BOSTON — Many college students join extracurricular activities and groups that give them a sense of belonging and allow them to escape from the stresses of academic life. But college administrators are urging students to be wary of groups that may seem a little too eager to expand their membership.
Cults have not recently received the media attention they have in the past, but that does not mean they are no longer a problem on college campuses, said cult expert Steve Hassan of the Cambridge-based Resource Center for Freedom of Mind.
In Boston, a great deal of attention has been given to the Boston Church of Christ, also known as the International Churches of Christ, which many claim uses deceptive tactics to attract followers. According to an article written for a pamphlet on the church in 1996 by former Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Watts Thornburg, the BCC reached its high point in 1988 when representatives of the church were frequently spotted trying to recruit students on Boston-area college campuses.
The article, titled, “The Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of Christ,” says the group pressures new recruits to devote most of their time to the church, regardless of obligations to their schoolwork, friends and family. Once the church baptizes a member, he or she is expected to recruit new members for the group.
Hassan said in the way it recruits members, the BCC is one of the most aggressive cult-like groups in Boston. Members are known to try to sneak into college dormitories, where they attempt to befriend students and ultimately recruit them into the church, Hassan said.
Although the BCC was banned from Boston University in 1987, Marsh Chapel Associate Dean Meredith Ellis said the group became an issue again last semester when it held weekly meetings at the Brookline Holiday Inn, where BU housed about 80 students due to a lack of space in university-owned residences. Ellis said resident assistants brought the matter to the attention of university chaplains after witnessing BCC members approach students living in the hotel.
The BCC was technically allowed to hold meetings at the Holiday Inn because the university does not own it, Ellis said, but resident assistants warned students to be aware of the group.
Ellis said anyone experiencing a new transition in his or her life is especially vulnerable to recruitment. Freshmen are an especially vulnerable group since they often struggle to adjust to college life, she said.
“These groups will draw you in and make you think that you can’t do anything without them,” Ellis said.
Hassan, who said he once worked closely with Thornburg to learn about cults on campus, defines a cult as any group that uses destructive mind control, including control of an individual’s behavior, thoughts, emotions and his or her access to information.
The BCC first appeared at BU in 1979, soon after its founding in Lexington, according to a short history of the group written by Thornburg in 1994. Shortly after that, several RAs and students witnessed members of the church harassing students and brought it to campus religious leaders’ attention.
Although the Religious Life Council, which is responsible for approving all of BU’s religious organizations, encouraged leaders of the church to apply for religious status on campus, the church opted not to be recognized, Thornburg wrote.
The group did pledge to follow the campus religious group guidelines, but after students reported more incidents of harassment, the Religious Life Council voted to ban the group completely from campus in 1987.
BCC leader Jack Frederick said in an email that he was not involved with the church when it was banned from campus. Frederick, who has a son and daughter at BU, said the church continues to “operate from biblical convictions.”
“A direct command of Jesus in loving others is to tell them the good news so they can come to know him and be saved,” he said. “We haven’t stopped sharing this faith. We do our best to follow university guidelines if these don’t restrict our freedom to act in faith.”
Frederick denied that the group tries to “recruit” students.
“I wouldn’t walk across the street to ‘recruit’ someone,” he said. “Telling others about your faith and inviting them to learn more about God is a freedom and a joy. I tell people because I care about them. They are grown-ups and smart enough to see the truth.”
DEFENDING AGAINST CULTS
Administrators and experts maintain that the best way for students to deal with cult-like groups is to be aware of their existence. Director of Orientation and Off-Campus Services Craig Mack said he warns incoming students about cults during his welcome address at orientation.
Ellis said cults often try to steer students away from their schoolwork and friends.
“If you see someone who is not religious suddenly going to Bible study, that should make you ask some questions,” she said.
Hassan said students should act as knowledgeable consumers when choosing to join organizations.
“The bottom line is awareness,” he said. “Just because someone is flirting with you doesn’t mean that they don’t have a hidden agenda.”