The Washington University Bible Fellowship, a small, university-focused evangelical church on Metzerott Road, has become the home to a number of students, and is described by many of them as a "close-knit community."
Although many student members have sung the praises of UBF, others have expressed concerns about the methods by which the church recruits its members and exerts control over their lives.
Established in Korea in 1961, UBF is now an international organization with chapters across this country and around the world. Members of the organization attribute its growth to successful missionionary action, but recently accusations of member abuse and cult-like behavior have been raised by students at the university - an institution the chapter sees as a central part of its mission.
"If we look at the New Testament, disciples grew following Jesus, and the point was that when Jesus ascended into Heaven he said 'Go and make disciples of all nations,'" said Abraham Lee, a lawyer and coordinator for UBF's local chapter. "So a very clear directive, or even a command, for those who have followed Jesus to go and make disciples."
Complaints about the organization, Lee said, may be the result of cultural differences between Americans and foreign students involved with UBF.
"I think part of a problem we've had in the past is a lot of the folks we have here are from Korea," Lee said. "Some of the issues stem from a cultural difference because definitely, in Korea, it's more conservative than it is here in the United States."
Aside from living on the church property, many students attend prayer services and other events geared toward community and the understanding of the Bible.
Lee said a gradual increase in members' involvement with the UBF is normal as individuals become more involved in the church's activities, such as Friday group sessions and singing during Sunday services.
"I think the vast majority of students who stick around, especially for a long period of time, do so because they've built a level of trust with their Bible teacher," Lee said.
Senior history major David Casler said he sees UBF as a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. Creative writing graduate student James Osita said he enjoys UBF because it takes "an in-depth approach to the Bible."
According to the local church's website, the organization tries to "help each student to study the Bible, that through Bible study he or she may come to know God personally, and also come to know himself or herself..."
But according to some former members of UBF, the church and its methods are less well-meaning.
One student, who asked not to be named, said he was once a member of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County chapter and has also had experience with the local UBF, and said the systems of operation were consistent at the two chapters. He said that when he was involved in recruitment efforts as a student, he sought out the particularly young-looking people sitting alone on campus. That tactic, he said, was the cause of his joining the UBF as a newly-single freshman with few friends left in Maryland after high school.
"Mentally healthy people will reject UBF recruiters' hard-sell tactics, but those who are depressed, lonely, or going through a difficult period in life may be susceptible," he said.
When he first joined the group, he said, the leaders were very supportive of him. As time went on and his trust in his leader grew, however, he said he became increasingly familiar with some of the less appealing details of the UBF, including "absolute obedience to the leaders, mandatory public sharing of personal problems, prohibitions on all sorts of activities including dating, cutting off relationships with non-UBF family and friends, and recruiting quotas."
Over time, he said, the UBF leaders made members dependent on them for major and minor life decisions.
Lee said the idea of asking a leader for advice is not a function of control, but rather of trust.
"I think a lot of people ask the opinion of their Bible teacher, along with asking their parents and their professors, and also examining what they want to do," he said.
But the student who spoke with The Diamondback said leaders discourage interaction between members and non-members, including members' friends and families. According to his explanation, members are expected to convince non-members to join UBF, and those who refuse are thought to be rejecting not only the UBF but also God.
"It is said that other UBF members are your real family," he said. "Family members who try to discourage people from staying in UBF are seen as agents of Satan."
Another student, who also asked not to be named because he is a current member of the local UBF, said the amount of control in the church makes it impossible for a trusting relationship to form. He said when he first got to UBF, the leaders were quite selective of who they wanted to teach, and the process made him uncomfortable.
These students are not the only ones to voice concerns about the UBF organization.
Until 2004, UBF was a member of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). However, its membership was revoked that year following an investigation opened by the NAE in response to a petition from "former members of the UBF and concerned relatives, friends, and others" who accused the church of fitting the description of "abusive churches or cults."
"Some concerns were raised about UBF and though NAE asked leaders about them they were not willing to interact," said Chris Paulene, who is in charge of membership for the NAE. However, Paulene said he could not comment further on the revocation because the investigation was before his time with the NAE.
Rumors about the organization being banned from other university campuses are rampant online, although they could not be confirmed.
Denny Gulick, a mathematics professor at this university who runs a training session on cults for resident assistants, said the accusation is a complicated one.
The word "cult" has to do only with a pattern of behavior, Gulick said, and nothing to do with religious beliefs. He said such a group replaces the rules of typical society with its own, operating through the domination, manipulation, coercion and control of its members, which can have serious and detrimental effects on the people involved.
If nothing else, the Washington UBF is a local organization that has students polarized. While some student members have grave concerns about the church, many members love it. Others, including members of local churches and some university officials, didn't know it existed.