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September 18, 1995 - Image 70

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1995-09-18

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Students explore
alternative religions
holds as much water as a stale Communion wafer. From
the Bible Belt to the D.C. Beltway, Net-heads discuss the
meaning of Baha'i while television viewers bear witness to
CNN updates from assorted holy wars.
Some students would like to forget the religious regimen dic-
tated by well-meaning parents. To many of us, God was some-
one who held up dinner and wasn't too keen on coveting.
But according to Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the
Cult Awareness Network (C.A.N.), more college students are
turning to less-structured or nondenominational religions. Kiss-
er reports an increasing number of complaints about Bible-
based groups preying on this resurgence of student interest in
spiritual issues.
"College students are at an open point in their lives intellectual-
ly," Kisser says. "They're questioning. They're searching." The new
pressures and freedoms associated with college may increase a stu-
dent's vulnerability to membership in religious cults, she says.

Marks of
a Destruc-
tive Cult
" Thought reform - Mem-
bers are manipulated, coerced
or persuaded to act or think in
accordance with the cult.
" Charismatic leadership -
One person or a small group of
individuals at the top makes all
of the decisions and filters
selective information to the
lower levels.
" Deception or hidden
agendas (often financial)
" Isolation of members -
Members often dissociate
themselves from family and
friends who are not involved in
the organization.
" Exploitation of members
- Members may be required to
give an excess amount of
money or energy to special
" Special or divine purpose
- The rights and indepen-
dence of members are sec-
ondary to the goals of the
Reprinted with permission of
the Cult Awareness Network.

Cult or not a cult?
But don't confuse cults with alternative reli-
gions, says Carol Giambalvo, an exit counselor for
individuals trying to leave a cult. "The issue is not
one of belief systems - it's one of psychological
coercion and thought reform," she says.
According to C.A.N. representative and former
cult member Martin Butz, cults are groups that use
some means of coercive persuasion or deception to
recruit and maintain members.
"We estimate that there are 2,500 to 5,000
destructive cults and that as many as 5 million peo-
ple are affected by the cult issue," Butz says.
A consensus on cults, their number and their
impact is unlikely. According to J. Gordon Melton,
director of the Institute for the Study of American
Religions in Santa Barbara and author of The Cult
Experience (Pilgrim Press), "reports of cults number-
ing in the thousands and involving
people in the millions contain gross-
ly exaggerated figures circulated by
anti-cult groups to promote a cli-
mate of hysteria."
Melton estimates that there are
only 700 "alternative" religions in thet
United States and Canada; 75 have
been identified as cults. About 25 of
those groups are considered contro-
versial, and the remaining 50 are only
involved in passing controversies.
For more than 15 years,
C.A.N. has been collecting articles
on the controversial ministry The Ramona
Way International, a Bible-based senior a
Christian group with headquarters State
in New Knoxville, Ohio. found 7

Bill Greene, director of public relations at The
Way International, says the ministry has no mem-
bers, although there are fellowships in every major
city in the United States and 37 countries. "People
are free to come and go as they wish," Greene says.
"You do not join. It's a free-willed decision."
Will and The Way
Ramona Meraz, a 21-year-old Arizona State U.
senior, is a "follower" of The Way International.
According to Meraz, the Way teaches followers
how to ask questions and find answers in The
Word (God's).
"Anyone who has been to a Way fellowship or
meeting can tell you that nothing strange goes on,"
Meraz says.
Witnessing, evangelizing, pioneering - whatev-
er the term - makes up part of the weekly work for
followers. Meraz asks new friends to come to at
least one fellowship service.
"A lot of friends I've brought to fellowship do
come back," Meraz says. "They don't necessarily
have the same commitment I do, but they see
that they've been blessed."
Giambalvo says that new members typically
devote only a few days a week to the group, but with
time, the commitment involves more peripheral activ-
ities, such as picnics, date nights and Bible studies.
Greene counters that people who fellowship with
The Way work only three to four
hours per week.
In addition to doing course
work for The Way, attending fel-
lowship meetings and reading The
Word daily, Meraz supports her-
self and receives grades worthy of
grants and scholarships.
Meraz is considering dedicating
her life to ministry in The Way
Corps, but her postgraduate plans
aren't set in stone.
Equally confused about post-
graduate life is 23-year-old Jennifer
Meraz, a Steedly, a former Jehovah's Witness
t Arizona and recent U. of Oregon graduate.
U., has Steedly was a Witness before she
he Way. started college. As a Witness, she was-

n't allowed to date, celebrate birthdays or participate in
sports or extracurricular activities.
"I was socially atrophied," Steedly says. "At first
it was easier having people know I was a Witness
because it excused my ignorance. Now only my
close friends know."
During high school, Steedly pioneered door to
door for 60 hours a month. After graduating,
Steedly pioneered 90 hours a month and had a
part-time job to pay for living expenses.
Emergency exit
Getting out can be as difficult as being in a cult,
but many do eventually leave. Exit counseling is a
voluntary method of intervention. With deprogram-
ming, members are forced to listen to a counselor.
Steedly was a Witness for a year before her
father, who was not a Witness, got her exit counsel-
ing. He became concerned when Steedly decided
not to attend college.
"Going to college was deeply frowned upon,"
she says. "They felt the end of the world was near
and your highest priority should be proselytizing."
At first, Steedly refused to speak with the exit
counselors. Eventually, she watched a succession of
videos about mind control, cults and the Witnesses
and became convinced Steedly that she had been
deceived by the leaders of the Witnesses.
Her faith in God was the only thing that kept
her sane after leaving the Witnesses, Steedly says. By
leaving, she lost contact with all of her family and
friends still involved with the Witnesses.
"I've learned that there's a huge difference
between believing in God and being religious,"
Steedly says. "I don't consider myself a religious
person, but I still believe in God."
Destructive cults and myths go hand in hand,
according to Kisser. One of the predominant myths
is that people who get involved in these organiza-
tions are weak-minded or have some sort of psycho-
logical problem.
"We [at C.A.N.] want to emphasize that every-
one is a potential recruit," Butz adds. "There are
plenty of good people [in cults] - good people
caught up in a bad thing."
Pamela Harrell is a graduate student at New York U.


28 U. Mfagazixne August/September 1995

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