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Unanswered Prayers: The Story of One Woman Leaving the International Church of Christ
Comments () | Published July 1, 2008
Growing up in Arlington, Jenny roamed the neighborhood with childhood friends Colleen Perry, left, and Emily Zellner, right. Photograph courtesy of Jenny Hunter

A study called “Sin and Darkness” was the most intense. Ericka asked Jenny to confess in writing to all her sins. Jenny wrote about sex with Paco and her partying days at Yorktown, and she confessed her pride. At Ericka’s prodding, she admitted that she occasionally envied other girls’ bodies, and Ericka warned her that she might have homosexual tendencies.

At the church’s Sunday service in the gym at Oakton High School, Jenny sat in the bleachers with Ericka. Paul Graham, the leader of the Washington branch of the church—a short, big-bodied man with a warm face—gave an arresting sermon. His talks were flecked with current events, historical references, Bible passages, and anecdotes from his life, and they turned from tear-jerking to tongue-lashing in a heartbeat.

Afterward, Ericka told Jenny that if she were to join the church, she would have to deny herself. The message resonated with Jenny, who had sacrificed often to succeed academically. Here was something she could do.

In the final study, called “Counting the Cost,” Ericka grilled Jenny to test whether her opinions conformed with the church’s. Her family, Ericka warned her, would say she was in a cult. Persecution was to be expected, she continued; just look at how Jesus suffered.

After the studies, the group prepared Jenny for baptism, talking about how their lives had been transformed by the cleansing waters. Jenny wanted to be baptized before she went to Florida to celebrate her grandmother’s birthday. If the plane crashed, she could picture the red flames dancing in eternal perdition.

But her classes, all-night Bible studies, little food, and the rigorous confession had taken a toll. The night before the big day, she developed bronchitis and a fever. She called Chloe to postpone, but Chloe questioned her devotion to God and the church. Jenny’s illness was a small thing, Chloe said, compared with how much Jesus had suffered on the cross.

Jenny woke up that night in a sweat. The question came like a bullet: “What the hell am I doing?” She considered leaving the group and cutting all ties, even changing her phone number. She drifted back to sleep, and when she woke up she wasn’t sure what to do.

The group had taught her to pray if she had doubts, so she picked up her Bible. While she was curled in her sweat-damp sheets, in the midst of her passionate petition to God, her fever broke.

Jenny took it as a sign. Her baptism ceremony was held in the bathroom of a church member’s house in DC’s Cleveland Park. She stepped into a bathtub of scalding water. Todd, another church intern, said he’d made it hot because she was sick. Trembling with nervousness, Jenny stood by as the tub was drained and filled again. She stepped into the water, crossed her arms, and closed her eyes. Todd lowered her until she was immersed. She rose dripping wet to the sound of clapping. Inside, she felt unchanged.

Jenny’s parents noticed a change in their daughter during the family’s trip to Florida. She seemed consumed by some secret. All weekend there were phone calls. Jenny stayed in corners and behind closed doors, talking in whispers for hours. Her church friends, worried that her faith would slip, called to quiz her about her conversations with her parents and her Bible reading.

Her mother, Jean, noticed Jenny clutching a book, its pages striped by a yellow highlighter. Jean knew her daughter was a spiritual girl who felt emotions deeply, but Jenny had never carried a Bible. When Jean asked what she was reading, Jenny stormed out of the room. When the time came to return to Washington the following weekend, Jenny and her parents were hardly speaking.

Weeks later, Jenny’s aunt sent Jean an article about the church she’d seen in Good Housekeeping. It called the International Church of Christ a cult.

Jean contacted a cult-awareness group mentioned in the article and was sent ten pounds of information about her daughter’s new church. Founded by Kip McKean, a charismatic young pastor who’d come to faith in 1972 as a student at the University of Florida, the International Church of Christ was one of the fastest-growing Christian movements of the 1980s and ’90s.

McKean had started his ministry as a college pastor with the Churches of Christ. Unlike the United Church of Christ, a mainline denomination founded in 1957 in the Reformed tradition, the Church of Christ traces its roots to the restoration movements of the late 1800s, which sought to strip worship of its accumulated pomp and get back to its New Testament basics.

But appalled with what he perceived as that denomination’s lack of zeal and holiness—and because of church leaders’ increased scrutiny of his teachings and practices—McKean and the church split in 1977. Two years later, he took over a struggling congregation in Boston and before long was drawing thousands to services at the Boston Garden with his compelling sermons.

By the early 1990s, McKean’s International Church of Christ had more than 130,000 members, with branches in cities around the world including London, Nairobi, Chicago, and Washington. In 1995, about three years after Jenny met Chloe, the Washington Post reported that the church’s services occasionally filled DAR Constitution Hall.

The church recruited on college campuses, reaching out chiefly to lonely or depressed students, according to its critics. In intensive Bible studies, leaders warned that all but members of their church would go to hell. Recruits were required to prepare “sin lists,” which critics say the church used to manipulate and control its members.

McKean organized the church around a rigid system of “discipleship.” Every member had a “prayer partner,” an older and more spiritually mature individual he or she was expected to emulate and submit to. Members could date only other church members and only those whom their prayer partner approved.

The information Jenny’s mother received made clear that the church left many spiritually and emotionally battered people in its wake. Ex-members told tales of harassment and manipulation. Leaders set quotas for recruiting new members and punished those who missed the mark. Dozens of colleges banned the church from campus, but it continued its work via student-run organizations with secular names.

Following advice from the cult-awareness group, Jenny’s mother didn’t confront her daughter directly. She and Mike assumed Jenny’s interest in the cult was born of rebellion. Their daughter was hardheaded. As a kindergartner, she had refused to wear pants on a cold day, preferring a pink dress and ignoring threats of a spanking. In the same way, she had refused to give up her art-history major, despite Mike’s concern about its usefulness.

Jenny, they assumed, would eventually get fed up with the cult’s dictates. But talking one day with Jenny at the kitchen table, Jean realized that her daughter was in deep. Jenny said that her mom was going to hell because she didn’t belong to the church. Then she announced she was moving with the church to San Francisco.

The news shocked Jean and Mike. They flew in two exit counselors—one who specialized in untwisting Scriptures used by cults to justify their control over members, another who was an expert on mind control. The family came up with a story to get Jenny to their house.

When she arrived, Mike pulled her aside. From Mike’s first dates with Jean, he had hit it off with Jenny. She was a wild talker and a deep thinker who felt the freedom to be both around him. Mike hadn’t tried to replace Jenny’s father but to be a friend and confidant. Many nights, he and Jenny stayed up talking about life, books, boys.

Now he told her about the counselors and asked her at least to sit and listen to them. When she refused, he asked her to do it for him.

With that, Jenny bolted out of the house, across the shadows of the towering maples, and past the car where the exit counselors waited. From the Washington Golf and Country Club up the street, she called Ericka, who sent someone to whisk her away.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 07/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles