At first, the happy, intensely friendly people Susan Ramsay met through the International Churches of Christ seemed so helpful and positive. They didn't drink, smoke or swear. They provided a built-in and ever-escalating social life for Ms. Ramsay and her husband, who had recently moved to Buffalo from New England. And for the first time in her life, she read the Bible from beginning to end.
Then, slowly but surely, the pressure and demands began.
Every other church in the world was fake, Ms. Ramsay says she was told. Everyone not involved in their church was condemned to hell. When would she agree to let the International Churches of Christ baptize her and make her a true disciple? Why was she risking her everlasting soul?
The pressure made her uncomfortable and she hesitated.
"I can't believe you!," her personal "spiritual mentor" said. "Why don't you want to be baptized immediately?"
What was she hiding? Her mentor knew there must be some deep, dark secret that was stopping her from saving her soul.
Do you masturbate? the woman asked Ms. Ramsay. Have you been sexually abused? Do you have alcohol problems? Have you been raped? Have you had an abortion? There must be something.
"Sue, there are very few people in life who have never had to confess to one of those experiences," the woman told her.
Ms. Ramsay finally underwent the public baptism at a building the church rented in Hamburg. But that didn't stop the personal accusations.
One wintry night in January 1993 while doing Bible studies at her disciple's home, Ms. Ramsay happened to say she thought Daniel Macaluso, the local leader of the church and her spiritual mentor's husband, had spoken too fast during his last sermon. The woman, Ms. Ramsay says, turned on her with "the devil in her eyes."
"You disrespect Danny," she told Ms. Ramsay, scolding harshly. "You disrespect all the men in the church. I don't think you even respect your own husband."
Two days later, with the emotional scene still on her mind, Ms. Ramsay began to seriously question her new faith.
"I really don't like the person I've changed into," she told herself. "I'm listening to people tell me how rotten I am, but am I rotten? I always had people tell me how Christian a person I was, and now I go to this church and everyone tells me I'm not as Christian as they are."
She confided in her husband, who had kept his distance from the church after refusing to bow to the pressure to be baptized. Am I really this bad? she asked him. And he was floored.
"She said that?" her husband told her. "She is so wrong."
Then he told her he loved her.
"That's when I decided I'm not going to church anymore," says Ms. Ramsay.
In the beginning
The church Ms. Ramsay left, the International Churches of Christ, is an evangelical sect that Time magazine has been called one of the world's fastest growing Protestant churches, growing from 30 members in 1979 to 50,000 members today in 61 countries. It was founded by Kip McKean, who broke from the mainstream Churches of Christ and started the organization in 1979 when he was 25. As it has grown, the International Churches of Christ has drawn intense scrutiny from the media and mainstream churches.
Daniel Macaluso, evangelist of the Buffalo International Churches of Christ, says he understands why his church has so many critics. With the Bible as its standard and Jesus as a role model, he says, there could be no other way.
"Jesus was the most controversial, most radical guy who ever lived," says Macaluso, 32, who started the local chapter of the International Churches of Christ three years ago with 15 members and has been its leader since.
"Jesus even says 'They hate me and they are going to hate you,' " Macaluso says. "Obviously, he was a martyr for his faith. His teachings were different than the norm. But he spoke the truth. You can't follow the teachings of the most controversial guy in history and not be persecuted."
A native of Buffalo's West Side, Macaluso spent much of the 1980s as a bass player for a locally-acclaimed Buffalo rock band White Lies, living a lifestyle he now calls "immoral" and "prejudiced." He was raised Roman Catholic but never read the Bible. He became a real Christian in 1986, he says, after being impressed and inspired by the central events of Christianity -- the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
"I truly believe that Jesus was willing to die for our sins," he says. "That inspired me to live a life that is as radical and controversial as He did so I can glorify His name."
Macaluso is known as an energetic, emotional preacher in the pulpit who thrives on being in charge when around other members. Talking about the church in his Amherst home, Macaluso was more calm, polite and personable. He says the church has about 60 active members in the Buffalo area, many recruited around college campuses.
Evangelism and recruitment are major goals of the church, he explains. "We hope to double that number by the end of the year and continue to multiply," Macaluso says. "The Bible tells us our goal is to win as many (people) as possible. Our goal is to have a church in every nation by the year 2000."
Still, he says he can understand the concerns of parents whose children suddenly start changing their lifestyles to obey the teachings of the church.
"If parents want to know what we're all about, I wish they would come out and see for themselves," Macaluso says. "It's all I ask. Then they can make their decision based on personal experience."
Turning aside wrath
Other local members of the International Churches of Christ also will disagree with Ms. Ramsay's version of her experience and her feelings of betrayal. They say they can contradict every unfavorable story from former members with positive examples from those still involved. That would take some time, because one unmistakable element of the International Churches of Christ's short history is the trail of complaints, criticism and disillusionment from those who were once members and have now left.
"If church members are all your friends and all your social contacts, the church becomes everything for you," says a 30-year-old University at Buffalo graduate student from South Buffalo. He was a member of the church's Boston chapter and has briefed UB ministers on the dangers of the church. He also has offered to counsel any student involved in the church, but asked that his name not be used in this story because he did not want to be known as a former member.
"They meet a lot of needs that way," he says. "They first appeal to personal altruism. If a person is stubborn, they will find your soft underbelly and then beat you over the head.
"It was creepy."
The church has been banned from recruiting at several campuses, including American University and George Washington University in Washington, D.C, and Boston University.
"The complaints against the church and its campus affiliates are strikingly uniform in portraying church members as adept in singling out vulnerable targets, like lonely students, and enveloping them rapidly with a psychological dependency that is difficult to break," wrote a New York Times reporter in November.
A Church of Christ newspaper called the Boston International Churches of Christ "dangerous."
"We keep monthly statistics," says Sarah DeOpsomer, a spokeswoman for the Cult Awareness Network, a national coalition. Its officers include Patricia Ryan, daughter of Rep. Leo Ryan, whose murder by Jim Jones' followers at Jonestown preceded a mass suicide by Jones and his followers there in 1979.
"In a given month, we constantly get enough complaints about this group to put it among the top five groups (who draw the most complaints each month)," she says. "Many seem to fall away as the pressures the group puts them under become too much."
Local mainstream church leaders, especially those who serve where the International Churches of Christ recruits new members, also are outspoken in their objections to the organization.
The Rev. John B. Mansfield, campus minister for the evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ at the University at Buffalo, has kept close tabs on the group. About 18 months ago, a married couple being recruited by the church told Mansfield the turning point for them came when one of the church members counseling them told them the number of times a week and the manner in which they could have sexual relations.
"The church member went into great detail with the couple," Mansfield says. "The wife said she remembered thinking 'Can you imagine Jesus ever having a conversation like this?' "
Mansfield says church members are very active in talking to students in the student union, the Commons area and one of the major dormitories on UB's Amherst Campus. They are also active at Buffalo State.
"We try to help people learn about the faith," says Mansfield. "But there's an appropriate way and a manipulative way of doing it. In many ways, they are a dangerous group because of the manipulation they exercise over people and because of the way they scar people."
The Rev. Msgr. John C. Weimer, campus minister at Buffalo State College, said the church targets those who are alone and vulnerable, and provides a "ready-built cocoon of affection and acceptance."
"There is nothing wrong with the idea of offering affection and acceptance," Father Weimer says. "But when it begins to manifest itself in techniques that undercut people's personal freedom, and when it becomes manipulative and people are kept from other interests, you have to stand up and say this is not good.
"From what I've been able to discover, it seems very evident they go over that line," he says. "People have to be free to find God where they can find God."
Friends only in faith
Susan Ramsay's experience with the International Churches of Christ illustrates many techniques former members and critics -- both locally and nationally -- find abhorrent. Their complaints are surprisingly similar.
The fellowship of faith she thought she had found, Ms. Ramsay says, was a sham.
"If you leave the church, they leave you because you have just helped crucify Jesus," she says. "You have stood at the cross and spit on Him, and they have no use for you.
"We thought they cared about us. And all the time and effort now seems cheap because what they do, they do for a reason: To recruit. It looks like friendship. Everything is easy-flowing and non-threatening. But every move they make is planned ahead of time."
The techniques combine to control the lives of church members and prospective members, and to prevent the independent thought that would allow its members to question the influence the church exerts, according to its critics.
It begins reasonably. The UB grad student who briefed UB ministers said the church members in Boston started asking him to devote one to three hours a week to church activities. But, he says, "By the time you were fully involved, it was 15 hours a week with these people. If you go home on vacation, they tell you, 'Make sure you stay in touch with the church.' "
Florence Boyd of Amherst says her daughter, who is active in the Buffalo chapter of the International Churches of Christ, started separating herself from her family because of the church's constant demands on her life.
"She had to go to church every Wednesday and Sunday, no matter what else is going on," says Mrs. Boyd. "She absolutely must attend. There were other times when she had to be 'discipling,' trying to draw other people in."
Mrs. Boyd's daughter did not return phone calls to discuss her involvement in the church.
Ms. Ramsay says job responsibility also is actively discouraged. "They don't care about your job," she says. "Work is no excuse to miss a Bible study. (They say) get someone else to cover for you." Consequently, members often change jobs.
Mrs. Boyd said her daughter recently moved in with three other women who also belong to the church.
"Every aspect of her life is controlled," says Mrs. Boyd. "She lives with them. She can only date them. She's dropped her outside friends. She doesn't make time for anyone outside the church. We try to tell her she should get a part-time job to be more financially stable. But she can't get a part-time job because the church needs her to be there and a part-time job would take her away from them."
The church frequently has been accused by former members and critics of telling its members where to live, what courses to take in school, who to date and how many times to have sex with a husband or wife.
The church discourages members from traveling where the church is not established, according to former members or parents of those involved. Another mother whose daughter is active and who requested anonymity said the young woman always talked about going to graduate school in Oregon.
"We doubt that will happen now," her mother says. "As far as we know, the church has no branch in Oregon."
An "Inside Edition" report, in which a producer posed as a prospective member in its Boston chapter, focused on the questionable tactics used by the International Churches of Christ to encourage confessions. The church used what it calls a "sin study" in which members and recruits were urged to divulge their most intimate secrets, but not privately.
The producer's personal disciple asked him to confess his sins while a camera recorded the conversation. Over and over, the disciple urged the producer to admit some aberrant behavior, repeatedly suggesting the man may have had sex with other men, relatives or animals.
The church made a computer printout of the members and the sins they confessed to during these sin studies, according to the investigation. A former church leader critical of its practices said this list had circulated among the church leaders. A church spokesman speaking in defense of the church explained that a church leader "must know his flock."
"They use those (confessions) as threats in the most unconscionable way to keep the guilt hooks in those who try to slip away," the former church leader told "Inside Edition."
"They want to know the things you are most ashamed of," one former Boston member said. "They want to know the weakest parts of you, then they can grab hold of you and control you."
The church is frequently attacked by former members, porents of members and other clergy for its tactics that revolve around deception, mind-control and manipulation.
"If you knew everything about me," says the UB grad student who went through something similar during his six months with the church in Boston, "it wouldn't take very much to roast me on a stick."
Macaluso denies some of the more onerous complaints lodged against the church, although he also says he doesn't think brainwashing and mind control are necessarily bad ideas, as long as the person is controlled by the Bible and God, not people.
"My brain needed washing," he says. "I was so sinful, I was living such a wicked way of life, I needed it cleansed. It's a matter of what controls your mind. We should let God control our minds through the Bible."
He also denies that the sins members confess have been written down and circulated to other church leaders, at least for the Buffalo chapter. There is no effort to focus on members' sexual history to get them to consent to the church's baptism, according to Macaluso.
But taking the Bible as the standard for behavior means changes and demands in one's lifestyle, Macaluso says.
"My first question is, 'What would Jesus do?' " he says. "My last question is 'What would Jesus do?' "
The Only Way
A strong message that comes through for anyone in contact with church members is their condemnation of those who do not share their beliefs. Even church members who do not obey the latest church directive are told they will face God's punishment.
Mrs. Boyd, who says she and her daughter were very close before the church came between them, says her daughter has told her no one but those from the International Churches of Christ will find heaven.
"She has told me, 'I was a terrible person before I joined the church. I was a sinner. I did all these things wrong,' " says Mrs. Boyd. "That is not true. My daughter was never a terrible person."
The father of another local member says his daughter has told both her parents she is worried because unless they join the church, they face certain damnation. "The threat of Hell is very strong," the father says.
Macaluso counters that he does not tell his members the International Churches of Christ is the only way to salvation. "What I say is 'The Bible is the standard, and that standard is righteous,' " he says. "But there is a certain standard. We cannot compromise for the sake of unity. The Bible tells us (people not baptized) are in sin. As their friend, I don't want them to be in sin."
Church officials have said many religions tout themselves as the true path to God, and will condemn anyone not following their faith.
"It's not true," says Father Weimer. "Every church believes that, indeed, it is God's way. But not every church believes that those who do not follow this way go to Hell. The Churches of Christ group is different if they say you can't go to heaven unless you are part of their church.
"It's not at all the teaching of the Catholic Church. The teaching that there is no salvation outside the church has been rejected as heresy in the Catholic Church over and over again. It was reaffirmed in the Second Vatican Council. So it's absolutely not true."
Jason Senft, 21, a Canisius student, who had a month-long encounter with church members two years ago, says the members were "super nice" when they first met. They paid his way to a Buffalo Blizzard game. They wanted to know everything about him. Eventually, after several Bible sessions, he found their spiritual views "very, very radical."
"I felt like I was being pummelled," says Senft, who is active in the Bible study group at Grace Baptist Church in the Town of Tonawanda. "The message was 'Conform to our ways or you're going to burn in Hell, or you already are.' "
"A month was sufficient," he says. "My overall impression is that they wanted to live a Christian life but they had come into the wrong type of church at the wrong time. Someone had totally brainwashed them into thinking this was the right way to go."
Father Weimer also is careful in his criticism of the church, saying good will dictates him to believe these people are trying sincerely to do God's work. "I'm not going to sit here and say we have a full-blown cult," he says. "But this pulling people away from friends and family and social contacts, and establishing an artificial social structure is bad news and dangerous."
The mother of a local church member said she was so upset about losing her daughter to this organization, she was unable to talk about it until a few weeks ago. "It's like a death," she says. "Last week she didn't want to be hugged."
Mrs. Boyd says she is angry and wants to do whatever she can to prevent other families from being torn apart. "I want my daughter back," she says. "Quite frankly, I don't think that's ever going to happen."