When Ruo S. Chen ’12 walked through the Science Center two summers ago, he was in the midst of a downward spiral. He had recently graduated from Harvard and broken up with his longtime girlfriend. He had started drinking a lot as a way, he says, to run away from his problems—sinking deeper and deeper into a self-described depressed state.
“I was going through some heartbreak, and it was tough,” he sighs. “I didn’t know it could be so tough.”
Former Harvard starting quarterback Collier W. Winters ’12 approached Chen that day in the Science Center. Winters invited Chen to Bible study at the Boston Church of Christ, a branch of the International Church of Christ, a Christian movement that has spread worldwide.
Winters’s outreach to Chen, a process known as “cold contact” in the Church, convinced Chen to give the community a try. “When he came up to me I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’” Chen says.
The church’s many detractors could have given Chen several reasons not to follow Winter’s lead. The International Church of Christ has generated much controversy over the years, accused by its detractors of psychological manipulation, cult-like behavior, and religious fanaticism. It has spawned websites devoted to detailing its supposedly malevolent machinations and innumerable articles and exposés. At one time, the Harvard administration itself advised students to be wary of the ICOC. Yet despite warnings and cautionary tales, it is the Boston branch of this very church that has attracted dozens of Harvard students over the years and counts several Harvard alumni among its leadership.
Chen may not have known about the church’s contentious past and present, but, from his perspective, perhaps it was for the best that he remained blissfully ignorant of the controversy. Speaking two years later, Chen sees Collier’s outreach as a fortuitous intervention into his life. “I think God made a miracle for me,” he says. “I met [Collier] at the right time when I needed him most.”
The BCC’s critics, including Harvard students and alumni disaffected by their experiences with it, allege that the church promotes intrusiveness into its members’ lives and aggressively pressures recent recruits into adult baptism. Its proponents, which have likewise included dozens of Harvard students and alumni over the years, counter that while conservative Christianity is not for everyone, the BCC provides a supportive outlet for exploring their faith.
A consideration of what draws Harvard students to a historically controversial conservative church a commute away from Harvard Square reveals that for many a desire to explore their faith and find a supportive community can take them to a place startlingly different from the campus they must leave to get there.
A HUG WITH YOUR SUNDAY
A 30-minute commute from the Red to the Green line on the T can take you to 180 Berkeley Street in downtown Boston. At 10 a.m. each Sunday, the Boston Church of Christ holds services there in the John Hancock building.
The “church” looks more like a dilapidated office building from the outside, and a set of stairs leading down to a basement appears ominous, but they lead to a convention-sized room that has been refurbished into a place of worship. And in that room and its offshoots, it’s all smiles and friendliness—even when I identify myself as a reporter.
When I ask to borrow a forty-something man’s pen, he gives me the pen and a hug. In fact, most people I interviewed went in for a hug.
When I sit down alone, a kind looking elderly woman immediately asks me if I want to sit with her. The deacon, the minister, and a high-level member of the church come up to me at various points and ask me how I’m enjoying myself. All of a sudden, the singing has begun, and I’m clapping along to Christian inspirational music, South African folk songs, and psalms performed by church members strumming on guitars. I notice a fellow Harvard College student sitting a few rows behind me, but this is a far cry from HUDS Sunday brunch.
If your mental image of devout Christianity combines some sort of Amish mysticism with extreme conservatism and austerity, you would be well off the mark for this group. The crowd is strikingly diverse and relatively young, even though on this Sunday the church is missing more than 100 college-age members who are away on the New England campus retreat this weekend. The first person I meet is wearing skinny jeans and a cardigan; a group of confident twenty-something women whom I speak with after service don trendy wrap scarves.
Offering communion this morning is none other than Chen, who became involved with the Church after his Science Center encounter with Collier. In contrast to the generally casually dressed crowd, Chen wears khakis, a button-up white shirt, and tie. He urges those present to stop spending so much time preparing for things that might not happen, like medical school, and prepare for what will definitely happen—death.
He offers an anecdote from his sophomore year at Harvard, when he finished finals and immediately dashed to the liquor store to start off an evening dedicated to blowing off steam. “It was time for me to play hard,” he says. The crowd offers words of encouragement as he speaks, shouting, “That’s right” and “Uh huh” as he continues.
Living in darkness, in “lust,” he says, was easier than coming toward the light. Yet after starting Bible study, getting baptized, and eliminating “negative influences” in his life such as Facebook, Chen said he had found the light.
“The gates to Heaven are narrow, not many are going to walk through,” says Chen, referring to the New Testament. After hearing about the evils of Facebook, drinking, and “lust,” I’m feeling worlds—rather than mere T stops—away from Sunday morning at Harvard, where strong religious belief can be met with skepticism and recounting Saturday night escapades more often than not involves one of the above.
ORIGINS AND OVERVIEW
Chen’s speech doesn’t seem radically different than those one might hear at any conservative Christian church, but the church to which he belongs has faced a barrage of criticism over the years.
Indiana native Kip McKean founded the International Church of Christ in Lexington, Mass. in 1979 in response to what he viewed as diminishing adherence to scripture among evangelicals. By 1992, Time had labeled the movement a “global empire.” It has rapidly evolved into a network of more than 650 churches in 155 nations.
As the movement grew, so, too, did a crescendo of criticism of the church’s practices. The website reveal.org, founded in 1996 and currently in operation, details alleged instances of psychological manipulation, forced uniformity, and “browbeating,” by the International Church of Christ. The Crimson has run several features detailing criticisms of the Boston Church of Christ, but the church has slipped under the radar for over a decade and continues to attract Harvard students and alumni.
Yelun “Lue” D. Qin ’10, who briefly got involved with the Boston Church of Christ as a sophomore at the College, notes that he and others found the church through first-hand experience to be too involved in its members’ personal lives and overly concerned with aggressive recruitment.
Recounting that he felt pressured to attend church events five or six days a week, Qin notes, “They begin to isolate you from other people. They slowly draw you away from other types of communities to become primarily involved in their community.”
“A lot of things that they teach I would say most of the Christian churches and groups around would say ‘Yeah, I agree with that,’” says Qin. “It’s that 2 to 3 percent that’s kind of off.”
Part of the 2 to 3 percent to which Qin refers is the church’s emphasis on adult baptism, which critics say can lead to a very narrow definition of who is saved and who is not. Certainly, Chen expounded on those “narrow gates” during his speech at Sunday service.
“Not only do you need to be baptized to become a member, you need to be baptized to be considered saved,” says Jasmine, a senior at the College whose name has been changed because she feared the negative repercussions of speaking about becoming disaffected with the Church. Jasmine says she felt pressured to immediately get baptized after getting involved with the Church.
More websites have popped up, exposés have been written, but the church has weathered the storm of criticism and continues to grow. It currently has about 3,000 members and has attracted dozens of Harvard students and alumni over the years. Harvard alumni dot the lists of its leadership, including Winters and his fellow Harvard football teammate Josue Ortiz ’12.
COUNTERING THE CRITICISM
Church members and leadership counter that they have simply been misunderstood. “When you have a Church that has several thousand people there are obviously people who are going to be disillusioned,” says Douglas Arthur, the lead evangelist for the Boston Church of Christ.
Arthur contends that the church does not, in fact, believe that one has to be baptized by it specifically in order to be saved, but you do have to be baptized as an adult. “There is a seriousness about our faith,” he says. “There’s a personal righteousness. We teach against premarital sex, which is pretty extreme to some people.”
“In terms of the basic teachings of the Bible,” he explains, “we are in many respects a fairly normal conservative Christian church.”
Many members of the church are attracted to its strict adherence to scripture. “I’ve always been a guy that wanted to see in writing something that people were telling me to do,” says Deacon Daryl W. Owens.
“For me this is the first place that I found that someone was able to sit me down and show me everything in the Bible that was happening,” he says.
Chen concurs, “People think we’re judgmental, people think we’re weird, stuck up. We just want to obey God.” The Bible, he continues, “is not like a novel you’re reading. The word came from God.”
“That’s why I like this church the best, because you don’t come up with some random BS argument of your own self-belief,” he says.
In some ways, the church’s emphasis on strict interpretation of the Bible—a “common sense” interpretation, in the words of Arthur—provides the antithesis of a liberal arts college’s emphasis on finding one’s own specific interpretation of a text. The College, in fact, offers a course entitled “The Bible as Literature.”
Members of the church are referred to as “disciples of Christ.” The disciple structure has been central to the movement from the beginning, pairing up a recently baptized or soon-to-be baptized member with someone more experienced in the church.
When I mention the word “discipler” at the Downtown Church location, I’m met with suspicious eyebrow-raising by members used to enduring a succession of take-down pieces from the press.
“Discipling, it’s a verb, and it’s also a mutual give and take,” notes Amorette, a member who declined to give her last name. “But I think that’s a lot of what we try to do...encouraging one another, calling one another higher towards God.”
Owens counters that the disciple system is primarily a mutually beneficial mentorship. “When my daughter goes off to college hopefully some girl will take her under her wing, and she can turn to that person for advice.” A discipler, he says, plays that role of advisor.
He continues, “It’s a big lonely world. Sometimes you just need someone to go to.”
SEEKING A COMMUNITY
Indeed, those Harvard students and alumni that have become involved with the BCC cite a desire for an accepting community as a prime explanation for that involvement. “At the time when I was brought into the church I was feeling so lonely,” says Jasmine.
She continues, “To now all of a sudden have all of these people wanting to spend time with you and wanting to hang out with you was so different from what I’d experienced at Harvard up to that point.”
Qin concurs, “Someone who feels maybe isolated or not being cared for I think that’s a draw,” he explains. “You think, ‘Wow, people want to invest in me.’ Anyone would like that feeling.”
Such explanations shed light on how the church has attracted Harvard students and alumni despite the time commitments inherent in membership.
Harvard students, like all college students, often turn to smaller communities within campus for support in dealing with the problems of being away from home and navigating a complicated and often intimidating university. This desire for support need not always manifest itself in joining Crimson Key or a sorority. Sometimes, it can take people outside the Harvard bubble, toward groups they might not have previously considered joining.
Chen, who views his experience with the Church positively, says, “Harvard is a weird environment. It can get very competitive at times, and a lot of times people don’t share their real problems. That’s what I think Harvard is; people need to get more real.”
“Sometimes I feel like in the world, we just need someone to talk to,” he continues. “You ever realize at a party someone who’s really quiet suddenly gets really talkative after a few shots? We all need someone to talk to.”
“Other churches felt more like a club to me,” says Ariana, a female member who declined to give her last name. She decided to stick with the church even after her family changed churches when she was a teenager. Drawn to the church’s tight-knit community, she felt like she had found a group she could trust.
“With Christianity comes a certain sense of vulnerability,” she says. “Because if your goal is to be more like Jesus it means you’re called to talk about areas of your life that are not like Jesus, which means you’re called to talk about areas of your life that aren’t fun to talk about.”
Both Chen and Ariana currently live with people they met through the church.
Jasmine, who was not religious growing up, explains the origins of her involvement. “I was at a point where I was not really sure about Harvard,” she says. “If not for all the creepy stuff later I would have been happy staying, because you’re happy.”
“You don’t realize that you’re there all the time, you don’t think ‘Why do they have an unusual amount of involvement in my personal life? Why are they texting and calling me?’ Because you’re like, ‘We’re friends.’”
When Jasmine refers to an unusual amount of involvement she expresses a concern that the church demands too much of a time commitment from its membership. Jasmine says that her discipler became overly involved in her life and ultimately made her feel extremely uncomfortable with the church. “For me it went from sunshine and rainbows to really creepy really fast,” she says.
Jasmine first got involved with the church when a fellow undergraduate asked her if she wanted to attend Bible study. One Bible study progressed to multiple Bible studies per week, and soon Jasmine says she was spending six days a week at BCC sponsored events.
The BCC members I spoke to stated that they attended service on Sundays, a mid-week service on Wednesdays, and social gatherings or Bible study throughout the week. No one, however, seemed to be spending six days per week at BCC events. While multiple Church events per week might seem like a lot to the average Harvard student, it’s certainly not outside the norm for devout Christians.
Qin also says that Bible study progressed to twice weekly services, social events, and smaller gatherings. He was eventually baptized by the church, but left the group after a fellow staff member at the Asian American Christian Fellowship voiced concerns about the church.
“Once they had your contact information,” he says, “they tended to contact a person insistently, saying, ‘Hey, we didn’t see you.’”
“They were communicating care, I think,” he reflects, “but it was a little suffocating at times. It borders on harassment.”
According to Jasmine, the church’s involvement in her life became excessive. She recounts being called multiple times per day by her discipler in addition to the many hours they spent together. She alleges that members of the church would often question her desire to leave Bible study to do her school work.
“They would be very disappointed in the fact that I was leaving to do my homework,” says Jasmine.
Qin also recalls being urged to prioritize Bible study and church events over his schoolwork when he was involved as an undergraduate.
“Oftentimes they would use the argument, ‘Just trust in God with your homework; what’s important is spending time with brothers and sisters in your faith,’” he says.
“Like any extracurricular,” counters Arthur, “if you take it on, it requires time management and discipline. We have Harvard students who do well academically, participate in sports, and are vibrant members of the church.”
Jasmine says her relationship with the church demanded not only time, but also a re-evaluation of her personal life. Bible study often devolved into outright examination of her personal life and family relationships. In one notable instance, she alleges that her discipler asked her to confess to the sin of lust in front of the entire church membership. Her sin? Kissing someone at her House formal.
Arthur dismisses Jasmine’s claim as being preposterous. “People in the church kiss all the time,” he says.
The BCC allows for and, according to Jasmine, promotes dating among its membership as many churches do. Its singles ministry brings together single members in the New England area. Next weekend there will be an overnight singles retreat. “Specifically tailored classes will help us gain a better understanding that we have been Created,” advertises the church’s website.
A glance through the church’s online calendar reveals more church events including a “Girls Night Out” for teenagers in the Boston area (parental permission required).
Jasmine contends that the church goes further than other Christian organizations in promoting dating and marriage among its younger members. She also criticizes its tendency to set members up on “group dates,” that is dates with at least four members present rather than letting members go on dates on their own. A radical departure from undergraduate hook-up culture that some might feel goes too far in the other direction.
According to Chen, the Church’s dating culture is a positive element. “Dating is different in the church,” he says, “but I’m enjoying it.”
“In the world, when you go on a date there’s a lot of expectations,” he says. “We always go on a group date to protect [ourselves] from thinking those thoughts. It’s good to have someone there reminding you, ‘Hey, don’t think like that. It’s not gonna happen.’”
For Chen, the concept of getting to know women before starting a relationship contrasts with his Harvard experience. “Going to the culture of final clubs and all these things, you see all these things go down. You begin to lose respect for women, and once you lose that respect, you treat them differently, which is an underlying problem in our society,” he says.
“When women become more and more sexual, we are more likely to objectify you as things,” he says, pointing to me as I self-consciously pull my skirt down as far below my knees as possible.
“That’s why I appreciate the women here,” he says. “They respect themselves. They don’t have to wear extra small skirts or yoga pants.”
The sermon on the day I attended the downtown service was delivered by Larry Reed, a jovial and friendly bald man with a booming voice. He spoke about eliminating worrying from our lives. After all, worrying accomplishes nothing, but if we devote time spent worrying to prayer it can help us in innumerable ways he says.
While Reed referred to Christ and specific passages in the text often in his sermon, his speech that week and the previous one, which focused on “complaining,” certainly would have resonated with many non-Christian Harvard students.
Reed came up to me after the service. He cracked jokes and offered himself as a friendly face for me as I navigated the church. “How are you doing?” he asked me.
The church and its detractors will continue to disagree over whether it’s a positive or negative force in its often young membership’s lives. Even as this debate rages, it will recruit and draw from Harvard’s population, probably drawing in many students and alumni even as it repels others away.
“I just want them to experience it and see what it’s about,” says Chen.
“It’s not like an army or some kind of cult you join. It’s a lifestyle you choose. Here is where we come true to our true self,” he says, taking a breath. “You gotta come clean.”