Support group for ex-fundamentalists. National TV exposure of FA brings volumes of letters, controversy

FORMING a support group for ex-fundamentalists might seem an unlikely pursuit for a Wall Street lawyer and Wall Street banker. But that's just what Richard Yao and James (J. D.) Luce did a little over a year ago when they founded a unique, if not controversial, organization called ``Fundamentalists Anonymous'' (FA). And it is attracting a lot more attention than their investment portfolios did.

The very name, Fundamentalists Anonymous, conjures up thoughts of religious deprogramming, confessional meetings, and open renouncing of church ties.

And that's just what some of the religious right claim FA is all about -- a discrediting of faith. Christian right leader Jerry Falwell, among others, even suggests that the group is financed by wealthy left-wing anti-religionists who are futilely trying to buck the fast-growing fundamentalist trend in the United States.

``All lies,'' say Messrs. Yao and Luce, who operate modestly and a bit clandestinely from a basement office of a mainstream church in mid-Manhattan.

``We are not trying to wean people away'' from fundamentalist faiths, insists Yao. ``We do no recruiting. We only work with those who come to us.''

FA operates on a $70,000 annual budget -- which comes mainly from the savings of its two administrators. Yao -- trained in both theology and the law -- was an associate at Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Fenton, a prominent Wall Street law firm, before he left to form FA. Luce's background is in Japanese studies and finance.

What is the aim of Fundamentalists Anonymous, if not to draw people away from certain types of religion?

``First, we are a path -- not a destination,'' says Luce. He explains that many who come away from what he calls ``mind-set'' church groups feel frustrated and guilty. ``We provide a support group for them. We tell them it is one thing to leave fundamentalism physically and intellectually. The hardest thing is to leave it emotionally,'' Luce adds.

Yao draws upon his own experiences as a high school and college student in his native Philippines, where he embraced a fundamentalist philosophy. But later, while attending Yale Divinity School and New York University law school, he began to have doubts and became very confused.

He says many former fundamentalists become alienated not only from their churches, but also from their families and friends. ``Fundamentalism claims to be pro-family. But we get letters of how marriages and families have been broken up by fundamentalism,'' Yao says.

FA's founder draws a distinction between ``Christians [and others] who adhere to the fundamentals of their faith,'' which he approves of, and what he calls an ``authoritarian, black-and-white approach which doesn't know the meaning of compromise.'' ``Jimmy Carter [is] a fundamentalist. But there's no mind-set,'' he explains.

Yao and Luce say their main objective is to help those who have chosen to leave fundamentalism ``readjust'' to society. They hold group discussions and social events which allow their members to share experiences and bolster confidence in themselves.

``More than 50 percent go back to mainstream churches and religions,'' Luce points out.

FA boasts more than 100 support groups across the US -- with an aggregate membership of about 17,000. Most active are those in Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Tampa, and New York.

Since last year's exposure on the nationally syndicated television talk show ``Donahue,'' the group has received thousands of letters of support -- some including cash donations. Articles in the New York Times and national news magazines have also produced mail from across the US.

``They come from people from all walks of life,'' says Yao. ``Tradesmen, ministers, housewives, scholars -- all talking about the effects of the fundamentalist mind-set on their lives.''

Among the mail read by this reporter: ``It never occurred to me that anyone else would have gone through the same experience with the same feelings as I did . . . and that they would feel strongly enough to form a mutual-help group,'' writes John, a middle-aged letter carrier from the Midwest.

``One of the things I've found is that upon leaving a fundamentalist group, former close friends tend to regard you as an outcast; a traitor''. . . . While I still am a Christian, I'm in need of support,'' writes Korva, from Phoenix, Ariz.

Yao admits that letters of a critical nature are also received, some accusing FA of trying to disenchant loyal fundamentalists with their religion.

Members of the group who appear on radio and television report that some of their remarks have triggered negative emotional reaction, even anonymous threats of violence.

FA's headquarter's address is confidential for security reasons. It can be reached, however, by writing Box 20324, Greeley Square Station, New York, NY 10001.

Curtis J. Sitomer writes on legal and religious affairs for the Monitor.

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