by Pamela Foust
Since you are reading this, it is likely that someone you care about has been recruited into the International Church of Christ (ICoC) and you are looking for helpful information. There are any number of articles and testimonials written by former ICoC members, posted on the internet. However, you will find very little material which is presented from the point of view of a parent of an ICoC member.
Prior to the summer of 2001, our family had faced the usual problems of everyday life, with an occasional crisis, but nothing of any real consequence. My husband, Rick and I had been happily married for 21 years. We had two wonderful children: Justin who was 19 years old at the time and Lauren who was then 13-1/2. We had lived in the same house in a family-oriented suburb of Los Angeles for 17 years. Rick and I had satisfying careers that provided us with a comfortable income. Our children were busy with school and their various activities and friends. There was nothing to prepare us for what was about to happen.
On July 28, 2001, our son, Justin Thomas Foust, was baptized into the ICoC. He left the group exactly three months later on October 28, 2001. His decision to leave was the result of his participation in an interventiona voluntary counseling session of several days durationin which his eyes were opened to the real nature of the ICoC. Our family will forever be indebted to the wonderful counselor who conducted our intervention, not only for his skill and expertise in counseling our son out of a destructive cult, but also for the sensitive and caring support he gave us during the difficult months leading up to the intervention, as well as the aftermath of Justins departure from the group.
I have written this article for the benefit of other families who may find themselves in the same predicament. I first want to illustrate the devastating impact our sons membership in the ICoC had on our lives. Secondly, I want to reassure you that it is possible for parents to make a difference. No matter how hopeless your situation appears to be, you may still be able to extricate your loved one from a cult given the right timing, the right circumstances, and the right professional help.
Having a child in the ICoC was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It was as if our sons soul had been kidnapped before our very eyes, while the shell of his body remained to fool us into thinking we still had him. Hearing him say he was going to leave the ICoC was the sweetest sound I have ever heard. The passage of time following his return to the real world has neither lessened my outrage nor dimmed the memories of what our family endured. My hope is that you may extract some piece of information or some small insight from this article that will make your familys journey to freedom a little easier.
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On a Monday evening in late July 2001, our 19-year old son, Justin, came home from his job at a local movie theater with an announcement that would have a profound effect on our lives. With no advance warning of what was to come, he told his father and I that he had decided not to return to Sonoma State University for the fall semester of his sophomore year. The reason he gave for this sudden change of plans made no sense. He had met some people who belonged to a church. They offered to teach him how to live a good Christian life and to purge himself of sin. Therefore, he had to stay in Los Angeles so they could give him the guidance that he needed to achieve this goal.
To say we were stunned would be to put it mildly. Why couldnt he live a good Christian life at Sonoma State, we wondered? He just couldnt, he said, because the people he knew at college werent really Christians and they didnt live Christian lives. We pressed him for more information. What was the name of this church? Where was it located? Who were these people, anyway? It was called the Church of Christ, he said. He had never actually been there, but the minister whose name was Alan(1), had baptized him at the beach on Saturday night while the members of the church looked on. Afterward, they all hugged him and told him they loved him and they were the nicest people he had ever met! I asked him if he had any doubts about whether he was making the right decision, and he replied that he had no doubts whatsoever. Would he talk to a psychiatrist? No, he wouldnt do that because he knew exactly what he was doing. How about a minister? He thought for minute, and responded that he would be willing to talk to a minister, but it wouldnt change his mind about anything.
The next day at work, I took the few clues our son had given us to the Internet in an attempt to find some information about Justins new church and its minister. It didnt take long to discover that his new friends were not affiliated with the Church of Christ, as he apparently believed. Rather, he was now a member of the Los Angeles Church of Christ which was the local unit of a world-wide religious organization called the International Church of Christ (ICoC). I learned that many people did not believe that this was a church at all, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a destructive cult. With a growing sense of foreboding, I printed off a few documents that looked informative, and went back to work.
That night, Rick and I had intended to question Justin further, but decided to hold off until we had a better idea of what we were dealing with. We read and discussed the limited information I had obtained so far. It appeared that the ICoC was a manipulative sect that employed mind-control tactics to bind its members to the group, not unlike the high-profile cults of earlier years such as the Moonies or the Children of God. The church believed that it alone possessed the truth and the path to salvation. They were rabid recruiters. Their members were required to make substantial financial contributions to the organization. As a result of their deceptive and aggressive recruiting tactics, the ICoC had been banned from a number of major universities across the country. We could hardly believe what we were reading! In our despair, we asked ourselves how this could have happened to our family, seemingly overnight!
The next day, I stayed home from work to do further research and send e-mails to various people, requesting information and assistance. I found a wealth of information on the Internet concerning the ICoC, almost all of it negative. In fact, one could probably spend eight hours a day, five days a week at the computer, and it would still take months to get through it all. I wrote a standard e-mail inquiry that I could simply paste into each communication, and started sending it to every e-mail address listed on the various web pages as potential sources of information or assistance. In the meantime, the phone rang nonstop. All the callers were kids whose names were unfamiliar to me, all asking for Justin. I kept a record of their names and telephone numbers, just in case Id need the information later.
The first e-mail response I received was from a former member who operates an anti-ICoC web site. She warned me not to give Justin any money because it would end up going to the ICoC. She advised us to get as much information about the ICoC as possible and to pass it on to our family and friends not only to help them understand what had happened to Justin, but also to prevent them from being recruited. She told me to make sure we kept the channels of communication open with our son and to never, never tell him he belonged a cult because the group would only use such an accusation to drive a wedge between him and his family. She assured me that most members dropped out on their own within a couple of years so that the chances of his eventual departure from the group were quite good. (Even if this were true, I thought, how many years would he throw away before resuming a normal life?) Finally, she mentioned that if we were interested in exit counseling, we should contact John ______(2) and gave me his e-mail address.
I immediately sent an e-mail to John and later that day spoke with him by telephone. I found him to be sympathetic and very easy to talk to. He was a former member of the ICoC who had once occupied a high position in the organizations leadership. As a result of his own negative experiences, he decided to dedicate his career to counseling individuals and families whose lives had been adversely impacted by destructive sects in general, and the ICoC in particular. He briefly explained the nature of the services he provided and told me he would e-mail me an assessment form for us to fill out together, along with various informational materials.
After we had an opportunity to study these materials, Rick and I had a long telephone conference with John in which we discussed our situation in detail. What most interested us was the concept of an interventiona type of counseling session in which our son would voluntarily meet with a team of former members, as well as with family and friends, over a period of several days. During this time he would be thoroughly educated about the true nature of the ICoCs leadership, practices and beliefs, with the anticipated result that he would then voluntarily decide to disassociate himself from the group. Although most families probably take more time to consider their options, we essentially decided we wanted to attempt an intervention right from the start. We had digested an enormous amount of material within a few days, and were convinced our sons predicament was so dangerous that we could not afford to take a wait and see attitude. We therefore made arrangements to meet with John in a couple of weeks for a face to face planning meeting.
The following day, I got home from work later than usual. Justin introduced me to a young man named Kenneth, whom I had never met before, and asked if he could stay for dinner. I suggested we go out to dinner, instead, at a nice restaurant near our home, and wed treat. Kenneth was pleasant and very polite. He certainly didnt fit the stereotype of the cult member. I wondered if he was perhaps Justins discipler, the person placed in charge of him, who he was supposed to emulate and obey. (A few weeks later, I found out that my hunch had been correct.)
The second phone line Justin shared with his sister started regularly ringing early in the morning and late at night. Justin usually answered it after only one or two rings. I also began to notice he was leaving the house around 6:00 oclock every morning, and returning 30 minutes to an hour later. I didnt ask where he went on these early morning trips, and he never volunteered. He became increasingly secretive, and at times, displayed such a lack of emotion, he seemed almost robotic. Additionally, he spent more and more time away from home, such that we saw him less and less. We were hesitant to engage him in any conversations about his new affiliation because we were still educating ourselves, and didnt want him to become aware of the extent of our concern.
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We had originally planned to take Justin and his belongings back up to Sonoma State for the fall semestera distance of approximately 500 miles. It therefore made sense to plan our family vacation for the week preceding the start of school at a resort area in the same vicinity. The previous summer, we rented a house in the quaint little town of Guerneville on the Russian River. This year, we were fortunate enough to find a rental right on the river bank which boasted a private dock with kayaks and canoes. Justin had always loved water sports, and was quite excited about our plans. Now, we were in for another shock when he suddenly announced he wouldnt be going to the Russian River with us at all.
Since he wasnt going back to school, he said, there was no sense in giving up his summer job. They would let him have one weekend off, but not two weekends in a row. The ICoC was having a big convention in San Diego on the weekend we planned to leave, and this was more important than a mere vacation. This was a devastating blow. It would be difficult enough to enjoy a vacation in the area of Justins school, knowing he wasnt going back. To not have him go with us at all (a first in the years since his birth) was almost unimaginable! I looked for a compromise by which he could attend his conference and spend at least part of the vacation with his family.
Santa Rosa, located about 30 miles from the Russian River, has a small commuter airport. I proposed to Justin that he fly up on Sunday afternoon after the conference and fly back on Friday morning in time to report for work that night, taking the time in between off work. That way, he could at least be with us for part of the vacation. All hed have to do is get his job to let him off for a few weekdays. I had thought he would be ecstatic about this proposal, but instead he was very noncommittal, telling me he would check into the possibility and let me know. Over a period of several days, Justin continued to put me off. Meanwhile, the early morning and late night calls continued and he became more and more detached and distant. Sometimes, it seemed as if he was turning into an entirely different person.
By the Thursday afternoon before our planned Sunday morning departure, Justin still hadnt given me an answer, one way or the other, and I told him I simply had to know. To my surprise, he said he had gotten the time off work and he would go. I immediately bought the plane tickets, which were exorbitant at that late date, and breathed a sigh of relief. The vacation went quite well, and for most of the time, Justin was back to his old self, joking around and teasing his sister. He didnt say a word about his new church, and neither did we. He wasnt able to check in with his discipler or anyone else because there was no cell phone reception in the area, and the telephone in the house was set up to exclude outgoing long distance calls except for those placed with a credit card. Whenever he left the house, we would haul out the books John had recommended, as well as the information I had downloaded off the Internet, and continue with our education, desperately looking for clues that would help us to extricate our son and ourselves from this disaster.
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The night before the planned meeting with John, I was surprised to find two of Justins fellow disciples sitting in our family room. This was the first time any of them had come to the house since we met Kenneth several weeks earlier. Like Kenneth, they were very polite and friendly, and seemed to be nice kids. They watched television for a while, and then the three of them left together. Justin still had not returned by the time we went to bed. The next morning, Rick left the house in a business suit, as usual. I awakened Justin to tell him Lauren and I were going shopping for school supplies. Upon entering his room, I was surprised to see one of the ICoC members from the night before (who had introduced himself as Eddie) asleep in the spare bed in Justins room. When I asked Justin what he was doing there, he explained that they had gotten back late the night before, and it had just been easier for the other boy to spend the night.
We were very disturbed by this development. I had heard numerous stories of planned interventions during family gatherings being disturbed by the arrival of other disciples who were determined to protect a brother from unwanted outside influences. Why did this guy suddenly arrive at our house and suddenly decide to spend the night in Justins room the very night John arrived in town? It seemed too unusual to be mere coincidence. Somehow, Justin must have found out about our communication with John, and alerted his new friends. And if he knew this much, what else had he discovered? How would this be likely to affect our plans for an intervention once they were actually being carried out? Most of all, we wondered how our son could have changed so drastically in such a short time.
Since there was nothing else we could do, we proceeded to meet with John, although not without some trepidation. John agreed the situation did not look good, but assured us that even if Justin had discovered our plans, the problem was not insurmountable. We spent the entire day talking and planning. We learned that it is preferable to conduct an intervention at a location distant from home where it would not be easy for the ICoC to invade and persuade Justin to leave with them. Of course, this would require a suitable reason to get Justin out of town with us for several days. At the same time, John was adamant that there could not be any deception whatsoever, or it would almost certainly come back to haunt us in the end. Thus, we would have to plan a real family vacation and deliver whatever activities had been promised to Justin before he met with the intervention team.
John and his team would conduct the intervention, but it was up to us to obtain Justins full consent. There could not be even the slightest suggestion of deception, and our son would have to be fully informed of what he was being asked to do. The possibility that our plans might have been discovered made the situation quite a bit more challenging. If we told Justin we were taking another vacation so soon after the Russian River, would he not immediately suspect something? If the ICoC thought we were actively working to extricate Justin from the organization, would they not advise Justin to never go anywhere with us? We ended the day with the understanding that Rick and I would start investigating possibilities, and we would consult with John as we proceeded.
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Despite the incident with Eddie, the normalcy of the vacation had raised my hopes, although I had to admit we were really no closer to a solution than before. Those tenuous hopes were dashed the following Wednesday night when Justin returned from the ICoC Mid-Week Service and told Rick and me he had something to tell us. After we all sat down in the family room, he announced he was moving out of our home in order to share an apartment with three other members of his church. Alarm bells started going off in my head! Was this the first step in the process of alienating Justin from his family that I had heard about from the Internet and from my conversations with former members? Now I was sure the ICoC knew that we were planning something, and had decided to minimize any influence we still had over our son.
Justin had enrolled in a local community college where he was taking 12 units, while continuing to work part-time at the theater. There was no way his meager earnings would cover the expenses of an apartment, not to mention what he was required to give to the ICoC, and we tried to point this out to him. No matter, he told us, and then proceeded to recite various Bible verses he said stood for the proposition that God would provide. What about school, we asked him? Well, hed do his best, but right now his first priority was his relationship with God, which he had to place above school and family and everything else! It was too difficult to keep focused on this goal at home, he said, because there were simply too many distractions. He needed to live with people whom, as he put it, shared his faith.
Aside from the fact Justin would now be subject to the influence of the ICoC 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there was a safety issue that was my most immediate concern. He didnt get off work from his theater job until 2:00 a.m., three nights a week. Our house was less than a mile from the theater, so even though he lacked a car, he was able to travel to and from work on his bicycle. The apartment he and his prospective roommates had found was in a community located three miles away, which, if not exactly a slum, could certainly be described as economically depressed, with a higher than average crime rate. To ride a bicycle through this area in the early hours of the morning was asking for trouble. We pointed this out to Justin, but he claimed not to be concerned. None of this meant anything to him because this life was but an illusion, and if he were killed, he would live in eternal glory. We tried to reason with him, explaining that God surely didnt intend for a 19 year old to risk his life for no good reason. However, he was not swayed.
This was the final straw. The following afternoon, I left work early and went directly to the offices of the International Church of Christ in Los Angeles at the Wilshire Boulevard address I had found on their web site. I marched into a large room that looked as if the occupants were either in the process of moving in or moving out. Boxes were stacked against the walls. There were a few rows of molded plastic chairs facing a desk with a computer and a telephone. I introduced myself to the young lady behind the desk, handed her my business card, and told her that I wanted to speak to the person in charge. The receptionist listened politely, and then informed me these were administrative offices only, and there was no one available to speak to me who could help me in any manner.
In that case, I told her, I would tell her my story, and see if she could direct me to the appropriate person. I explained that my son had recently been baptized into the ICoC, was moving out of our home into an apartment with some other disciples, and was now proposing to do something I considered extremely dangerous which he claimed was in accord with the philosophy and teachings of his new church. I told her what Justin had told me, but she still insisted there was nothing she could do. When I persisted, a woman came out of a hallway, placed her hand on my arm, and told me there was really no one there who could speak with me. When I did not respond, she added that this fact would not change, no matter what I said or did. Her attitude was patronizing, and I had the feeling she thought I was on the verge of creating a disturbance. I wondered what experiences these people were accustomed to having with irate parents.
Nonetheless, I repeated my story to her, this time adding firmly that I could promise her that if anything happened to my son, they would see the name of their church in the Los Angeles Times with Justins words to us in quotes. I had no idea how I could carry through with this threat, but figured she had no way of knowing that. She was silent for a moment and then told the receptionist to give me some names and telephone numbers of people to call. After searching for the information in the computer, the receptionist wrote something on a piece of paper, handed it to me, and told me to call these individuals. They might not be able to call me back right away, she said, but they would eventually get back to me. In my car in the parking lot, I glanced at the piece of paper the receptionist had given me on which was written:
Alan & Gloria Baird (310) XXX-XXXX
John & Emma Causey (310) YYY-YYYY
I knew from my Internet research that Mr. Baird was the ICoCs director of Law and Media, and Mr. Causey was the leader of the region in which my sons sector was located. I decided to hold off on calling them until I had an opportunity to speak with Justin again. I was also curious to see if news of my visit to the Wilshire Boulevard office would filter down to the local level and perhaps have some effect.
By now, the weekend had arrived, and I hardly saw my son between work and his ICoC activities. Monday was Labor Day, and two of his prospective roommates, Eddie and Connor, arrived at the house early to pick him up to go talk to their new landlord. I was able to intercept them and invite them to dinner that evening. They were hesitant at first until I told them that if Justin was going to share an apartment with them, I had to at least have a chance to get to know them. They promised to come, and to try to find Kenneth, who was to be the fourth roommate, and bring him too.
That evening, Justin, Eddie and Connor arrived at the house an hour late and declared they couldnt stay long because they had to go to a meeting. I had prepared enough food to yield leftovers for the rest of the week, or so I thought. However, these guys were like human vacuum cleaners. They ate as if there was no tomorrow! Eddie was having a hard time staying awake, but Connor had a great time talking about college football, which was obviously his favorite topic of conversation. Neither of them brought up the ICoC, and Rick and I were careful to stay away from the subject. I did mention my concerns about Justin riding his bicycle back to the apartment late at night. They immediately volunteered that they didnt think this was a good idea either. It was quickly agreed that Justin would either be picked up from his job in a car, or he would come back to our house to sleep on the nights he had to work late. This resolved my safety issue, so I never called Baird or Causey.
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After Justin moved into the apartment, we saw him less and less. At one point, we didnt hear from him for an entire week, and since he had no telephone in the beginning, we had no way of getting in touch with him. On the few occasions we did see him, he was distant and mute. He had lost a lot of weight, and always looked tired. If he went anywhere in the car with us, he almost always fell asleep immediately. Any time we plied him with questions about his lifestyle or church activities, no matter how neutrally and gently, his response was extremely defensive.
I became deeply depressed, and couldnt seem to pull out of it. I was obsessed with my sons precarious situation, and compulsively went over events in my mind, trying to analyze the problem and think of what I did or didnt do that might have contributed to the present disaster. I knew this wasnt productive because I had repeatedly read and been told that the crucial factor in cult recruitment is the skill of the recruiter, and not the emotional dysfunction of the victim or his family. Nonetheless, I couldnt help myself. Having fallen into a downward spiral of guilt and despair, I could not find a way to extricate myself. The situation seemed utterly hopeless! Plus, suppose we made all of the necessary arrangements for intervention, gave it our best shot, and Justin remained in the ICoC? I didnt think I could bear the disappointment, especially considering the fact we could not count on a second chance.
In a moment of supreme desperation, I wrote John a letter thanking him for everything he had done, but expressing the opinion that there was nothing we could do at the present time, and that we were going to abandon any rescue efforts for the time being. Maybe after Justin spent more time in the ICoC, and the honeymoon period came to an end, we could start making plans again. I tried to tell myself I had made a rational decision, and should now try to put the whole thing out of my mind, at least until something changed. However, this proved impossible, and the unwanted thoughts continued to creep into my head. My concentration was almost nonexistent and I would awaken in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep. Something had to give or I was going to be a candidate for the psychiatrists couch.
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A couple of weeks later, Justins best friend from high school, Dave D., left a message on our answering machine asking for Justins new phone number and commenting that he hadnt seen him for over a week. I had wanted to talk to him about Justins situation, but was hesitant. I knew he had attended some ICoC functions with Justin, and I was certain Justin was trying to recruit him. I couldnt be sure he wouldnt take whatever I said back to Justin. Now I knew I had to take the chance. I returned Daves call and tried to feel him out a little. Finally, I came right out and asked him what he thought of Justins new church. To my delight, he replied that he thought the ICoC was an evil and disgusting cult. Bingo! Now we had an ally among Justins friends. We talked for a couple of hours. I told him all about our plans for the intervention and he said he absolutely wanted to be part of it, and would do anything in his power to rescue Justin. Since he and Justin attended the same community college, Dave was in a position to keep in contact with Justin and monitor his activities. He also said he could enlist the support of another old friend, Dave M.
My conversation with Dave D. gave us new hope. Rick, Lauren and I also came to the conclusion that if we did not attempt an intervention and Justin did not leave the ICoC on his own, we would be consumed with regret for what might have been. The peace of mind of our family required that we at least make the effort. With this in mind, my depression lifted somewhat, and Rick and I turned to the practical considerations of how and when and where the intervention might take place. Justin had classes five days a week and worked both days of the weekend. Therefore, we were going to have to come up with an idea for a trip that would be so attractive to him he would be willing to cast aside school, work, and his ICoC obligations in order to go with us. The plan that seemed the most promising was to rent a houseboat on Lake Mead in Nevada, where the weather was still warm enough for water sports, even in the fall. Justin had always loved the water, and he had often declared that the summer we rented a houseboat on the Sacramento Delta for our vacation had been his all time favorite. Then wed have to find a suitable hotel, either on the lake or in the nearest town, Boulder City, in which we could house the other participants and conduct the intervention.
In the midst of discussing this new plan, we suddenly heard from John who asked how we were holding up and whether there were any new developments. After some discussion in which we were forced to concede that the situation wasnt going to get any better, we settled on a date for the intervention, and agreed to start making the necessary arrangements. The houseboat was reserved, as well as the hotel rooms. Based on Johns recommendation, we talked to three former ICoC members whom we liked, and who agreed to be on the intervention team. One of them had reached the level of lead evangelist before his departure. The other male team member was a former mid-level leader. The sole female member of the team was a four year member who had recently left as the result of an intervention also conducted by John. Justins friends, the two Daves, both agreed to be present and to help persuade Justin to meet with the team. The only missing piece of the puzzle was Justin. Unless he agreed to go with us, all our efforts would be in vain.
I still worried about the ICoCs apparent discovery of our meeting with John. I wondered whether they would still be so suspicious of us that they could persuade Justin not to go. In order to minimize this possibility, I told Justin it had occurred to me that I might have unfairly judged his church without having any first-hand basis for doing so. Therefore, I wanted to accompany him to the Mid-Week service so I could meet the minister and his fellow disciples and draw my own conclusions. He reacted to this suggestion with obvious delight.
I should say that attending an ICoC service was something I should have done much sooner, and that John had strongly urged me to do. I resisted because I couldnt bear the thought of being surrounded by cult members who had my child in their clutches while having to pretend that everything was all right when it was anything but! On the other hand, I realized this was the best thing I could do to maximize the chances that Justin would go with us. I was somewhat surprised to find that the service was rather nice, and that everyone was very pleasant and friendly, just like the disciples who had been out to our home. The minister, Alan, introduced himself to me, and I took the opportunity to confront him, in Justins presence, concerning the accusations I had read on the internet that the ICoC alienates kids from their families. As I would have expected, he hotly denied they did anything of the kind. Now, if anyone tried to put pressure on Justin not to go with us, I could tell both Justin and the ICoC leadership that apparently the information on the internet was correct after all.
The following night our son showed up unexpectedly for dinner. This gave me the opportunity I had been looking for. I casually mentioned that we had decided to go away for a mini-vacation in about two weeks because we had stumbled across an incredible off-season deal on a houseboat rental at Lake Mead. This got Justins interest immediately. Between school, work and ICoC activities, there had been little time for recreation, and he was more than ready for a vacation. He would have to get permission from his job to take the weekend off, but said it would be no problem for him to miss a couple of classes if we left on a Thursday morning and returned on Sunday night. He agreed to go by the theater after dinner to talk to his supervisor about getting the time off. Elated, Rick and I left for a function at Laurens school, and when we came back, Justin was gone.
The next day, Justin again came home for dinner before going to work. He said he forgot to go by the theater the night before, but that he would put in his request that night and call us on his break. Nonetheless, he neither called nor did he come back to the house that night to sleep as he had said he would. By now, I was starting to get really nervous about the entire situation, and the old feelings of paranoia and depression were returning in full force. Justin had appeared to be very excited about the trip, but maybe he was just playing with us and had no intention of going. I couldnt help remembering how Eddie had slept in his room the night John flew in for our planning meeting. Certainly, the ICoC knew that at one time, we had been considering an intervention, so why would they let Justin go with us now? Before too long, I had convinced myself that my former perception of hopelessness had been correct, and I must have been a fool to believe this would ever work. Overwhelmed with despair, I sent a long e-mail to John with my present analysis of the situation, telling him this simply wasnt going to work, and we should forget about the whole thing. I quickly received a wonderful, supportive e-mail in response, assuring me that there were still many options open to us, and urging me not to give up.
While I was reading Johns e-mail, Justin called to tell me they had given him the time off and he was going with us! He explained that he hadnt called the night before because the theater had been unusually busy and he didnt have time. I immediately told him that Rick, Lauren and I all wanted to go to church with him the next morning, after which we would take him out to brunch. I hung up the phone, shouting the good news to Rick and feeling like I was walking on air! The mood swings my sons involvement in the ICoC had evoked were something I hadnt experienced since I was a teenager! Feeling somewhat embarrassed about my recent bout of paranoia, I sent John another e-mail telling him about Justins phone call, and informing him that we now had the green light to proceed.
As the days passed, Justin seemed to be spending more time at home and less time at the ICoC apartment. I think he was starting to grow weary of the rigorous life of a disciple and to long for the comfortable bed and home-cooked meals of the past. There was no furniture in the apartment. He had been sleeping in his sleeping bag on the floor and keeping his belongings in cardboard boxes! We had not permitted him to leave home with anything more than his clothes and personal itemsno computer or musical instruments. If he wanted to use these things, he had to come home. He could come home and eat as much as he wanted, but we would not buy groceries for him, and he couldnt take food from our house back to the apartment. I think these rules helped to preserve the attachment to home and family and made his life with the ICoC less attractive. They also served to prevent the sale of his possessions for the ICoCs benefit!
In the last week before the intervention, Justin only went back to the apartment on one occasion, running in to get a book he needed while I waited in the car with the motor running. We had worried about the feasibility of an intervention at a time when our son was still in the honeymoon phase of his association with the ICoC, such that he wouldnt be able to relate to some of the information the team would present. Now it looked as if the timing was going to be perfect. The intervention would take place at the precise point that certain dissatisfactions with his new life were becoming obvious and aggravating.
The night before our scheduled departure, Justin came back from the Wednesday Mid-Week service and announced that he needed to go back to the apartment for a meeting with his discipler, or D-time, as they call it. I wondered if they were going to try to persuade him not to go with us, or at least to warn him about the potential for deprogramming. I knew there was a large ICoC contingent at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, just thirty miles away from Boulder City. It would be easy enough to give him telephone numbers of disciples to call if he found himself in need of rescue.
Before he left, we talked a little, and I asked him if he had ever been assigned to disciple anyone, to which he replied that he was discipling two other members at the present time. I also asked if he had ever brought a new disciple into the church, being careful not to use pejorative terms such as recruiting. A bit ruefully, he confessed that he hadnt. In fact, he found it somewhat difficult to share his faith as aggressively as he felt he should. He still insisted he had no doubts whatsoever concerning his commitment and believed that the ICoC was the one true church. Nonetheless, I wondered if he was really as sure as he would have me believe. At this point, a car pulled up in front of our house and honked. Justin jumped up and ran out the door. I waited up for him to return, but finally at 1:30 a.m., unable to stay awake any longer, I went to bed.
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The next morning, I prepared myself for the worst as I nudged open the door to Justins room, and was relieved to see the familiar lump under the covers. Still, I wouldnt be able to relax until three hours later when we pulled the car out of the driveway and I saw the house disappearing in the rear-view mirror! The trip across the desert was uneventful, and no different from any other family vacation we had taken in the past. It was hard to believe we had embarked on a journey that would end in either the greatest joy or the greatest despair our family had ever experienced.
Lake Mead turned out to be much larger than it appeared to be on the maps. The marina where the houseboats were docked was 50 miles down the lake from Boulder City where the intervention was to take place. In short, we were stranded out in the middle of nowhere! There was a small hotel with a restaurant on the hill behind the marina. The geography of the area was such that there was no cell phone reception, except out in the middle of the lake, and the only channel of communication with the outside world was a pay phone in the lobby of the hotel. Oh well, I thought, so much the better. This way, Justin would have no way of communicating with his fellow disciples unless he hiked up to the hotel, in which case I would know about it.
Since I didnt want any question of deception to arise, we spent the first day out on the water, jet skiing and exploring some of the caves and coves of the shoreline as we took the houseboat up an arm of the lake. Justin turned into a boy again. I was unable to detect any of the robotic characteristics he had acquired since his baptism into the ICoC. He was acting like any other teenager on a holiday from the real world. He splashed in the water and shouted and teased Lauren mercilessly, just like old times. He was somewhat disappointed when we took the houseboat back to the marina for the night instead of docking in one of the coves. I casually mentioned that we were out of groceries, and that we would be driving into Boulder City in the morning to stock up. We ate in the hotel restaurant that night and played Monopoly until bedtime.
It was pitch black when I awakened and an instant later, it hit me. Today was the day! What happened in the next few hours would be crucial. I got up, made coffee, and carried a steaming cup out onto the deck together with a flashlight and the loose script we were going to follow to get Justin to agree to meet with John and his team. I didnt want to sit in the restaurant holding a piece of paper in front of me, reading lines. Chances of success would be much greater if the conversation went as naturally as possible. Yet this was much too important to simply play it by ear. About a half an hour later, Rick joined me, and we practiced together, whispering the words even though there was no way Justin could hear us from his bunk on the other side of the houseboat. We decided to let Lauren sleep. She had very few lines, and if she forgot something, it wouldnt be major.
Justin didnt wake up until just before we were ready to leave, and once we were in the car, he promptly fell asleep again. So much the better, I thought. The fewer questions he asked, the easier this would be. I put on a CD of soothing classical music to calm my frayed nerves, and rehearsed in my mind. He was still asleep an hour later when we arrived in Boulder City. I want to find that museum I read about on the internet, I announced, ostensibly to Rick and Lauren, but really for Justins benefit in case he was awake and listening. I checked my watch. I think it opens at ten and its a quarter of nine now. That will give us plenty of time for breakfast if we can find some place to eat in the same neighborhood.
Justins eyes were still closed and I couldnt tell if he heard us or not. The museum, as I had determined in advance, was located inside of the Boulder Dam Hotel, a local landmark that had recently been restored to its original 30s decor. We found it without difficulty. And there was the café where we had decided we would try to persuade Justin to meet with the intervention team. Right on cue, Rick and Lauren complained that they were starving. Why dont we stop at that cute little restaurant for breakfast? they both asked. We parked, got out of the van, and went on inside. There werent very many people in the place and the waitress seated us at a large round table off in a corner. It couldnt have been more perfect.
I excused myself to go to the restroom, calling John on the cell phone to tell him we had arrived at the café. He instructed me to call again when they brought the food to the table, after which the two Daves would wait ten minutes and then leave the hotel suite in order to arrive just as we were finishing up our breakfast. Once the second call was placed, and I knew they were on their way, I could hardly contain my excitement. After what seemed to be an interminable wait, I glanced up and saw Dave and Dave standing at the entrance to the café, looking around the room. They caught sight of us sitting over in the corner and started heading for the table. At the last minute, Justin looked up in amazement and uttered one of those remarks that was destined go down in our family history. Hey guys, he exclaimed. I dont believe this. What a coincidence! I had to suppress an urge to laugh out loud.
The Daves grabbed chairs from the next table, which fortunately remained empty, and pulled up to ours. Rick thanked them for coming, put his arm around Justins shoulders, and launched into his opening speech. The long-awaited moment had arrived. Justins expressions went from pleased astonishment at seeing his friends, to confusion when Rick thanked them for coming, to the beginnings of understanding as his father gently told him that we all needed to talk about your church.
As it turned out, convincing Justin to meet with the team was easy. After we ran through the topics we had planned to bring up, we reminded him that he had promised us he would talk to a minister, and two of the team members had served as ministers within the ICoC. He remembered the conversation, and was willing to keep his promise. Dave D. reminded him that he had agreed to let him (Dave) try to convince him (Justin) that the ICoC was not what he thought it was. He remembered that too, and still had no objection. Talk to former members? Sure. Hed be happy to talk to them. He knew what he was doing was right, and didnt mind discussing it with anybody. Refrain from contacting his discipler or any of his other brothers until he had heard everything these people had to say? No problem! He just had to get back to Los Angeles by Sunday night, and as long as that was understood, he would cooperate with whatever we asked of him.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Just as I hoped, Justins stubbornness and blind trust in the righteousness of the cause would save the day. He had such confidence in his ability to hold fast to his beliefs in the face of opposition, or even persecution, he had no fear of meeting the team. He would stick to his guns, and when he returned to Los Angeles, would be hailed as a hero within the ICoCa disciple who was so strong in his faith, no one, not even demonically influenced parents and friends, or evil deprogrammers, could shake that faith. I couldnt help thinking that although he didnt know it yet, he was going to be in for a big surprise!
Justin decided hed rather ride to the hotel with the Daves, so we followed them in the van. As soon as we started the trip, I called John on the cell phone and told him we would be there with Justin in a few minutes. Getting out of our cars in the parking lot, we all instinctively surrounded Justin as we walked, as if we were afraid that he would break and run, and we could prevent such an occurrence by forming a human wall around him. Up we went in the elevator to the fourth floor and soon we were standing in front of the closed double doors that led into the suite. Behind those doors, our intervention team waited. Dave D. knocked, and one of the doors swung open slowly. Watching Justins back disappearing into the room where he was greeted by John and the three team members was truly one of the high points of my life and I cant remember when I have ever felt such pure unadulterated joy. It was over, or at least almost over. I almost started to cry, but quickly got a grip on myself, sat down, and waited for the intervention to begin. All of the suffering, planning, hopes, and fears of the past three months were coming together. The moment of truth had arrived, at last.
By the end of the first day, I couldnt tell what was going on with Justin. He seemed to be listening, but he wasnt really interacting with the team, except to minimally respond to direct questions. I knew confrontation was not Justins style. He had a tendency to smile and agree with people, but to follow his own inclinations in the end. I wondered if he would be capable of pulling this off with the intervention team, and what they could do to stop him. After a long day, we finally broke for dinner. Surprisingly, Justin announced that he had decided not to return to the houseboat with us, but instead would stay in the Daves room in the hotel. This seemed like an excellent sign because it obviously meant he didnt feel threatened by the presence of the team. In fact, they were all planning on going to dinner together. John thought everything was going great, and told us not to worry about the lack of interaction.
The next morning, one of the team members and Dave D. quietly shared the incredibly good news that at dinner the night before, Justin had declared he was probably going to leave the ICoC. We were dying to talk to him about it, but thought it would be advisable to let him bring up the subject himself. The teams presentation continued, and Justin became more interactive. By mid-afternoon, he was laughing and joking, and even making a few snide remarks about aspects of the ICoC the team members had criticized. That evening, we called some friends in Los Angeles and put Justin on the phone to tell them personally that he had seen the light and was through with the ICoC for good.
Though it was now obvious the intervention had been successful, the teams presentation continued through Monday and Tuesday in order to drive the material home, and to give Justin counsel on how to tell the ICoC he no longer wanted to be a member, as well as how to deal with their efforts to get him to return. When the intervention drew to a close on Tuesday afternoon, we knew the nightmare was finally over. As a result of the efforts of John and his team, Justins understanding of both the ICoC and what had happened to him personally was so well developed, I couldnt imagine him ever going back.
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We returned to Los Angeles late Tuesday night. Justin slept almost all day Wednesday. We refrained from answering either telephone, and let the answering machines pick up messages, although none of them were from Justins former brothers in the ICoC. On Thursday night, Justin, Dave D., and I went to the ICoC apartment to pack up his belongings and leave copies of his letter of resignation. Fortunately, none of the brothers were at home, since that was the night of the weekly Bible Talk meeting.
The telephone calls began in earnest the next day, beginning with the other occupants of the apartment. At first, they just acted as if nothing had happened, and they were just calling to talk. Then they started offering him rides to various church events. Finally, the minister, Alan, wanted to arrange a time they could meet to discuss Justins concerns. John had advised him not to meet with them at all, but Justin became obsessed with a need to convince them he had valid reasons for leaving. I knew that would never happen in a million years because from their standpoint, there was no possible justification for leaving Gods one true church. However, Justin has always had to learn the hard way in certain areas and this was one of them. He agreed to meet with Alan and Eddie at 8:00 oclock on a Thursday morning at our house. I told him I would go into work late that day so I could stick around for the meeting.
What I would have given for a hidden camera to capture the looks on their faces when I opened the front door on the morning of the meeting! They looked at each other, looked at me, and asked if I didnt have to go to work. I smiled and told them I was going to workbut not until after the meeting was over. I had coffee and orange juice and fruit and rolls all laid out on the dining room table, and told them to sit down and help themselves to whatever. Then I pulled up a chair and told them to go on with their meeting, and not to mind me. Earlier that morning, Justin and I had a long telephone conversation with John, who felt that while it would have been preferable not to have them there in the first place, at the very least the meeting should not last more than 15 minutes. He also advised me to say as little as possible and let Justin do most of the talking. Unfortunately, between the two of us, we werent very good at following Johns advice. They ended up staying for an hour and 15 minutes, and Im afraid that after what I had gone through during the past three months, I was simply unable to hold my tongue! I also couldnt help enjoying the fact that they were obviously prepared to tell Justin he had been led astray by his Satan-possessed parents and it was very difficult for them to develop this argument in my presence.
There were no more meetings. Nonetheless, the calls continued. They would let up for a few days, and then start all over again. It was very difficult for Justin to cope with this because these were his friends and they werent bad people by any means. In fact, they were just as much victims of the ICoC as Justin had been. To come right out and tell them not to call any more, or even not to call unless they could refrain from talking about the ICoC, was too much for Justin to handle. As a result, he never confronted them directly. He did, however, stop returning their calls so that after a couple of weeks, they finally got the picture. Fortunately, our son had only been in the ICoC for three months and there was not the depth of friendship that would have existed after years of association.
Months later, Justin told me something that still fills me with dread when I think about what a close call we had. It seems that the ICoC had scheduled a special event over the very same weekend that the intervention was to take place. Attendance was mandatory and it had been announced in the church service that no exceptions would be made under any circumstances. Because he knew theyd forbid him to go, Justin simply neglected to tell anyone about our proposed houseboat trip until the night before we left, claiming that it had slipped his mind. Thats what the last minute D-Time had been all about. He insisted he had to go with us and after some consideration, they relented, but only after impressing it upon him that this the was last time such a concession would ever be made. And as it turned out...they were right! It was the last time.
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Our family was very fortunate. Our sons cult experience was brief in duration, and he was counseled out rather than having left on his own or burning out. These circumstances left him in the best position to pick up his life again without lasting scars. Furthermore, the knowledge and understanding that he gained during the intervention gave him the impetus to continue on his spiritual journey which he otherwise might have abandoned.
Other people are not so fortunate. For a while, we continued to attend the support group meetings and listen to the parents of children who have been in the ICoC for many years. Some of them did not intervene and wish they had. Others did intervene, but wish they had done some things differently. In some cases, the intervention failed when the member either walked out on the team, or was taken away by fellow disciples, or returned to the ICoC afterward. We have spoken with former members who left after five or ten or more years, and are still bitter and consumed with regret for what they might have done with their lives had they not wasted so much precious time.
I am still haunted by these families and former members. During the three months that Justin was in the ICoC, I felt as if I was about to lose my mind, coming closer to complete emotional collapse than I had at any other time in my life. If it was so difficult for me to cope while we were planning an intervention during the early stages of Justins involvement, I cant begin to imagine what other parents must feel after years and years of frustration, with no solution in sight.
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What worked for our family may not work for everyone. However, I would like to share some insights I have gained in the hope they might help others who find themselves in the same situation.
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(1) Alan is not the ministers real name, nor have I
used the real names of the other ICoC members mentioned in this article because
I was not in a position to obtain their permission.
(2) John is not his real name. For security reasons, our counselor wishes to remain anonymous.
©2002 by Pamela Foust. All rights reserved.
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