Today Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 says he will decide on whether to grant University recognition to a student bible study group affiliated with the Boston Church of Christ (BCC). For the past several months the Committee on College Life (COCL) has debated and finally deadlocked on whether to condone a student arm of the cult-like group on campus.
The debate has taken on a generational cast, as all five student COCL members voted for recognition while all five faculty and administrators on the committee voted against. This is unfortunate, because we do not believe students stand united behind recognition of this group.
On the contrary, the BCC's recruiting tactics are at best harassment and at worst mind control. We believe the college has a strong interest in not allowing the Church, or a group representing its interests, to use Harvard's name and facilities to solicit Harvard students.
We believe firmly in First Amendment guarantees to freedom of speech, religion and assembly. We do not support an outright ban on the activities of individual BCC members on this campus. But University recognition is a privilege, not a right, and it is one that Harvard should deny in this case.
Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III has questioned the autonomy of the proposed group, Harvard Christians in Action (HCIA). Unlike many student religious groups on campus, HCIA does not represent a religion affiliated with the United Ministry. BCC Deacon John M. Bringardner has said that the Church will not join United Ministry because it disagrees with its ban on proselytism.
The BCC operates under a rigid hierarchy of "discipling." Each member takes leadership from an elder who serves as a spiritual guide through the doctrines of the Church and their recruitment practices. Past members have emphasized that there is no room for individual interpretation of the Bible and Church practices.
Administrators are rightly concerned that if Harvard recognizes HCIA it would pursue the aggressive recruiting that prevents it from joining the Ministry. The BCC cannot be separated from the student group that seeks to represent it on campus. Despite protests of the group's formal independence, the group's president Michael J. Hrnicek '96 does not deny that it is "united under the voice of the Church."
The BCC is an insular, fundamentalist Christian sect that obligates its members to recruit vigorously and preaches that there is no salvation outside of the BCC. Supporters of the group claim the Harvard administration is discriminating against them for their religious beliefs.
But it is not religious bias that has brought administrators at Boston University to expel it from campus, those at MIT to suspend its activities, and numerous other Boston schools to prohibit it from acting on campus. Administrators, including Epps, are wary of the BCC's use of deception, harassment, and mind control techniques to coerce vulnerable students.
According to cult experts, many BCC converts come from religious backgrounds and are homesick for the community and family they left behind. Many are lonely and are flattered by the overwhelming attention given to them by BCC members.
The BCC is notorious for approaching students walking alone on campus or eating alone in the dining halls. Potential recruits are showered with almost constant love and attention from BCC members, while they are continually shamed for their "un-Christian" life outside the BCC.
Members often avoid telling new recruits the name of the group for as long as possible, calling their meetings a "non-denominational Bible study." At these meetings, new recruits are counselled to confess their sins before the group, creating what one cult expert calls a psychological "double bind." If they confess, they tie themselves emotionally to the group, but if they do not, they are torn with guilt.
Former members say the BCC discourages relations with those outside the Church. The constant attention given by new, "true Christian" friends strains relations with old friends. According to an investigative article that appeared in The Crimson in 1990, new members soon find themselves "trapped," alienated from old friends and "unworthy of the Christian love and charity being given so freely."
One former member was told that she had to be ready to give up her family "if Christ" asked. Before going home to visit her parents, she was counselled by Bringardner's wife to be wary of "lots of devils out there, saying the Boston Church of Christ are brainwashers."
Jewett has said he is looking to find procedural safeguards that might allow Harvard to approve the HCIA for a probationary period. If the group violated College guidelines against harassment, then the administration could revoke its status. Proponents of recognition suggest that the University should not prohibit the HCIA for violations that it has yet to commit.
Still, the BCC's history makes these claims specious. There is little doubt that Church doctrines demand aggressive recruiting, and Hrnicek's proposal for an independent study group resembles the BCC's former "non-denominational" meetings.
If Harvard proceeds to recognize the HCIA, it might find it difficult to evict the group if they violate University guidelines. It might be hard for the administration to find positive evidence necessary for such action. At the same time, University recognition will confer a legitimacy on the BCC's activities. They will be able to poster on campus, receive Undergraduate Council funds, and have access to University facilities and tabling at registration. And they will likely continue to use coercion and deception on potential recruits.
By denying the HCIA University recognition, Harvard will be acting in accordance with its own regulations. The group cannot be autonomous and its parent group refuses to respect Harvard's ban on proselytism. We support Epps' opposition to the group and hope Jewett will deny the group recognition.