Dallas Morning News: Area watchdog groups say families torn apart by sects' control of members

From XFamily - Children of God

Area watchdog groups say families torn apart by sects' control of members

The Dallas Morning News/1986-08-18

By Gilbert Bailon

Brenda is still scarred by what she sees as the violation of her family, which began benignly in 1982 when five visitors stayed briefly with her son and daughter.

Her children, Margaret, 23, and Tony, 21, were used to middle-class normality. Tony lived with Margaret and her husband in suburban Dallas. But just four days after the strangers arrived, all three suddenly sold their furniture, loaded their clothes in plastic bags and boarded a van bound for a cult commune in Mexico.

For three months, Margaret, her husband and Tony lived in a school bus with dozens of others in a Children of God commune near Guadalajara. The only contact with Brenda was a pamphlet containing a photograph of the three smiling near a mountainous backdrop, which was mailed to friends in Dallas asking for donations.

"We were desperate and we didn't know who to turn to,' Brenda said. "It's like a living death -- they are alive but they are not yours anymore.'

Religious cults are thriving in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and nationwide, though their facades are more conventional or deliberately concealed, said Hope Evans, president and founder of the Cult Awareness Council of Dallas-Fort Worth.

The local chapter, one of 54 affiliates of the national Cult Awareness Network, moved to a Dallas office last week from Ms. Evans' home in Tarrant County due to a growing number of inquiries, she said.

Since 1984, inquiries have doubled to 50 per month, Ms. Evans said.

Cult awareness officials say more than 1 million people nationwide belong to cults and cultlike groups. Furthermore, the local chapter has files on more than 300 groups that have been active in Texas since 1978.

It has taken Brenda years to overcome the cult's hold on her children.

Three months after Margaret and Tony left Dallas, Brenda and her husband picked them up in Laredo. They were penniless, had foggy minds and were gaunt from a poor diet and dysentery; yet they clung to their Children of God doctrine, Brenda said.

The names "Margaret' and "Tony' are invented, as are the names of other cult and former cult members, whose real names were changed at their request.

Margaret, now remarried, is an office worker and teaches Sunday school at a Lutheran church in the Dallas area. Tony started his first job after graduating from college in the spring. Margaret and Tony, who had months of psychological therapy, declined interviews.

But Brenda said intelligent people from Dallas homes are alienating themselves from their families by joining cults.

Small groups splintering from Christian fundamentalism, including the "shepherding movement,' are keeping cultlike control of their members in Dallas and elsewhere, cult awareness leaders say.

But supporters of various cults contend that the Cult Awareness Network is only railing against non-traditional religions.

Ms. Evans and others say their cause is not to challenge religions, but to combat psychological trauma wrought by "destructive' cults that isolate their members and extoll the cults' tenets as the sole truth.

Cults profess a commitment to missionary work, but outsiders rarely benefit from their fund-raising activities and ministry, Ms. Evans said.

An example is the Children of God, founded in 1968 by former television evangelist and promoter David Berg, who began proselytizing and feeding hippies in the Los Angeles area, critics say.

Today, Texas remains a Children of God stronghold, although larger communes exist in Europe, South America and Mexico. In the early 1970s, the Children of God had international headquarters in Dallas and a large colony was based on a Weatherford ranch, said Deborah Berg Davis, the founder's daughter who served in the cult's highest echelon for 10 years.

"We've always had a lot of people in Texas, so that was a focal point,' said Mrs. Davis, 41, who wrote The Children of God: The Inside Story.

Her 67-year-old father, who is dubbed Moses David and purportedly receives revelations from God, continues to write The Mo Letters, his biblical interpretations.

"What makes things very similar in cults is that there is a very dominant figure,' Mrs. Davis said. "The whole Children of God was built on rebellion and a feeling of power over people.'

One chapter of The Mo Letters is titled "The Church and Political Systems -- Is there a difference or are they the same?'

Another chapter is titled, "Sex works -- You don't have to be a doctor to enjoy it? You don't have to be a scientist to feel it?'

"Most churches are full of the spiritually handicapped, retarded stretcher cases,' Berg's writings say. "They've got nothing better to do, and they're not going to do any better, so let them take care of them.'

In 1976, the New York attorney general's office found that Children of God funneled money to church leaders. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, in a series published in May 1982, says the cult uses "flirty fishy,' in which women prostitute themselves to raise money.

Moses David could not be reached for comment, but in a chapter of his writings called "The Truth,' he responded, "(We do not) violently assault, rape, sexually abuse, enslave, imprison, forcibly detain, kidnap, abduct nor psychologically or physically torture each other (and) neither does our "leadership receive most of the monies and materials' donated to our cause.'

Religious groups, which reject the cult label, include the Unification Church led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Way International, Rajneesh, Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology and the Divine Light Mission.

Smaller, lesser-known groups that preach the Bible, yet exert cultlike control, are spreading among adults disenchanted with traditional Christian churches, Ms. Evans said.

Greg, a successful retail shoe salesman, said he was shocked when his wife and her pastor -- of the New Commandment Church in Plano -- smeared crosses, using a mixture of milk and egg, above doors to ward off Satan. Greg later found writings by his wife, then a cosmetics sales supervisor, calling him Satan.

Angry and bewildered, Greg confronted his wife, Paula, 28. After that argument last October, his wife left with their two children. By April, their divorce was finalized.

"She needed something that would accept her and something that would bring her into a loving atmosphere,' Greg said. "She was always a good hustler. Now everything in her life is relying on the church.'

Greg and Paula were Catholics who moved to Texas from Arizona in late 1980. Paula began attending the New Commandment Church in November 1984.

Declared a church prophet, Paula and her two children now live with a woman and her three children in a Dallas-area apartment. All belong to the 25-member church. Paula is unemployed.

Greg eventually found that over a five-month period, his wife had given $2,100 to the church from the couple's joint bank account.

"No major decisions can be made by my wife, like whether I can have the kids for the weekend, without consulting with her congregation,' he said. "They feel the whole answer is within their only little group.'

Greg found pages of her pastor's writings.

"If you rely on your feelings even a little, then Satan has you entirely,' the pastor wrote. "When you turn to look at your feelings, you are turning to Satan.

"Your only goal is to please Me, and therefore there is no fear, for I will respect this,' the pastor states. "Do not take the world's word for anything but take My word for everything for I am the only one with truth.'

The pastor, the Rev. Patrick L. O'Rarden, did not return phone calls and the church's telephone has been disconnected.

As recent graduates of Texas A&M University, Jennifer and Robert moved to Carrollton in 1980 and sought a special Christian church.

From 1980 to 1982, Jennifer and Robert were satisfied meeting in a 12-family "cell' group to study the Bible and sing in the homes of members.

Through the Metroplex Covenant Church hierarchy, a pastor monitors members' lives through a chain of elders, or shepherds. The men must speak for the family, while women are voiceless servants judged by the orderliness of their homes, Jennifer said.

Jennifer, who has a teaching degree, and Robert, who has a master's degree in electrical engineering, quit the church after taking a vacation in 1982, which they said separated them from endless work details and worship sessions.

"It is Bible-based, but it takes things to the extreme,' said Jennifer, whose family now attends a Lutheran church. "The principles are more or less correct, but there is a very subtle corruption of power and judgment on material things.'

The 800 members of the Metroplex Covenant Church -- formerly three churches called the Metroplex Fellowship of Covenant Churches -- are expected to tell their pastor everything -- including family finances and marital problems, Jennifer said.

Their pastor instructed Jennifer and Robert to visit their college friends only once a month. Moreover, Jennifer had to stop talking on the phone with her best friend.

Women were scheduled to clean the head pastor's house, cook lunches for elders and help members move. Men were required to perform work such as plumbing repairs, constructing buildings as well as mowing the head pastor's lawn and cleaning his swimming pool.

"People in the group don't realize that they are brainwashed,' Jennifer said. "People don't feel they have the freedom to make their own decisions.'

Members must tithe 10 percent of their income. When the tithing check was late, the pastor would call, she said.

"We thought we were in full control of our minds and we had our faculties about us,' Jennifer said. "It took getting out of the group to realize that we were not.'

The Rev. Gary Henley, one of eight church pastors, said, "That's entirely untrue, but I don't know what value my own testimony is for me to protest my own supposed guilt.

"We encourage the membership to have a personal relationship with the Lord and for direction in their lives,' Henley said. "I think it is a gross misstatement to say we are structured any differently.'

The term "shepherding movement' is outdated and not applicable to his church, he said. Moreover, services are being held at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst until a church is built in Colleyville.

John Wilkerson, pastor of Bethel Temple in Fort Worth -- not connected with the Metroplex Fellowship, said the strict discipline of Metroplex Convenant Church has been relaxed.

About eight couples from the Metroplex Fellowship joined Bethel Temple about five years ago. "I would not like to see them categorized in any way as a cult,' Wilkerson said of the Metroplex Church.

"Destructive cults are here to stay -- many are multimillion-dollar organizations that are gaining influence,' Ms. Evans said. "We don't go looking for destructive cults. People call us because they are concerned about a person.'

Callers included a Dallas couple who eventually hired a private investigative team to kidnap or "rescue' their daughter, Janice, from the Way International in 1981.

Now 32 and a Dallas professional, Janice had scraped by for six years, working and recruiting for the Way International. Her life changed when a five-person team and her father forcibly "rescued' her from Dayton, Ohio, and had her deprogrammed in Nebraska.

Janice, who graduated with honors from Texas Tech University in 1975, was introduced to the cult through a Bible study group. She completed two of four years of Way International training in Emporia, Kan., and Rome City, Ind.

She paid tuition for her studies and worked 20 hours a week as a secretary. She recruited and worshiped full-time while tithing 10 percent to 40 percent of her gross income.

"I was under mind control in the Way International,' she said. "I believed that the Way was good and everyone else is evil. We were taught to believe without question.

"They believe they are the ones who have the absolute cornerstone on truth,' she said. "They take the scriptures and add them up to mean whatever they want them to mean.'

Ellen Warga, a Way International spokeswoman in New Knoxville, Ohio, said, "I think those comments are typical of someone who has been forcibly exited' from the Way International's biblical ministry.

"I have never been taught that the Way is good and everyone else is evil,' said Ms. Warga, a Way International member for 15 years.

In May, the Vatican issued a 17-page document exhorting Roman Catholic priests to work against cults and sects that practice brainwashing, sexual enticement and alienation from family members and society.

John Biermans, assistant legal counsel for the Unification Church in New York, countered, "These type of attacks and labels are made against religions that people don't like.

"They play on people's fear, and some people do listen to it,' he said of anti-cult groups. "They make no effort to contact us or anyone else they attack.'

A Church of Scientology spokeswoman in Austin said alternative religions long have received baseless criticism.

"The same people behind the Cult Awareness Council were behind the Citizens Freedom Foundation, who believe in coercive deprogramming and kidnapping people,' said the spokeswoman, Cathy Norman.

Michael Renquist, pastor of the North Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, said, "How long is it going to be before someone determines that (the Presbyterian church) is a cult? Unless there is physical abuse and emotional harm, there should be a policy of non-interference.'

Ms. Evans' concern about cults developed in 1978 when her daughter, Melinda, left the University of Connecticut, where she was in her third year of nursing school and a straight-A student, to join a nomadic cult called "The Body' or "The Gathering.'

When the Evanses took Melinda home for six weeks, Melinda refused to look up, acted dazed and spoke only 10 words to her family, whom she believed was satanic, Ms. Evans said. Melinda eventually disappeared during the night in 1979, the last time Ms. Evans saw her daughter, who now is 35 years old.