Fresh out of Cornell, Miguel Antonio Longo, ventured to his parents'
home country of Puerto Rico to teach Enlish and, as his father
says, "do something significant for the people." He'd
been there just a short while when he met a friendly Christian
at an art gallery in San Juan. Miguel, a devout Catholic, readily
accepted an invitation to a Bible study.
Two years later, Miguel hanged himself in his Adams-Morgan apartment.
His parents blame the International Church of Christ.
"When they kill the mind, kill the soul, it's impossible
to prove. But if you're a parent, you know what he was like before
he went in and what he was like after he came out," said
Antonio Longo, Miguel's father, a physician in Alexandria.
Miguel had suffered bouts of depression during his senior year
of college. Aug. 8, 1993, could have been a relapse. After severing
ties with the church he had seen a therapist and counselors and
told them that he was overwhelmed with guilt over the pain he
caused his parents, as well with embarrassment about having been,
in his words, "conned" by the church. He did not leave
a suicide note.
Could all this be the fault of a church? The evangelist of the
Iglesia de Christo de Puerto Rico, a member church of ICC, has
since left; ICC church officials in the States did not know the
details of the story and would not comment. Miguel was a member
of the church for only five months. Could such a short involvement
affect him so deeply?
Teresa Longo isn't thinking of such questions now. She just remembers
how much her son changed in Puerto Rico. Gone was his sense of
humor, his joking demeanor. He only wanted to talk about Scriptures
and his new "family." When she finally asked, "Migueal
Antonio, do you think people who six months ago did not know you
existed, could possibly love you more than us who conceived you,
raised you, love you more than anything else in the world?"
he said, "Yes."
Joi buckner, a 22-year-old graduate of American University, for
two years refused to join ICC because she heard it was "a
cult." She even warned incoming freshmen about the church's
alleged tactics of "mind control" when she was a summer
orientation advisor. But eventually, Buckner said, it burdened
her conscience to be so close-minded about a group she knew little
about. She decided to attend a Sunday service in October of '92.
Buckner said she was "cold and aloof" at first and didn't
let anyone get close to her. But certain things impressed her,
such as the congregation's racial diversity. Its energy. She
attended one Bible study, then another. She researched "cults"
in the library - every day, she said. For eight months.
It happened just before her 20th birthday, in March
1993. Buckner was sitting in her room, looking at all of her
crowns, her trophies, her possessions. She was a co-captain of
the speech and debate teams, an ambassador to the College of Arts
and Sciences, Miss Washington, D.C. 1993-1994.
"And I was thinking, 'I have a boyfriend some people would
kill for, and enough trophies to melt down and make a car, and
I have so many friends and my parents are wonderful, but deep
in my heart, I am unhappy,'" Buckner, who now works as a
concierge, remembered. "From the outside, I had an ideal
life, but from the inside, well, I felt I had been sufficiently
humbled by God. And I said, 'Well, Joi, you can give this God
thing a try, or you can choose death.'"
She choose the D.C. Church of Christ and said it changed her life.
Gave it meaning. Happiness. She's still a member today. It
was the same church Miguel joined, just a different location.
The International Church of Christ, though still tiny, is one
of the fastest-growing churches in the nation, according to Church
Growth Today, an independent Missouri-based research center.
ICC has a goal: world evangelism by the year 2000. It claims
to have already planted 175 churches in 70 countries in 17 years
and boasts 70,000-plus membership. Congregations rent auditoriums
for their Sunday services. The Los Angeles Church of Christ,
ICC's headquarters, sometimes meets in the Shrine Auditorium,
site of last year's Oscars. The D.C. Church of Christ has at
times filled Constitution Hall.
Services are dynamic. Seats fill up front-row first with zealous
parishioners armed with legal pads or blank books, ready to take
notes on the evangelist's sermon. New visitors receive overwhelming
welcomes and hugs and kisses by strangers who call themselves
"brothers" and "sisters." Asians and Caucasians
mingle with Latinos and African Americans. It's a young crowd:
about half of the District's 1,000-plus congregation consists
of college students and recent grads.
"This is the only place you can be totally committed and
be normal! Be commended!" Doug Arthur, a D.C. evangelist,
shouted at a recent Sunday service. His comments were received
like those of a politician at a party convention.
Members say their beliefs and practices are based solely on an
exact interpretation of the Bible. They are expected to attend
church services at least twice a week, in addition to regular
smaller gatherings for Bible study. Current members say they
spend anywhere from 15 to 30 hours a week on church activities.
All new members must be baptized into the church before becoming
Then there are the ex-members. They also make an impressive group:
For every three who enter the church, two leave, church officials
say. Many have formed communities of their own. Nationwide,
support groups abound. Telephone hot lines just for questions
about ICC field calls on a weekly basis in New York, Los Angeles
and Boston. More and more universities are adding sessions to
freshman orientation about what they call "destructive groups,"
which are sometimes led by former ICC members.
The New Religious Movement Resource Center in Boulder, Colo.,
says former ICC members are its most frequent callers. The Cult
Awareness Network, based in Chicago, claims it sends out more
information packages about ICC than any other Bible-based group.
And the Wellspring Resource Center, a recovery center near Albany,
Ohio, says it admits more ex-members of this church than all the
"We feel like we've been spiritually raped," said 21-year-old
Walter Lee, a first-year medical student at George Washington
University who was involved with the church for several months.
He started a support group for ex-members in the spring of last
year. "There were all of these people we trusted and thought
were our friends, and now we feel like our world is down the tube."
In the Beginning
It started with Crossroads, a '60s movement of the mainstream
Churches of Christ, now totally separate from ICC, in Gainesville,
Fla., that was designed to recruit college students. Crossroads
was led by Chuck Lucas, the campus minister at the University
of Florida. Lucas practiced a controversial "discipling"
or mentoring, method called "one another Christianity,"
an evangelistic-style of group Bible study. He inspired hundreds
Kip McKean was one of Lucas' proteges. He delved into the Crossroads
Movement upon graduation and, as he explained in a 1992 issue
of the ICC magazine. UpsideDown, grew angry with the "so-called
Christian students" and deemed this spiritual condition of
the mainstream Churches of Christ "lukewarm to disgusting."
Other ministers became suspicious of McKean's discipling methods;
one church even cut off its support and let him go.
In June of 1979 in Boston, McKean led 30 would-be "disciples"
in a discussion of the doctrine of their church. The Boston Movement,
later to be called the International Churches of Christ (or Boston
Churches of Christ - ICC can be distinguished from mainstream
Churches of Christ because the location city usually precedes
"Churches" in the name) slowly evolved from these meetings.
McKean, who declined to be interviewed for this story, became
the undisputed leader of the group, and still is today.
In August of 1985, Lucas was fired from Crossroads for what officials
call "recurring sins in his life." He is now a marriage
counselor in Thomasville, Ga., and did not return a reporter's
call. Elders from both churches say it was about this time that
the Boston Movement completely severed its ties with mainstream
Churches of Christ. The disciples had already mapped out a plan
for world evangelism. It was time to get started.
Early in the movement, McKean developed a series of nine Bible
studies. Church members were told to memorize them and then teach
the lesson to possible recruits. The studies are still used today
and, according to Dave Anderson, are part of the group's "cult-like
"The studies are a narrowing progression of options,"
said Anderson, the coordinator of both the telephone hot line
and a support group for ex-members in New York called Right Side
Up. "Your options are reduced to your agreement that this
is the only church."
Al Baird has a different opinion.
"If you studied the whole Bible, what would take years,"
said Baird, the ICC spokesman. "The studies are just an
attempt to boil the Bible down to the basic ingredients of how
you follow Jesus."
The Bible studies are intricate, and each one lasts two to five
hours, depending on the number of questions a recruit has. Passages
are taken straight from the Bible, but they are interpreted in
a way that some scholars call "Scripture twisting."
"Their isolation of passages and lack of understanding on
how they were spoken then and how they apply today cause extreme
problems," said Rick Bauer, a minister at a Montgomery County
Christian church who has a master's degree from Harvard Divinity
School. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Biblical studies
at Catholic University. "They are playing fast and loose
with God's word, and they've refused to entertain the possibility
they may be wrong."
One of the first lessons is called "Discipleship Study."
"[My discipler} wrote, 'Disciple equals Christian equals
saved equals heaven,'" Matt LeDoux remembered. He was a
freshman at George Washington University last year and attended
a few Bible studies at the suggestion of his resident assistant.
"And underneath that, he wrote, 'Not a Disciple equals not
a Christian equals not saved equals hell.'"
Steffi Rausch, a 1995 graduate of the University of Maryland,
was told to write down every immoral thing she'd ever done and
give it to her discipler in the "Sin Study."
"I just cried and cried so much, and [my discipler] did as
well. She said, 'I did that too; it's okay. Now it's time to
stop. Now you know the church, and you cannot go back and commit
those sins again,'" said Rausch, who belonged to the church
for about four months during her sophomore year. She has started
a group called Students Educating Against Mind Control at Maryland."
The church sees the studies as part of the challenge of being
a Christian. "You can't be a disciple and living in immortality,"
said Baird, the ICC spokesman. "And you can't be a Lone
That's where the passage, "Come ye after me, and I will make
you to become fishers of men [Mark 1:17]" comes in. According
to church members, "fishing for men" or "reaching
out" is a biblical duty.
"I just make it a natural part of my lifestyle. If the person
standing in front of me in lunch looks friendly, I'll ask them
[to church]," said 21-year-old Fred McConnell, a senior at
George Washington. He's been with the church since his freshman
year. "I reach out to maybe five to 10 people a day."
Some school officials, like those at Georgia Tech, Marquette University
and Boston University, have another name for "reaching out"
- they call it "proselytizing," and campus recruiters
have been kicked off numerous universities for "harassment."
But the church isn't an easy group to control, as both members
and school officials will agree.
"It's a sales organization," said Flavil Yeakley, who
was a minister of the mainstream Churches of Christ for 25 years
and is now a professor of religious studies at Harding University
in Arkansas. "It's a system based on production - how many
converts you make - and reward."
Jon Goodman, a 27-year-old ICC evangelist-in-training, said there
are anywhere from half a dozen to 75 members of the D.C. Church
of Christ at each of the following universities: George Washington,
American, The University of Maryland, Montgomery College, George
mason, Howard, Georgetown, Morgan State and the University of
the District of Columbia.
Several of these schools have allowed their students to form officially
recognized organizations, but not one campus group calls itself
"the D.C. Church of Christ." At George Washington,
for example, students go by "G-Force." At the University
of Maryland and Howard, they're known as "Upside Down."
In fact, names changed from university to university nationwide.
"Campus Advance" seemed popular. So did Greek names:
Students went by "Alpha Omega" at several universities
in Georgia. At the university of Southern California, they chose
"The Chinese Engineering Society" until the student
activities office noticed that their president was white and a
Spanish major. Students quickly switched their name to "The
Good Clean Fun Club" after that.
Baird says there is a simple explanation for this. "We're
dealing with college students who are used to teams. They're
interested in picking a name for the team," he said. "Now,
you might think that's being deceptive, or that we're trying to
hide something, but that's all we're doing."
Some universities complained of non-students entering campus grounds
and proselytizing the vulnerable freshman and international populations.
A reporter heard several accounts of church members positioning
themselves outside guidance counselors' offices for "reaching
out" and of resident assistants recruiting lonely students
on their floor.
"Everyone has the right to their religion. The line gets
drawn when they start proselytizing or harassing students,"
said Jan Sherrill, the assistant dean of students at George Washington.
"The first thing [church members] say is that we're doing
it because of what they believe. They love being victims; they
adore being martyrs."
According to former member Lee, students aren't always asked to
attend Bible studies right away. "They make contact with
you - it's called 'love bombing,'" he said. "People
start calling you, and to a freshman or international student,
it's like, 'Wow, I automatically have 20 friends who are always
coming over and baking me cookies and inviting me to movies, dinner
and volleyball games.'"
But Baird and Randy Jordan, an elder for the D.C. Church of Christ,
said that the church wants to recruit everyone - not just students.
Baird stressed that the church's population is only about 20
percent college students, though former members and leaders said
it is much larger.
"The message we have is to meet people's needs, and needy
people respond," said Jordan, a lawyer in the District.
Ashley and Anne are 41 and 27, respectively - a gregarious, athletic,
highly educated couple. One's a professor, the other an instructor
at the same local university. They chose to go by their middle
names because they didn't want to reveal too much personal information,
just their story. The two got involved with the D.C. Church of
Christ in February. They left in mid-July. Their phone hasn't
stopped ringing since.
They were in a rocky part of their three-year relationship, Anne
says, when she first met an evangelist of the D.C. Church of Christ
at a health club. Anne was looking for an intangible something
- a feeling, a meaning, a new church, perhaps. She wasn't ready
to attend a service with the evangelist just yet, but she wanted
to learn more about it. After three months of her probing questions,
the evangelist finally introduced Anne to his wife. The two became
fast friends and started studying the Bible together.
"And she just started [quoting] Scriptures, answered my questions
with Scriptures, and I was impressed by that," Anne said
of the woman who became her discipler (she did not wish to release
her name either). "I had never had anyone sit down and study
the Bible with me before."
A few weeks into her studies, Anne moved out of the house she
shared with her fiance. "What they teach you is that appearance
is just as important as anything else," she said. "I
went to them and said, 'Look, we're celibate and we want to be
married.' And they said, 'Nope, you've got to move out. What
do you think it is for somebody looking on the outside? Are they
going to think you're a Christian seeing you living together?'"
Anne moved into a house with four other women from the church.
That, she remembered, is when she "got real busy."
There were Bible studies with her discipler, "Bible Talks"
in groups, "Quiet Time" each morning at 6 for private
reading and prayer, Sunday services, mid-week services, social
functions, "Reaching out," "Family Gatherings."
Anne estimates she spent maybe 30 hours a week in church activities.
Leaders said the average is more like 15 hours, but most current
members echoed Anne's guess. One said his was even higher.
"[I spend] 168 hours a week, even in my sleep. The Bible
says you need to love the Lord with all your heart, all you soul,
all you mind and all your strength," McConnell, the senior
at George Washington University, said enthusiastically. "I
even write music about God."
Although she was baptized into the Catholic church as a child,
Anne was re-baptized into the D.C. Church of Christ on Mother's
Day because she was told it was the only way she could be a "disciple"
and be "saved." Ashley followed not long after. That's
when the trouble began.
"I got semi-rebuked one time because [Ashley] and I had gone
out for dinner with another couple, and I was hugging him in the
parking lot, and [the other wife] said, 'You know, I notived that
you were hugging him from the front.' And I said, 'So?' and she
said, 'We were taught that you should only hug men from the back
so you don't cause them to struggle,'" Anne remembered.
Dating is just one activity regulated by the church. Members are
to date within the congregation, in groups of four or more, on
Saturday nights. Curfew is usualy midnight.
"We almost always date with another couple because we want
to protect each other from impurity," said 22-year-old Paula
Flores, a senior at George Washington and student leader of "G-Force."
"The best thing is, there are no expectations afterward,
there's no kiss, there's not the worry of 'What's he going to
Money was another issue. Anne groaned when she was asked about
it. She said she gave $25 a week in tithing, $375 for the biannual
"special contribution," $5 to $10 a week for the "poor
collection," and maybe $50 total for song books, shirts,
tapes and other "incidentals."
"The [evangelists would] say, 'Look, we don't want you to
give just that, we want you to blow out the special contribution
so we can be the leading church,'" Anne said. "And
there were people who were mowing lawns and selling vegetables
to make their special contributions. There were people selling
Baird argued that almost all churches ask for a weekly 10 percent
tithing, and many have special contributions and collections for
the needy. But Anne and Ashley said it was the way the
church collected money that gave them problems. Anne remembered
in particular an evangelist rebuking a roofer for not giving enough.
"There's an envelope that gets passed around [during mid-week
services] and most people write checks. Apparently, the weekly
[goal] wasn't met and they found out it was him. And the evangelist
came up and said, 'This is totally unacceptable!' [The roofer]
was made to feel this high," she said as her index
finger barely hovered over her thumb.
Still, members say they don't mind giving.
"That's where trust comes in. I totally trust the church,"
said 21-year-old Jacob Scott. He's been a member of the church
since his freshman year at American University. "I have
total confidence that the money is being used wisely and biblically."
Something else worried Anne though - more than the time commitment,
the rules, the oney.
"I never saw anybody question, not one teaching," she
Former members said there was a reason for that: They were rebuked
for asking too many questions. Lee said he used to get "torn
apart" by his discipler for interrupting Bible studies and
referred to the entire process as a "breaking session."
Rausch, the former memebr of the U-Md. Group, said a church elder
once pointed a finger at her and sternly said, "you have
been a very bad girl," when Rausch wanted to postpone her
"Clone's is the perfect work for the people in the church,"
Anne said. "All the leaders are alike, they all preach the
same thing, the disciplers become more and more alike. You're
happy because you're one of the crowd, but you lose yourself."
Those in the church had different feelings.
"We're all trying to become like Christ, so I'm encouraged
that we're more alike in mind and spirit," said Scott, who
is a nationally ranked captain of American University's wrestling
team. "If that's the modern-day definition of cult, then
yeah, we're a cult,"
Ashley laughs when he says he was a disciple only for "three
days, 11 hours and 45 minutes." That's when Anne's mother
called. She had done some research on the church and had a phone
number of two local exit counselors: Rick and Sarah Bauer. Ashley
says he had been suspicious of the church all along - now he just
needed help getting Anne out.
According to Rick Bauer, exit counseling is the non-coercive process
of in-depth Bible discussions, video viewing, long walks and longer
talks with willing church members. The Bauers had been leaders
of the Boston Movement for a decade and a half before they started
counseling. Rick Bauer says he was fired from the church for
challenging its doctrine; Baird says Bauer left independently
to pursue his doctorate at Catholic University. Nevertheless,
the Bauers and all of the papers and books they have since written
are considered "marked" and "spiritual pornography"
by church officials.
In 1991, the Bauers founded Freedom House Ministries, a Christian
ministry that has since helped some 200 people out of religious
groups, according to the Bauers. They boast a 99 percent success
rate and say it takes the people they counsel three days, on average,
to independently decide to leave. Anne took even less.
"It's so amazing to me that I can sit down and in just a
couple of hours, in a very calm discussion with Anne, show her
biblically where the group is off
and in just a couple of
hours, show her how this totally wonderful system can be dismantled
before her very eyes," said Bauer.
It was pretty amazing to Anne too - and nothing like she expected.
"I was told they take your Bible away from you and they kidnap
you and put you in this padded room and like, torture you or something.
I don't know."
Anne was probably referring to so-called "deprogrammers,"
who have been known to cahrge parents $50,000 or more to "kidnap"
their child and "deprogram" them of indoctrination.
Both Rick Bauer and Baird agreed that deprogrammers sometimes
use the vary tactics cults are accused of.
Anne shook her long ponytail, leaned into one of the Bauer's chairs
and sighed. "This is just been a really frustrating thing.
We want to make people understand who have not been through it,
how people can get involved. It has nothing to do with weakness
of character, or having a screw loose. It's affecting people
from all walks of life, every educational background and every
family upbringing," she said.
Still, Anne admitted that many good things came from the couple's
involvement. Their faith was strengthened, as was their desire
to raise a Christian family. Their relationship was nursed back
to health. They've even set a wedding date.
Such wasn't the case for everyone.
Rausch no longer goes to church, except for an occasional holiday.
It's too difficult, she said. She's no longer religious, but
rather "spiritual." "God gave us the ability to
make our own decisions - that's the greatest gift - and they took
that away from me," she said. "And it's taken me three
years to get it back."
Some members never get it back, like Miguel Longo. Antonio Longo
says his son couldn't escape the guilt or "the embarrassment
of getting conned." Religion was ruined for him and he never
went to church again, according to his parents. "They thrived
on guilt and that's what killed him - we just didn't have time
to remove the damage," Antonio said.
But what about the 70,000 members still in? A reporter heard
countless uplifting stories of students who claimed the church
"saved their life from sin and damnation.
"I'm sorry there are people who have not happy with us.
I wish they could be like most people whose lives have changed,"
People like Paula Flores. "How long will I stay in?"
she said, her hair coal black eyes surprised. Flores joined the
church six months after she moved here from her home of Bolivia
in 1990. "As long as I have breath."
She smiled and finished her iced coffee. Her eyes are innocent