‘The students that are already in the church seem to be so blind, they are fearful, they cannot stand up for themselves’: Comment Editor Abby Spreadborough delves inside the recruitment process of repressive Churches on University Campuses
Content Warning: This article contains themes which some readers may find distressing.
*the names in this article are fabricated for the sake of anonymity*
Before students go to university, teachers, parents and guardians will warn you about the perils of drinking too much during Fresher’s week or perhaps peer-pressure to take drugs. However, few have ever received warnings about exploitative fringe religious groups. Hope, a midwifery student from London, was nearly recruited by such a group and wishes that her university had led a discussion on the dangers of becoming involved in what she calls a ‘cultic church.’
Mention of the word ‘cultic’ conjures up images of Jonestown, the Manson family and Children of God. They are the subjects of podcasts, documentaries and Hollywood films and often seem more like fiction or distant footnotes to the hedonistic 1960s and 1970s than real people. But such groups are not relics of the mid 20th century, nor are their members and potential recruits exclusively young Americans who have fallen through the cracks.
Hope spoke to me about her encounter with what she calls a ‘cultic church’ whilst in her first year of university. She hopes to highlight the deceptive recruitment practices such groups use in an effort to raise awareness for a very real but rarely addressed problem on British campuses.
Like any other apprehensive first year, Hope was eager to make friends and cultivate a sense of belonging in her new home. Bright, open-minded and spiritually curious, Hope was a target for recruiters who she had a chance encounter with whilst on a placement. She outlined their unassuming approach which began with them confirming she was a Christian before ‘(they) asked if I would be interested in joining a social group where they would be hosting discussions and activities with other young people. They made everything sound innocent and lovely so it’s easy to fall for it. You can easily be lured in if you are a first year student as all you want to do is make new friends and not feel left out.’
Following this initial meeting they exchanged numbers and the first stage of recruitment was complete without Hope even realising. She could not have anticipated how this brief exchange would come to shape her first year and harm her mental health.
What followed were persistent text messages and calls demanding Hope to meet up with the recruiters. Hope says this is a tell-tale sign that the group are potentially exploitative and repressive. A mainstream church will give you time to make your own mind up about joining as well as permitting members to question and challenge views of church leaders.
Worn down by their barrage of requests Hope ceded, rationalising her decision she said, ‘they seemed like lovely people who were just concerned about my wellbeing.’ The catch-up was the second stage of the group’s recruitment process. Masked by the niceties and formalities of polite conversation at first, the conversation inevitably developed into a more intimate discussion. Church recruiters hold these seemingly innocent discussions in an attempt to goad recruits into revealing their personal vulnerabilities and anxieties so that they can tailor their approach when seeking to convert them. Hope recalls ‘from there she found a way to get to me and she comforted me; told me everything was going to be fine.’ This false sense of security coupled with the promise of belonging to a group of like-minded and supportive young people seemed exactly remedy for Hope’s worries.
Soothed by this promise, Hope attended their Bible study, the third and final stage of recruitment. Other students were in attendance who she believed at the time were new to the group but were in fact already ‘disciples.’ She elaborated, ‘(they) knew exactly what was going on.’ These ‘disciples’, as the church calls them, ‘would tell me their amazing stories and how the church changed their lives for the better.’ It was at this point Hope began to recognise the true nature of her encounters with who she now knew to be recruiters: ‘fortunately I managed to recognise all the red flags quickly before I had gone too far with them. I only met up with these people three times, but it felt like I had been with them for a long time. They manipulated me… they instil fear in you.’
This fear arose as a result of the groups’ relentless bombarding of messages and continual scaremongering that those who resist their baptism will face hellfire. It is not simply enough to be a child of God in a mainstream denomination, potential recruits must become disciples under the strict supervision of discipler. These spiritual mentors demand obedience and are integral to the church’s power structure and retention of members. Control masquerades as love and attention which can permeate every aspect of a person’s life from how they dress, to what they eat and who they can and cannot form relationships with.
Hope pointed out that this process is called ‘love bombing’, that is an ‘attempt to influence a person by demonstrations of attention and affection.’ In the context of recruiting and retaining church members, this means feigning love as part of a cycle of psychological abuse.
This palpable sense of fear began to permeate every aspect of Hope’s life, ‘this fear led to panic attacks and anxiety. I had mild depression for two months. I could not eat or sleep.’ Fortunately, Hope overcame these struggles with the support of friends, family and a trauma counsellor. She added ‘opening up to people about this also helped. In opening up I realised there were many people that had gone through the same thing.’ In fact, the ordeal has strengthened her faith: ‘most importantly, I thank God that he helped come out of that situation and now I am able to help others avoid getting into the same situation.’
The group Hope was nearly drawn into has chapters based in many major UK cities and across the globe. They originated in the USA during the late 1960s and experienced exponential growth in their membership during the 70s and 80s – growing the community but also maintaining its insular, pyramid-like power structure.
When Hope shared her story on Instagram many came forward to not only praise her bravery but to relay their own stories of involvement in the church; ‘the students that have been recruited have lost touch with their families and friends… It must be heartbreaking to send your child to university for you to lose them to cultic groups.’
I asked what universities should be doing to tackle deceptive church recruitment on campus. ‘Universities should educate students on cultic groups… because of lack of education on these things, there has been a rise on the number of students being recruited’.
One high-profile and tragic case involving such exploitative and controversial churches is that of Joy Morgan. Also a midwifery student, Joy studied at the University of Hertfordshire before she was murdered by Shohfah-El Israel. Israel was a member of the controversial Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ (IUIC) she had joined as a student.
When interviewed by the BBC Joy’s mother described how her views became increasingly extreme: ‘the moment she started getting more and more into the church it was unbearable… We were dirty people because we had not converted to the faith. That meant we were sinners. She would make you feel like you were diseased. That’s how bad it was.’ Joy’s world became increasingly insular in the lead up to her murder in December 2018.
Since Joy’s passing and the subsequent trial, attention has been directed to not only the press and church’s failings but the university’s too as students accused them of not doing enough to raise the alarm once Joy had gone missing.
Hope’s story is not uncommon but is under-represented in the messaging students receive when starting university. Joy’s case proves that this messaging is not only vitally important but potentially lifesaving. The seemingly innocent invitations, the offer of a listening ear and endless attention and encouragement are all deceptive tactics recruiters from such churches weaponise against their targets.
Only through detecting these patterns of behaviour and exposing them for what they are can progress be made. More must be done to facilitate open and engaged discussion about the threat to student’s well-being posed by exploitative churches. Amplifying stories like Hope’s are only the beginning of this conversation.
If you need support or have been impacted by issues discussed in this article you can find further information here, http://www.encourage-cult-survivors.org