Three years ago Julian Malcolm was pounding the streets trying to recruit young, lonely people into the religious group he had devoted himself to. Now he is on a crusade of a different kind, taking up the cause against his former group to stop it growing stronger.
The 29-year-old chef will be at Auckland University during orientation this month handing out leaflets to new students he believes will be targeted by the religious group, International Church of Christ.
The United States-based ICC has branches in Auckland and Christchurch and is among a number of religious groups and cults Malcolm says will hone in on university orientations around the country. "You get a lot of young students who go to university from out of town, who don't know anyone and are ideal targets," said Malcolm.
The Auckland University Students Association has given Malcolm permission to hand out leaflets warning students they could be approached to join religious and cult-type groups. The ICC has about 250 members in Auckland and 40 in Christchurch. Malcolm is now part of Cultwatch, an Auckland-based group which monitors cults and religious groups.
Malcolm became involved with ICC in October 1998, through a friend he was teaching to play golf. She had been going to the group's church in Newmarket for about three months after being recruited on the streets of Auckland. "I was raised a Christian and I was looking for a church. I only had one friend in my life at the time. When you're with the ICC you've immediately got 50 friends," Malcolm said. He said he was vulnerable and succumbed to what he says were mind games played by the church. "They knew I was into cricket and a chef. The next thing I know I'm there talking to five guys who are into cricket and there's also three chefs talking to me. At the time it was great. All of a sudden I had all these friends."
A few months later he was baptised in the sea at Mission Bay and was asked to start contributing 10% of his weekly pay to the church. He was told to forget everything he had been told about religion and that the only true path to heaven was through the ICC. "They looked at my pay slip and said I had to pay a certain amount. If I missed a payment I would have to make it up a week later. Each year you also have to make a lump sum payment of 16 times your weekly contribution," said Malcolm.
Religious meetings were held three times a week, and there were evangelical sessions which Malcolm said were recruiting coaching. He would later become one of the top recruiters. "I targeted 18 to 30-year-olds, students who looked vulnerable and I'd try anyone who looked like they might have money. We weren't interested in street kids or anyone like that. On average I'd recruit about 10 people a week, but only a few of those would stay and join."
As the months went by he started to have misgivings. His family was worried about his new faith and searched the internet to find a group it could talk to. "I went to dinner at my mother's place and unbeknown to me they had arranged a guy from Cultwatch to be there. We talked and they convinced me to get out. "When I was leaving (the group), I was chastised and shouted at. It was all done to try and break me down so I would stay."
Cultwatch director Mark Vrankovich said ICC had been banned from a number of university campuses around the world. Auckland University Students Association president Kane Stanford said the group had unsuccessfully tried to form a sports club at the varsity in 1998. Vrankovich said the ICC was essentially a cult.
"They approach people on the street, supermarkets and on campuses. They invite people to sports events, parties, study groups, church services and even free movies. "What we say is don't give them your phone number," he said. The ICC in Auckland did not return messages left by the Sunday Star-Times.