More than 20 former members of a campus religious group at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson call it a controlling "cult."
Ex-members and families complained that UA authorities should have investigated and taken action against the group years ago.
That group known as Faith Christian Church also operates under various names such as Wildcats for Christ, Native Nations in Christ and the Providence Club.
One mother of a UA student reportedly told university officials that she was deeply concerned about the "'radical' shift in her son’s personality and behavior since he joined the church two years ago." Her son said that he was abandoning his planned career to become group recruiter after graduation. The mother also complained about increasing isolation and family estrangement. Other parents made similar complaints.
Rachael Mulls, 38, who left the group after eight years of active membership said that she was "love bombed" by group members during recruitment. “They shower you with attention and they’re super nice. They became my instant friends...They make it seem really amazing at first, then they hook you in little by little,” she told the Arizona Daily Star. Recruiters for Faith Christian Church specifically target UA dorms and often use "surveys" as an excuse to approach students. Respondents are reportedly told they might win a prize if they cooperate.
UA ultimately decided to investigate the group in response to recent complaints.
Faith Christian Church, which reportedly has about 400 members is led by head pastor Stephen M. Hall, 62 and executive pastor Ian A. Laks, 50. The group has been recruiting on the UA campus for 25 years. The church initially was formed in 1990 from the remnant of a notorious group called Maranatha Ministries, which was also once accused of cult-like practices. Much like Faith Christian Church Maranatha targeted college students. Maranatha in Tuscon officially changed its name to Faith Christian Church in 1990, according to Arizona Corporation Commission records. Hall's history in the group goes back to 1985.
Hall, who did not attend seminary and reportedly likes to preach that he is a reformed criminal who found Jesus, but was once a godless marijuana grower. However, the Arizona Daily Star found that Hall has no drug related arrest record. Instead, the Tucson pastor has a record with the Florida’s Miami-Dade County Police Department from 1976 regarding an outstanding issued during 1975 for extortion in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Arizona Daily Star interviewed 21 former employees and/or members of Faith Christian Church, most of them once attended UA. Former members said that the group influenced them to become isolated from family and friends, particularly if anyone was critical of the group. One mother explained, “They get their members to believe that any questioning, any scrutiny, it’s the devil. I want to get my son out of there. I want to do whatever I can to prevent other families from letting their children get in a situation like this.”
Former member Lawrence Alfred, 38, reportedly experienced his freedom being taken away "incrementally, over the course of years." And whenever leaders perceived resistance they performed a ritual called “casting the demons out.” “You don’t know yourself at the end,” Alfred told a reporter. “You don’t know you’re in a cult until you leave. Pretty soon, you’re at the point where you can’t make any decisions.” The former member called his group experience "traumatic."
Other former members also said that there was no legitimate reason to criticize leaders and/or leave the group and that those that did were labeled negatively and shunned. Reportedly former members have experienced "panic attacks, depression, flashbacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder."
Former Faith Christian Church member Scott Moore called the group "insidious," but like many groups called "cults" Scott said the control "starts off subtle." Moore described church leaders as authoritarian and a source of constant anxiety. The UA graduate left after five years of suffering low self-esteem within the group.
Lawrence Alfred, another former member, recounted that his isolation was so complete that reportedly for three years "he didn't ’t even go home for Christmas." He told a reporter, “I wanted to go back home one time, and they rebuked me...They used one of the lines in Scripture: Jesus said, 'Let the dead bury the dead.'"
The parents of one ex-member told the Arizona Daily Star, “What was alarming to us, among other things, was you couldn't ’t think outside the box of Faith Christian. The chief minister, Steve Hall, had total control of them."
The group reportedly controlled dating and also arranged marriages.
Fundraising at Faith Christian Church often includes members collecting contributions from family and friends. The money contributed is then funneled through the church. Hall provided the Arizona Daily Star with a 2013 financial statement. Faith Christian Church did this per the requirements of the national Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
However, Faith Christian Church is now no longer a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
The submitted financial statement disclosed that Faith Christian Church received $880,203 in contributions and paid out $848,435 in salaries and benefits. According to the same statement the group's assets have grown from $200,000 in the 1990s to more than $5 million. This includes a ranch and mountaintop cabins remodeled during 2013 at a cost of $1.38 million. According to former board member Henry Puente, 32, who left in 2005, said Hall’s salary was around $150,000 a year and Laks’ about $100,000.
Meanwhile church workers called “campus ministers” reportedly live meagerly on as little as $400 a month. Puente, who was once such a campus worker under Hall said he survived on a diet of ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese and cheap chicken.
Hall and Laks reportedly know the personal finances of church members. Members must donate 10 percent of their income, which is considered a biblical mandate or tithe. Leaders reportedly "disciplined" anyone that didn't give enough members say. Cody Ortmann, 33, a former Faith Christian Church follower said, “If you didn't’t give 10 percent that week, you had to give double the next week."
Some people that didn't give enough were pushed out according to former members. Connie Cohn (1982-1999) told the Arizona Daily Star when her family tithing dropped after her husband lost his job the elders asked her to leave. Cohn says that church members warned, "If you leave this church, I fear for you and I fear for your family."” Looking back she now says,. "I thank God every day we got out when we did."
Women at Faith Christian Church were reportedly expected to be stay at home moms with no jobs and submissive to male authority according to former members.
Former member Jason Bell, 43, told the Arizona Daily Star that resistant women risked being accused of possessing a "Jezebel spirit." "I can’t tell you how many times I heard that term," Bell said. "Any woman that was like, uppity, she has this Jezebel spirit that needs to be cast out of her," Bell told a reporter. Puente agreed, "The Jezebel spirit was something Steve [Hall] believed was rampant in all women. Women were supposed to keep their mouths shut and do whatever their husbands want and they weren't’t allowed to have a life outside the home."
According to former members single women suffered often even more. Joan Moore, 32 is a registered nurse, told the Arizona Daily Star that she was raped during her freshman year at UA. Talk about her rape spread through the group and leaders reportedly suggested that Moore was somehow partly to blame. Leaders discouraged Moore from considering outside counseling and instead expected her to rely upon them. "I was shamed for it," she says. "I wasn't’t really allowed to talk about it. It was kind of brushed aside." Hall later called her a "whore." Moore finally left the church in 2005.
Former member Rachel Mullis (1994-2004) recalls Hall denouncing one single woman for "fornication" in her presence and before other members after a church service. "It was horrible watching her crumble in front of me as he humiliated her," Mullis told a reporter.
Harsh punishment for the children of the families of Faith Christian Church was reportedly mandated by Hall. Some former members said they left due to Hall's teachings about child discipline, which reportedly included spanking infants with "a cardboard dowel taken from the bottom of a wire coat hanger."
Former member Rachel Morgan told the Arizona Daily Star, "They train you as a parent that, once the babies are 8 weeks old, you have to lay them face down. If the baby raises its head, that’s a sign of rebellion, so you smack them on the butt with the cardboard dowel...and you keep doing that over and over until the baby doesn't’t put its head up again. And that’s how you train them to go to sleep."
As children in the group grew older the cardboard dowels were reportedly replaced by wooden spoons, which sometimes left bruises recounted former members. Children were home-schooled according to Hall's rules, so this never came to the attention of authorities.
Jeff Phillips, 42, another former member who was once an associate pastor through First Christian Church for ten years spanked his little boy who is autistic. Leaders believed that the boy's behavior was reportedly due to "willfulness."
Children were reportedly beaten for "fidgeting, not finishing a meal or not falling asleep when put to bed."
Former member Jennifer Maynard (1997-2006) said, "The kids were unnaturally good...They were like broken horses with all the spirit gone from them, and it broke my heart."
Through social media former members of Faith Christian Church are now able to network and share their common experience, forming an online support group.
This began when former member Jeff Phillips started a Facebook page titled "Former Members of Faith Christian Church Tucson and its Offshoots." The Arizona Daily Star relied heavily upon participants at the Facebook page as sources for its report.
When Bell found the Facebook page he started crying. "I realized that it wasn't’t just me not being a strong enough Christian. That’s how I felt when I left, that I couldn't’t handle it. I realized that was not true. I had done my best. I had given everything I had, and it was not really my fault."
Leader Stephen Hall attacked former members during a 2013 sermon and warned his flock about the evils of social media. The Arizona Daily Star reviewed a audio-recording of that sermon. Hall said, "That is one of the most grievous sins. Reading about people’s complaints about other Christians, it’s just like you did that yourself. A grievous, bitter, nasty, nasty thing,,,If any of you read negative things about any Christian on the Internet, you’re participating in wickedness and deeds of darkness, and it’ll come and get you."
Former member Doug Pacheco responded, "Anywhere someone does not have the freedom to go make a decision on their own, without feeling shunned, without being shamed, it is not a biblical church...Churches don’t shun you. Churches don’t shame you. Churches don’t put you in a place where you no longer have any friends."
Leaders Stephen M. Hall and Ian A. Laks reportedly refused to comment and/or answer any of the specific questions submitted to them by the Arizona Daily Star, concerning the activities of Faith Christian Church. Current members of Faith Christian Church likewise remained silent and would not respond to any queries made by the Tucson newspaper.
Note: This news summary is based upon a previous report "Tucson ministry a cult, former followers say" by Carol Ann Alaimo and Emily Bregel, published by the Arizona Daily Star (March 15, 2015).
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