Counselor helps cult survivors

Tiffany Hawkins didn't know what to do when she and a college friend started drifting apart.

Greeley Tribune/July 6, 2003
By Anne Cumming

Her friend attended all-day self-help seminars that claimed to teach people how to improve their lives. But Hawkins knew something was strange about the groups.

"Every time we got together, she would invite me to the meetings," said Hawkins, an Eaton native and University of Northern Colorado graduate. "I never went."

Hawkins believes her friend was involved in a self-help cult. After she graduated with a master's degree in counseling from Denver Seminary in May 2002, Hawkins found out that a cult recovery retreat center in Ohio wanted to hire a female counselor. She jumped at the opportunity to work there.

"I have a passion to help hurting people," she said. "I couldn't help my friend, but I wanted to help others."

Since last fall, Hawkins has been a counselor at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, about 80 miles southeast of Columbus.Hawkins was in northern Colorado last month to talk to churches and groups about the center.

People from all kinds of cults - including David Koresh's group known for the April 1995 disaster in Waco, Texas, and Heaven's Gate, the group that committed mass suicide in California - have sought refuge at Wellspring. The center, which began in 1986, is a nonprofit organization that offers two-week retreats for people who have left cults.

According to the center's Web site, an estimated 5 million people are part of 3,000 cults in the United States. Not all cults are religious. Some are political groups; others are centered around pop psychology or art and music.

"Even the little ladies' garden club could become a cult given the right circumstances," Hawkins said.

The Religious Movement Resource Center is a Fort Collins organization that provides information about religious and political cults. The organization defines a cult by how it operates, not by its belief system.

Cults typically limit individual freedom through violence, deception and mind control. For example, they restrict interaction with family members and friends outside the group, claim to have the only right way of living and discourage people from asking questions.

Hawkins used to think only people who are weak emotionally and psychologically succumb to cults.

"I was wrong," she said. "Most of the people we see have average or above average intelligence. A lot of them lead normal lives. You'd never know they were in a cult."

Most people's images of cults come from leaders who attracted media attention: Jim Jones and the 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana; Kim Miller, an End Times cult leader whose group moved to Jerusalem to usher in what they believed would be the end of the world on Jan. 1, 2000; and David Mitchell, the man accused of kidnapping 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart in June 2002 in Salt Lake City.

Not all cults have compounds or convince members to commit suicide. Most attract members with kindness and promises of perfect lives. Hawkins said the potential exists for any of them to become another Waco or Heaven's Gate.

Hawkins used to volunteer for a group that helped street kids in downtown Denver. Cults recruited on the 16th Street Mall and preyed on vulnerable teenagers, she said. A few years ago, Hawkins said a cult came to Greeley. Members hung out near the UNC campus and engaged people in conversations at coffee shops and campus events.

People get out of cults usually in one of three ways - they walk away; they get kicked out; or family members intervene with counselors to convince the member to leave.

Wellspring is a Christian-based retreat center. But Hawkins said staff members let clients bring up the topic of God. They don't want to push spirituality because many clients left situations in which leaders used God to manipulate them.

"Some don't want anything to do with God," she said. "They have been wounded in the name of God."

People come to Wellspring with symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. They spend two weeks there, where counselors do one-on-one meetings and group sessions. The goal is to let former cult members tell their stories and teach them how to think critically again.

Hawkins leads an art workshop, in which people paint, make collages and do other forms of art to express their feelings.

Hawkins said her experience at Wellspring has made her more aware - and more skeptical - of what goes on in the world. It also has forced her to make sure her understanding of the Bible is sound. Religious cults twist the words of the Bible to control members' thoughts and actions.

"I've seen what happens to people," Hawkins said. "I'm a much more compassionate person now. To enter into someone's pain is really hard."

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