During my childhood, I grew up in a non-denominational Christian household, faithfully going to church every Sunday. It wasn't until college when church and God were pushed to the background and school and my job became my life. Soon, Sundays consisted of sleeping in and doing school work. God slipped further out of my mind.
It wasn't long before my family started telling me that I needed to find a church on campus. I never made it a priority, and as work and school were my only daily activities, my social life dwindled. With my boyfriend working and taking a load of classes as well, I was as lonely as ever. I was tired of the same routine and wanted a change. I had a great urge to make new friends and be social.
After years of not finding a church home, an opportunity arose. An acquaintance of mine of whom I knew for a couple of weeks mentioned a church he had just re-joined. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to see what Christian life was like on a college campus and already knowing someone in the church gave me the courage to go.
This church goes by two names: Life on Campus UCF or the Orlando International Christian Church. With a suggestion from that acquaintance, I decided to go to one of the church's Friday night devotionals. This devotional consisted of reading scriptures out of the Bible, playing games that dealt with biblical teachings and giving out explanations of why God has been "encouraging" in their lives. Everything seemed to be normal and fun.
The group was composed of a diverse array of college-aged people of different ethnicities. I was automatically enticed by the prospect of college students who genuinely wanted a relationship with God. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, something that is somewhat hard to find on campus life. It seemed that I had already found my utopia.
During the devotional, I found a girl I used to study with from one of my previous classes freshman year and of whom I lost touch with. We exchanged numbers that night and shortly after, she texted me inviting me to a bible study.
When I was available later that week, I met up with her and her friend that I did not meet, but was also a part of the church. The bible study seemed normal until the girl started asking me questions about the bible and if I knew if I was saved or not. It seemed to me that the bible study was geared towards me and the other two girls already knew all the information. Usually, a bible study is a group effort where we all collectively discuss and internalize scriptures. It felt almost like an interrogation than a bible study. However, during that time, I thought it was just a new way of learning about God. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Over a series of weeks, I attended more bible studies that were geared towards me. I started learning the dynamics of the church and how everyone who was baptized called themselves "Disciples." As time went on, I started to see the ugly truth.
These people were strange, but I could never really put my finger on it. Everyone treated me as if I was a part of their own family; as if we were separated at birth and just met each other for the first time. I started to devote a lot of time going to Friday night devotionals, Sunday service and multiple bible studies throughout the weeks. During Sunday service, they sang acapella, singing hymns I have never heard of with the only instruments being their clapping hands. I began to see patterns, such as them constantly saying that they are "Fired up for the Lord" and they "Feel encouraged" about anything and everything.
They were all individuals who yet acted as if they were the same entity. They kept smiles plastered on their faces. They were always happy, always excited, always fired up and always encouraged. The utopia slowly dissolved and out came the real faces behind their masks. One Friday evening after devotional service, the Disciple who held the bible studies asked if I was going to church on Sunday. I replied that I was going to visit my mother's church after weeks of not going.
She looked flustered and offended and said, "You're going to church with me on Sunday." I thought she was joking until I saw the serious look on her face.
"I won't be able to make it to church this Sunday, maybe next weekend," I replied. She then nodded her head in agreement but her face said otherwise. Early the next morning, I received a call from her. She went on to ask me if I trusted my mother, the church she attends, and their teachings. She asked if they truly taught God's word like the way "our" church does.
At that moment, I finally realized the truth that was before my eyes the whole time. They were manipulative, slowly steering me away from my family, boyfriend, and the free time that I had. To ask me if I trusted my own mother was like asking me if water was wet.
After that phone call, I knew it was time to slide my way out of the church group. After a sleepless night, the following day, I decided to look up the Orlando International Christian Church and found out that the church's original name was the International Church of Christ, a church accused of being a cult back in the 80's by its controlling nature and tendency of its former members to be mentally scarred from years of membership. It targets young college-aged students and has hundreds of other locations on college campuses across the country. I immediately stopped attending all the church's activities and ignored their numerous attempts to get back in contact with me.
It's not every day that a regular student like me gets sucked into the vortex of a cult. However, my luck didn't work that way.