselor Mike Royal by chance, and he told her Thomas was in a cult.

Meanwhile, Thomas had become committed to the church and its practices, one of which is confessing to an assigned discipileship partner.

"You're supposed to listen to your partner, no matter what," she said. "They advise you on everything."

A breaking point came when Thomas's partner told her she couldn't see her ailing grandmother because the church needed her more.

Thomas complied for a while, but then took her problem to a church official, who told her to go.

When Thomas came home, her family had planned an involuntary intervention with Royal to get her out of the church.

Thomas said she couldn't discuss the deprogramming, but that her mother drove her to a strange house where her family and Royal had gathered.

"It took two days to get through to me," she said. "After that, I just moved out of my apartment (rented with church members) and never went back to church.["]

Thomas has since made radio and T.V. appearances to educate people about the cult, and said she has since met with people who got out of the church.

"They say the evangelist told the church members to stay away from me, that Satan had gotten me," she said.

Although Thomas said she has resolved her experience with the church, repercussions of those nine months remain.

"I still feel guilty sometimes," she said. "It's really hard for me to trust people."

Exit counselor's views

Mike Royal, a Charleston real estate investor, has good reasons for his concern about cults. He used to be in one.

Royal was involved with Great Commission International, which is recognized by both the American Family Foundation and the Cult Awareness Network as a cult, from 1976 to 1980. At one point, he was the executive editor of Today's Student, GCI's national newsletter.

GCI was founded by Jim McCotter in 1972 in Iowa and has since grown to an international organization with 80 churchs [sic] associated worldwide. Royal said he was close to McCotter himself until he walked away after being deemed "unspiritual" for questioning McCotter.

Since then, Royal has dedicated his life to helping others get out of destructive cults. He received an master's of social work at the University of Georgia and has done intervention and counselling to cult members in several states.

"These groups (Boston Church of Christ and GCI) are using mind-control techniques to get people in and to keep them in," he said.

Royal said most cult members are sincere in their beliefs and aren't aware of the techniques being used.

"Part of mind control is you're not aware you're under it," he said. "These groups strip you of your critical thought processes. If you find yourself doubting them, you're no longer under their control."

This is the reason for involuntary intervention, which many exit counselors are wary of participating in because of increasing legal action by the cult members", Royal said.

"If you're taught that your beliefs are going to be persecuted by unbelievers, why would you voluntarily listen to someone tell you're brainwashed?" he said.

Royal said his interventions, which are free and usually arranged by friends and families of the cult members, are not always successful.

"Whether people leave through intervention or not, they need support," he said. "They feel foolish for believing and often, they've lost their only social outlet. They need to resolve their feelings of guilt."

Royal said cults operate on guilt. "In other churches, you are offered salvation if you believe," he said. "In these groups, you're never fully 'saved' - there's always something you could do wrong."

Cults also separate members from their family, he said.

"That's one of the first things they do," he said. "They want you away from people who care, who question your relationship with the church. They tell you to expect persecution because that's part of testing your faith."

"Most people in the cults are sincere," he said, "but the leaders are aware of what they're doing. They control minds for money, for power, for the security of having people at their beck and call.["]

The churches respond

"Baloney," said Lynn Lowrie, evangelist of the Columbia Church of Christ. "The idea that we're a cult is completely false."

Lowrie said anyone against the church just doesn't know what went on.

"I challenge people to visit and see if they still believe we're dangerous," he said.

"I know Kirkland, and I think she's a nice girl," he said. "But I wonder if she wasn't exposed to mind control by her deprogrammer."

Lowrie said he didn't know exactly what happened with Thomas, but he thought it was an isolated problem related to the former evangelist.

"We might have been having discipileship problems," he said. "But those problems are gone now."

He said he thought Royal was sincere, but he was uninformed because he had never attended the church.

He also denied being part of the Boston Movement, even when confronted with the fact that a delegation from the church attended a national Boston Movement meeting in Boston in the Fall of 1989.

"We have no headquarters," he said. "Our way is the way of God."

He said they don't use mind-control techniques, restrict dating or have membership quotas.

Riverbend Community Church Pastor Dan Willis, who says the church is part of an association known as Great Commission International, said the USC campus group merely attended their church for worship.

"I'd rather not discuss this," he said. "We're not a cult, we're not deceptive and we're not out to control minds."

He referred questions to the national GCI headquarters in Washington, D.C., which was not open when called.

"I've done research on Royal, and he has personal problems," Willis said. "His problems with GCI are 15 years old and unsubstantiated."

University's stand

Over mounting concern about destructive cults on the USC campus, university officials have started planning intervention programs to counteract such groups.

Student Affairs became concerned about religious cults in June of 1989 and formed a Cults Task Force to investigate the problem and make recommendations for intervention.

Task force member Paul Fidler said even though the university is aware some groups are destructive, the Student Life office recognizes them as student organizations because they have no legal grounds for barring them from using the Russell House and recruiting members.

"They haven't done anything illegal, so our hands are tied," Fidler said. "We have to respect freedom of religion."

After reviewing their findings, which focused primarily on Columbia Church of Christ, the task force recommended educational intervention. These include increasing residence hall and CARA staff's training so they would be better informed about such groups, developing a list of speakers who are willing to talk to various campus groups concerning the approaches taken by religious cults, developing a specific module that could be included in the University 101 curriculum, developing a publication about typical problems faced by students at USC, informing faculty about cult activities, and letting the Religious Affairs Committee be a point of contact for dealing with students, who are facing problems with cults.

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