Dressed in sneakers and jeans, they hang out along the edges of campuses, handing out fliers and calling out to passing college students.
Each group, students say, has a different, seemingly harmless opening line: ”Are you saved? Are you antiwar? Are you stressed out?”
But some college officials say they view most of these groups as high-pressure organizations akin to cults. The groups have a history of recruiting vulnerable students and then alienating them from their parents and classmates. They say that the groups, many of which were banned from schools more than a decade ago, resurfaced on campuses this year.
After years of doing little to educate students on the groups, some colleges are reconsidering whether they should do more to teach students about the dangers of cults.
”We want to keep our eyes and ears open to see if anyone is getting caught up in it,” said Northeastern University’s residence director, Seth Avakian. He submitted an editorial to the student newspaper in March on how to identify cults after several high-pressure groups appeared on campus last fall.
The Boston Church of Christ, which was founded in Lexington in 1979, and the LaRouche Youth Movement, a political group founded by former presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, are the two groups appearing most often on local campuses, officials said.
The groups are considered high-pressure organizations because they have been accused of using strong-arm tactics to recruit and keep members. The church has raised concerns, its critics say, by telling students their parents are the devil and by assigning mentors, who tell students which classes to take so they don’t miss the frequent church gatherings. The LaRouche group, its critics say, encourages members to drop out of school and spend their time recruiting new members. Cult awareness specialists says the group also threatens members who try to leave the group. Leaders of both organizations have said they are not cults.
The church describes itself on its website as ”a family of nearly three thousand people in the Greater Boston area who are committed to following Jesus.” Several calls placed to the church by the Globe were not returned.
Barbara Boyd — treasurer of the Lyndon LaRouche Political Action Committee and a spokeswoman for the LaRouche Youth Movement, founded in 2000 — called accusations against the group gossip.
Members, who are sometimes called LaRouchies, are a part of a ”youth movement in the Democratic Party,” fighting ”for ideas and real policies,” Boyd wrote in an e-mail.
Students say that recruiters, who are often college-age, can seem innocuous, but are persistent.
Joshua Peters, a senior at Suffolk University, said he has been approached by a group he described as a yoga healing center that asked him to donate as much as $4,000 for the right to live on the group’s commune in California and practice yoga. He could not remember the group’s name.
”They will tell people, ‘You need to be healed and fixed,’ ” he said.
Chris Lee, 33, of Cambridge, executive director of REVEAL, a nonprofit group for former Boston Church of Christ members that tries to help people quit the organization, said a friend invited him to join the church when he was a sophomore at MIT in 1991. He was asked to leave the group when he was a senior after he questioned the group’s leadership, he said.
”At first, it doesn’t seem like you are getting involved with anything unusual,” said Lee. ”They don’t look expressionless or mindless.”
Administrators say they want to provide students with enough information to make an educated decision for themselves.
At Worcester State College, school officials decided to set up a cult information web page after Boston Church of Christ members showed up on campus in September 2004, hosting Bible studies at the student center and talking to students about salvation.
The group showed up again this fall and was repeatedly asked to leave campus before it stopped holding meetings, said Sibyl Brownlee, dean of student development. By then the church had recruited at least seven students, she said.
At Boston University, several groups showed up in the fall, but those from the LaRouche Movement are the most active, said Ray Bouchard, director of the Office of the University Chaplain. They show up every week, he said.
”They say, ‘Hey, we all hate Dick Cheney, don’t we?’ ” he said. ”It’s how they engage the students.”
University officials have discussed updating their cult information guides since the groups reappeared, but so far the school is distributing literature published more than five years ago, Bouchard said.
Freedom of Mind Center
Cult activity garnered statewide attention after dozens of universities began banning the Boston Church of Christ in the 1990s and forbade proselytizing on campus. The groups seemed to have a resurgence around 2001 and then faded for different reasons, said Steven A. Hassan, director of the Freedom of Mind Center in Cambridge, which offers counseling to former cult members. Hassan is a former member of the Unification Church, also known as the Moon cult, which had recruiters on BU’s campus last fall.
The Boston Church of Christ lost some steam after its founder, Thomas McKean, stepped down in 2002, Hassan said. The church has since regrouped and become active again, he said.
Other groups, such as the LaRouche movement, have grown along with the unpopularity of President Bush’s policies, because the organizations go after liberal college students, Hassan said.
But while these groups have grown more widespread in the past years, colleges have not increased their cult-awareness education, Hassan said.
”The schools want to ignore it,” he said. ”But they need to tell the students: ‘Hey, here is a whole list of questions you should ask. You should ask who the name of their leader is, what their mission is.’ “
Still, some university officials say they’re not too worried about the groups.
Rabbi Al S. Axelrad, chairman of the Center for Spiritual Life at Emerson College, said students are too sophisticated to join the LaRouche Movement, which recently set up an information table near dorms on Boylston Street.
”It’s always a lurking kind of danger, I admit that,” he said. ”But mostly our students have enough on the ball to know to reject it.”
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