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Anna G. Larson, Published April 11 2013

Living in the shadow of a cult: Mother to speak about struggle to rescue her son

If you go

What: Geneva Paulson speaking at the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League’s annual Spring Zone Rally

When: 9:30 a.m. April 23

Where: Trinity Lutheran Church, 1150 West Cavour, Fergus Falls, Minn.

Info: Paulson will discuss her family’s journey to get her son Randy out of the Christian Fellowship Church Ministries International church.

The event is free and open to the public.

Contact: For more information, call Phyllis Jastram at (218) 826-6305.

MONTICELLO, Minn. - The Rev. Lloyd Ray Davis of Christian Fellowship Church Ministries International warned 22-year-old Randy Paulson that his family might try to kidnap him while he was home in Eagle Bend for Christmas.

“I feared that they would kidnap me, drug me and that I would possibly recant my faith without knowing it and be lost forever,” Randy says.

Davis was right. At 3 a.m. on Dec. 26, 1988, Randy’s family handcuffed him, tied his ankles together with rope, put him in the car and drove five hours north in the bitter cold to a safe house.

In the seven days that followed, Randy was deprogrammed, or counseled to “snap back” to the way he thought before he joined CFCMI.

Randy’s mother, Geneva, describes him as bitter and angry during the process. In her book, “Rescuing Randy,” she wrote:

“Randy looked so forlorn and alone; my mother-heart was breaking at his pitiable state. I wondered what he was thinking and asked God in a silent prayer for a time when I could wrap my arms around my child again. I missed him so much.”

When the family took Randy to the secluded cabin that post-Christmas morning, they started a journey that would become their personal testimony of faith.

THE MAN BEHIND THE CULT

L.R. Davis founded CFCMI in the 1970s, first as Christian Fellowship Inc.

Allegations that Davis was having homosexual relations with church members and approaching members for sex started circulating in the late 1960s, when he was ministering at Pentecostal churches, according to a story published in 1991 in the Chicago Tribune.

He was eventually convicted of 19 counts of criminal sexual abuse, criminal sexual assault and child pornography and sentenced to 31 years in prison in August 1992, according to a story in the Chicago-Sun Times.

The judge who sentenced Davis called him a minister and a monster, Geneva wrote in “Rescuing Randy.”

Davis died in prison in 1999, where he had continued to minister.

Davis’ son-in-law and the current pastor of CFCMI, Pete Paine, describes his father-in-law as a “complex individual.”

“He fully believed in the cause of Christ, and I mean no criticism when I say he had a very controlling personality that affected every area of his life,” he says. “I think that is consistent with the labeling that we are referring to here as a, you know, that we were a cult.”

Differentiating between a cult and people who are zealous about their religion comes down to power, says Ron Burks, a licensed mental health counselor in Florida who’s worked with people who have suffered in abusive groups that are often called cults.

“A person who is able to exercise absolute power of their followers can usually find a way of justifying most any kind of behavior,” Burks says.

Geneva says in her book that Davis often made up excuses for his behavior.

For instance, when he made sexual advances toward Randy, Randy would respond by saying that according to Scripture, homosexuality is a sin. Davis would become angry and say no, it’s not a sin if there is no love involved.

Davis’ son-in-law calls this aspect of Davis his “dark side.”

“I’ve come to understand that I can’t give a blanket endorsement that what was said (about Davis) was true because I don’t know specifically what it was. I’ve come to believe that that did exist,” he says. “For years, I said absolutely not, that it was just mean-spirited accusations. And I guess that’s a family’s rule, isn’t it, to have that kind of love? And defend the people they respect and love?”

After one of Davis’ advances, Randy remembers praying, saying, “God, I’m scared to leave, but I cannot stay. I’m on a fence. Please push me all in or out.”

Shortly afterward, he says his prayer was answered and God pushed him out of the group via his deprogramming and exit counseling.

RANDY JOINS CFCMI

Randy first attended a Bible study at a CFCMI church on Nov. 2, 1985, in Norfolk, Va., where he was stationed in the Navy. At the time, he says he was trapped in years of sin and knew he’d go to hell if he died.

At the church, Randy was overwhelmed with the “power and presence of the Holy Spirit like never before.” He says at that moment, he was born again. The next week, he was baptized as a believer.

Paine says CFCMI in the 1980s was largely an outreach to people who were troubled, many of them escaping alcoholism or drug problems.

He adds that the strictness of the church worked to keep people off drugs, alcohol and other addictions.

The stable environment of a group can be helpful for people trying to recover from addiction, but counselor Burks says they often trade one addiction for another.

“The problem is that the person is trading slavery to a chemical to slavery to an ideology and to another person’s will,” he says. “Recovery is very, very openhanded. Indoctrination is a gradually tightening noose around your ability to think clearly.”

CFCMI members told Randy that since God rescued him in their church, he must stay with them.

They claimed they were the only church that had the “right” understanding of the gospel and salvation, and that CFCMI was where God wanted him. Randy was told that if he left, he would lose his salvation, be condemned to hell and God might kill him.

He didn’t want to die, so he stayed with CFCMI until his intervention in 1988.

During his time with the cult, he was denied food, sleep and a personal life. Most of the money he earned from his full-time job at the sanitation plant was handed over to the church.

Davis also discouraged Randy from contacting his friends and family, but his family never stopped communicating with him.

The Paulsons reached out to the Minnesota attorney general and the Cult Awareness Network before setting up Randy’s rescue. Both entities warned the Paulsons that CFCMI was a dangerous cult.

RANDY TODAY; CFCMI RESPONDS

Geneva urges people not to be ashamed that they became involved in a cult.

“I think that people need to realize how insidious these things are and how they can creep up on anybody,” she says.

Burks agrees, saying the target, or potential group member, is often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He adds that research indicates individuals with higher intelligence levels are more susceptible to cults, as are those going through a transition, like Randy, who had recently joined the military.

Today, he has a career and family and says his faith is stronger because of his experience with CFCMI.

“I have the peace of Christ Jesus in my heart without the bondage of sin or the cult,” he says.

Paine says the church’s ministry has evolved since Randy’s involvement in the ’80s.

“I think we now have a healthier balance of knowing how to have complete devotion to Christ and still a healthy balance with family and activities outside of the church,” he says.

Although Paine hasn’t read Geneva’s book, nor does he recall meeting Randy, he has a message for the family:

“I wish that whatever pain was involved in their past, that they will have blessing and peace in the future, and I mean that sincerely. I hope that more than my words, you’ve heard my heart.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525.