American group offers to help Pathways International members

An American entity that specialises in helping people adversely affected by or interested in cultic and other high-control groups, is offering assistance to Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries congregants who are still reeling from the deadly events at the church on October 17 and the death of their leader Kevin Smith.

According to International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), its Cult Recovery 101 team has “a network of experts, therapists, and other helping professionals who have studied the cult phenomenon and have responded to crises similar to the recent events in Jamaica”.

“We would like to offer our services to those who have been affected by this unfortunate event. We understand the need for a trauma-informed approach and seek to provide a safe space for victims in need of support. There is hope and healing for survivors affected by destructive groups,” the ICSA said in an e-mail sent to the Jamaica Observer late Tuesday night.

Reacting to the macabre series of events which began unfolding two Sundays ago after the police stormed the church where alleged human sacrifices were under way, the ICSA said the experiences highlighted in the media of those who escaped the violence demonstrate that many of the members whose need for belonging was “sinisterly turned against them as a means of control” are living in fear and need support.

Yesterday, Ashlen Hilliard, assistant to ICSA’s director, told the Jamaica Observer that the entity, which has more than 40 years’ experience in the field, was eager, despite the constraints of the novel coronavirus pandemic, to work with the survivors to help create a “safe space” in which they could unpack the trauma of their entire experience.

She said, while the ICSA does not have any partners on the ground in Jamaica at this time, it is not averse to striking up local partnerships with interest groups here to facilitate an interface with the victims.

Hilliard, who noted that it was unlikely that the remaining church members would be open to receiving aid from the religious community at this time, said the ICSA has no religious affiliation.

“We are a non-profit organisation. We are not affiliated with any religious groups; that is not what they would need right now, they wouldn’t be receptive,” she said.

Hilliard said both virtual and in-person interactions are anticipated.

“Whatever their needs are, we would be happy to provide professionals to speak with them about their needs after witnessing such a horrific event,” she told the Observer. The sessions, she said, would be free to the survivors.

In the incident, which shocked the nation, the throats of two members of the religious organisation were slit during what was believed to be a human sacrifice ritual and a third person was killed in a confrontation with the police, who said they were fired upon as they approached the premises.

Another member was shot in the back, stabbed, and an attempt made to cut his throat.

A total of 42 members of the church — 31 women and 11 men — as well as 14 children were taken into custody. The children were placed in State care, while the women and eight of the men were charged with breaches of the Disaster Risk Management Act. Four of the men, including Smith, remained in custody.

However, Smith died in a motor vehicle crash on Monday while he and André Ruddock, who is accused of committing one of the murders, were being transported to Kingston to face murder and wounding with intent charges. Smith was also to be charged with illegal possession of a firearm.

Yesterday, 39 of the congregants appeared in the St James Parish Court and each paid a fine of $30,000.

In the meantime, Hilliard said the Pathways incident, though it had all the classic signs associated with cultic groupings, had variables that were unique.

“Certainly, the way that we view groups and high control systems is that every group is unique, everyone is drawn to these groups for unique reasons, but the themes of psychological abusive environments, how coercion works in these groups, are very similar to what we have seen with other very tragic incidents,” she noted.

The point of departure, she said, was the goriness of the event that brought the church and its practices out into the open.

“I think what makes the Jamaican incident unique  you know we have witnessed cult leaders before, unfortunately we’ve witnessed violence in cultic groups, really tragic incidents in the past, but I think what stood out to me that was just so horrible about this particular incident was the killings that were done in such a ritualised manner,” she said.

“I can only imagine how much that shook the local community and those who witnessed the tragedy. That certainly calls for a higher level of therapeutic work,” Hilliard told the Observer.

“I can only imagine how those people are doing after witnessing and being involved in such an incident,” she said further.

Hilliard, in noting the reports of the difference in the treatment of males versus females by the cult’s leader, said the ICSA has within its ranks gender specialists skilled in dealing with cultic situations.

She also said the ICSA would be working to restore splintered families.

“We realise with the ministry in Jamaica that it sounded like there was a lot of separation of families that was going on, which was unfortunately not a unique situation with these high control environments, and we’ve realised there must be some sort of mediation involved to help them reunite with their families if possible,” Hilliard told the Observer.

Meanwhile, the ICSA executive said cults are more pervasive than might be thought and are not limited to religious spheres.

“In the research literature, most cultic groups that are written about are religious in nature; however, the cultic phenomenon exists in multifaceted ways. It can exist in business settings, in one-on-one relationships, in dysfunctional family units; it can also happen in political settings,” she pointed out.

In recent times the ICSA team has acted in the aftermath of the breakdown of other cultic groups such as the Remnant Fellowship in Tennessee in the United States headed by founder Gwen Shamblin Lara, a former dietitian who turned her weight loss programme into her own religious movement, and her husband Joe Lara.

The two, among other members of their organisation, died in a plane crash in May this year.

The ICSA also kicked into gear when a Texas-based secretive polygamous cult operating under the auspices of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) crumbled. The FLDS is a spin-off of mainstream Mormonism, whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

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