The Making of a Cult Counselor
by Larry Pile (Wellspring Retreat)
My interest in comparative religion began while I was in grade school in Beachwood,
Ohio, where the majority of my classmates and friends were Jewish. There I was introduced
to many Jewish customs and traditions, especially surrounding the several holidays
celebrated by members of the Jewish faith. These contacts at school helped to make
my Christian Sunday school lessons come alive for me, in particular when our studies
were in the Old Testament.
Various contacts with members of other religious persuasions, including cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses, piqued my interest even more. As religious faith had always been important to my family it was perhaps natural that I would be drawn to a desire to learn what I could about different faiths.
While a student at Wheaton College in Illinois I took classes in Bible and theology. Part of the course work included an examination of major world religions and the larger, older, and more well-known American cults. These studies aroused my interest more than most other facets of my education, and prepared me for later encounters with adherents of those same cults after I left college.
Two years after my separation from the military in 1969 I moved to Tucson, Arizona, to join a young house church begun by a team of college and post-college-age young people from churches in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and other states in the region. The fellowship was part of the fledgling Christian movement then known informally by outsiders as "The Blitz" (from the name of the evangelistic campaign that gave the movement a strong boost in the summer of 1970).
The house I moved into with several single brothers gave me my first real close encounter with religious cultists, other than an army roommate who was a Mormon. Our house was the third from the corner on University Boulevard, and just three blocks from the campus of the University of Arizona. The house next to us on our right was owned by a family of Jehovah's Witnesses. The house next to them was the Divine Light Mission of the then teenaged Guru Maharaj Ji. Next to us on our left, toward the corner, was a house occupied by some "hippie types" living communally. The corner house was the Kundalini Yoga house occupied by disciples of the Indian Yogi Bhajan, and next to them around the corner was the Hare Krishna ashram and free vegetarian kitchen.
So you can see I received a rather sudden and intense introduction to the world of the cults that I couldn't (and wouldn't!) have planned myself if I could.
In addition to this, we often encountered members of the Children of God cult, who sometimes sat in on our Bible studies on campus, and one family in our fellowship had formerly been members of the "local church" of Witness Lee, and we had to be alert for any aberrational teachings from those two groups being introduced to our church. The Mormons had an attractive Institute of Religion just off campus (where I obtained my copy of The Book of Mormon), and I had the opportunity to go head-to-head with a Jehovah's Witness evangelist at a friend's house on a couple of occasions.
In 1973 I moved to Columbus, Ohio as a leader of another church planting team. During the four years I lived there I encountered many more cults in addition to local branches of those I met in Tucson. Here I learned about the the "Moonies," the Church of Bible Understanding, The Way International, the Holy Order of MANS, Ba'ha the Church of Scientology, Silva Mind Control, Eckankar, Nichiren Shoshu of America, and a whole host of gurus and swamis who made The Ohio State University a stop on their "karma corn" lecture circuit. Among the latter were the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Transcendental Meditation and the late Baba Muktananda of Siddha Yoga Dham, who were afforded meeting space by the University Christian Center and the Wesley Foundation. Another cult we learned about first-hand was one known as the "Garbage Eaters"; we lost a brother to this group, though I'm happy to say he's out now. Somehow I became the "resident expert" on cults for our fellowship, ultimately writing eight or nine tracts and pamphlets on specific cults and cult-related themes.
Finally, I learned to my sorrow that even otherwise orthodox Christian groups and churches can acquire cult-like aspects and tendencies, such as a demand for near total submission to the leadership, unquestioning acceptance of certain non-scriptural teachings and practices, spiritual legalism, and an individuality-numbing uniformity of thought and life. This was forcefully brought home to me when I observed these and similar characteristics close at hand in my own church, part of the movement that later became known as Great Commission International. At the present time GCI is undergoing a gradual process of reform; some important and healthy changes have been made in doctrine and practice, though others remain to be effected, and certain past actions that were grossly unjust still need to be rectified.
In 1985 I was invited to participate in two conferences of former members and leaders of GCI to help explain what the problems with it were, how to seek to correct the problems, and how to get on with life in the meantime.
The following year Paul and Barb Martin (along with Paul's brother, Steve) began Wellspring as a haven for former members of cults and abusive churches to come for counseling to help them get their broken lives back together. As the ministry grew and the need for additional staff became apparent, Paul and Barb asked Linda and me to consider joining them. I had already felt a need to make a change in my occupation (I had spent 10 years as a printer), and as Linda and I discussed it, it became clear to us both that this was the just the ministry for which my earlier experiences had been preparing me all these years. Having been at Wellspring for 4 years we remain convinced of this, even though there have been some difficult times. Knowing that we've helped many people find a new sense of their self-worth and a new experience of God's love and grace makes the trials worthwhile.