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Part 1 of 5, Officials at The Way reject "cult" label

The Wapakoneta Daily News
By: David Coehrs

(Editor's note: The Wapakoneta Daily News today begins a five part series on cults, alleged and otherwise. In today's opening installments, officials from The Way International respond to a recent Newsweek magazine article which -- erroneously, Way leaders say -- labeled the New Knoxville-based group as a cult. Also, a professor at the local campus of Wright State University offers his views on the history of cults.)

A recent article in Newsweek magazine was like a case of deja vu for Donald Wierwille. His first reaction was "Oh no. Not again."

The magazine's second-hand report of alleged food deprivation, sexual abuse and paramilitary activity within The Way International harkened back in the dark days following the 1978 mass suicide oat Jonestown.

At that time, fear and suspicion induced by the Guyana tragedy also led to inquiries about The Way, a religious organization headquartered in New Knoxville since 1961.

More recently, in the wake of 39 suicides within the Heaven's Gate sect in Ranchero Santa Fe, Calif., Wierwille - vice president emeritus of The Way International and son of the late Victor Paul Wierwille, the organization's founder - is again fielding questions.

Frankly, he doesn't understand why rumors persist surrounding the ministry's work to promulgate biblical teaching.

"I don't know why and individuals who have been around us for a long time who say we are anything to fear," Wierwille said.

Brad Thorp, The Way personnel director, was more direct.

"We would never want to be associated with anything along those lines," Thorp said in reference to the Heaven's Gate suicides. "Our whole focus is biblical teaching. There is nothing about our ministry that is even remotely similar" to the Heaven's Gate sect.

Thorp said he was as surprised as anyone when the April 7 issue of Newsweek included The Way in a list of religious organizations under the umbrella assertion, "Living on the Religious Fringe."

He added, however, that the assertion is not new. "Critics have tried to group us in with cult organizations," Thorp said.

Thorp termed Newsweek's allegations "absolute irresponsible journalism" which date back to articles published following the Jonestown suicides. He said the magazine apparently culled the allegations from reports from that era, noting that no representative from Newsweek contacted The Way to corroborate the information following the Heaven's Gate suicides.

Wierwille said the charges are groundless, and not a hint of documentation concerning them exists. He said to his knowledge the only local investigation ever to involve The Way was an unrelated visit by the county sheriff's office during a search for a fugitive in the 1970's.

Wierwille said no overt allegations or controversies have followed The Way in the decades between the debacle at Jonestown and the Heaven's Gate deaths.


Wierwille also said relations with village leaders and residents of New Knoxville are congenial. "They (residents) don't have any animosity." he said. "It's a live-and-let-live attitude."

Thorp said the fact that Newsweek's allegations of abuse and paramilitary activity originate from ex-members makes the credibility of the statements questionable at best.

"Remarkable things can be said when people are disgruntled or have an ax to grind about something." he said.

"They must have been unhappy about something." Wierwille agreed. "You can't really answer the wind."

Wierwille also disputed Newsweek's suggestion that The Way is cult-like.

"I think we all have a life thet is independent of the larger group." he said. "It's important to feel like a family, (but) to say that we're robots incapable of thinking independently -- that's ludicrous."

Thorp admitted some ex-followers have publicly disputed The Way's teachings, but said occasional fluctuations in interest among followers are due to a progression natural within any religious organization. The Way practices an open-door policy for those who don't share the best interests of the organization, Thorp said.

"People came and people go, like every other church in America." Thorp said. "We do our best to provide a reasonable and honest service. We've had people that, when they left, we were glad to see them go because they were belligerent."

He also attributed the closing of The Way Bible College in Emporia, Kansas, several years ago to fluctuations in interest. A college in Rome City Indiana, and a Christian camp in Gunnison, Colo., are still in operation.

The Way has approximately 400 followers in New Knoxville, many acting as employees and volunteers. Way spokespersons offered no official estimate for the number of followers nationwide and worldwide.

Thorp said the discontinuation of the annual Rock of Ages Festival after 1985 was a matter of exhaustion rather than declining attendance.

"We felt we should focus our efforts into other areas," he said of the labor intensive revival. "We would spend an entire year planning it. It was time to do something fresh, something new."

Wierwille added, "We felt we could spend the resources in another fashion."

Neither believes the negative attention drawn from the Heaven's Gate incident will permanently impact The Way.

"We regret that people will be led into thinking these things temporarily." Thorp said. "I think smaller (religious organizations) have always had to pay their dues with misunderstanding."

Craig Martindale, president of The Way, was unavailable for comment.

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