Prayer led to pain for cult victims
June 20, 2004
Meg McSherry Breslin, Tribune staff reporter
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Sunday June 20, 2004
When she joined a fledgling missionary group at evangelical Wheaton College, Carrie Andreson expected to grow closer to God.
She and other students would gather mornings in graduate student Feroze Golwalla‘s apartment to pray and plan for an overseas mission trip. But as the weeks passed, the students began fasting and soon were depriving themselves of sleep. Some cut off ties to family and friends and left Wheaton to follow Golwalla and his strict directives.
In her desire to become a missionary, Andreson had become part of a cult.
At Golwalla’s orders, Andreson said, she even beat other members and ultimately caused self-inflicted wounds, puncturing her face and buttocks with a hanger until she bled and scarred.
“I always hated the pain,” she said. “But at the same time, it made me feel more … worthy to be there. I thought that this is what I needed for my own preparation as a missionary.”
Andreson, who said she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, is among a group of former Wheaton students now recovering from the experience.
Maryland issued a warrant for Golwalla’s arrest on misdemeanor assault charges, but because the charges are not felonies, police will not extradite him from Texas, his last known address. Attempts to reach him have been unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, parents of former members have spent thousands of dollars getting their children out of the cult. Some argue that Wheaton College–despite its protective Christian atmosphere–did little to help.
“If Feroze had walked on campus with a bottle of wine and cigarettes in his pocket, he’d be kicked out of Wheaton,” said Christine Wolfe, mother of twin boys who joined. “But there’s nothing protecting students from a predator like Feroze.”
In the autobiography attached to his Wheaton application, Golwalla described himself as a Pakistan native who grew up a Parsee, belonging to a sect of the ancient Zoroastrian faith. He claimed that the Hindu priest who blessed him said, “This one is special. This baby belongs to the Most High God.”
Golwalla said he later converted to Christianity and began a mission to convert other Parsees.
Shortly after arriving at the college in 1999, Golwalla advertised his group, Baruch Ha Shem, with posters reading, “Are you listening to the voice of God?”
The idea of evangelizing to “unreached people” was irresistible for some students. The college, often referred to as the Harvard of Christian colleges, attracts many children of missionaries.
Among those drawn in were Benjamin and Andrew Wolfe, twins raised in an evangelical household in Massachusetts. Benjamin was at Wheaton, and his brother was a top student at Harvard when they met Golwalla.
“At that point, I was really asking the question, `Who am I?’” Benjamin Wolfe said. “When I met Feroze, he gave me an answer to my questions: `You are a missionary.’”
For Andrew Wolfe’s first prayer meeting, Golwalla was boiling a pot of water, filling the room with steam and a prayerful atmosphere. Andrew was struck by the man’s appearance. Golwalla, in his late 30s, had a medical condition that left him with no facial hair of any kind–no eyebrows or eyelashes. The pale, hairless complexion, with his Pakistani accent, added to the mystique.
“We must pray,” Wolfe recalled Golwalla saying that morning in the fall of 2000, as he passed out photos of Parsees in Pakistan. “The scriptures make it very clear that unless they hear the gospel and accept Jesus as Lord, they will go to hell.”
Prayer, fasting became focus
Andrew Wolfe and other former members–roughly 20 in all–said they eventually lost interest in everything but the group. They said Golwalla filled their days with long prayer meetings and weeks of fasting, during which they survived on nothing but juice and scraps of bread.
They said they were quick to follow Golwalla’s orders because he had taught them to believe he was a prayerful man. Whenever Andrew Wolfe questioned him, he said Golwalla would ask, “Don’t you trust me to hear from God?”
Golwalla kept them busy with mundane tasks, such as ordering them to compile thousands of e-mail addresses from Christian groups. The busywork limited them to three or four hours of sleep.
Cult experts say the technique is classic mind control, depriving followers of sleep and nutrition to the point that they don’t question anything.
“They were lured in via their Christian upbringing and their desire to serve God,” said Bob Pardon, a Massachusetts-based cult expert hired by the families to get their children out. “They figured they could do it in ways they’d never seen before.”
However, a minister at the interdenominational Lighthouse Church in Burleson, Texas, who befriended Golwalla, said he was simply a misunderstood immigrant with different values. She said Golwalla admitted to her that he had the students fast or beat each other.
“I didn’t think that was right and I told him so,” she said. “But those people were not kidnapped and brainwashed. They were adults, they were college students and they had their own free will.”
Adults raise questions
Yet in the group’s early stages, a handful of professors, parents and some staff members didn’t see it that way and began raising concerns to campus administrators.
Among them was Phil Miekely, whose son, Josh, had planned to take a missionary trip with Golwalla to Pakistan but pulled out because of his father’s concerns with the fasting and lack of sleep.
A former Wheaton secretary, Sue Sauer, also raised red flags.
“At first, I saw a man unnaturally consumed with one passion–reaching the Parsee people,” said Sauer, who attended several prayer meetings but was never a group member. “But as I got further into it, I realized it was not about the Parsees at all, but about him.”
Sauer wrote to Wheaton College President Duane Litfin but was told there was little the administration could do.
In the summer of 2001, Andreson, the Wolfe brothers and another student left Wheaton for Pakistan without Golwalla, who arranged for the students to live with his family in Karachi.
The students said Golwalla ordered them to instant message him for hours so he could direct their every move, from eight-hour prayer sessions to fasting. To stay awake, they drank coffee or tea and sometimes squatted on the floor. The group spent little time evangelizing, and only to associates of Golwalla.
After two months in Pakistan, Golwalla moved the group to his brother’s home in Mt. Airy, Md.
The Wolfes left everything behind, telling their parents they would find clothes at Salvation Army stores. Benjamin Wolfe wrote his fiance to break off their engagement.
Members said physical abuse had begun in Pakistan but greatly worsened in the Maryland home’s basement.
Former members said Golwalla hit them on their faces with rods and had them do strange punishments, such as squatting outside in the cold for hours wearing just T-shirts and socks. At times, they stood in line and beat their heads repeatedly against the floor.
Golwalla also directed that they beat one another, members said. Andreson remembers kicking and jumping on the men and hitting them with books, soda cans and ice packs.
“We would just be sitting in the car and all three of us would all be hitting [another member] over and over on the head until … blood would be running down his face,” Andreson said. “My arms would ache from doing it.”
“To the average person, it seems kind of silly, like you can’t really force someone to do that,” said Andrew Wolfe. “I knew things were dreadfully wrong, but I stayed because I felt this was what God wanted.”
For the parents, the quest to get their children out was emotionally painful. At many points, they lost all contact with their children.
The Wolfes’ parents worked with Pardon. Andreson’s parents consulted with him and with Steve Hassan, a Boston-based cult researcher.
Andreson tried to leave Golwalla four times, but kept going back until the time she watched a video on cults with Hassan and gradually recognized herself as a cult victim.
Group moves to Dallas
After Andreson left the Maryland home, Golwalla moved with Benjamin and Andrew Wolfe to the campus of Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas, where he had spent part of his undergraduate years.
The group spent nearly another year trying to recruit students to the mission before Pardon arranged for friends of the Wolfes to go to the campus and plead with them to get out. That intervention in May 2003 was enough to persuade Andrew to walk out after 2 1/2 years.
A month later Benjamin left, saying he did so only because he wanted to prove to everyone that Golwalla was a good man. In therapy with his brother at Pardon’s rehabilitation center, his views changed.
While relieved to get their children out, some parents are frustrated by what they see as a slow and tame response from Wheaton College.
More than a year ago, Wheaton College’s vice president for student development, Samuel Shellhamer, wrote Pardon to say that Golwalla, a graduate, was no longer welcome on campus.
“We have become aware of additional concerns within the last few years about Ferose (sic) and dynamics within his ministry that appear to be `cult-like,’” he wrote.
Wheaton College’s chaplain, Stephen Kellough, said administrators are now considering whether students should get more information on cults. But he said there was little they could have done to protect Baruch Ha Shem’s members.
“… I didn’t see that [spiritual] fervency as something that was leading to harmful cult involvement,” he said.
Colleges may fear lawsuits
Some cult researchers say it’s typical for college campuses to react cautiously to such complaints.
“Campuses are afraid of being sued so they’re reluctant to take any action that perhaps could expose them to litigation,” said Ron Loomis, a former Cornell University administrator and consultant for the American Family Foundation, a Florida-based cult research group.
Former cult members say they’ll also try educating college students. Andreson, who left Wheaton in mid-studies, is now back in college and is interested in psychology.
Andrew Wolfe is working on a book. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard while still in the group, he passed up a full scholarship for a master’s/PhD program at Stanford to follow Golwalla. He said it’s important to understand that all kinds of students can be vulnerable.
“Often people who live through this kind of abuse feel a lot of shame,” he said. “In my story, I want those people to feel a sense of normalcy, to feel that yes, this is who I was and I’m not so weird after all.”
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