A First-Hand Experience With A Christianist Campus Cult

I’ve been blogging for the better part of a decade, and for much of that time I’ve had a particular interest in turning the hot lights on the religious right. This is partly because I know first-hand what makes this movement tick. During my freshman year at the University of North Carolina, I was tricked into joining a Christianist campus cult with very close ties to the religious right.

While on my way to get my books after moving in, I ran into “Joey,” guy in the lobby who was a campus minister for Waymaker Christian Fellowship, a ministry of Triangle Christian Fellowship–now known as King’s Park International Church–in nearby Durham. I’d heard the name Waymaker before, and happened to remember getting literature from them at summer orientation. While I couldn’t put my finger on it, something seemed off about them. It was enough for me to pass on their offer to go to church with them the next day.

But my journalist’s curiosity got the better of me, and I went to a cookout they held the next day before going to church with them the following week.  It turned out they were charismatics. I’d never been to a church like that before, so the hand-raising and clapping was a bit jarring for me. What stuck out with me was how they were telling us to raise our hands and practically order us to cheer after every song. It felt so phony and stage managed.

If I’d known they were like this, I wouldn’t have given them the time of day. However, I was seized by an intense feeling of guilt. It was as if someone put a giant vise on my mind–and when I thought about walking out, it squeezed. That was to be a common occurrence over the next six months. I was also attracted by the racial breakdown. At the time, Waymaker was the only remotely integrated Christian group at Carolina–they were anywhere from 10 to 20 percent black. Indeed, TCF made a conscious effort to be an interracial church.

However, I realized it was all a sham in late September, when I took part in a pro-choice rally on Franklin Street, Chapel Hill’s main drag. My picture ended up in the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. The following Monday, I was chatting with “Charlene,” a girl from Charleston who was one of the other blacks in there, and the conversation turned to the rally. She said, “You’re pro-choice? Christians can’t be pro-choice.”

I later learned that she supported Strom Thurmond in what proved to be his last Senate run. A black woman from Charleston voting for Thurmond–that’s like me, a black man from Charlotte, voting for Jesse Helms. It turned out that the other blacks in that bunch were clones of Clarence Thomas. I think about that when I hear talk about the GOP not wanting blacks in office. They’re perfectly fine with blacks–as long as they sound like Ben Carson and Mark Burns. In hindsight, I was witnessing the beginnings of the GOP effort to use social issues to wedge blacks away from the Democrats.

A few days later, in response to a campus preacher going into a vicious anti-Clinton tirade, I wrote a letter to the editor saying that God didn’t give a flip about your politics. “Susan,” one of my other “sisters” in Waymaker, essentially told me that my salvation depended on me doing a total 180 and turning from a liberal Democrat into a Christian Coalition Republican. Sound familiar? It’s why Donald Trump is still in this race–people who otherwise would have no business voting Republican have been brainwashed into voting for anything with an “R” next to it because they think Democrats are baby-killers.

Even in the face of this, it took me until January 1997 to finally walk out. After spending the rest of my freshman year recovering and making sense of what happened, I thought that this outfit would collapse under its own weight. After all, I thought their deceptive tactics would come back to haunt them sooner than later. But after a girl who started attending Waymaker after I left turned into a 200 percent rabid Christianist and my former friends tried to trick me into coming back, I resolved to bring them down.

While trying to figure out how to do so, I discovered by accident that KPIC (as it was now known) and its founding pastor, Ron Lewis, appeared on a list of “friends and former members” of Maranatha Campus Ministries, one of the more notorious “campus cults” from the 1980s. Maranatha was forced to dissolve in 1989 due to intense criticism over its abusive and deceptive practices, such as a ban on dating. KPIC traces its roots to a campus ministry that began at Carolina in the 1980s–an outreach that, beyond all doubt, was Maranatha’s Carolina chapter.

While it curbed some of the blatantly cultish aspects, the basic character remains very much the same as it was in the 1980s. Indeed, for a long time before going charismatic myself, I thought that all charismatics and pentecostals were cut from the same cloth as these guys and much of the nonsense on Christian TV.

However, when I told my former “brothers and sisters” in Waymaker about it, their reaction was, in so many words, “so what?” Joey even tried to bully me into promising to stop speaking out against them. Never mind that I had told them that Lewis had been outright lying to them. Never mind that they were not only throwing their integrity to the winds, but they were putting themselves–and their church–in astronomical legal danger if they continued to do Lewis’ bidding by actively taking part in his deceit. If this is any different from Christianist leaders supporting Donald Trump despite knowing about his outrages on the trail, I’d really like to know.

After some trepidation, I decided to pretend that I’d seen the light and become just as fanatical as they were. For a little over two months, I burrowed into that bunch. There was no need to be a James O’Keefe style agent provocateur; I figured they’d hang themselves. I got some pretty remarkable insight into what made them tick. For one thing, they think that you can’t trust your mind because it’s been manipulated by the devil to the point of unreliability. Therefore, you have to trust your heart. I also learned that they find it perfectly acceptable to pester people about being saved because while the person wants to listen, their spirit is the one cursing them out or blowing smoke in their faces.

After finding out they planned to run candidates in the upcoming student congress elections, I filed a complaint with the student judicial system based on what I’d learned. However, due to a number of loopholes in the Code of Student Conduct, the most they did was nudge Waymaker into being a little more honest about who they were. I still count it as a partial victory. To this day, most of my former friends in that bunch say that I “sold them out.” Now who does that remind you of?

Roughly a year later, I got wind that several members of Waymaker were trying to mine an international student program for potential recruits. That plan ran aground when I told the people in charge of the program what was going on. In response, some of my former “sisters” got the bright idea to falsely accuse me of coming to their dorms at all hours to warn them they were in danger. When it emerged that their only evidence was just their word, that case came apart.

After graduating, I networked with a number of other Maranatha refuseniks and learned that KPIC claims to have been founded in the 1990s, it was incorporated in 1985 as Maranatha Christian Church of the Triangle, changing its name to TCF in 1990 and KPIC in 1997. It still operates under its original Maranatha-era bylaws, as amended. See for yourself at the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Website (warning, self-downloading PDFs). Waymaker still exists today–after a series of name changes, it is now known as UNC Every Nation Campus Ministries. Based on the historical evidence, Waymaker/UNC ENCM is, at the very least, the linear descendant of the original Maranatha outreach to Carolina.

A number of my former friends have gone fast and far at KPIC, which now meets at a coliseum of a thing near Research Triangle Park. A number of them serve in its sister churches in Every Nation, a network of churches built around the remains of Maranatha. But, as is the case with all spiritually abusive groups–Christianist and otherwise–they trampled on me and countless others to do it. The only way to stop them is to call them out at every turn.

(featured image courtesy Rayttc, available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license)

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.