Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Recollecting the recruitment efforts of the Heaven’s Gate sect

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Frederica Mathewes-Green is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is the author of “Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy” (HarperCollins), and a frequent contributor to Christianity Today magazine.)

UNDATED _ As coverage of the Heaven’s Gate sect washes gradually out of the mainstream media, reports are cropping up in local news and on the Internet of recollections of recruitment meetings. People are recalling, sometimes with a shudder, the night they were given an opportunity to “go to the next level,” and said “No thanks.”

Why did others say yes, and wind up shrouded in purple in a California mansion? No markers predicted who would join and who would not.

Proselytizers from the group don’t appear to have concerned themselves with reaching only the most promising recruits. Presenting the message was enough, and they did so over and over, in rented classrooms and library basement across the country. Anyone who was meant to join would recognize the truth, thanks to the “knowing chip” imbedded in their brain.

A typical meeting was held in Boise, Idaho, in 1994, as reported by S. Duda, then of the “Boise Weekly.” He writes he noticed a flyer for a group called “Overcomers Anonymous.”

“They took the `anonymous’ portion of their name quite seriously,” he writes, since the flyer contained no contact or event information, just warned of a cover-up involving “UFOs, Space Aliens, and their Final Flight for Earth’s Spoils!”

A second flyer was headed “Last Chance to Advance Beyond Human” and announced a meeting in a lecture hall at Boise State University. “That was it _ the two fliers I noticed were the only two fliers on campus, or in all of Idaho, for that matter.”

Duda attended the meeting, finding an audience of about 25 waiting for the presentation by one woman, “Check,” and five men. As Duda spoke to Check before the meeting, he noted that even simple questions caused her to pause “almost too long” before answering. She was “pleasant, if meekness and a milky smile count toward the notion,” and spoke “calmly, almost in monotone, and seemed slightly bemused, slightly detached.”

That same year members of the group held a similar meeting at a Seattle public library. There they succeeded in gaining a convert: Joel McCormick left his job as a hot-dog vendor to follow them, and his body was among those found in the mansion.

Another meeting was held on the nearby campus of Evergreen State College, and described by three attendees in “The Ever-Greener” newspaper. Geoff Vasiliauskas, Jason Ruben, and Matt Love reported that the meeting was led by three women and one man. Ironically, the man, identified only as Sawyer, did not participate in the suicide, and after the event appeared on “60 Minutes” to describe the group.

During the Evergreen meeting, Sawyer explained the group’s beliefs “in droning monologue,” and said that “Bo” (Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite) was in the room. Vasiliauskas, Ruben, and Love didn’t know whether he meant so literally or “in ectoplasmic form.”

But during a pointed exchange in the question period, “A man who had been sitting next to the door quietly during this whole speech lunged toward the questioner. He grabbed the young man’s shoulder and said, “`I think he is trying to answer that right now if you will give him a chance!”’

When Vasiliauskas asked how the audience could know the presenters weren’t just Luciferians in disguise, “The doorman (Bo?), a kind of spiritual bouncer, started `hmm-hmming,’ his ire rising.”

As with Check in Boise, the Seattle presenters hesitated before their answers. “There was always a pause before the drone when all four would look at each other, presumably for reassurance.” Perhaps they were attempting to consult each other, or Bo, telepathically.

And it may be they attempted telepathic contact with the audience as well. Vasiliauskas recalls that a friend who accompanied him that night exclaimed in alarm that one of the women had fixed him with a piercing stare and “scanned” him.

Vasiliauskas wrote later, “He said they had some sort of power, and I said to myself, they’ve got him in their tractor beams and I’ll never see my friend again except outside Holiday Inns selling flowers.”

The woman then attempted the same with Vasiliauskas. “I looked right at her and noticed that she was trying to do something with her look,” he wrote, “like pierce me or mesmerize me or make me feel something. I thought it was funny and sort of smiled, to which she smiled back. She copied me, so I kept smiling and she finally looked away when she realized, no, I hadn’t bought any hype.”

Vasiliauskas has since made his own escape, returning to his ancestral home of Lithuania. A factor in that decision was “my disgust with American culture and all the wacko cults who do the West Coast circuit looking for recruits. It’s enough to drive one to, well, Lithuania.”

If you’ve got to be driven to someplace, that’s safer than the dust stream of the Hale-Bopp comet.