How a family stepped in to save a family member caught in a cult
It was at the cold end of a long year when Geneva Paulson and her family packed their suitcases and food for a very long weekend. The plan, formed and fine-tuned over the prior several months, was to kidnap her son.
In her recently released book Rescuing Randy, Geneva tells a mother’s horror story of her son’s involvement with a cult and her family’s daring plan to get him back.
Randy was a fun loving kid who grew up in a Christian home near Eagle Bend. After high school, he joined the Navy and headed to Chicago for basic training. “Randy was witty, fun loving. He had reached the conclusion, though, that he needed to straighten out,” says his mother.
She wasn’t there to watch over him after he moved to Norfolk, Va. to await his assignment on a missile ship. She didn’t see as he was approached by “The Brotherhood,” the cult members who drew him into what he thought was a regular Christian church. But this was First Christian Fellowship, a church five miles from the naval base. Geneva quickly noticed the difference when he called home saying he’d been baptized into Jesus and telling her of new interpretations of the Bible they all were familiar with through their membership at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Parkers Prairie.
They really knew something was wrong, in 1986, when Roger and the couple’s youngest son went to Virginia to welcome Randy’s fleet back in after its deployment to the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. The two waited eagerly to see their son and brother. He didn’t appear with most of the other sailors who greeted their families. When they finally found him, he was surrounded by men in suits. “His eyes were dull. There was no expression in his voice,” Geneva remembers of what Roger told her when he returned home. Of the four days they had planned to spend together, Randy could only get away from the church for one and that evening the three of them attended Randy’s church’s services. Roger described these more as revivals, led by a ranting L.R. Davis.
During the empty days they had planned to spend with Randy, Roger met two couples, also parents of sailors, who never did get to see their sons and didn’t know what had happened to them. No one knew what was wrong and all felt helpless.
When Roger got home, he told Geneva what he’d witnessed. Geneva’s brother and sister-in-law suggested the Paulsons contact state politicians since their son was in the military. Several responded that with the separation of church and state, they could do nothing. But Hubert H. Humphrey III (Skip) sent a response with five words that would set them on a determined course. “Christian Fellowship is a cult.”
Geneva can’t help but get emotional, even though it’s been more than 20 years since they learned of Randy’s cult involvement and made the plans to extricate him from Christian Fellowship. “At first, we didn’t know what to do,” says Geneva. Roger was farming 291 acres and milking 42 cows twice a day. She had gone back to school after her children were mostly grown and was applying her energies to becoming a nurse. They didn’t know anything about cults. They also had no way of knowing that the Navy was aware of L.R. Davis’s activities with the Christian Fellowship. Four years earlier, the Navy had banned all military personnel from attending Christian Fellowship. But, as the Paulsons later learned, L.R. responded with a court proceeding that removed the ban and allowed the cult to continue to approach new recruits.
L.R., a charismatic man originally from Arkansas, started a church while a young man. A master of manipulation, he had gathered followers across the country and into Mexico. Each of his churches was located near a military base where his Brotherhood targeted young men. “He wanted men with a Christian background; those who were intelligent, loyal, dependent and could be turned toward him,” says Geneva. She also learned later that he was a sexual predator, that he had molested 13 and 14-year-old boys in Mexico, promising them rewards of positions in his church in Waukegan, Ill. He was later convicted of sexual assault and child pornography in what had become known as the Waukegan Pipeline.
Geneva’s book tells their family’s story of educating themselves, making connections through the Cult Awareness Network, and the detailed account of kidnapping their own son, taking him to a guarded safe house, and participating in the deprogramming process. Having written a detailed journal throughout the months of her son’s cult involvement and ultimate deprogramming, Geneva had much to draw on when she decided to share the story.
Since the book was released, Geneva has had speaking opportunities, radio interviews and book signings. She is also hearing similar stories of other families.
“Anybody can be brainwashed – fall under mind control,” she says, “even those who guard against it.” She adds that it doesn’t always take the form of a cult or pseudo church. Individuals in families can, through threats, browbeating and manipulation and financial constraints exert control over other family members preventing them from spending time with extended family, friends and social situations. This, too, is brainwashing and mind control.
In her research of mind control in the 1960s and ‘70s, clinical psychologist Margaret Thayer Singer identified six steps used by those who wish to draw others into their control:
“Keep the person unaware of what is going on” while drawing them into a deeper commitment to the group. Randy thought he was joining a typical Christian fellowship group.
“Control the person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time.” L.R. Davis provided housing for his followers and in return asked for everything they earned in jobs which occupied them up to 20 hours per day; each was allowed to keep $15 per week for their own needs.
“Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.” Randy was kept from his normal social support (his family), denied money, food (a poor diet with little protein was all that was available for those in Davis’ housing), and was allowed little sleep.
“Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity.” Randy participated in long prayer sessions and was told that his former religious beliefs were wrong and he would die if he went back to them.
“The group manipulates a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences in order to promote learning the group’s ideology or belief system and group-approved behaviors.” As a sexual predator, L.R. Davis added another method of control through his unwanted advances and shame.
“Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.” L.R. Davis was a charismatic man who Geneva says, saw himself as a prophet. He had set up the Brotherhood as the authoritarian structure.
Twenty-first century psychologists are less clear on the effectiveness of mind control, in part as a result of litigation against those who have spoken out against groups which their predecessors identified as cults. Singer was sued as well as many of the deprogrammers, exit counselors, and the Cult Awareness Network who all worked hard for families whose loved ones had been drawn into organizations which they felt took away their personal freedoms.
Geneva suggests steps to take if someone you know is being recruited for a new religious group or is prevented from normal contact with friends and family:
-Don’t lose communication with them. Call, write, whatever it takes.
-Ask for help.
-Ask for God’s help.
-Learn about what you’re dealing with.
-Plan step by step to get them back.
The Paulson family, including Randy, feels fortunate that in banding together and working with those recommended by the Cult Awareness Network they were able to return to their normal life. Geneva’s project to share their story through her book was okayed by everyone involved. It has been a method for additional healing of emotional wounds. “After it all, we needed our own debriefing. We thought we were fine but Roger and I could hardly talk about it. We went through 20 years of putting it in the background. This book is a debriefing,” she says.
Rescuing Randy is available at: Open Book (Wadena), Staples Bakery (Eagle Bend), Mustard Seed (Alexandria), Hidden Treasures (Sauk Centre), Trumm Drug (Alexandria and Parkers Prairie) Seip Drug (New York Mills), Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle and Nook.
Though the Paulsons’ experience with Christian Fellowship happened more than 20 years ago and L.R. Davis died in prison in 1999, Davis’ church, Christian Fellowship Church Ministries International, still exists under the direction of his two sons-in-law, Peter F. Paine and Edward J. Thomas Jr. This statement has prominent placement on the group’s website: “Our Headquarters is located in Norfolk, Virginia of (sic) Hampton Roads with fellowships and military outreaches around the world. Our organization works with and through military members, veterans and civilians to evangelize, educate and equip people with the knowledge of Jesus Christ. We are dedicated to upholding the Word of our Lord and Saviour (sic) Jesus Christ.”
In 1996, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was taken over (including its records, names, phone numbers and assets) by the Church of Scientology. CAN declared bankruptcy following litigation by the Church of Scientology and others. The New (or reformed) Cult Awareness Network is operated by the Foundation for Religious Freedom and owned by the Church of Scientology. It has the records of everyone who ever called the CAN hotline.
Geneva Paulson is willing to talk about her book and her family’s experience in forums or book signings. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.