Some Call It a Cult, But Members Can Feel God

Students for the Truth propound an outspoken spirituality and extensive involvement that troubles some observers.

by Nicolas Laperriere

"The truth we stand for is eternal. Human beings were made in God's image to be filled with Him as life to express Him."

So begins the pamphlet of the Students for the Truth, one of the more vocal and visible campus Christian clubs. Members of the group are often seen preaching and shouting "Lord Jesus" on Sproul Plaza and other areas of campus.

Total Involvement

Unlike most other clubs which would provide for one small aspect of a student's life, the Students for the Truth offers a number of ways for students to become deeply involved with the club.

The Church in Berkeley, located at 2430 Dana St., owns some of the property surrounding it, including an apartment complex. Currently, nearly 45 members of the club live in this cooperative housing.

Male and female members live in separate quarters to "foster the proper environment," said Paul Hon, a minister for the Local Church in Pleasant Hill and an advisor to the Students for the Truth.

Also, the club has communal dinner nightly in its student center, which adjoins the church. This dinner is open to all those involved or interested in the club, and there are usually 50 to 60 students served nightly.

The scene at dinner is lively, with active conversation and chatter punctuated by the occasional shouts of "Lord Jesus!"

Besides dinner and living quarters, the club offers a complete plan for students to follow.

"The goal of the club can be seen as a three-part plan: spiritual, academic and community service," Hon said.

For the spiritual component, the club provides personal fellowship, prayer partnership, group Bible study and Sunday worship. These programs encourage an intense study and appreciation of the Bible and of the particular teachings of the church.

"Most of the students here have seen the Lord and felt something of his presence," said Jake Jacobson, an Elder of the church and close advisor to the Students for the Truth.

The academic component is also a crucial part of the club.

"We want to make sure the students don't flunk out," Hon said.

The club's study seminar and tutoring programs seem quite successful, with an average 3.56 grade point average among those living in the co-op.

To encourage a sense of community, the club participates in big brother and sister programs and leads Bible study groups for high school and junior high students during the summer.

To help foster a good Christian environment, a number of families affiliated with the church provide a "home away from home" for the students, Hon said.


The Students for the Truth are affiliated with the Church in Berkeley located on Dana Avenue. The Church in Berkeley is part of the Local Church, which is spread throughout six continents and has a world-wide membership of more than 100,000.

"We have about 2,000 churches in the free world today," Hon said.

The name Local Church has been given to the group by outsiders, because of its decentralized, "one city -- one church" approach to church organization.

"The Local Church has its origins back in turn of the century China and the teachings of Watchman Nee," said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara.

During the early 1960s, a student of Nee's, Witness Lee, brought the church to the United States, after working to spread it extensively throughout Southeast Asia, according to Melton.

The Students for the Truth began informally during the early 1960s. Hon became involved with the church and the club while a UC Berkeley student. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1971 and continued his involvement with the church.

The club later became more formal and was known as the Christians on Campus until 1991, when the name was changed to Students for the Truth. Its membership has steadily grown and now includes about 100 student members.


Members of the church believe in the trinity, or the idea that God is made up of three parts -- the father, the son and the holy spirit -- yet is still a singular entity.

They reject as heretical the ideas of modalism (that each of these parts existed separately and in sequence) and tritheism (the idea that there are somehow three gods), according to members Douglas Wu and Jake Jacobson.

The group believes that baptism is not necessary for "eternal salvation," but that it is a "normal step a Christian goes through."

One of the unique and key ideas of both the Church in Berkeley and the Students for the Truth has to do with the spirit and the "ultimate goal and desire of God."

"The Bible talks about God being the spirit, but also about human spirit, which is a part of every person," Wu said. "Human spirit was created to contain God as the spirit so that he can enter into us and become one with our spirit."


The Local Church fosters some unorthodox practices, which have drawn criticism from more mainstream Christians.

One of these critics is Jim Moran, who studied the group for more than 1 1/2 years "on the inside," and who has continued to study it since 1989.

"I have nothing personal against the members of the Local Church," Moran said. "In general, they are nice, loving, sincere Christians, but I feel their sincerity is misplaced and their theology is wrong," Moran added.

Among the practices that Moran and others criticize is "calling the Lord." This occurs when some members will spontaneously cry out "Lord Jesus!" at the top of their lungs.

Another practice that has been criticized is what is known as prayer reading. A group will gather with their Bibles (or biblical readers) and simultaneously pray and read the material repeatedly.

The idea of "mingling" is another practice that has concerned some theologians. Mingling is the idea that God can enter a person of the proper mind set, becoming one with that person and filling him or her with religious joy.

However, Hon and other members of the Local Church and Students for the Truth cite biblical passages to validate these practices. For example, Hon quoted Romans 10, 12 and 13 from the Bible to justify the calling of the Lord.

Hon defended prayer reading with a passage from Ephesians 6 which says "Receive the helmet of salvation and sword of the spirit which is the word of God by means of all prayer and petition, praying at every time in spirit."

Lastly, the more controversial idea of mingling was defended by interpreting Corinthians 10:17 and Leviticus 2, 4 and 5, which discuss the "mingling" of "divine oil" with human "fine flour."

"The term (mingling) has been misused in church history and practice, but the word 'mingling' is in the Bible, so when people disagree with the term, they are disagreeing with the Bible," Jacobson said.

Hon added, "We understand that we may intimidate or offend people, but it is our faith, and we have the right to express it freely."

The behavioral changes that tend to go along with these activities can often be unsettling to those who do not understand or are unfamiliar with them. The most profound impact is felt by those who have experienced mingling.


"I was a lawyer and a Jew when the Lord made himself real to me," Jacobson said.

Jacobson ended his law practice and eventually joined the Church in Berkeley in 1985, at the request of his friend Hon and a "calling from the Lord."

Many students in the club have had similar profound experiences that radically changed their lives and world views.

"I was an atheist and vehemently opposed to Christianity," said Jason Davis, a junior rhetoric major.

Davis said he experienced mingling at 2:40 a.m. in Sproul Plaza after an extensive conversation with a homeless man.

"I asked him 'What is the meaning of life, what have you got to live for?'" Davis said. "And his answer was 'It is Christ.' I just wept, and I asked the Lord to come in me, and he did."

Davis, who was then living in Davidson Hall, said he suffered "much persecution" because of his newly found beliefs and outspoken discussion of them. Eventually, he encountered the Students for the Truth, and now lives in the Brothers' quarters of the co-op.

Douglas Wu underwent a much longer search for "the truth." Wu, a junior peace and conflict studies major, was a neighbor of Hon's. He started to become curious about Christianity and spoke at length with Hon.

He experienced mingling while praying and said it profoundly changed his life.

"I was a partyer, but after this I didn't want to party anymore," said Wu, who broke off a three-year relationship with his girlfriend because it was "improper" and to "give himself to the Lord."

"My friends thought I went wacko, I went through a big change and people thought I was in a cult," Wu said. "When you go through such radical personal changes people can't understand, because they haven't experienced what you have."

Paul Sachi, who is earning his masters in mechanical engineering, also experienced mingling through prayer.

"It was a huge revelation, and it was hard to sleep," Sachi said. "The things that used to fulfill me just didn't anymore. I really used to like the Simpsons, but then the next day, when I watched it, it just didn't interest me. I just wanted to read the Bible and experience the Lord."

When his girlfriend Tonya, found out, she was far from pleased. Now his wife, she was then pursuing a degree in Montana while Sachi was in Berkeley.

"I was shocked and upset," she said. "He seemed so different, and I just panicked." Tonya Sachi fell into a depression, but continued to talk to Paul Sachi occasionally.

"I began to realize how happy he was," she said. "It was a couple of weeks later, and I was crying in my truck, and I began to pray out loud. I heard a voice that said 'Tonya, you just need me in you.' And then I said, 'Lord I want you to come in.'"

"Suddenly, I stopped crying, I felt my chest expanding, and I began to sing 'This little light of mine.' I was overcome with a feeling of peace and calmness."

Eventually, Tonya Sachi moved to Berkeley, and later married Paul Sachi. She now works on campus, and together, husband and wife act as managers of the co-op apartment.

The Cult Question

Given the profound effect upon some of its members, and some of the unconventional practices of Students for the Truth, the cult question is a pertinent one. Each different theological and academic organization has its own definition of a cult, while some prefer not to use the term at all because of its connotations.

"The term has been used for any group you don't like," Melton said. "There is no consensus on what it means, and it is primarily a term of derision."

The term "new religions" was coined by Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco, and this term is now the one popularly used in academia.

"Most of these new groups offer a fairly immediate experience of transcendence rather than working at it for a lifetime," Melton said.

The Local Church was included in Melton's Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, but he expressly noted that he felt the group did not belong in the book. Melton decided to include them because of the extensive legal battles and controversies surrounding the group.

The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) focuses on what it terms "destructive cults" rather than on cults in general. The group works to provide information to those who are concerned about a particular religious group, although they do also determine whether a specific group is a cult.

Cynthia Kisser, the director of CAN's main office in Chicago, defined a destructive cult as having two critical components.

"First, the group uses unethical or deceptive recruitment tactics," Kisser said. "Second, they use influencing techniques unethically. This can include diet control and sleep manipulation, as well as controlling the people and information (the recruits) have access to."

Moran, one of the critics of the group, accuses the Local Church in Chicago of using deceptive recruitment methods.

"They would draw people in through a bookstore that was owned by Living Streams, the publishing branch of the Local Church," Moran said. "The stuff they were telling me set an alarm off in my head, so I went to check it out."

"They are not completely honest about themselves or their group, and they draw you in slowly," Moran continued. "They also use a technique known as love bombing. They show a lot of love and attention and draw in students who are lonely and away from home for the first time."

In response to this criticism, Jacobson said that "we like to talk about Christ, the one that we love, and if people like what they hear they may get saved and become part of the church. People who oppose us call that recruitment."

Hon added, "The U.S. Army recruits people. Universities recruit athletes. Recruitment is only bad if you are not doing good for the person being recruited."

"Also, Jesus taught us to love people and give them what they need, and when people need love and care that is what we give them."

Moran has posted his numerous criticisms of the Local Church and its affiliated clubs on the Internet, but recently had his access cut when his Internet provider received a strongly worded letter from a representative of the Local Church.

This type of action is not uncommon for the Local Church, which is "very aggressive" with their critics, said Kisser.

Criticism began in the 1970s and peaked with a number of legal battles in the mid-1980s. A number of books, such as "The Mind Benders" and Larson's "Book of Cults," were discontinued or altered, and apologies were issued as a result of legal action.

One of the more spectacular confrontations took place between the Local Church and the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP). The project was located in Berkeley and was dedicated to the study of cults in the United States.

Witness Lee, representing the Local Church, took the group to court for libel over an SCP-authored book known as "The God-Men," and eventually was awarded an $11.9 million settlement.

The SCP filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 and was unable to contest the case in court due to legal fees totalling $400,000. Although the case was uncontested, the judge listened to all of the information and testimony provided by the Local Church.

Melton was a key speaker for the Local Church, and his testimony aided the judge's decision.

Editor's notes:

Copyright 1995 The Daily Californian.

This story was first published in The Daily Californian, Berkeley's student newspaper, in September, 1995.

Note that the Cult Awareness Network, mentioned in this article, has, since the original publication of the article, been taken over by the Church Of Scientology, and is now controlled by that organization. Therefore, the editor no longer recommends soliciting information from the Cult Awareness Network.

Students For The Truth has, since the publication of this article, changed its name to "Christians On Campus" and continues to operate at UC Berkeley.

"Local Church" Information Site
Studying Witness Lee and the "Local Church" from the evangelical Christian perspective

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