(Bergen County, NJ)
Christian Bible Ministry or Cult? Resurgent Group Alarms Its Critics
By Tina Traster
March 17, 1996 -- On a cold, snowy evening, a man stands in the doorway of his Wanaque home and welcomes his visitors, each carrying a Bible. They exchange hugs, sing rousing Christian songs, and pray. A woman speaks in tongues, then translates her "message from God."
Welcome to The Way International. Members call it a Christian Bible research and teaching group with ministries worldwide.
Critics call it a cult.
A decade ago, in fact, groups such as the Cult Awareness Network considered The Way the fourth-largest cult in the country. Former members say they were lured into a secret society that included paramilitary training, sexual abuse, and food and sleep deprivation.
The group's membership declined sharply in the mid-1980s after its charismatic founder died. But now, The Way is attempting a comeback, banking on small local ministries such as the one in Wanaque and others in Bergen, Morris, and Passaic counties.
Although the group's numbers remain small, and past alleged excesses, particularly the sexual abuse, appear to have been abandoned, the resurgence is nonetheless alarming cult experts, who have followed the group for years and claim it rips families apart and manipulates believers through peer pressure and guilt.
In the past year alone, The Way has been at the center of three custody cases, all filed by women afraid that the group is brainwashing their children.
"They narrow down someone's world by limiting feedback from the outside," said Marcia Rudin, director of the International Cult Education Program, an arm of the American Family Foundation in New York.
"There are no prison bars, but there's no time to deal with other people."
Way spokesman Bill Greene says his group is often viewed as a cult only because of its unorthodox Christian teachings, such as not believing in the Holy Trinity and encouraging members to speak in tongues.
"God has given every person free will, and we do not take that freedom," Greene said. "We teach people to live a successful Christian life by believing in God's word. We believe that the original God-breathed word is perfect."
Officials of the group decline to disclose the number of members, either nationally or locally. Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, estimates The Way has about 20,000 members across the country, well below the 100,000 or so it claimed at its peak but is again growing.
"They are recruiting, and we continue to get calls from people who are concerned about the group," Kisser said.
A quietly aggressive group
In North Jersey, the Wanaque chapter is typical: Established less than two years ago, it has 25 members and meets three times a week. The Way also has established chapters recently in Saddle Brook, Denville, Paterson, Park Ridge, and Boonton.
Recruiting is aggressive, but low-profile. Members don't bang tambourines on street corners or blanket shopping malls with leaflets; instead, they solicit door-to-door and rely on word-of-mouth. Some of the recruits are later sent to other towns, in and out of state, to start new ministries.
For now, the group's presence in North Jersey is limited, but critics worry that the seeds that have been planted will flower soon.
"The Way is solidifying itself and becoming more vocal," said Rachel Bernstein, a counselor at The Cult Hotline and Clinic in New York." They are developing a sense of themselves."
What concerns the cult watchdogs the most is The Way's alleged antisocial philosophy toward outsiders. Bernstein calls the group's teachings "anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-homosexual, and quite sexist."
Many former members who left the group say they were shunned by those who stayed, including spouses.
One North Jersey family provides an example: At the Wanaque meeting, members hailed the work done by Chris and Christina Dodin, calling them part of the "new wave" spreading "the word."
But Christina's aunt, Christine Cirello, has a different perspective. She thinks her niece was brainwashed.
A college graduate who had started a nail concession at a Montclair beauty salon, Christina Dodin, 22, gave up her work, stopped wearing makeup and jewelry, and relinquished her wedding gifts, including Lenox china and Waterford crystal, to the Wanaque ministry, Cirello said.
Then she was sent by Way officials to start a new ministry in Charleston, S.C. Now, Cirello said, her niece talks about the Bible incessantly and fears she will be condemned to hell.
Neither Dodin nor her husband would comment.
The Way traces it beginnings to 1953 and founder Victor Paul Wierwille, a Princeton Theological Seminary graduate who believed God had sent him a message. When Wierwille's controversial views cost him his job as a minister in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, he turned his attention to The Way.
The Way is organized like a tree: Individuals are Leaves, local home fellowships are Twigs, state advisers are Limb Coordinators, headquarters is the Root. As it grew rapidly in the Seventies, The Way began recruiting from high schools and colleges, where it found disillusioned young people searching for answers outside the mainstream.
"The Way seemed like the answer to everything," said Kristen Skedgell, 39, who was a teenager growing up in Rye, N.Y., when she joined in 1971.
She recalls how Wierwille rode into town on a raspberry-and-white Harley Davidson to woo the young suburbanites that Life Magazine termed "the groovy Christians of Rye."
"We were aspiring flower children," said Skedgell, who dropped out of college and joined The Way for 14 years. "Our friends were dying of overdoses. We were protesting the Vietnam War. We were coping with a sexual revolution. We were kids, and a Midwestern preacher came along on a motorcycle."
By 1985, Way officials estimated that membership had grown to 100,000. The group owned two Bible colleges, two ranches, airplanes, luxury buses, and a publishing business. But some members began to suspect that something was askew.
Students at the colleges say they were trained with weapons, although Way officials said they were simply learning to hunt. Many said founder Wierwille was a Nazi sympathizer whose recommended reading list included works denying the Holocaust, and that he frequently warned them about the Illuminati, supposedly a world cartel secretly planning to overthrow the United States.
Way members found themselves estranged from friends and family." If family members didn't sign up, they became adversaries," said Chris Leggett, who was a confused and lonely Michigan State University student in 1970 when he dropped out of college and became involved in The Way for 14 years.
And then there were the reports of sexual abuse.
"Women were summoned into a secret society in The Way by having sex with the leaders, "Skedgell claims." Women would not speak among each other. I remember Dr. Wierwille used to be laid out in a towel in the back of his bus. There were blue lights and oil. He'd call me in and expect sex."
Now Skedgell, who left The Way and divorced her husband, a Way member, is worried about her children's exposure to the group. She has filed a motion with Litchfield Superior Court in Connecticut for more visitation time with her 11-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. The court's family relations division is expected to make a recommendation on April 15.
Her husband did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"I don't want them going to fellowships," Skedgell said. "If they go, they will be manipulated. They will see the world as a black-and-white thing, the same faulty dilemma that I experienced."
Her fight echoes two Arkansas cases decided last year.
In one, a former Way follower who was ousted from the group for having "devil spirits" took her husband to court to bar him from bringing their 5-year-old daughter to Way meetings.
A judge ruled that the child could continue attending meetings, but should not be exposed to anything that alienates her from her mother, including the vitriolic preachings of Wierwille's successor, Craig L. Martindale, a former University of Kansas football player and onetime Southern Baptist.
The judge also said that the mother could return to court if the girl called her "a devil," as she had before.
In the second Arkansas case, which was settled out of court, a father agreed not to bring his 5-year-old son to Way meetings.
Greene, The Way's spokesman, denies all the allegations. "We teach people how to live a successful Christian life," he said. "We never use mind control to hold people to the ministry."
He said the group is starting to regain the spiritual essence and financial vitality it lost with Wierwille's death. The new president, Martindale, is focusing on grass-roots ministries, such as the one in Wanaque. It sold one college and one ranch.
But it retains its basic tenets, and critics.
Former Way member Wendy Ford, who lives in Massachusetts, remembers how numb her mind had become when she was involved in The Way in the 1970s. Today, Ford, who left the group after seven years, is a computer trainer and teacher and has written a memoir, "Some Thoughts on Recovery."
"When I finally broke through the psychological barrier, and began thinking and feeling again, I was able to appreciate the incredible power The Way had over me," she said. "I realized that I'd lost my sense of connectedness to life. It was beyond my comprehension that someone could have done this to my soul."
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