Monday, January 19, 2009

John W. (former Columbus UBF)

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(Testimony of John W., son of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley W., career missionaries under Wycliffe to Indian tribes of Guatemala. This testimony was given at a Cult Awareness Network Conference in Ohio, in 1986.)

My name is John W., and currently I am the supervisor of an industrial engineering firm in Newark, Ohio, for a company called Diebold. My involvement was in an organization called University Bible Fellowship. It began back in March, 1980. At that time I was 23 years of age and had been out of college with a degree in industrial engineering for two years.

My introduction was an invitation to attend an interdenominational Bible study. Certain aspects appealed in the term interdenominational for you felt you would not get indoctrinated in any one brand of Bible interpretation. Another appeal was in the term, 'University,' as I felt there might be a nice crowd of young people present.

When I attended this first Bible study. what I saw were people who were very enthusiastic, very devoted, very interested in their Bible study. That was not the normal situation I had encountered in previous Bible studies I had attended or taught. As a matter of fact, my parents were missionaries to Guatemala, and over the years I had led numerous Bible studies myself. Keeping people interested in Bible study had been something of a challenge.

When I mentioned my background, I was immediately accepted as one who already knew a lot about the Bible and questions were often referred to me so that I could give an answer. Even though I hadn't studied that particular passage, my past study enabled me to give some kind of a response.

From that point, I was definitely flattered and my background was stated as a great strength. With only six to ten people in the Bible study, the community feeling was definitely very strong. Thus my background was stressed as something that I had over the others in the group. Over the period of weeks and months that followed, this background was tapped into by the leader. Rather than my studying the Bible with one of the young student members, he chose to teach me himself--a privilege only granted to those who had been in the group for a long time or who had a strong Bible background.

Two Sundays later they asked me to speak at the evening service. Well, I obviously was pretty flattered and relished that opportunity. A few months later a new Bible study was to be established on a different night and I was to be the leader of that. So in the initial stages, I was complimented and flattered a lot because of my background.

In order to understand how people are drawn into a group like this, I want to stress that there was a lot of me that was heightened and clarified as being great and good, but in the months and years that progressed, that became less and less the theme of the relationship between the leader and myself. More and more it was emphasized how little I knew and how much my background had actually been a detriment to my really understanding the Bible.

Through the one to one Bible study, a shepherd/sheep relationship was established and s close personal relationship was developed as well. This eventuated in a dependency relationship. In the Bible study, I would answer the questions and the leader would respond. He was in a position where he could listen to what I said and add something, applaud me, or whatever. But in this position, he was the one in control. It was not like in a group situation where you can do some preparation while someone else is answering the question. I was always in the place where he was listening to me and then giving me feedback.

Through that Bible study, he was also able to learn about me. As a part of the Bible study there were questions designed for personal application and confession. These confessions for a new member were pretty general and summarized in one or two sentences. What later developed was a six to ten page written analysis of oneself in light of a particular theme that was planted in that Bible study, and a basic catharsis of anything that a person may be feeling about himself, or a revealing of oneself in great detail. In future meetings, these confessions were made public.

Now what that did for me was to create a fear that these things might be leaked out beyond the group. In the group there was understanding because we were 'all in it together'. This took away a bit of my ego, as well created a kind of unity and cohesiveness within the group itself.

One of the things that a person would note in these meetings was the outbursts of laughter at very strange points. When talking about something very humbling and very painful, people would laugh. For instance, if you were talking about being rejected by a student on campus that you were trying to recruit, that was a reason to laugh because they had shared the same experience.

This laughter tended to distort reality, for instead of feeling painful because a student ran away from your Bible study, your ability to think critically, as to why that student ran away from your Bible study, was shut down. Laughter also heightened the group unity.

Another factor in the cohesiveness of the group was the increased isolation from past associations. Involvement in the one to one study with the leader on Tuesday night, the Friday night Bible study, the Sunday night meeting, the Fellowship Meeting on Thursday night and a leadership meeting on Monday night, eventuated in a cutting off of contact with the outside world. I was too busy attending meetings or preparing my Bible studies or speaking assignments.

The leader never told me to turn my back on my family, my friends and my past life, but circumstances created the situation whereby the isolation took place. In order for a person to commit that amount of time, the approach that was used was that of guilt in decision making. When faced, for instance, with a choice between attending a Bible study or a graduation service, we were confronted with the decision as to which would be of greater benefit between the individual and God? This, in my estimation, was a use of motivation by guilt, and can be quite detrimental to oneself.

I had always been very interested in exercise and sports, but at the time I left the group, I felt winded even walking up a set of stairs. I had so concentrated on group activities and sitting for hours and hours, plus the fact that my job in engineering tends to be a little sedentary, I had put on about 30 pounds above what I am now. At any rate, that aspect of the wholeness of an individual was lost sight of. A normal thinking individual would have time for exercise or relationships with people that are not always geared toward a group goal or a spiritual goal.

There is another practice which isn't necessarily written in the teachings of the group, but which becomes very effective in strapping a person to the group. In their emphasis that one's walk with God is the full responsibility of the individual, the leadership took advantage of the individual's desire to walk close to God, and introduced what is known as 'training.'

Training is not done so much for the individual's educational development, but rather to develop faith--and faith is equated with obedience. Here, also, obedience to the shepherd is equated with obedience to God. As a leader, and to expand my role as a leader, I was willing to subject myself to training. There is a tolerance for what might seem like questionable practices in order that a person could aspire to gain a leadership role.

To give you an appreciation of what 'trainings' might involve, one instance comes readily to mind. A member in Chicago was told to carry two empty suitcases from the Chicago center all the way to the Sears Tower, which meant walking up 103 stories or flights of stairs. Now we might ask, 'What is the point of that kind of training?' It's not like sitting down and doing a Bible study. It doesn't seem to have any correlation. But the practice is that if you want to be 'trained' and grow closer to God, you listen to what your shepherd says; you don't question it; you just obey. If you don't, you're not obeying God, and you're not willing to be trained and molded into a leader.

Training also brought about a heightened unity in the group for you looked upon the group as an elite group, above others in spirituality. So the isolation, the eliteness, the total commitment to the group--because the group has the answer to how to get closer to God and to benefit society--filled the framework of the individual.

Now the contact with the outside world had been severed. If my parents, my sister or a concerned pastor were to try to penetrate my world of total commitment to the group and to its objectives, I would shut them off. 'Couldn't they understand that I was only wanting to draw closer to God? I'm on a crusade and I'm a zealot for what is right. Don't expect me to do anything other than help you to come into the group so that you can have the right answers also.'

It's a bit scary now as I look back on my situation and see how I had shut down my emotions for my family, for we had been a loving family. One of the reasons why I am still involved in education of the public in general about cults, and in particular, Bible based cults, is this 'zealot mentality for the group' which I regard as very dangerous. That zeal and concern for the group is so strong and the isolation is so complete that former members of this group have been assaulted, lies have been spread about them, and the concern for what is ethical and right and what should have been the practice of the teaching they were giving in their Bible studies are sacrificed at the expense of protecting the group and advancing the goals of the group. For society and for the individual, that is a concern of mine.

To show how committed I had become to the group, I was willing to marry a girl that I basically did not know and what I had heard of her was of a negative report. Yet I was ready to marry her at a time that would be appointed by the leader rather than at a time that she and I would choose. Some in the group were told that the next morning they were to marry so and so. They would accept this, feeling that this decision was by the direct will God through the shepherd, and they would not want to miss God's best for them.

To be willing to marry a girl I hardly knew at the direction of another shows how much I had lost touch with my own freedom to do what I would want or feel right before God myself. I had never been in a position where I felt I couldn't find a suitable partner. Dating was no problem to me, nor was I afraid that I would be single the rest of my life, and who I was to marry was not a decision that I would readily want to give up. When I first heard of the practice, in my initial stages of joining the group, I thought it to be the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. 'To marry somebody I didn't even know? You've got to be kidding!'

In summary I would like to say that I have been out of the group for two years and my concern about this and other groups is for the freedom of the individual. They are victims! They need help. They need to be approached. when I look at myself as I was in the group, or when I look at others still in the group, I don't see people who have become better. Rather. I see negative changes and problems that developed because of their association with the group. Therefore I have a desire to do what I can to prevent people from entering into this kind of relationship; also to talk to people who are involved for the purpose of helping them evaluate where they are at.

--John W.