The Rev. James Howard could remember it all like it was yesterday.
He was preaching as an associate pastor in South Central Los Angeles 25 years ago. While there he became close with a family whose son became involved in a cult, calling themselves the Children of God. He disappeared for days on end before finally calling from a Texas truck stop. When found, he was sleep deprived, malnourished and had been forced to walk barefoot for miles. After spending four to six weeks in a rehabilitation facility at UCLA, he left a suicide note to his parents and drove himself off a cliff.
“It was a very rugged and agonizing situation for me,” Howard said. “There wasn’t a lot known about cults at the time.”
The memory of that incident still lingers for Howard, who since March has been the pastor at the First Congregational Church in Marshfield. As pastor, he’s doing what he can to educate children about the dangers of cults.
This Sunday (Nov. 13), Howard, along with the Rev. Robert Pardon of the Lakeville-based residential facility MeadowHaven, will host a seminar for young children and parents on the risks and dangers associated with cults. The meeting will be held at the First Congregational Church from 4 to 5:30 p.m.
“In coming to Marshfield I’ve inherited a very active youth program, and I really wanted to get Bob (Pardon) involved,” Howard said. “I’m just a pastor who went through a terrible experience. I’m not an expert by any means, but Bob is.”
Cults have been a troublesome issue in Massachusetts over the past few years. In 2002, two infant children were starved to death in Attleboro by their father and mother. Jacques Robidoux, leader of a religious cult called “The Body,” starved his son Samuel to death, saying he was waiting for a sign from God to feed the child. Soon after, Rebecca Corneau’s son Jeremiah also died from malnutrition. Robidoux is still in prison, while Corneau, another member of “The Body,” has since been committed to Pardon’s MeadowHaven facility.
“Kids are recruited into cults so easily,” Howard said. “They need to understand the dangers.”
Pardon is well versed in the way of cults. His MeadowHaven residential facility, founded in 1990, remains the only long-term traditional facility in the world. It specializes in working with past cult victims to help them overcome their trauma and reintegrate them back into society. Pardon said that most residents stay at the facility anywhere from six months to a year.
“Mind control is a very insidious process,” Pardon said. “People join these groups in hopes that it will be a positive experience, but it’s not always what you think it will turn out to be.”
Pardon said children are particularly at risk of joining cults. He said many kids join them during transitional periods in their lives in hopes of gaining a sense of belonging.
“When kids leave home for whatever reason, they want to be come part of groups,” he said. “These groups help ease that transition. They fill a void.”
The seminar will lean heavily on discussion and questions from children and parents. A short video will also be shown, highlighting the dangers of cults and special interest groups. More information is available by calling the First Congregational Church at 781-834-7664.