Church or Cult? Two Sides Fight a Holy War of Words

Times Staff Writer

Benjamin Altschul lives on an upper floor of a Coronado condominium, drives a Mercedes-Benz, wears designer clothes and says he wants to save the world in advance of the second coming of Christ.

Earle and Dorothy Brown live in Santa Cruz and subscribe to a decidely more modest life style. He is an electrical engineer. And they want to save their daughter from Benjamin Altschul.

Altschul is the patriarch of La Jolla-based Great Among the Nations, described by its 17 followers--the Browns’ daughter among them--as a tightknit, fundamental Christian Bible study group embarking on a television ministry to preach the word of God.


Ex-Members’ Complaints

But former members, and relatives of current Altschul followers, say in lawsuits and interviews that the group is a 4-year-old cult whose members have been unwittingly manipulated by the 46-year-old Altschul to turn against their families and hold jobs to finance his lavish life style at the expense of their own independence.

Group members say their religious brotherhood is more important than their blood relatives; that, not unlike the first disciples of Christ, they are pooling financial resources for the good of the ministry, and that it is right that Altschul lead a comfortable life financed through their so-called love offerings, made in gratitude to their leader for the love he has bestowed on them.

Detractors say the former salesman is still the salesman, but that, whereas he used to solicit textbook publishing orders from college professors, he now solicits the support of idealistic and vulnerable evangelists-in-waiting who believe their mission is to preach the word of God under Altschul’s ever-present wing.

Altschul’s critics say he rules over his followers with intimidation and fear, and instills within them the notion that, if they disobey him, they will be damned to burn forever in hell.

Altschul counters that it is a cult deprogrammer who has unnecessarily instilled fear in the parents of group members and led to nine abductions.

It is against this backdrop of charges and countercharges that Earle and Dorothy Brown will be prosecuted next month on charges of kidnaping their daughter.

The facts of the case may not even be an issue. Cliff Daniels, a self-proclaimed Los Angeles-based deprogrammer who says he has “rescued” about 200 people from cults and who was retained by the Browns, faces the same charges. He openly says he attempted to snatch the young woman from the group last May because it was a lesser evil than allowing her to remain under Altschul’s influence.

Prosecutor Gary Rempel says cult members or no, the members of Great Among the Nations “are still entitled to their First Amendment rights.”

So, although no criminal charges face Benjamin Altschul and his followers, the group is likely to capture the spotlight when the Browns’ preliminary hearing begins in Vista Municipal Court on April 11.

Ken Fabian is a former member of the group who has since divorced his wife, Nancy, a staunch follower of Great Among the Nations.

(The name of the group is taken from the Book of Malachi, the writings of a Hebrew prophet through whom God spoke:

“For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting,

my name is great among the nations; and everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name, and a pure offering; for great is my name among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.”)

In court papers arguing that he should be awarded custody of the couple’s two children, Fabian wrote:

“The cement that binds this pseudo family together is a curious mixture of communism and Christianity.”

Altschul’s “instruction and training is a form of indoctrination very similar to that used by the Chinese communists to get obedience and conformity. This indoctrination leads members to believe that the end of the world is coming and that they are saints who are going to be taken away prior to the holocaust. These saints are instructed that they are the chosen ones . . . by their submission to the will of God as spoken to them through the apostle Benjamin.”

Left Group After 18 Months

Varo Asorian was a 19-year-old freshman at San Diego State University when he joined Altschul’s Bible study group in August, 1985. He left the group 18 months later, taken back by his parents.

“The year and a half I was in the group, now that I look back, is a period of my life in which I was a virtual slave, living in strict obedience to the dictates of Benjamin Altschul . . . " Asorian wrote in court papers seeking a restraining order against group members, whom he said were harassing him with phone calls after his departure.

In his declaration, which is on file in San Diego Superior Court, Asorian described Altschul’s doctrine:

“If you do not love him (Altschul), and if you do not give him all your possessions and all your money, being obedient to his every wish, then you are not obeying God, not obeying Jesus, and therefore you do not love God or Jesus. If you do not love Jesus, you will go to hell.

“Mr. Altschul taught us that everyone outside the group is evil, therefore he told us not to have association with anyone outside the group. All literature outside the group is forbidden for us to read, and all pastors, other than himself, are not serving God.

“In short, all people, events and writings outside the group are taboo to its members.”

Asorian wrote that members of the group eventually came to live together in adjoining apartments. Each “house” had a chairperson who submitted weekly reports to Altschul. Permission was needed for virtually every activity, including shopping.

“Whatever we did buy, we had to buy it for the ministry. Everything we had, all our worldly possessions, and whatever money we made had to go to the ministry. It all belonged to Ben,” Asorian wrote.

Asorian said one woman borrowed $15,000 from her tax shelter annuity, and another closed her $20,000 business and turned the assets over to Altschul.

Benjamin Altschul was born July 31, 1942, in Copenhagen, Denmark, the third of five children. Until he was 14, he spent most of his life in a children’s home away from his parents.

In a long and rambling interview, Altschul said that, although he was born of a Jewish family, he was raised in a non-religious environment. At 18, while living in Sweden, he met a Christian minister who introduced him to the New Testament, “and I began studying the Bible hours every day,” he said.

At the same time, Altschul moved out on his own, did day labor and eventually started selling appliances door-to-door.

“I became a very good salesperson,” he said.

Altschul got into the publishing business by selling Swedish translations of English textbooks. When he was 28, he decided to expand his fledgling business to the United States.

“There were 300,000 students in Sweden,” he said, “and 15 million in America.”

Met Wife in Israel

In 1970, he started his business in Columbus, Ohio--College Research Institute Inc.--by contacting college professors and offering to publish their manuscripts as course textbooks at prices generally better than most mainstream American publishing houses. Business was good; Altschul bought an airplane.

In 1973, he flew to Israel for business. While there, he met his first wife, Ora. They married a month later.

“I married her with the intent of learning more about my Jewish heritage and more about the Bible,” he said. “I thought it was proper for a Jewish man to marry a Jewish woman. I think I did fall in love, but, looking at it now, it wasn’t the type of love that can last a long time.”

Ora Altschul remembers their whirlwind courtship:

“He put me under tremendous pressure,” she said. “He is a good salesman. I have no doubt he can sell anything. He has power that is tremendous in influencing people.”

The couple returned to Columbus, and business continued to improve.

Liked the Climate

Altschul said he decided to move to San Diego in 1980 with his wife and their three young children because he favored the climate. At the same time, he tried to establish a computer-based marketing program in order to expand the business. In his absence, he said, the company in Columbus began to falter.

During that period, Altschul said, his marriage began to sour, and the couple separated in 1981. Altschul, who by this time had received his resident alien card, visited Tijuana and met the woman who would become his second wife, Graciella Guzman.

Benjamin and Ora divorced in 1983; court papers show that, as of last month, he was $7,258 in arrears in support payments. On Christmas Day, 1983, Altschul married Guzman and, to save money, moved to Tijuana to live with her parents.

In 1985, the book publishing business went bankrupt. According to court papers, Altschul owed more than $200,000 to 53 creditors.

He said that, while his business was faltering, he felt an urge to pursue Christian ministry work. “I was a vibrant, warm Christian, with a burning eagerness to learn more about God’s work and be established in it,” he said.

He attended a James Robison evangelism rally in Texas in 1984, where he met Leroy and Melva Davenport, who lived in McAlester, Okla., where Leroy Davenport was the pastor of a small, local church.

Ordained a Minister

The Davenports and Altschul hit it off well. During the next year, Altschul visited McAlester seven times, preaching at Davenport’s church. Although Altschul had no formal theological training, Davenport eventually ordained him a minister of his Bethany Temple Evangelistic Church--the name Altschul used to incorporate Great Among the Nations in California.

(Two years later, in 1987, the Davenports--as well as Melva’s two sisters--moved to San Diego to join Altschul’s group.)

In the spring of 1985, Altschul, his business bankrupt, attended a meeting at the popular Christian Faith Centre, then in La Jolla. It was a memorable evening, he said. He prayed over the ailing leg of the speaker--an evangelist from Canada--and found himself the center of attention.

Altschul was invited back to attend a Bible study group and evolved as its leader. The number of participants grew quickly, apparently attracted by his brand of fundamental preaching.

After a few months, several members of Christian Faith Centre returned to their own church’s Bible study, and 40 to 50 chose to follow Altschul. Most of the followers eventually moved to rented homes in the Tierrasanta area.

The group was particularly popular among college-age students in search of religion outside mainstream Christian denominations.

One-time member Susan Dieffenbach, then a student at San Diego State, joined the group in early 1986.

“It was a time in my life when things were going downhill academically. I had roommate problems. I was disappointed in what I was seeing in the churches, and I was searching for answers. The setting was right, and other people whom I respected had joined.”

Another former member is Lisa Hirst, who joined in late 1985 and was taken out by her parents in July, 1987.

“Benjamin would stand in front of the group and say these things that he said Jesus told him. I believed so strongly in Jesus, I wasn’t about to question that perhaps Jesus was talking to this man,” Hirst said.

Perry Blackmon, a family and marriage psychologist who lives near San Francisco, recalls how his own son, Jon, dropped out of a private Christian school in the Los Angeles area and began attending Altschul’s Bible studies, which by now were being conducted not only in San Diego but at another follower’s home in Orange County.

“We had been communicating with him regularly. Then, out of the blue, he said he had to break off communications with us. He threw a bunch of Bible verses at us, about how a father will be turned against son, daughter against mother, and how you can’t be a part of this world but your parents are part of this world.”

Blackmon said he wasn’t surprised his son didn’t challenge Altschul, and he blames himself.

“We raised him in a fundamental church, and that you weren’t supposed to question what your minister told you because they have the inside track with God. We didn’t teach them to do critical thinking around a minister.”

Tom Herringshaw, himself a pastor of a small church for 16 years, saw two of his children join the group: Greg, with his wife, Anetta, and Tammy, who was married to Jon Blackmon.

Herringshaw speculated that his children’s familiarity with his church may have soured them against established religion.

Group Began to Change

Members at the time recall that the nature of the group began to change. The more devout followers, encouraged by Altschul, began to challenge others to drop out of school and to make their ministry their full-time avocation.

“It was becoming an elite group, and their vision was to become a worldwide ministry,” Dieffenbach said. “Our whole goal was to pull the sheep--those who were Christian--from other churches, and then the ‘rapture’ would happen.

“The feeling in the group became that you drop everything--your mothers and fathers, because they were no longer your real family,” she said.

Members were encouraged to drop out of school and take one or more jobs to finance the ministry and its goal of buying television recording equipment so that Altschul’s preachings could eventually be sold on cassette, Dieffenbach and others said.

The group purchased a motor home--because it could be used to shuttle television equipment and so Altschul could live in it when he was on the road. (It was later repossessed.)

Former members said they sold their own cars and used the proceeds so the ministry could purchase several vans that were shared among them.

No Room to Breathe

In contrast, current members say that people in financial trouble were given money by others, and that several people were given jewelry and other gifts by the group as signs of appreciation for their devotion.

But some members began having second thoughts.

“I could feel myself feeling really constrained, like I didn’t have room to breathe,” Dieffenbach said. “He wouldn’t let us debate. If we thought he said something that was wrong, he’d say we were all wrong and we hadn’t learned a thing he had taught us. It was like everything we had learned in the past about Christ didn’t mean anything, and he was going to reteach us. It was like he had wiped away everything we had learned previously and was entering new data.”

Dieffenbach’s frustration grew. “I had dreams of rowing, of going backpacking, of doing things I never got to do in the ministry and I knew I would never do again because there was no flexibility in the ministry.”

She left the group in June, 1987.

Hirst said the group swallowed her up emotionally and psychologically. “He convinced us that everything we grew up believing in, about love, was wrong because that was love of the flesh and not love of the spirit. He got us to believe that what we thought was love (from family) was hate.”

Hirst decided not to go home for Christmas, or for her sister’s wedding.

Three months after being taken out of the group by her parents--and after meeting with other former members--Hirst came to her senses, she said.

“But I still haven’t gone back to church,” she said. “I’m afraid now of believing anybody.”

Blackmon recalls how he traveled to San Diego to retrieve his son’s car--and found inside it a list of members and the names and addresses of their parents. He began contacting them one by one, he said, to alert them to the nature of Great Among the Nations. Some parents moved quickly to get their children out.

Deprogrammer Daniels says he helped “rescue” eight members from the group. Ginger Brown would have been the ninth, but Daniels said she resisted so strongly that her parents and he decided to let her return after being held by them for four days at a “safe house” on Escondido’s rural north side.

When Brown returned to the group, she showed reporters scrapes and bruises that she said were inflicted by her parents and Daniels. Daniels said Brown put up such a fight that she injured herself.

Some parents say they have now all but given up on trying to get their children out of the group.

“I feel like I’ve lost a daughter,” said Mary Zambaldi, whose 33-year-old daughter, Shirley, remains in the group.

Marie Kennedy’s 43-year-old daughter, Marvette Saucer, also is a member. “She told me: ‘Mother, your Marvette is dead. I’m a new Marvette, and you’re no longer my family. I have a new family.’ And what she said is true. My daughter is dead,” Kennedy said.

Altschul’s group--stung by the abductions and a spate of unfavorable publicity on local television--moved in 1987 from Tierrasanta to adjoining apartments in Carlsbad. Last week the members moved again to apartments in La Jolla so they can be closer, they say, to downtown San Diego, where they hope to present a series of “conventions,” or teaching sessions, in a rented room at the Civic Center.

Last year, 23 such meetings were held on Sunday afternoons. The meetings were open to the public, but virtually the only ones present were group members themselves. Ginger Brown said the sessions were intended as “rehearsals” for the television and videocassette ministry, which they hope to begin this year in earnest.

For his part, Altschul says he resents the accusations that he is a cult leader. The three Coronado condominiums leased to the ministry, he said, are necessary because of the security the complex provides the group, the state-of-the-art television equipment and its archives of videocassettes of Altschul’s preachings.

The Mercedes, he said, was purchased by the ministry because “it will hold up for many, many miles.”

“I am not a struggling minister,” Altschul said. “I feel God has blessed me by these people who feel this is the way I should live.”

If family relationships have crumbled, it is because there was no strong relationship to begin with, he said.

Drawn to Each Other

“I believe God has sent these sheep to me, and God drove me to them. We are drawn to each other. Teaching is my greatest gift, understanding of prophetic Scripture and the laying out of biblical text.”

It is possible, Altschul said, that some followers misunderstood his teachings and are now misrepresenting him and his teachings to the public.

“Definitely, we could look like a cult. But, if you look at the church created by (the disciple) Paul, it looks like a cult, too--how they gathered, how they lived.”

Altschul denies preaching that only his followers will be saved or that those who turn against him will be damned. He said it is not at his suggestion that followers drop out of school, but acknowledges: “I thought it was a very good idea that they quit school and go to the school of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He said members are encouraged to watch one another closely and to travel in groups of two or more--because they could be kidnaped if they go out alone.

He insists that the kidnapings are the result of deprogrammers who inject a sense of anxiety into the parents of group members.

“Parents are driven to hysteria by deprogrammers who want to make money,” Altschul said.

“We believe it will be found out, when this trial is over, who programmed who, and who is the cult,” he said.

Attorneys on the case are reluctant to discuss the kidnaping charges against the Browns, deprogrammer Daniels and Hank Erler, whose home in Escondido was allegedly used for the deprogramming attempt.

“We all kind of agree that any kind of publicity Altschul gets will benefit him, and we don’t want to do anything that might help Brother Benjamin,” one attorney said.

Indeed, Altschul himself sought publicity and cooperated with The Times, even to the point of turning over information to a reporter that was less than favorable to him.