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In Spite of Controversy, Boston Church of Christ Offers Religious Haven

By Victor Chen and Justin D. Lerer

The Sunday service was a special one at the Boston Church of Christ (BCC). Dean Farmer Jr., once a BCC member, now a minister for its Berlin sister church, returned home last month to preach a sermon titled, "We Are the Spirit of God."

"We are a radical church," the minister boomed. "We are a church of controversy. If you don't like controversy, you're not going to like us."

The Boston Church of Christ has lived up to this claim of controversy at Harvard. Prohibited on campus for its lack of sufficient student endorsement and criticized by proctors for its alleged harassment of students, the off-campus church has a spirited, although limited, number of student members.

During a three-week investigation, two Crimson reporters attended three meetings of the BCC, undercover, to examine the manner in which the self-described "controversial" church attempts to reach out to students at Harvard.

They found that all full-fledged BCC members contribute money, although one Harvard churchgoer says donations are voluntary.

In addition, the investigation found that the church attracts large numbers of international students, churchgoers socialize primarily within their own circles and some congregants said they receive emotional support from the organization.

Some might say these facts mesh well with perceptions shared by many Harvard students that the BCC attempts to entrap the vulnerable within its fold.

However, members did not intrude into the lives of the undercover reporters, demand money, harass the reporters with phone calls or insist on attendance at any of their events.

'We Are Sinners'

Harvard participants in the group generally gather at Au Bon Pain every Sunday morning before travelling by train to Winchester High School for the weekly services of one of the Boston sectors of 275 members, according to Natashya L. Trejo '97, an active BCC member.

However, for their first meeting, the reporters attended a special BCC service in John Hancock Hall in downtown Boston last month.

Joined by Trejo and Michael J. Hrnicek '96, the two Crimson reporters arrived to an already-packed auditorium.

Five church members stood on stage behind microphones and led the congregation in gospel songs. The crowd sang along, clapped and swayed rhythmically.

Speakers talked about the church's activities, including a fund for orphaned children. A woman spoke enthusiastically about the BCC Women's Day that had occurred the day before.

Throughout the speeches, members shouted encouraging words and frequently rose to applaud. "Standing ovations are a dime a dozen here," whispered a congregant.

The applause reached its peak for Farmer, who had come from his congregation in Berlin to speak at John Hancock Hall.

Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, Farmer detailed the bloody torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Romans slashed his back until "you [could] see the intestines," he bellowed. "It was excruciating pain.... But Jesus did not fall. Satan attacked with fury, but he never fell."

Yet at other times, Farmer's voice fell almost to a whisper. "The heart of God is love," he said quietly.

A charismatic speaker, Farmer was repeatedly interrupted in his sermon by the applause of the 1,000-member audience.

Farmer talked about the high rates of divorce and illegitimate children and the dearth of religion in Berlin, where he and his wife head the city's Church of Christ.

He testified to God's grace in the lives of Germans who had turned to the church: an alcoholic who kicked his habit, a prostitute and drug addict who reformed her ways and was baptized six weeks later, a 60-year-old woman who had taught the official atheism of East Germany but has now converted to the Christian faith.

Farmer noted that 15 of his 150 disciples attended the first meeting of the church's chemical dependency group.

During the service, one churchgoer mentioned to a reporter that she had gotten over an eating disorder with the church's help.

Another speaker blasted American society for its blame-shifting. "We live in a no-fault, no-guilt society. The trial of the century was O.J., but the trial of eternity is Jesus Christ.... We are sinners, we are murderers."

Fighting the Sinful Life

One week after the service at John Hancock Hall, about 200 people gathered at Winchester High School for another sermon.

"Government cannot produce peace; only God can produce peace," minister Roy Larson intoned.

Larson, a 15-year BCC member and the individual who brought Farmer to the faith, discounted the power of the government or other worldly institutions to help people. But his sermon was not about rightwing militancy.

"The way of Jesus is not to retaliate," said Larson, who is the minister for a BCC sector which includes Winchester, Medford, Cambridge and Somerville.

Instead, Larson urged Christians to "temper justice with mercy" and denounced a rigid legalistic view of Christ's teachings. "It's not a license for immorality," Larson was quick to add. "A Christian is not weak-willed."

When members of the BCC use the word "Christian," they usually mean devotees of the Boston Church of Christ.

Hrnicek said members of his faith were adamant about following what the Bible mandates, such as what he considers its prohibitions on sex before marriage and homosexual lifestyles.

In his speech the previous week, Farmer criticized the life of sin he lived in college before he joined the BCC. He spoke about the lies he told his mother, his racist attitudes, his affairs with women and his drinking. "The funny thing is, people liked me," he says. "I was normal."

Farmer said he is now more concerned about those injured by sinful acts and added that God shares this concern.

"In God's eyes, people have great worth," he said. "Who are your victims?"

A Global Church

In the audience, Harvard students sat next to Roxbury residents. Blacks, whites and Asians listened to the speakers and sang with linked hands. On stage, blacks and whites led the congregation in singing, which never failed to bring the crowd to its feet.

"The Kingdom of God is color-blind," Larson said. "It doesn't matter what country you're from, how much you make, how much education you have."

In fact, members of the BCC voice their approval of interracial relationships and marriages and cite disapproval for racial exclusivity.

"Is there someone you wouldn't want to bring home?" Larson said. "Is there someone you wouldn't want to marry? Is there someone you wouldn't want in your neighborhood? If there is, you repent."

In his sermon, Farmer said he sees the Christian bond the BCC tries to create as the solution to racial problems far more severe than those which Boston faces.

"The answer to the 1,000-year war between the Croatians and the Serbs lies in the cross," he said.

According to Farmer, the BCC has churches throughout the world. Disciples from his congregation recently set up parishes in Vienna and Prague. The Berlin church, which has 240 members, is the largest congregation meeting in the "godless, secular, humanistic" city, Farmer said.

Many members attending the BCC services are from foreign countries. One of the Boston-area college students at the meeting mentioned that she is from Turkey. She said Trejo had approached her and invited her to the church's activities.

Loving, Not Brainwashing

Farmer's father, Dean Farmer Sr., spoke at the Hancock Hall meeting about how he had come to accept his son's faith over five years. Despite hesitation on the elder Farmer's part, his son eventually persuaded him to attend services and talk to people in the church.

A Southern Baptist, the elder Farmer was shocked by the affection members showed to one another, "hugging my neck," he said.

At first, he said he thought the church was brainwashing his son. "If there's anyone bothering my son," he told one of the church leaders, "I'll get ya."

His son gave him the Bible to re-read, and then the two began to "study the Bible" for three or four hours a day. Last March, the elder Farmer was baptized by his son, and soon afterwards he baptized his wife.

The elder Farmer urged church members to not give up in their attempts to convert their parents.

BCC Intellectuals

Even though the elder Farmer said many of the members are "young, well-educated people," the church preaches a decidedly anti-intellectual and anti-humanist doctrine.

Larson said the "worldly wisdom" espoused by intellectuals breeds distrust and disunity. "This kind of wisdom is from the devil," he said, adding that only God's wisdom is pure.

One speaker at the initial service at Hancock Hall attacked Nietzsche, Freud and Darwin. "They did not have the way," she contended, citing the joyless lives they lived. She pointed to Christ as the alternative.

The younger Farmer spoke later, saying, "Secular humanism reigns rampant in Germany."

But as much as he might object to some forms of secular learning, Farmer has a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard. And many other church members said they are pursuing advanced degrees at local universities.

The Communal Church

During Sunday's service at Winchester High School, Larson entreated members of the church to stand up and find "someone you don't know very well" to talk to for several minutes.

The church members needed little prompting. In general, they were outgoing and friendly toward the Crimson reporters.

Also during the service, the minister invited churchgoers to the front of the auditorium so they could meet with staff workers. After speaking with them, the staff workers requested that the congregation say specific prayers for them.

The friendliness that the church members exhibited also extended outside of the church environment.

During a dinner with several church members at Boston Market, a Crimson reporter was treated as an old friend. Despite having met the reporter only briefly the Sunday before, two MIT graduate students at the dinner called the reporter by his first name and offered to drive him to Logan airport to pick up a visiting family member.

The students barely discussed religion over dinner, asking the reporter only what he thought of the BCC and what his religious background was. Conversation centered on their research at MIT.

The church members weave a tight social web with the church at the center, as the church holds religious and social events for its members at least three times a week.

The MIT graduate students said they planned to spend the evening following the dinner with Hrnicek.

Yet the BCC also wants to reach other students within the Boston community, minister Larson said in his speech.

"Every person in the church is involved in some project to help the poor," Larson said. "That's the heart of Christianity, to really get involved and help.

He testified to God's grace in the lives of Germans who had turned to the church: an alcoholic who kicked his habit, a prostitute and drug addict who reformed her ways and was baptized six weeks later, a 60-year-old woman who had taught the official atheism of East Germany but has now converted to the Christian faith.

Farmer noted that 15 of his 150 disciples attended the first meeting of the church's chemical dependency group.

During the service, one churchgoer mentioned to a reporter that she had gotten over an eating disorder with the church's help.

Another speaker blasted American society for its blame-shifting. "We live in a no-fault, no-guilt society. The trial of the century was O.J., but the trial of eternity is Jesus Christ.... We are sinners, we are murderers."

Fighting the Sinful Life

One week after the service at John Hancock Hall, about 200 people gathered at Winchester High School for another sermon.

"Government cannot produce peace; only God can produce peace," minister Roy Larson intoned.

Larson, a 15-year BCC member and the individual who brought Farmer to the faith, discounted the power of the government or other worldly institutions to help people. But his sermon was not about rightwing militancy.

"The way of Jesus is not to retaliate," said Larson, who is the minister for a BCC sector which includes Winchester, Medford, Cambridge and Somerville.

Instead, Larson urged Christians to "temper justice with mercy" and denounced a rigid legalistic view of Christ's teachings. "It's not a license for immorality," Larson was quick to add. "A Christian is not weak-willed."

When members of the BCC use the word "Christian," they usually mean devotees of the Boston Church of Christ.

Hrnicek said members of his faith were adamant about following what the Bible mandates, such as what he considers its prohibitions on sex before marriage and homosexual lifestyles.

In his speech the previous week, Farmer criticized the life of sin he lived in college before he joined the BCC. He spoke about the lies he told his mother, his racist attitudes, his affairs with women and his drinking. "The funny thing is, people liked me," he says. "I was normal."

Farmer said he is now more concerned about those injured by sinful acts and added that God shares this concern.

"In God's eyes, people have great worth," he said. "Who are your victims?"

A Global Church

In the audience, Harvard students sat next to Roxbury residents. Blacks, whites and Asians listened to the speakers and sang with linked hands. On stage, blacks and whites led the congregation in singing, which never failed to bring the crowd to its feet.

"The Kingdom of God is color-blind," Larson said. "It doesn't matter what country you're from, how much you make, how much education you have."

In fact, members of the BCC voice their approval of interracial relationships and marriages and cite disapproval for racial exclusivity.

"Is there someone you wouldn't want to bring home?" Larson said. "Is there someone you wouldn't want to marry? Is there someone you wouldn't want in your neighborhood? If there is, you repent."

In his sermon, Farmer said he sees the Christian bond the BCC tries to create as the solution to racial problems far more severe than those which Boston faces.

"The answer to the 1,000-year war between the Croatians and the Serbs lies in the cross," he said.

According to Farmer, the BCC has churches throughout the world. Disciples from his congregation recently set up parishes in Vienna and Prague. The Berlin church, which has 240 members, is the largest congregation meeting in the "godless, secular, humanistic" city, Farmer said.

Many members attending the BCC services are from foreign countries. One of the Boston-area college students at the meeting mentioned that she is from Turkey. She said Trejo had approached her and invited her to the church's activities.

Loving, Not Brainwashing

Farmer's father, Dean Farmer Sr., spoke at the Hancock Hall meeting about how he had come to accept his son's faith over five years. Despite hesitation on the elder Farmer's part, his son eventually persuaded him to attend services and talk to people in the church.

A Southern Baptist, the elder Farmer was shocked by the affection members showed to one another, "hugging my neck," he said.

At first, he said he thought the church was brainwashing his son. "If there's anyone bothering my son," he told one of the church leaders, "I'll get ya."

His son gave him the Bible to re-read, and then the two began to "study the Bible" for three or four hours a day. Last March, the elder Farmer was baptized by his son, and soon afterwards he baptized his wife.

The elder Farmer urged church members to not give up in their attempts to convert their parents.

BCC Intellectuals

Even though the elder Farmer said many of the members are "young, well-educated people," the church preaches a decidedly anti-intellectual and anti-humanist doctrine.

Larson said the "worldly wisdom" espoused by intellectuals breeds distrust and disunity. "This kind of wisdom is from the devil," he said, adding that only God's wisdom is pure.

One speaker at the initial service at Hancock Hall attacked Nietzsche, Freud and Darwin. "They did not have the way," she contended, citing the joyless lives they lived. She pointed to Christ as the alternative.

The younger Farmer spoke later, saying, "Secular humanism reigns rampant in Germany."

But as much as he might object to some forms of secular learning, Farmer has a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard. And many other church members said they are pursuing advanced degrees at local universities.

The Communal Church

During Sunday's service at Winchester High School, Larson entreated members of the church to stand up and find "someone you don't know very well" to talk to for several minutes.

The church members needed little prompting. In general, they were outgoing and friendly toward the Crimson reporters.

Also during the service, the minister invited churchgoers to the front of the auditorium so they could meet with staff workers. After speaking with them, the staff workers requested that the congregation say specific prayers for them.

The friendliness that the church members exhibited also extended outside of the church environment.

During a dinner with several church members at Boston Market, a Crimson reporter was treated as an old friend. Despite having met the reporter only briefly the Sunday before, two MIT graduate students at the dinner called the reporter by his first name and offered to drive him to Logan airport to pick up a visiting family member.

The students barely discussed religion over dinner, asking the reporter only what he thought of the BCC and what his religious background was. Conversation centered on their research at MIT.

The church members weave a tight social web with the church at the center, as the church holds religious and social events for its members at least three times a week.

The MIT graduate students said they planned to spend the evening following the dinner with Hrnicek.

Yet the BCC also wants to reach other students within the Boston community, minister Larson said in his speech.

"Every person in the church is involved in some project to help the poor," Larson said. "That's the heart of Christianity, to really get involved and help.

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