Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Jim B. (former Columbus UBF)

Jim B.

(Jim B. was formerly of the original Columbus, Ohio UBF. See also

Near the beginning of Charles Frazier's classic "Cold Mountain" the book's protagonist is recounting in detail the horrors of a civil war battle and is counseled by another: "You need to put that away from you". I have taken that counsel as mine since I walked away from the Columbus Ohio UBF chapter 14 years ago. I have never looked back, never gone back, never sought out anyone I knew during my almost seven years there, and never talked much about it to anyone. I have only once or twice picked up a Bible since, immersing myself in traveling and getting a doctorate and a job far from the scene of the crime. UBF days are literally like another lifetime to me, so foreign I sometimes wonder if they actually occurred. This is my summary of experiences there, the first time I have tried to put anything in writing since the day I left. I tried to be brief but there is much to say. I hope it helps you somehow.

First, I have read the other testimonials and they have all brought back a flood of memories of people and events-mostly bad ones. I read the eight points of Anton S's article and his description of UBF practices is exactly as I remember. Everything he and others here describe as occurring in Chicago I witnessed repeatedly in Columbus. Amy Y's testimony was disturbing but based on what I experienced I have no doubt that it is all completely true, down to the last detail.

I will get right to the heart of the matter: UBF is a highly dysfunctional and psychologically damaging organization, regardless of various definitions of "cult", "fringe" etc. It is led by people who are emotionally and psychologically blind to their own deep insecurities, and who have lost any sense of healthy relationships between people or what spirituality entails. They are masters of psychological string-pulling, posture arrogantly and blindly about who God is, and by implication cannot have the interests of their members at heart. They are imposters and fakes, wolves in sheep's clothing. I cannot make these points strongly enough. I urge anyone still in the group who reads this to keep a wary, questioning mind to the group's practices, to talk openly with people outside the group, and to accept the possibility that there may be a radically different agenda than that which is professed. That attitude alone enabled me to eventually walk away from the group of my own will.

UBF functions exactly in this fashion: it showers attention on new bible students ("sheep") who develop a personal, and ultimately inhibitory, relationship with a "shepherd" who teaches the student in a "one to one" bible study environment. As this bond is formed, the new student is strongly urged to begin attending group functions like worship service, group studies, prayer meetings etc, of which there are many every week, with explicit and implicit messages that not to do so would be signs of rebellion against God. From the very beginning, participation in various events is confused with obedience to God, such that any thought or action not in accordance with the wishes of the leadership is construed to be against God's will. This is a not-so-gradual progression that is designed to choke off the influence of people outside of the organization so that the student will believe that only UBF leaders are "God's servants" and do whatever they say. To an astonishing degree, it works. A hallmark of UBF is the lack of questioning and open discussion around almost any issue, replaced by authoritarian rules stemming from a leader's interpretation of the bible.

The degree of arrogance of the leaders, especially the Koreans, is as astounding as is their ignorance of it. Although at first they display great affection for new students (which is the bait that many American college students can't resist), eventually one realizes there is a deeply condescending attitude of superiority behind the fa├žade. They are openly contemptuous of American culture at all points and their ignorance of the cultural context many of us grew up in is extreme. They are authoritarian in outlook and have no real sense of what democracy is all about, which leads to all kinds of problems in their dealings with American students, which they solve by coercion and various psychological tactics to get them to obey. Their attitude also had definite racist overtones. The leader of the Columbus chapter (a Korean with the adopted name of Peter) once told me that native Americans were savages whose demise was punishment by God and that blacks were inherently too emotional to learn the Bible. I remember just one black American student in six years there, even though Ohio State had a large black student body.

When this falsely assumed authority was challenged it was met with intimidation, explosive rage and/or other certain signs that something is deeply wrong. Once, I badly needed a car and a member that I was rooming with agreed to sell me his at a good price. When I told the leader of this he informed me that he had just told my roommate not to sell it to me because it could lead to conflict if something malfunctioned. He hardly looked up from what he was doing to tell me this. I was so frustrated with this cavalier intrusion into my personal life that I just waived my hand in the air and started to walk off. He exploded in rage, screaming at the top of his lungs "What have I ever done to you? Huh? Tell me! Tell me what I have done to you!", even though his wife, child and some others were nearby. I didn't know what to do, to yell back, to try to calm him down, argue my case, or what. Finally he calmed down and said that he hadn't really lost his temper but was just teaching me a lesson. Teaching me what? Now he was also lying to me. I stood dumbfounded. Though I tried to forget it, I was never able to trust him after that, and along with other incidents, it was the beginning of a slow but certain pulling away for me. Near the end of my tenure he came into my room where I was resting and started to "rebuke" me for my "attitude". When I began to answer back he again yelled loudly "I have nothing to do with you anymore" etc, slammed the door and left. He had long before used the same threat to get me to attend a worship service against my wishes. He must have thought it would work again, but after watching the group become increasingly dogmatic and repressive over the years, I made no effort this time to change my attitude or actions to please him. I took him at his word, realizing I had nothing to do with him anymore.

I was one of the early American members of the chapter in 1980 and witnessed large changes over the next six years. In early 1980 the group was four Koreans and about eight americans, comparatively uncontrolling and there was much give and take during bible studies about the possible interpretations of the text, and much laughing and friendship around group meals. No red flags were apparent to me. Six years later the group was ten times as large and group bible studies consisted of Peter reading and answering questions of his own making, actively discouraging input or debate from anyone, especially the American students. Public humiliation of those thought to be out of line was rampant, including loud prayers for so and so to repent accompanied by descriptions of the person's sinful attitudes or actions in front of the group (I just slammed the table with my fist as I mentally re-live this). A person's standing in the group depended heavily on how many "sheep" they were teaching, whether they were a small group bible study leader, how often they wrote their short daily bible study (displayed on wall charts for all to see the faithful and unfaithful) and how much they generally toed the line laid down by Peter. If you fell short in any or all of these areas you were met with a cold disrespect from all that can only be called hostile, and loud prayers for your repentance. Weddings were pre-arranged, held out as a carrot, and done on short notice. I was told one Monday to write a life testimony by Wednesday so that the leader in Chicago could evaluate whether I was suitable to marry a Chicago woman that I had never even seen on Saturday! When I balked I was told to "be a man", "have faith" etc, with the implication that if I refused to write the testimony I was faithless and disobedient to God and God's servants. Desperate for female companionship in the socially and sexually repressive atmosphere of UBF, I caved into this line of thought, wrote the thing, and then was told the Chicago leader had chosen someone else to marry her. This kind of short-notice, extreme disruption of one's life was commonplace, and came at the whim of the leaders, especially Samuel Lee in Chicago, though always couched in language of God's tests of faith or some similar perversion.

I could go on with many more incidents but won't. When I began studying the Bible in 1980 I did so from an almost desperate desire to know "the truth" and the Bible laid a claim to that. I now realize that when the group's leadership began to manipulate and coerce me for their own ends, it was my original desire and a sensitivity to my internal compass that enabled me to see what was going on, though it took some time before I could be sure enough to leave and not look back. My last year there, becoming increasingly disillusioned and rebellious, I attended meetings mainly just to watch how other people behaved and to see if the negative signs I was witnessing were going to change. During this time I was a shunned black sheep upon whom various psychological tactics were tried to bring me in line, which only deepened my disillusionment and rebellion. It was entirely enlightening to witness this behavior. That was UBF. Anyone who keeps his sense of truth, self respect and fairness will experience the same thing, but the pain pales in comparison to the freedom that follows.

Jim B.