Washington -- In the mountains of Haiti, food can be hard to find. Starving children sometimes even eat dirt in an attempt to survive, aid workers say.
Yet thousands of orphans and hungry adults in this destitute country, one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, are kept alive with meals of rice, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables provided by the Pennsylvania-based Church of Bible Understanding.
The meals are financed in part by U.S. taxpayers, a byproduct of the push by President Bush to expand social service grant funding to religious groups providing foreign aid.
Members of the Scranton, Pa., group say the work is vital to the people of Haiti and the church's mission to serve God. But critics say the government made a grave error providing financial support to the church, which for three decades has fought its reputation as an emotionally destructive cult.
"God led us there. It's true religion to help orphans," said Deborah Stempien, a church member who helped the group secure $150,000 in grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development since 2003.
Rick Ross, who heads the Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults in New Jersey, said the taxpayer support of what he called a "pretty horrible group" is extremely problematic.
"It's the antithesis of what (the government) wants to be doing," he said. "On a scale of one to 10 - 10 being Jim Jones - I would put COBU (the church's initials) at a 7 1/2 or 8."
Current members vehemently deny that their church is a cult. Stempien called the charge "garbage" and "old hat."
"We are Christians by the book. We are a faith-based, tax-exempt organization," she said. "They said the same thing about Mormons. They said the same thing about Jesus...those accusations won't stop us from doing Jesus' work," she said.
The church was formed in the 1970s by Stewart Traill, a charismatic leader whose interpretation of the Bible forms the church's core beliefs.
Ross said the issue "is not what they believe; it's about how they behave."
Counselors, former members, and those who have studied the church said leaders berate newcomers and make it difficult emotionally for them to leave.
Former members say the group's ranks have thinned since the 1970s and 1980s, though it's unclear how large its membership is today. Clinical counselor Ron Burks, who specializes in treating ex-cult members, said the group remains an unhealthy force in the lives of its members.
"He (Traill) has one of most effective means of shutting down critical thinking I've ever seen," said Burks, who has treated about a dozen former members of the Church of Bible Understanding. "Of the hundreds of people I've treated, COBU is definitely in the top five in terms of harm and psychological damage."
Members work in group-run businesses -- including, over the years, cleaning services and antique shops. Their wages help fund church programs.
The church also works hard at recruiting. A 1999 story by Philadelphia magazine found that the church highlighted the work in Haiti in recruiting pitches to teenagers.
The church has operated orphanages in Haiti since the late 1970s.
In interviews, even highly critical former members were overwhelmingly positive about the Haiti mission work. Their efforts there are aimed purely at helping locals, not recruting them to join the church, former members said.
Maureen Griffo, who was in the church for a decade before fleeing in the late 1980s, said that working in Haiti was one of her only positive memories of her time there.
"There were people who got helped, there were starving people who got food, and kids who were near death who got medical care," She said.
Despite the positive impact it had, she said she believed church leaders authorized work in Haiti because "people would see (the church) as a legitimate group because they were doing mission work."
The Church of Bible Understanding received its first USAID grant in 2003, the year after the White House set up a special outreach office at the agency to help faith-based groups get access to foreign aid funding. The agency is the government's primary foreign aid arm, working in about 100 countries.
USAID frequently turns to private groups - some small, some large, many faith-based - to carry out its work across the globe. Last year the government gave $706 million in grants to faith-based groups working overseas, $27 million more than in 2004, according to limited White House records.
Stempien said in an interview that she was reluctant at first to solicit government funds but reconsidered when she realized how much good it could do.
Under a "Food for Peace" grant, her group now receives food -- roughly 75 metric tons per year of dehydrated meals - and money to distribute it: $37,000 in 2003, $41,000 in 2004, $22,000 in 2005 and $50,000 this year.
USAID officials could not be reached for comment this week
The funds represent a small percentage of the church's total spending in Haiti. Between 2002 and 2004, the group spent an average of $500,000 each year on mission work in the country, according to tax records.
The group runs several orphanages, and takes in children that "were orphaned, very ill, or even near death...Now they are part of a real family with meaning and purpose," according to its Web site, cbuhaiti.org. It also travels through poorer parts of the country, feeding hungry adults.
"Together with the older children from our orphanage and the Haitian men and women with us, we help the people sit down, learn a Bible scripture for the day and sing and pray together. After this comes the job of distributing the food orderly and urgently so that everyone gets their portion for the day," according to the Web site.
Stempien said her group's sense of mission makes it better suited than secular groups to carry out this work. "God really does lead us. That's our advantage," she said.