Community or cult? Experts share why people join Overcomer Ministry in rural South Carolina

Charleston Post Courier/December 30. 2017

Angie Jackson and Michael Majchrowicz

Sixteen years after she moved out of Overcomer Ministry's secluded Christian compound, one former follower of self-proclaimed prophet Ralph Gordon Stair has a hard time attending church services.

For another woman, wearing pants felt foreign after more than a decade of living under Stair’s dress code for the ministry, where about 70 people live on a rural commune near Walterboro as they await the return of Jesus Christ. 

And one young woman who grew up attending school at Overcomer Ministry feels she was robbed of an education. Her schooling there didn’t include science courses, and she doesn’t have a high school diploma.

Some defectors like these women say they consider Stair's group a cult, a term the 84-year-old preacher has rejected. They describe a place where residents surrender their possessions and financial assets and are largely stripped of their free thinking in exchange for rules set by Stair, who founded the ministry in the early 1980s. 

Congregants are told to cut ties with people outside the compound, a swath of farmland in the unincorporated community of Canadys. Stair's end-times message has, up until recently, reached an international following of radio listeners.

Law enforcement over the years has fielded calls from relatives of residents at Overcomer concerned about whether the ministry is a “cult,” according to Colleton County Sheriff’s Office reports. One of those calls came during a recent criminal investigation into Stair, which culminated earlier this month with the preacher’s arrest.

Stair remains in jail on eight criminal charges, including three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, after multiple parishioners — girls and women — said he had sexually assaulted them in incidents dating back to 1992. The allegations bear similarities to charges leveled against Stair in 2002, when he was arrested on two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery. 

Several of Stair’s accusers in the latest investigation said he would coerce them into sex acts, telling them it was “God’s will.” One woman who reported she was raped at least 35 times said Stair told her she’d “made the Man of God happy,” investigators wrote in an affidavit.

“What we thought was normal wasn’t really normal,” said Shannel Robinson, 31, who lived at Overcomer as a child with her family until 2001 and was not a victim of sexual abuse. “He didn't (kill) us with Kool-Aid, but it was probably the same thing.”

Educators who study cults and similar groups say there are likely thousands of religious and political sects in the United States, though an exact count is impossible because many such groups are small and not widely known.

Janja Lalich, professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, said a cult begins with a charismatic leader who trumpets a transcendent belief system and a “recipe for change.”

“They tell you exactly how you need to change in order to be on the path to salvation, resolution or whatever it may be,” she said.

Lalich said sexual exploitation is prevalent among cults.

“The cult leaders thrive on money, sex or power, or a combination of all three,” she said. “Sex is, of course, a very deep and intimate way of controlling someone.”

At Overcomer Ministry, Stair is accused of committing some of his alleged crimes before scores of witnesses. His accusers told investigators he groped underage girls from the pulpit while on camera, and a video posted to YouTube earlier this year showed Stair touching a 12-year-old girl’s breast during a worship service. In other cases, women said alleged assaults occurred as Stair strolled the grounds of the compound in broad daylight.

Gisele Bennett, who worked at the ministry as a teacher before leaving Overcomer in 2001, said she tried to look out for young women. Once, Bennett said, she confronted Stair about his conduct and was brushed off.

“I said, ‘Hey y’all, he’s messing around with these women on his farm who don’t wanna be messed with, these single women,’ ’’ Bennett said. “He said I had the devil in me.”

Steve Eichel, a psychologist in Delaware and president of the International Cultic Studies Association, a nonprofit based in Florida, said it’s common for cults to teach adherents to bury and reframe their doubts, a practice known as "thought stopping," because questioning the leader is viewed as “a demonic or satanic or an evil thing to do.”

For these reasons, it’s difficult for deeply indoctrinated followers to speak out or leave in light of perceived misconduct, said Eichel, who is familiar with Stair’s ministry. Additionally, there are what he calls “exit costs.”

“In a group like Stair’s, for example, you've got whole families involved, so to leave may very well mean losing your family,” he said. “That’s a pretty serious cost.”

Bill Goldberg, a clinical social worker in New Jersey, has also tried to understand why members of cults fail to intervene when they witness wrongdoings. He and his wife specialize in working with individuals who have defected from cults.

Speaking generally, Goldberg said a majority of these types of defectors have what he calls “unconscious doubts.”

 “Every former cult member I’ve worked with has told me they had doubts when in the group that they learned to suppress,” he said.

Often, Goldberg said, members of cults become fixated with idealism and desire a deeper connection with the group leader who touts a “direct relationship with God or the truth.”

This was the case for Laura Johnston Kohl of San Diego, who was part of the Peoples Temple for most of the 1970s. The sociopolitical cult was headed by Jim Jones, who infamously compelled more than 900 followers to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid at his South American compound, popularly known as Jonestown, in Guyana in 1978.

“Who could even believe it when it happened?” said Kohl, 70, who was not at the settlement when the suicides occurred. “It just kind of stopped the world.”

Jonestown historians, academics and former members alike say Jones was a master manipulator who used charisma and coercive sex to control those who felt obligated to him.

From Kohl's perspective, the community largely lived in peace. She relished the idea of living on a compound among diverse residents with a common goal of creating a utopia of sorts.

But it was that devotion to idealism, Kohl added, that blinded her to the larger problems in Jonestown, including the coercive tactics Jones employed to keep order.

Bennett, the former teacher at Overcomer, said she saw a similar dynamic play out at Stair's ministry. The prospect of living among fellow Christians drew her and her family to the compound. She expected people to adhere to moral principles.

“It was like we’re all Christians, we don’t have nobody lying, cheating, stealing, doing stuff like that,” she said. “We fell in love with the place.”

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