by Linda Estabrook
This is an account of my encounter with the International Church of Christ; the months preceding my baptism into the church, and the months following, through my departure from the church.
I came to Purchase College -- SUNY in August of '97. I was majoring in dance and was excited about the dance conservatory and the school I was attending. After a few weeks, I was interested in finding a church to go to on Sundays. I overheard a conversation about a church that met in the Performing Arts Center. I found that it met on Sundays at 10:00, being told it was a "non-denominational church".
I went to the service and found it to be very nice; upbeat, with much singing, and lots of happy people. I went a few other times. One of the Sundays I witnessed a baptism. A friend of mine, Sandy, had also been going. She enjoyed it as well. I discovered that she had been doing some Bible studies with some girls who were students at Purchase and members of the church.
I was shortly there after approached about studying the Bible. I was a little hesitant at first, because I did not want to do any individual studies. I asked if there would be more people there besides me. I was assured that there would be. So I agreed.
However on the evening of November 20th, 1997, shortly before the time that was set up for my study, I got a call from Sandy, who had been studying, saying that I was going to be the only one. I was very angry. I expressed my anger to my suite mates. But, I went anyway because I had made a commitment. The study was held in Campus Center North, upstairs.
I was there with a girl named Becky and Sheila. Sheila took notes for me and Becky led the study. There were no other people there studying. The three of us looked at biblical scripture. Becky directed questions towards me pertaining to what we had read. All the studies are held this way. Scripture is looked at, then questions are asked of the student, anecdotes are given, to paint some sort of picture; more questions. Any questions asked by the student are addressed or put off to another study time.
I finished the first study. Several days later, I was approached again. I agreed to study, although I was not incredibly eager to. I studied at night, with Sheila at her on-campus apartment. We looked at a few things in the Bible, but actually spent most of the time just talking and sharing our lives with each other. We did not finish the study that night. But I was asked again if I wanted to study, and I said okay. I finished the study on December 18, 1997 with Sheila and Jennifer, shortly before Christmas break.
All this time I had been going to church services fairly regularly. Jennifer frequently called me before Sunday to invite me to the service. This bothered me for some reason. I asked her one day why she kept on inviting me. "Wasn't I welcome without her invitation?" I knew that the church was there and what time it met. I also was asked to many activities and gatherings. There were parties of some sort, which I declined.
I went home for Christmas break. During that time I expressed to my mother that I did not want to do any more studies, but could not think of a polite way to tell them I did not want to study anymore. I had been emailing home just telling of my college life, so my mom knew to some extent what I had been doing. Before I came back my mom and I had talked a little. I had mentioned to her that it was feeling like an obligation.
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When I went back to school I told them that it felt like an obligation and that if I was going to study I wanted to want to do it. They agreed that it should not feel like an obligation. So I was not studying anymore. However, they asked if I would like to go to the midweek service on Tuesday night. I was free and said I would come.
After the Tuesday night service (during this particular meeting many people of the church retold their stories of being baptized), I was approached by Becky and asked if I wanted to set up a study time. I had quite drastically changed my mind about studying. I said I wanted to study, but I wanted to set up a time each week for about an hour that I could go to, instead of all the random scheduling and occasionally long study times. I set up times for Monday evening at 8 PM.
At the next study I met with Becky, Sheila and Jennifer. We went over what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. And from this study I concluded that I was not a Christian.
Often I had questions, but would be given the answer that they were great questions and that there was a study later that would answer them. Because of this I continued to go to the studies. I actually wanted to get to what was seen as sin. This question was answered by, "There is a study later that goes over this". I have to mention at this point that although I had set up dates to study every Monday night at 8 PM, after each study I was asked when I wanted to study again. I believe this was done in hopes that I would push up the day. However, I stayed with Monday nights.
Somewhere along the line Sandy cut off her studies. We talked often. She had gotten to one study that said she had to confess all her sins and she was not going to do this. I said there was no way I would do that, I also told her that I was not going to be baptized either because I had already been baptized when I was younger.
I did the next study some time in between February 9 and February 26 with Becky, Sheila and Jennifer. Becky led this study. This was called "The Kingdom". In this study 6 questions were listed.
The first few where easy enough to answer because it was very obvious from the readings we had done in the Bible. However, I was unclear about the last two questions. In my mind the answers were "no". But obviously that was not the "correct" answer for several hinting reasons:
The next time I met I did confirm the "yes" as accurate, and we continued. The next study was called "Light and Darkness", which I did on February 26, 1998 with Sheila, Jennifer, Becky, and also Sue and Pam in either Campus Center North or the Social Science building. This study directed me toward the conclusion that I was "not saved" and that my baptism at the age of 14 was invalid, and that baptism saves me. I was then asked, "So, if you're not saved, then is your dad saved, is your mom saved, is your brother saved?" I answered "no" to all of these. I knew I needed to be baptized, the way they said I had to be and into this church, under the belief that it was the only true Christian church, with the only group of saved people.
I figured once my parents knew all this then they would readily agree to get baptized too. All the studies direct you into this path of belief, by what the Bible seemingly says, (although much twisted by the group) and by the actions and reactions of the group.
At this point, my previous discussions with Sandy and previous decisions, not to be baptized into this church and not to divulge sin, had been swayed in the complete opposite direction.
My friend later said to me, whatever I did, "do not get baptized into this group. "However, I reassured her I was not getting baptized into this group but into God. (It just happened that this was the only group who was following God accurately. )This was what I had been persuaded to believe, and I truly did believe it.
At the end of one of the studies they gave me a list of scriptures that talked about sin, and suggested that I write mine down. Which I did. I now asked for a study time earlier than Monday. The next two times we met in Sue and Pam's dorm room. After that we set up a time for my baptism. I had wanted to wait for my parents to come down on a Sunday, however I was reminded by Becky, as of yet "You are not saved." That convinced me to do it on Tuesday, the next day.
So I was baptized after the Tuesday service in the garage of Chuck's house. There were many other church members, and my friend Anna from Massachusetts happened to be visiting me, so she was also present.
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I had obtained a job on-campus working for the College Tel-a-thon. I was working Tuesdays and Sundays, because they were my only available days. I had not had the job for more that a couple weeks, when I informed the woman in charge that I no longer could work Tuesday nights because of another commitment. This new commitment was, of course, the ICC midweek service. She was very understanding, to my relief. Shortly there after I quit entirely because I had too many church activities going on.
At this point I was attending Church on Sundays at 10 AM, Tuesdays at 7 PM, and going to Monday Morning Devotional from 8-9 AM. This Devotional was simply campus students: Sue, Pam, Sheila, Jennifer, Jim, Becky, Chuck and me, also a kid from Manhattanville College. This time was arranged so that no one would miss classes. Wednesday mornings, from 7 - 8 AM Sheila, Jennifer, Sue, Pam and I had prayer walks around the campus. Wednesday nights from 9-10 there was the Bible Discussion group. I had class that night but was allowed to leave an hour early; special permission from my teacher.
Thursday mornings I had Discipleship time with Sheila. Tuesday mornings, also, Sheila, Jennifer and I got together to pray for people, but also to check in with each other regarding who we were going to reach out to, who we were going to invite to church or who we thought would be "open" to studying the Bible. With this schedule mixed with my school schedule and homework, I was getting less than sufficient sleep, even for a college student.
Now as a disciple myself, I was asked if I understood why I was not told everything in the beginning. I answered, yes. It was quite clear then, but even more so in hind sight, because if I had known everything at the beginning I would not have gotten baptized.
I now was responsible for reaching out to people. This I was very afraid to do. But they all encouraged me and did it with me to give support. I was intent on asking people to church, to Bible discussion, to individual Bible studies; engaging in conversation with anyone about anything, all to work the conversation towards an invitation to church events (parties, services, discussions, individual studies). The hope was that the end result would be baptism. That is the uniform recruiting technique of the ICC.
For the remainder of the year I was attempting to find "open" people. I was attending all activities, and participated in the Hope World Wide day. I also gave at least 10% of my weekly income to the church because it was "proven" to me that it was biblical. However, one night Sheila saw that I put in five dollars. (That happened to be actually more than 10%) But, Sheila asked me afterwards if I was having financial difficulty. This in my mind shows me that $5 dollars was clearly not enough money.
At the time it simply annoyed me that she asked or even bothered to notice how much I was giving. I also was preparing for special contribution, which was 16 times our normal amount. "My heart" was not in the right place, which is a common phrase when one isn't eager to do something. Everyone in the church was doing it, "and not once had there ever been a year where the church missed it's goal." However, as I look back, although it shows a grand heart to not be attached to money, nowhere in the Bible, does it mention anything about "special contribution". Without even asking I knew my heart had to change, not the amount I was going to give. Somehow the fact that I had to give 16 times my original amountwas cemented in my brain. Anything less would be ungodly, unrighteous and selfish. This was a goal set by the church, not by me, and definitely not by God.
We called (or tried to call) Sheila every night with our "stats" of people coming to church, studies, events, and in turn she would call Becky, and Becky would relay that information over to Elaina, the Minister's wife.
At this point, months later, I had finally learned the name of the church. It had become insignificant to me.
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When the cult awareness posters were put up, Becky met us with glee because this was heavy duty persecution. Jesus and followers were always persecuted, therefore we were doing it right. EVERYTHING to this group is a spiritual battle. Either it is from God or Satan. Since the church is the only true church of Jesus, then everything else opposing the church is from Satan. The "persecution" proof of Christianity is very weak and can hardly prove anything alone. Any action of a church member can be justified because if people on the outside oppose it, it must be from Jesus. It is so easy to see how it can be used the wrong way.
I, actually, was not very concerned with the posters. Whether the church was a cult or not was of very little importance to me. My internal rationalization was, "You could call it whatever you wanted, but if this was the church of God, then it didn't matter". The studies that I had gone through "proved" that it was the church of God. So, although I was afraid of what people might say about me, or what people might think of me if I approached them about the church, I didn't care a lot about the posters. Also, I found it interesting that Becky assumed that the posters were addressing the International Church of Christ.
At first it was decided, and I say "it" because I did not make this decision but Chuck did, that we would all go to the cult awareness meeting. I was fine with that. Then, sometime later we were informed that only Chuck was going to go. That was fine with me too. I never thought to let it bother me that my decision to go or not to go was being made by someone else. Before entering this system of mind control, I would not have let someone else make a decision for me that was clearly a decision for me to make and not them.
A while later my roommate who had gone, was confronted by many of the church members, and had a debate with Chuck on the matter in the computer lab. She came back to me extremely upset, and hurt by what had happened and told me everything. I was also told everything by the church members. Each side of the story was a little different.
My roommate was someone I had been living with and confiding in for a whole semester. We were great friends and through our long building friendship she had given me all the reason in the world to trust her. However, my new found, weakly constructed church friends were the "true Christians" and God fearing people. I trusted them, too, although more blindly because they believed as I believed.
The next weeks were weeks of tears with my roommate, late nights, and internal struggles; confusion in general. My fear of going to hell mounted as I convinced myself with ICC doctrine, that if I left this church I was going to hell. This in the end scared me into giving my trust in my roommate over to the ICC, regardless of actions, words, reason and amazing love and friendship. Even my own contradicting thoughts were my enemies.
As I continued my ICC involvement, there were several times we all went to NYC to have gigantic services with the NYC church. I went home for Easter weekend and went to the ICC in Beverly, Massachusetts. This was about an hour and a half away, but I knew I could not go to any other church, because this was the only place in the area that was affiliated with the International Church of Christ. (The closer one in Manchester NH was meeting in Beverly that weekend too.)
There was an enormous amount of friction in our household those brief two days because of my stubborn refusal to go to church with my family. I cried, my Dad cried. We all were in tears. But, I dutifully went to church with the ICC and not with my family.
I came back to school.
There was one girl, Donna, who had been studying with Jennifer. Once I got baptized I began to hear many things about her. Things that she told Jennifer in studies, confidentially, were being relayed to me. I remember I went to one of Donna's studies with Jennifer and was very unsure what I could bring up and what I could not bring up. I didn't know what Donna knew I knew. And it was clear within the study that one topic had come up again, but Jennifer did not refer to it by name; speaking to Donna "in secret". However, I knew what the topic of conversation was anyway.
Sometime in May I saw a poster in the Dining Hall about a viewing of a video and discussion about Jesus that would take place in the fireside lounge, mid afternoon. I was thoroughly interested in it -- Jesus had become a favorite topic of mine -- so I decided to go. I didn't think to tell or not tell anyone that I was going. Although I did mention it to Jennifer in a conversation, she didn't come. I went though, and a few minutes before it started, who popped in but Chuck. I was thoroughly surprised to see him and asked him what he was doing here. He said that someone out there had said I was inside. He said he was on his way somewhere. He stayed for the video. Just before the discussion he whispered he had to run, but asked if/said I could stay. I said I was planning on it. I can't tell if it was a question of, if I had time to stay or if it was an approving, "yes you can stay." At the time I was unconcerned with whether he was there or not.
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As the time for choosing a place to live the next year came around, it was quite clear in my mind and the rest of the girls that we were going to live together. We all wanted to, and made arrangements to get two four person apartments. Sheila was in one right then, so she could keep it and we could get another. There was one girl, Beth; who was studying and whom we figured would be baptized by next year. She could live with Sheila, and two of Beth's friends would also live there; Jennifer, Sue, Pam and I would get the other.
However with not enough credits we went for a six person apartment, for Sheila and Beth and the four of us, leaving out the other two. This we got, with much excitement on our part. We were excited for many reasons. a) It was miracle we got in an apartment because we were the last "for sure" group of people to get one. b) We were going to have an apartment with all disciples (assuming Beth was baptized, and we were so certain she would be, living with disciples) c) We could hold studies right in our own apartment d) People could see how well we could get along, how great everything was, and thus by our examples want to get involved in the church (in our minds would then become disciples and be saved).
I also was trying to figure out, along with Jennifer, what I was going to do about next year's classes. I had a mandatory music class on Tuesday nights. This conflicted with the church services. Without a doubt, I could not miss the service, so I had to find out how I was going to get credit for this class.
That was basically how the year ended.
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I went home for the summer and got hooked up with the Church in Manchester, New Hampshire. Becky tried very hard to get me set up in NY, making it sound very appealing. She would provide housing and said I would be close to New York City and places to dance. My parents were pulling in the other direction to get me to come home. Quite literally, thank God my parents won. There were phone calls made to the church in New Hampshire and I was given phone numbers of the singles leader in Manchester
I had not called any of the church members in NY since I had gotten home for the summer, and did not return phone calls when they called my house. I was so busy I didn't have a chance, but I also had lost Jennifer's phone number. Any time she called and left a message I had no way to reach her. Becky was concerned. She called Nancy, the leader in Manchester, asking if I had been going to church. She described me to Nancy. I had been going and Nancy told her that I was doing great. (Nancy told me all this one day after church.) I often wonder, though, what would have happened if I had decided to go to the place in Beverly, MA instead of Manchester. Becky was worried and called Nancy thinking that I was not going to church at all. What if I was just going to Beverly instead?
I was involved in as many church activities as possible in New Hampshire, although it was harder because I was an hour away. Jim from NY called once and occasionally people would call, to my delight. While I was home I continued to invite people to church and do studies with people. I brought several people from work. I had gone back to my high school and found members of the Christian club there, and began doing studies with them. I brought them, along with my brother, to a church event. I also studied with my neighbor and brought her to the church, and I brought my grandmother to midweek services.
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A month into the summer my parents approached me. They were concerned. They had gotten a hold of a man named Sam, a minister who did a lot with helping people and families in these kinds of situations. They also talked with a lady named Rose Ann, who was knowledgeable about forms of mind control and cult practices, and an ex-ICC member, Molly. I met with them and my family, as well as my aunt to whom I had earlier written a letter explaining the greatness of the ICC. For three days, (all of us taking days off from work) we talked. From this information, I became fully aware of everything; Biblical misinterpretations, history of the church, mind control. After three grueling days of doubt, tears, questions and answers, I made my decision to leave the church.
I wrote a few letters to members of the church addressing my concern for their teachings and practices. One was written to Jennifer, one to Nancy and one to Sheila. They all called me saying: I'm so glad you have questions. That's good that you are asking them. We have answers. Each one answered in that way. Jennifer and Nancy said this after receiving my letter. I spoke directly with Nancy several times, and received phone messages from Jennifer. Sheila gave me that standard response after a phone conversation, and then I wrote her a letter. Each one of them took my statements, obvious concerns and clear remarks and turned them into questions of a young disciple looking for answers. I had to explain to each one of them that I was not asking them any questions at all, but stating what was true. Each one of them spoke as if they were the all knowing teacher speaking to a misguided and confused student.
I am now back at college, as a sophomore, continuing as a dance major at SUNY Purchase College. I see Sheila and Jennifer everyday in my dance classes. It is a struggle to keep conversation going with them because of obvious strains and obvious questions that never get asked. I have managed over the past several months now to get my life back on track, this time with a healthy relationship with God. I have become as active as I can in removing this destructive religious cult from campus. I have been spending many hours in meetings with school administration about the group on-campus,pushing for something to be done about it. And any opportunity that I get, I engage in personal conversations with students on-campus about the group and about my own personal experience with them. Although I am free from the ICC, it continues to follow me from day to day as I work to stop it from spreading around the campus.
Linda A Estabrook
Linda may be contacted through her parents, Lois and Gordon Estabrook <glllsharon@top. monad. net>.
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©1998 by Linda Estabrook. All rights reserved.
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