On Saturday, February 14, a man named Father Peter Bowes will conduct a seminar in Needham titled "How To Deeply Know and Be Known." "This Valentine's Day," reads a description for the event, "learn what love is and how it really differs from need." Bowes is used to giving talks like this. As spiritual head of a group that calls itself the Order of Christ/Sophia (OCS), Bowes spends a good deal of time traveling the country spreading the Word. In fact, the day before Valentine's Day he'll be holding another seminar here, titled "Love, Sex, and God."
If all this sounds a little unorthodox, it is. "We're into being rebels," says the Reverend Gabrielle Zeludancz, 33, who lives a "modern-day monastic life" at an OCS residence in Newton, one of a half-dozen or so across the country. "We believe people should be able to talk about anything they want to, especially things like love and sex. People have a lot of shame about sex, so, yeah, we should talk about it, lay it on the table instead of it being some kind of taboo." She adds, "We're not out to make people upset."
But OCS has made people upset. "This is a very, very dangerous group," says Nancy Wainer, a Newton midwife and former member of the order. "They're swallowing people up across the country." Cult expert Rick Ross, who dedicates a section of his Web site to OCS, also has misgivings. "This group is personality-driven," Ross says. "Bowes has alluded to the fact that he is essentially a spokesman or vehicle for God. He's even hinted that he has connections to aliens from outer space, these grandiose claims." Okay, a bit kooky maybe, but dangerous?
"They're not stockpiling weapons, there's no talk about group suicide," Ross says. "But what we have here is isolation and control through these houses he sets up. I was retained by a family to do an intervention, a young woman in Boston. There was extreme psychological and emotional abuse. I've had complaints from several families who received, essentially, termination letters stating they will not be seen anymore by their adult children. The rhetoric in the letters was identical. Basically, Bowes does not want his members to have normal relationships with their families."
Wainer, whose 24-year-old daughter has been a member of OCS for five years, tells a similar story. "I love my daughter like you wouldn't believe," she says, "but they've turned her against me. She won't speak to me. They use hypnotism and exhaustion, all of the techniques, a lot of sleep deprivation. My daughter pushed all of her friends away. She hasn't spoken to her grandmothers. I've spoken to 15 or 20 families across the US. This is not just Nancy Wainer. Families are being destroyed by this cult."
Zeludancz, for her part, scoffs at such criticism. "They're afraid because they don't know what we're doing," she says. "People are afraid of being brainwashed, afraid of words like 'cult.' Whenever something is slightly religious, all of a sudden there are freak-outs, all of a sudden there is a war. It's unfortunate that people who could benefit from something like this might be swayed because someone else decided to say something mean." Asked about her relationship with her own family, Zeludancz says, "Um, my mother's happy that I'm happy. They know that this is what I've wanted ever since I was a little girl."
But then Zeludancz would rather talk about Saturday's seminar than whether she is in a cult or not. "You have to be conscious of yourself," she says. "You have to know yourself for people to love you. Say you're in a relationship with someone, you know, and they want to take you for chocolate ice cream for Valentine's, and you don't like chocolate ice cream. But you didn't tell them that, so they're trying to be loving but it doesn't feel loving. You need to learn to say, 'I don't like chocolate ice cream.'"