Keen Cults Keep Eye Open for New Members

Article originally appeared in the Boston Herald on April 25, 1993. Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner.

Cults are not like country clubs. You find the country club you want to join. The cult finds you.

"You don't decide to join (a cult) and then go find one," said Richard Ofshe, professor of social psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. "People are recruited. The schemes are complicated." A local cult expert agrees.

"There are many people adrift in this world. Watch at the top of the stairs at the Park Street subway at 4:30 in the afternoon," said the expert, who did not want to have his name used. If a young woman or man walks out of the subway with a confident stride "like they know where they're going," cult recruiters will leave them alone.

But come out of the subway and look left and right as if you're not sure where you're going and cult members will walk right up and ask, "`Would you'd like to come to a sing-along or a nice dinner meeting we're having,"' he said.

Experts generally agree that certain backgrounds can explain why some people are "more vulnerable" to the attention from total strangers while the vast majority are not. "They find out what the person is in the market for - spiritual growth, therapy, dissatisfaction (with the) religion he grew up with," said Ofshe. "(Cults) are picky," said Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network. "They know what type of person will respond to their pitch. They will drop you if they think you don't buy it."

Once under cult control, Kisser said, members are coerced into modifying their lifestyles, often through drastic means, such as isolation, guilt, sleep/food deprivation, and threats. Cults, Ofshe said, can be divided into three categories: religious, political and therapeutic. But while each may have a different objective, they all share a common danger zone - the leader.

"Only one thing makes a cult dangerous and that's the leader," Ofshe said. "The leader drives the group. What made Nazi Germany embark on the Final Solution? Point to one person.

"They are managers of a very peculiar kind of organization, or CEOs that use very unusual techniques to manage and manipulate," said Ofshe, describing the David Koreshs of cults. "These are management problems. It is bad exploitation of power." Most experts say cults exist in all parts of the country. Some have an international presence. Others are small and confined to one region. One may have commercial interests; another a reputation for ritual abuse. Massachusetts is no exception.

Unification Church (whose members are commonly referred to as Moonies although cultists say the nickname is derogatory) was founded by North Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The church is based on the Divine Principle, Moon's interpretation of the Bible. Cult members are taught the world is divided into good and evil - democracy and communism. Unificationists can save the world by totally obeying Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah. Businesses affiliated with the church have been estimated in billions of dollars. The empire has included auto and weapons plants in South Korea, news organizations in Washington, D.C., and a thriving fishing industry on Cape Ann.

Not to be confused with the Church of Christ, Boston Church of Christ is considered by some to be the fastest-growing cult on college campuses. Founded in the early 1970s, the church has an estimated 3,000 local members and 32,000 worldwide. The church uses a "disciplining method" to teach its new members. They are paired with a "personal counselor" who regularly monitors the member's thoughts and actions.

Church of Scientology, which claims 8 million members worldwide, boasts celebrity believers Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta. The cult was founded in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard authored a popular psychology book, "Dianetics," that promises dramatic transformation. Training sessions teach members that by cleansing themselves, they will be successful. From reading books, seeing films and taking courses, Scientologists are in a constant state of studying and training.

Krishna Consciousness of New England searches to attain inner peace. Hare Krishnas have established themselves in more than 60 countries around the world. Krishna Consciousness, like a kind of mysticism, is based on Eastern culture. Krishnas are strict vegetarians (eat no meat, fish, or eggs) and chant daily.

Founded in the late 1950s by Cape Cod homemaker Cay Anderson, the Community of Jesus is headquartered at its 10-acre waterfront compound in Orleans. Reportedly, the cult is comprised of wealthy Protestants. Membership estimates range from 400-700 people.

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