This is the second installment of a two-part series on the Church at Princeton. The first appeared last week.
By Christina Cho ’24
Last week, I covered the life of Najib Nicholas Khuri ’82, founder of The Church at Princeton (TCAP). This week, I’m introducing you to his followers and taking a look at how their affiliation with TCAP affected their experiences.
Who Were the Members of The Church at Princeton?
A series of events culminated in Kimberly Ann York ’84, Stephen Blair ’84, Terry Rodriguez ’84, and Denard Edwards ’84 becoming incarcerated. It seems that they, like Najib Nicholas Khuri ’82, stayed both on and around Princeton’s campus after dropping out of school in spring 1982, sometimes residing in student dorms. In December 1982, the university declared each Blair and Rodriguez persona non grata for “active disruption of the university’s functions,” which meant that Blair and Rodriguez were now subject to arrest if found on university premises. Two other students—presumably York and Edwards—were warned that they, too, would each become persona non grata if they continued sleeping in the dorms.
What exactly was the “active disruption” that Blair and Rodriguez caused? While I couldn’t find answers regarding Rodriguez, two articles—one from The Daily Princetonian and another from The Miami Herald—report that Blair sent an offensive, critical letter to Black students and Black student organizations on campus. According to The Miami Herald, Blair “called them ‘sluts and sinners’” and said “that they were ‘inferior beings in the eyes of the Lord.’” In response, a student group called the Black Thoughts Table met to discuss Blair’s letter and ways of prompting an administrative response against TCAP.
Based on the articles I found, it’s difficult to piece together what happened after this event in December 1982. However, an article from February 1983 shows that Edwards was arrested for trespassing while sleeping inside the Princeton Inn Dorm, which is now known as Forbes College. Likewise, an article from April 1983 shows that York was arrested for trespassing in Wilcox Hall. Meanwhile, her then-husband Blair was arrested separately while watching TV in the Dodge-Osborn lounge. Khuri, who was watching TV with Blair, was not arrested.
In April 1983, York also published a piece titled “Faith and The Church” in The Daily Princetonian to apparently “explain her faith.” In the letter, York refers to Jesus as her “Lover” and employs Evangelical language:
We both know what I was, wretched, despised, evil, hurt, rejected, sloppy, lying, confused, immoral, misunderstood and in total bondage to my own lusts and ambitions. Who could want me after so many men had used me? Only you could see a girl desperately searching after you, a fool; empty, prideful and purposeless, roaming the world like a lost puppy hoping someone would take her in […] To look upon your face with my defiled eyes, I saw what I’d been searching for all my life. You are so beautiful . . . This love, our love, is my life. It is my reason and my reason not. You are the answer to all the questions. How great is my Lover? My Lover is so cold, so bad as to change this whore into his bride . Tender enough to fill the multitudes of my hurts. Great enough to alleviate all my fears, worries and burdens. (cf. Song of Solomon 5)
In May 1983, York, Blair, Rodriguez, and Edwards were arrested at the Lutheran Church of the Messiah on Nassau Street and charged multiple times for not only trespassing but also “harassment” and “interfering with the process of justice.” According to The Daily Princetonian, the church had allowed the four to stay on its premises for “several weeks” before asking them to leave. Ultimately, each of the four ended up in the Mercer County Workhouse or Mercer County Jail.
There’s still a lot of information that we don’t have on the TCAP members who dropped out with Khuri. Articles on these eight members tend to only emphasize that they were Black. However, because Rodriguez passed away in 2012, I was able to access her academic file (policy for access to University Archives collections). The documents I read suggest that Rodriguez entered Princeton as a highly successful and motivated student. A report from Newfield High School shows that Rodriguez ranked sixth out of 566 students in her graduating class. Her guidance counselor wrote in a letter of recommendation that she was “one of the very top candidates I have encountered in my career.”
When she applied to Princeton in 1980, Rodriguez was living in Centereach, New York with her father (a retired police officer), her mother (a salesperson at Macy’s), and her younger brother. Her application indicates that she was of Puerto Rican descent and interested in “pre-med.” Indeed, Rodriguez wrote her personal statement on wanting to become a doctor:
The reason I am applying to Princeton is so that I may become a medical doctor. I enjoy working with people and being able to treat them with dignity and respect. After I become a doctor and have completed my residency, I would like to work in a hospital in Paris, France. I think the French culture is a very interesting one…
Rodriguez’s high school activities have little to do with French culture, but they nevertheless allow us to imagine the kind of student she was. Her application lists an overwhelming number of extracurricular activities: “JV Track, National Honor Society, Speech & Debate, School Musical, Chorus,” and so on. It also shows that Rodriguez was a member of Youth for Christ, an international Christian movement centered on evangelism. Rodriguez, then, probably entered Princeton as someone already familiar with (and perhaps even seeking) a religious life.
The Church at Princeton seems to have been very close knit. Rodriguez later married Khuri, while York and Blair also married each other. Though others may not have found spouses in the group, it was reportedly a source of strong social support. An article from The Daily Princetonian describes another TCAP member, Charles Vandross ’86, who was one of TCAP’s core eight members but never arrested. The article introduces him in the following way:
When Charles Vandross came to Princeton in 1981, he was a confident straight-A student, the first child in a lower middle class family to make the Ivy League, and a celebrity in his Marion, S.C. hometown […] Charles Vandross graduated at the top of his high school class, and made the front page of the Marion Star the day he was accepted at an Ivy League School. “Marion boy makes Princeton” read the headline above his smiling picture.
As this passage shows, Vandross—like Rodriguez—excelled in high school and presumably entered Princeton with high hopes. However, Vandross (an engineering student) soon encountered difficulties during his first semester at the university:
“He was blown out from the start,” said former roommate Peter Bass ’85. “Academics took him by surprise, I think. He worked hard, very hard, usually living on a couple of hours sleep a night. The combination of academics and the culture shock Princeton can be to a lot of people was a real burden to Charles.”
Despite his best efforts, Vandross failed most of his midterms and finals. He then met Khuri at the start of his second semester—a time when, according to the article, “he was looking for support.” In the article, friends report that Vandross began spending a lot of time with Khuri, “disappearing and staying out most of the night.” Vandross’ family, too, noticed changes in his behavior when they visited Vandross during his second semester:
What they [his family] found, a friend recalls, was someone who said, “I won’t sit down unless God tells me to. I won’t eat unless God tells me to. I won’t study unless God tells me to.”
After Vandross dropped out of Princeton, he was at one point in Washington D.C. with an older sister who hoped to “de-program him.” What happened next is unclear, but Vandross never returned to Princeton to resume his studies.
Overall, the information I found on individual TCAP members is highly limited. At the same time, existing sources suggest that the core eight shared significant similarities. They were students of color, presumably coming from public schools and low- to middle-income families. In a sense, they were almost opposites of Khuri, who came from an affluent background.
There was, of course, widespread commentary on TCAP after the core eight dropped out of Princeton. Contrary to my expectations, however, many of these commentaries seem unconcerned with the reasons why students joined TCAP to begin with. As I’ll discuss in the next section, both students and alumni used the topic of TCAP as a way of entering larger discourses, particularly those on diversity and “cults.”
TCAP, Diversity, and “Cults”
After Khuri and the core eight dropped out, Commencement took place on June 8, 1982. There, Princeton’s 17th president, William G. Bowen, delivered an address that I found surprisingly forthright:
I am concerned about our commitment, as a people, to the idea of opportunity—to the proposition that education of the highest quality ought to be available on the basis of individual qualifications, not simply financial means […] There are signs that we risk reverting to a situation in which educational opportunity is more a function of family circumstances than of qualifications. On one of my visits to Washington, I was taken aback when a Congressman told me in almost casual tones that he didn’t see that it would matter much if Princeton again became a school attended largely by those of means; others, he suggested, could go elsewhere.
It seems that through this speech, Bowen hoped to double down on his public commitment to Princeton’s diversification. He even stated: “The present-day diversity of the student body at Princeton is not something separate from the University’s commitment to educational excellence; it is required by it.”
While Bowen’s emphasis on opportunity and diversity is inspiring, I find it ironic that a few weeks before Commencement, eight students of color—some of whom could’ve been in attendance—had left Princeton. In September, Dorene Cornwell ’85 similarly pointed to this tension in a letter to The Daily Princetonian, questioning whether Princeton truly cared for students of marginalized identities:
Why, for example, do most of the cult’s participants come from places that are both physically and psychologically very far from the male upper class WASP traditions that still define so much of the Princeton environment? Why is it the people who have the least stake, the fewest roots, and the least identity within Princeton’s academic traditions are the most seriously battered by the enormous “opportunities’” Princeton often represents?
I cannot question the validity of anyone’s religious experience, but in the case of “The Church at Princeton” it seems very likely that a number of people felt profoundly alienated from life at Princeton even before they found other kindred spirits in the “Church.” If this is the case, I hope the members of this group will grow from their experiences and find their own voices in whatever communities they choose. Equally important, I hope people will become more sensitive toward and affirming of the diverse and powerful significance of other people’s experiences.
Cornwell’s letter is the only commentary I found that explicitly names Princeton’s social environment (i.e., “male upper class WASP traditions”) as an explanation for why students joined TCAP. Her letter also expresses a great amount of empathy, and it encourages others to consider the circumstances of the students who dropped out.
Another alum, Walter E. Whitton ’33, was less sympathetic towards TCAP, when writing his letter to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, which laments and criticizes Princeton’s plans of diversification:
Apparently the leader of this group [TCAP] and several other members decided to drop out of Princeton because they are convinced that the university encourages people to sin. Are these students an example of the outstanding individuals that President Bowen referred to in his address or has our admissions system slipped a little in straining for diversity? I am sure some qualified children of alumni who were passed over for admission would have been willing, as were their fathers, to put up with the alleged sinfulness at Princeton in return for an opportunity to matriculate there.
When first reading this passage, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Whitton had a son or daughter who was rejected by Princeton. (The last few statements regarding legacy applicants sound quite personal to me.) The letter is what we might call anti-affirmative action, as it specifically frames “children of alumni” as victims of diversification, while also bringing into question the qualifications of minority students. In contrast to Cornwell, who indirectly challenged Bowen’s notion of diversity to advocate for its improvement, Whitton questioned whether Princeton needed to value diversity at all.
While Cornwell and Whitton discussed diversity in their letters, others—particularly Protestant Evangelical students—were concerned with defining what a “cult” truly is. In October 1982, Matt Evans ’83, a member of the Alpha-Omega Christian Fellowship, wrote an opinion piece for The Daily Princetonian titled “What a religious cult really is… and isn’t.” Evans was clearly eager to distance himself from Khuri, since Alpha-Omega and TCAP were both Protestant Evangelical groups:
I want to clear up one very serious misconception. The Alpha-Omega Christian Fellowship has not been and is not now associated with Najib Khuri or the people in his group. The statements in the September 24 “Prince” that Najib gave a speech “under the auspices of Alpha-Omega” and that he later “split from Alpha-Omega” after a “bitter fight” are completely untrue.
Additionally, Evans argued against the claim that Alpha-Omega strayed from “mainline” or “mainstream” Christianity, which another student, Nick Simeonidis ’83, had made in an earlier piece for The Daily Princetonian. Simeonidis, who was the Liturgy Chairman for the Aquinas Institute (Princeton’s Catholic Campus Ministry), wrote that several “pseudo-Christian cults” existed on Princeton’s campus.
Another student named Clay D. Porr ’82, who was a member of the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship (PEF), wrote a letter to Prospect complaining that “the press” had unfairly lumped together all “Biblically based campus organizations.” Like Evans, Porr distinguished his group based on theological differences, but he also introduced “academics” as yet another fundamental difference between PEF and TCAP. Porr’s letter notes that among the PEF seniors who graduated in 1982, “two of them were accorded highest honors, one high honors, and six others graduated with honors.” I initially found Porr’s use of “academics” as a surprisingly secular method of distinguishing PEF from TCAP, but I soon realized that from Porr’s perspective, academic excellence was an expression of one’s religious/spiritual devotion:
Although academics is not the most important thing in a Christian’s life, the students in the PEF strive to excel academically since they believe that God wants them to do everything for His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31)
Conversations about “cults” were not exclusive to Princeton’s campus. During the 1980s, people across the country were discussing new religious movements such as the Unification Church and the Peoples Temple. A senior thesis I found during my research—“The Appeal of Cults” by Matthew Jonathan Mendell ’84—reflects the public’s general interest in understanding what makes a “cult” and why individuals join new religious movements. While Mendell’s thesis doesn’t mention TCAP, it’s likely that he knew about the group and perhaps was even inspired by it, since his thesis specifically explores how a “‘normal’ youth” transforms into “a devout adherent of one of these new religions.”
Overall, commentaries reveal how individuals perceived and discussed TCAP according to their particular contexts, interests, and agendas. Thus, material on TCAP allows us to explore a variety of themes and issues—such as the challenges of diversification and the normative functions of the word “cult”—that are relevant to both Princeton and the wider public.
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Mendel, Matthew Jonathan. “The Appeal of Cults.” Senior Thesis, Princeton University, 1984.
Undergraduate Academic Files (AC198)
Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)