Students express concern about proselytizing by outside groups

Two controversial Christian groups have been proselytizing on FSU’s campus recently, inviting students to their Bible studies or seminars, and even offering transportation to their churches off campus.

Some students have found these encounters to be uncomfortable.

The International Church of Christ holds a weekly Bible study in the commuter cafeteria. The World Mission Society Church of God comes “at least once a week” to invite students to their Bible study, according to Stephanie Garcia, a long-time member of the organization.

Interim President Robert Martin said he didn’t know what either group believes and did not know in what ways they have approached students, but said at this time, he doesn’t see a need to intervene.

“Barring any evidence to the contrary, a religious group is no different than any other group that operates,” Martin said. “And whatever message they have, again absent of any evidence to the contrary, should be as welcome as any other kind of nonreligious message, as long as they don’t impinge on any other students or students’ rights.

“Aside from the fact that we’re supposed to value free inquiry, and we’re supposed to value diversity, which I think it a special value of universities, we also value free speech – particularly as a public university,” Martin said. “I want to err on the side of tolerance.”

Most of the students interviewed by The Gatepost, who had been approached by representatives of one of the two groups, were uncomfortable with and confused by the encounters.

Morgan Asta, a sophomore criminology major, said she felt the group that approached her was engaged in “religious shaming.” She said, “I told them I don’t know if I believe in God and I was raised a Jew.”

She added the message she got from them was, “I was a bad person … and I was basically going to Hell.”

Undeclared sophomore Mikaela Bialecki said the members of the group she spoke to indicated if she didn’t believe in God, then she would go to Hell. She said the group had a “cult-like” feel, and “I think it’s scary for people who are nonbelievers. … It makes Christians look bad.”

Sophomore English major Lee Ricciuti said the members of the group who approached him “were polite, but you had to be firm to get them to go away.” He added that they “weren’t preachy,” and he didn’t get a “crazy vibe” from them.

Patrick McDonald, a junior communication arts major, said he was approached by someone who “was trying to assess my past experience with religion and trying to get me to attend a meeting. He was more than persistent.”

Senior nutrition major Jennifer Wang said the people who approached her were “aggressive.”

She added, “These women kept asking me questions about God and the Mother, asking me to be in a study group. I used every excuse to make them go away, like ‘The phone is ringing.’ I told them I was uncomfortable and then they left. I was trying to be nice, but I had to be blunt.”

Sarah Pritchard, a junior criminology major said members of one of these groups stopped her when she was walking to her dorm. She said the experience was “unpleasant” because “they told me the way I live my life is wrong because I’m not religious.”

She said they only explained their beliefs “in the context of telling me why I was wrong.”

TJ Liddell, a junior geography major, said he was approached by two men while waiting for his food to be cooked in the commuter cafeteria. He said he didn’t associate with religion anymore and didn’t want to pray with them.

“Throughout the talk, I found that they had lied and were trying to just preach me the Bible. They were trying to recruit and to convert people,” he said.

Liddell said during the conversation, he began to get “very frustrated” and by the end of the conversation, “was furious on the inside.”

Drew Cline, a member of the International Church of Christ Bible study group who is in the process of transferring to FSU, said there’s a “mix of good feedback. People are interested but very busy. We’ll be respectful.”

He added, “We want to get the Bible study bigger because people are curious [about religion] and don’t know where to start.”

Danielle Beane, another member of the International Church of Christ Bible study who is in the process of transferring to FSU, said, “It’s definitely encouraged to invite people to come if they want. There’s no pressure or anything. It’s all up to the person whether they want to. We never push our beliefs on others.”

A member of the International Church of Christ, and of the Bible study group on campus, Mauricio Buitrago, a sophomore environmental sciences major, said, “I never want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, because I wouldn’t want to be made to feel uncomfortable.”

He added that he usually just asks people he knows and is already friends with to come to the Bible study, rather than approaching strangers.

Buitrago said he didn’t feel pressured into asking students to join the Bible study, but is “encouraged” by people in his church to invite students. “I know what the love of God has done for me,” he said, adding that he wants to spread that to others as well.

Garcia, a representative from the World Mission Society Church of God, said she has heard of colleges asking World Mission Society Church of God members not to come back to their campuses, saying they were “soliciting,” even though she said she didn’t consider that to be an accurate term.

Martin said if any given group “can operate in the broad context of respecting that this is a public campus and respecting the rights of others, then any individual or group within reason should be able to be on campus.”

He added while there aren’t really specific guidelines for what constitutes being respectful, he said if the Dean of Students or Campus Police received complaints from students, both departments would look into the matter further.

FSU does have a Solicitation Policy, which generally is applied to groups, businesses or individuals wanting to sell services and items on campus, although the policy also states individuals need permission from Campus Police and “the appropriate authority” to “post and/or distribute printed material” on campus, which the World Mission Society Church of God does, by handing out pamphlets outlining some of their beliefs.

Additionally, the policy states, “All non-campus organizations wishing to utilize the D. Justin McCarthy Center must receive permission from the Office of Campus Events,” although neither group indicated it received permission from this department.

Joseph Porter, a campus minister from the International Church of Christ who leads the Bible studies in the McCarthy Center, said an administrator spoke to a member of his church last year. He added they were allowed to use public campus space “as long as we were respectful of people and not really annoying. It’s a free country.”

He said the complaints couldn’t have been about his church members, because none of them were on campus the day last year when students reported they had been approached aggressively.

David Baldwin, assistant dean of students, said he spoke to a representative of the International Church of Christ last year, after receiving “several complaints” from students. Baldwin said he told the representative, “That’s an open space. If you want to sit down in the marketplace and have a Bible study, and have some food, whatever. I have no problem with that. But I said, ‘You can’t harass students into wanting to be a part of the Bible study.’”

Baldwin said he told the representative, “’I don’t want you guys trying to recruit them, really, to be a part of your church. That’s a personal choice for our students.’”

He said he hasn’t gotten any complaints since and didn’t know much about any other group.

According to a US News & World Report article from March 13, 2000, the International Church of Christ has a controversial past. While under the leadership of Kip McKean, it was banned from 39 college campuses for aggressive proselytizing and harassing students.

This church was also featured on CBC, ABC News’ 20/20, Fox News and Inside Edition for being a controversial church, sometimes referred to as a cult. There is also a support website for former members to share their stories, including traumatic personal experiences with the church.

Baldwin said he had only looked at the organization’s website before speaking to the representative, but the group would have to do “something bad, something criminal” in order to be banned from campus.

Porter said that after McKean’s resignation in 2002, many practices that critics of the International Church of Christ challenged have been changed.

He said, “Certain elements were overly controlling,” and there have been some “systematic excesses” in the past. “We’ve come a long way in the past 10 years.”

One practice that was criticized is called “discipling,” which a 2002 Harvard Crimson article described as “totalitarian” control over the church’s members by pairing up individuals with someone higher in the church’s hierarchy, who advised them on their life choices.

Though he said discipling is still takes place, it is not the same practice of blind obedience that was encouraged 10 years ago.

One of the main ideas behind this pairing is submission, which according to Al Baird, a former spokesperson of the church, is not about agreeing or simply going through the actions, but submitting and obeying with the heart. He wrote in a series called “Authority and Submission” printed in the Boston Bulletin, “When we are under authority, we are to submit and obey our leaders even when they are not very Christ-like.”

Porter said the International Church of Christ no longer has a “top-down leadership” and blind obedience is “definitely discouraged.

“The worry, if I’m not mistaken, would be that it became overly controlling and … basically, you had to do whatever the disciple says. And there are some Biblical and theological mistakes that I would disagree with, when I look back.”

Porter said, “Religion is like science – it can give you the cure for polio, or it could create the atom bomb.”

He described his experience with discipling as getting advice and support from other members of the church rather than directives that must be followed. “At least to me, discipling is just a verb that means helping someone else become a better disciple. … And so I think under that definition, pretty much any active Christian church has discipling.

“It’s just a time to really talk through, ‘OK. Well, how are we doing? How are you doing in school? How are you doing in your faith? What’s going on in your life?’”

Buitrago said he did research about the International Church of Christ before joining the church and didn’t find anything that wasn’t “normal.”

He added that hearing criticism about his church online is like when people badmouth someone’s mother. “It might hurt you, and you hesitated, but then you say, ‘Yeah, I might know all that information, but she’s still my mom, because she still shows me her love.’ And that thing doesn’t overcome the other.”

Buitrago said the good relationships and love the people in his church have shown him “prevents me from thinking it’s bad because I know it from the inside.”

As recently as 2012, Georgetown University’s student newspaper, The Hoya, reported the University banned the International Church of Christ from its campus.

According to the article, the school invited a former member of the church, Jenny Hunter, to campus to speak about her experience in the church. She had first encountered the church as a student on the Georgetown campus.

She spoke about how before she left the church after 12 years in 2004, she felt it had controlled every aspect of her life, including who she married, who she could talk to and where she could work.

She explained that though she didn’t blame the University, she felt that as a young student, she was more susceptible to being invited into a harmful group, and therefore wished the school had taken more precautions in educating students about potential dangers that might come from certain groups.

Martin said, “I can say as a general principle, it’s not the University’s job to make decisions for students or for faculty about what is or is not appropriate. So I don’t think it’s my responsibility or right to say, ‘Good here, bad here.’

“On the other hand … I think there are times when I think the University can use their position, where it’s appropriate and the situation comes up, to educate individuals to issues that may be involved.”

Martin added, “I don’t think that in this particular instance, it is that situation, but I could conceive if the situation were a little different, that maybe that would be the case.”

Both Porter and Garcia said college-aged students tend to be less set in their ways and more open-minded to learning about and trying new things.

FSU Campus Chaplain Hai Ok Hwang said college students are “susceptible” to groups that might “attract membership with activities geared toward social welfare.”

She added that “some psychological and spiritual pressures are difficult to refuse,” but she recommends “looking on the Internet for information about what the groups are” before getting involved with any group.

She said last year, a woman came to her who seemed to feel “pressured” and “coerced” into trying to start a student group of a particular denomination. Hwang said it was either the International Church of Christ or the World Mission Society Church of God, but she did not indicate which.

The group was never created because “Campus Ministry seeks ecumenical and diverse faiths. Some groups are very exclusive.” Hwang added, “Campus Ministry and Student Affairs don’t want to create division in Christian student groups and confusion in their teachings.”

Hwang said both groups do not follow orthodox Christian beliefs, even though both refer to the Bible. She explained that they adhere to a “strict following of their leader’s interpretation of the law of scriptures.”

According to Garcia, a member of the World Mission Society Church of God, the Korean-based church believes the second coming of Christ has already occurred in the form of Christ Ahnsahnghong, also called Christ Ahn.

They also “practice the love of God the Mother,” according to their website. This means that God has a male and female image, the Father and Mother.

Garcia said, “A Mother’s love gives and gives without asking for anything in return.”

She said because what the World Mission Society teaches is different than other religions, people “don’t understand. If it’s different, they call it a cult. If it’s weird, they call it a cult. If it’s not what everyone does, people call it a cult. … It’s hurtful because it comes from hate.”

She added that most people who think her church is a cult come to a church service and then “might not agree with us, but feel different about us being a cult.”

She added the church has a team of people who “clear up misinterpretations people have.”

Michael Bousquet, a junior English major, said he was studying in the library this Thursday when he was approached by two men from the World Mission Society Church of God who asked if he was interested in talking to them, and proceeded to discuss their beliefs even after he said, “No.”

He added that he thought they were trying to appear as students in the library, since they were wearing backpacks and browsing through the books before approaching him.

Bousquet said he also went to a couple of International Church of Christ Bible studies, which he said were set up “kind of like a literature discussion.”

He said members of the Bible study seemed concerned when he stopped coming to the meetings because he got busy. “They kept asking me when I was coming back.”

He added that being religious or spiritual is important for a lot of college students because “it helps you keep asking yourself life questions about who you are. It keeps your morals, and really anyone can benefit from a period of self-reflection.”

Christian Fellowship Treasurer Nathan Stowes said although he doesn’t know what either of these groups believe, and the FSU club is not associated with either church, the Christian Fellowship is always a welcoming place for students who have questions about Christianity.

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