(Originally published in the Daily Herald, a daily newspaper serving the Chicago suburbs. The last statement by Carol Ann Paul reveals a stunning lack of discernment and concern about cults at Wheaton College. The story of another cult at Wheaton College would emerge later in 2004.)

Cult worries surround Bible group

By Carmen Greco Jr., Daily Herald Staff Writer

Posted 7/31/03

Amy Young was a freshman at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1992 when a smiling woman approached her on campus one day.

The woman seemed nice, and Young needed a friend.

“I was lonely, and all my friends went to other schools, so I was there by myself,” said Young, now 30 and living in Naperville.

The woman who approached Young was a recruiter for University Bible Fellowship, an international evangelical Christian group that has become a fixture – in some cases, a controversial one – on college campuses.

The group is scheduled to a hold a regional conference today through Sunday at Wheaton College.

Young and other former members, who say the group’s practices are heavy-handed and border on cult-like, have petitioned to ban University Bible Fellowship from holding the conference, which is expected to draw 1,000 members from around the Midwest.

But Wheaton College, a conservative Christian school, says it will not cancel the conference. A college spokeswoman said officials checked out the group, which has been criticized by students and officials at several colleges, and have no reason to deny it a one-time use of campus facilities.

One of those critics, Young said she initially liked what she heard and saw in the fellowship. She became more deeply involved and eventually became a Bible study teacher.

But she said troubling signs emerged a few years into her relationship with the fellowship, which she left in 1999.

“When you first meet them, you think they’re the greatest in the world. It’s the love-bombing thing,” said Young, referring to the practice of showering recruits with positive feedback.

“But they have so many unspoken rules. They want to choose not only who you marry, but when you marry and where you live. They pressure you to cut off relationships with family and friends,” she said. “It is hard to leave the group because they’re all you have.”

Mark Vucekovich, a pastor with the Chicago-based fellowship, vehemently denied the group is a cult. He said the group’s detractors could be lashing out because they didn’t find the answers they were hoping for.

“We are not in any way trying to hurt people or somehow trying to damage their lives,” he said. “Our goal is to spread the good news of Jesus with people and help people hear his message, to repent, and believe him and follow the Bible’s teachings.”

Vucekovich acknowledged the church has an authoritarian bent.

Because, for example, the fellowship advises its members to avoid dating, Vucekovich said leaders suggest marriage partners to members after “thinking about who we think someone might be compatible with. But we don’t force people to marry anyone.”

Carol Ann Paul, Wheaton College’s director of conference services, said the allegations by Young and others were taken seriously.

The objectors contacted college President Duane Litfin, as well as members of the parents council and directors of the university board.

“We checked them out with very reputable people, and we did not find any reason not to go forward with the event,” Paul said. “This is about them having a contract to use our facilities. We’re not endorsing them. We’re only renting our facilities to them.”

Ronald Enruth, a sociology professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., was one of the experts the college contacted before approving the conference.

Enruth, who has written extensively on cults, cited the fellowship in his 1992 book, “Churches that Abuse.”

“Based on my knowledge of them in the early 1990s, I would not want to call them a cult outright,” he said. “But I would say they are … potentially spiritually abusive.”

Though the fellowship boasts chapters in dozens of countries, its practices have been criticized by students and officials at colleges such as UIC and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In 1993, UIC News, a publication of the school’s media relations department, ran a story about University Bible Fellowship’s presence on campus headlined, “UIC worries about cult recruitment.”

A Johns Hopkins chaplain also raised concerns about the group in 2001 in a student newspaper.

The University of Winnipeg has banned the group from the college since the 1980s, said university spokeswoman Catherine Unruh.

“After we received a number of complaints from students saying the members had attempted to recruit them, it was decided the action should be taken to make them leave the campus and ask them to stay off,” Unruh said.

The group has raised eyebrows among others in the cult awareness community.

Phillip Arnn, a senior researcher for the Watchman Fellowship, a cult watchdog group in Arlington, Texas, did not go so far as to call University Bible Fellowship a cult. But he did say the group is known for authoritarian rules.

“It’s not so much their theology as their internal organization that is controversial,” Arnn said. “They control who you date, how many hours you should spend recruiting other members. It’s a very controlling environment.”

Don Veinot, president of Lombard-based Midwest Christian Outreach, a Christian think tank, had similar views of the fellowship.

“A group may well be theologically sound, but sociologically abusive,” he said. “UBF would fit that category. There is authoritarian manipulation, and that can become enormously abusive as it goes along.”

Veinot added, though, that a fine line can sometimes separate manipulation from spiritual guidance.

“You could have a mainstream pastor that acts in a cult-like way, but it doesn’t make the religion a cult,” he said. “As people understand the nature of abuse, they elect to leave one church and go to a church more spiritually healthy for them.”

Young and others who oppose the group’s conference at Wheaton College, however, say the group has no place on the campus of a mainstream religious institution.

“It’s stunning to me that a school with a reputation like Wheaton College would host this group,” said Desiree Ray, who also signed the online petition submitted to the college.

Ray, who broke from the fellowship in the early 1980s after becoming involved as a student at the University of Toledo, said she was never physically coerced to act against her will.

The pressure, she and others said, was usually more psychological, such as the planting of deep-seated fears that divine retribution come to those who disobeyed group leaders.

“I ended up leaving college as a result of being involved with UBF, and I relocated to North Carolina to leave those experiences behind,” Ray said. “Many people, especially young people who get involved in cults, are very intelligent people. But they’re easily duped because they really want to do something more with their lives at that age.”

Paul said students are on summer break and wouldn’t have contact with the group during the conference.

“There are many organizations not welcome in certain environments. They’ve been banned or put on watch lists for one reason or another,” Paul said. “But when it comes down to it, everyone has disagreements with a given organization.”

Wheaton: Expert says group is authoritarian, manipulative