Disconnecting from a Church - Battered Christians search for life after Barnett

Valley Daily News/May 9, 1988
By Nathalie Overland

(Editor's note: Today's second part of a three-part series on Burien's Community Chapel explores how former members cope with the fallout of leaving the church)

Seventeen-year-old Cami King, who left Community Chapel two years ago, still has difficulty trusting people and hates organized religion.

Kim, 25, joined Community Chapel five years ago as her first venture in Christianity. Since she left the church five months ago, she hasn't been able to figure out what Christianity is really supposed to be.

Richard, a former church leader for 10 years who was reluctant to discuss his association with Community Chapel, now considers his once full-time commitment to the Burien church a "mistake."

Those are common reactions among individuals who have attended and then left Community Chapel, run by Donald Barnett. Like hundreds of others, Cami King, Kim and Richard have fled the church that former members say once exacted all their loyalty and commanded much of their time and money as well. In addition to spending most of their free time in church activities, the members bankrolled much of Community Chapel's 44-acre-estate, worth $10 million.

Today most of Community Chapel's congregation has scattered, some seeking refuge in their homes, in new churches, or in their resolve not to be duped again. They are battered emotionally and spiritually. They find it difficult to trust others, to submit to leaders, to expose themselves to the world as people who once supported Community Chapel. Many not only blame the church for their damaged lives, but point to themselves as well.

"I feel like I've been spiritually raped," one woman said. "And I know I'm responsible for allowing it to happen."

Those who leave resolving to find a new church often are disappointed, unable to settle in after years of believing that other churches are "dead" compared tot he emotionally charged atmosphere at Community Chapel. Some vow never again to step foot inside a sanctuary. A few are looking for revenge.

Among the wreckage are the children, most who attended Community Chapel's K-12 school because enrolling them elsewhere was frowned upon by church leadership. A former chapel elementary school teacher who left the church in early 1986 said she witnessed the stress in the children's lives when the church began spiritual connections.

"There was a lot of stress, a lot of vandalism at the school that you never saw before," she said. "I think the kids saw the hypocrisies and they certainly were affected by the divorces. It was implied that if children were in the way, they'd have to be casualties. The 'move of God' was more important."

One woman, who always considered her best friends a model mother, said she was dismayed to see her friend change. "I slowly watched her lose interest in her family. She didn't have time for her children any longer because she was spending her time with her connection. When I said something, she said she wasn't concerned because God knows her heart."

The rule that "God knows the heart" has securely tethered many of the remaining members to the chapel, former members said. Despite the evidence of destroyed marriages, shipwrecked families, and even suicide, those who remain at Community Chapel apparently hold fast to the concept that the move of God is real - it's just that people aren't handling it correctly. "Some people realize that things are wrong," said one former member, "but they feel that people haven't handled it right. Now, they say the elders are cleaning it up (by attempting to expel Barnett) and the church will become what it was intended to be."

Other former members, most of whom asked not to be named, attribute lingering Community Chapel membership to several factors. Some said those who stay are hooked on having their lives controlled. Others said the remaining members are satisfied with the doctrine of spiritual connections. A few maintain that personal pride won't allow some to face the possibility that they have been deceived.

Members are taught that it is better to "go with the spirit" rather than to use their "natural minds." That teaching, former members say now, was a form of mind control because the congregation was discouraged from applying logic or reasoning to what was happening in the church.

Former chapel members say that once they began thinking for themselves they soon realized the church is fueled by mind control.

Yet those who leave say they are wracked with both guilt and apprehension over what has happened. Some accuse themselves of being too vulnerable. Some are angry that they followed a man, not God. Some are afraid it will happen to them again.

The needs- and the hurts - of those who emerge from Community Chapel are as varied as the patchword of personalities that comprise the congregation. In response to those needs, some local churches have flung their doors open to welcome those religious refuges. A few of those churches and other Christian organizations have established programs to address the specific needs of former members. Several who have left also wait patiently to console those who continue to exit the church.

Still many needs are not met, a fact that frustrates both the former members and those attempting to help.

"I think people on the outside need to understand that even if a person leaves the chapel, the chapel takes a long time to leave them," said Tim brown, former director of Colossian Fellowship, a local group that monitored Community Chapel for several years. "Both sides need to work together to find out what works."

Some former members said more counseling is needed for those exiting the church.

"People who leave don't know what's normal or good," said one former member who supports more counseling. "We weren't allowed to hurt or have anger because those were demons or pride. So we didn't know how to think or be normal."

Other former chapel members doubt whether anyone understands Community Chapel well enough to offer adequate relief to those who leave.

"I don't know if people are equipped because they haven't dealt with this type of thing before," one former member said. "And people in the chapel won't listen to them. They feel outsiders just don't understand."

Those who are particularly equipped are former members. A few of them are working diligently to convince remaining members to leave the church and support them when they do.

One woman compiled a packet that uses scripture to refute many of Barnett's teachings. She sent copies of it to her friends who still attend Community Chapel and one returned the packet refuting the scriptures with chapel thinking. She said the incident hasn't discouraged her.

"I was never totally spaced or walking around with glazed eyes," she said. "But I was definitely controlled by the church. And those who stay still are too."

For Cami King, who was instrumental in urging her parents to abandon Community Chapel in 1986, life - particularly her Christian faith - is now confusing.

"I talk to God sometimes, but I guess I just don't know anymore," King said.

Her faith, she said, has been lanced by a church that condones adultery and splinters families. In the nine years that King, her parents and four younger siblings attended Community Chapel, the teenager had plenty of time to observe the church. When she wasn't in Community Chapel's school, she was involved in church activities. She didn't do much else.

"I'd go to school and worship services, that was about it," King said.

King, then 15, was in ninth-grade at Community Chapel's school in 1985, when students were first encouraged to dance with each other and with their teachers during school worship time.

"You didn't have to dance, but were told that we would be on the outside looking in on the move of God if we didn't," King said. "Some kids ended up with strong connections with their teachers."

King danced, first by herself, then with girlfriends. When a male asked her to dance, however, she refused. Like her mother, Melinda, the younger King didn't want strange men touching her.

"At home I'd hear from my mom that it wasn't right and at school they said it was right," King said. "I was confused."

She watched as her father became moderately involved with his connections. She witnessed a friend's mother bring her connection home to be "lovey-dovey" on the couch. She was dismayed as her peers became involved with their own connections, some of them teachers, some of them married.

"I saw a lot of hypocrisy and cheating. I saw them going the wrong way. I knew it wasn't right."

King took her complaints to her parents. Doug and Melinda, and her concerns helped prod the family to leave Community Chapel in early 1986. Two years later, however, this articulate 17-year-old is still grappling with the fallout of Community Chapel.

"I don't want to go back to church. I don't want to get involved again, trying to figure out what's right and who's God."

The Kings visited other churches after they left Community Chapel, but were frustrated in their efforts. King's parents said they weren't sure what they were looking for, but they knew it had to be a church where they didn't know anyone.

"We just wanted to work into a new church on our own," Melinda King said. "We started floating around, but we still haven't found one. For now, our family is our church. We still have some work to do here."

Today Cami King embraces activities that were discouraged during her tenure at the chapel. She works at a day care, attends sports events, volunteers on a phone line for latchkey kids, and goes out with her new friends. Her old friends, the one she knew for years at Community Chapel, won't talk to her anymore.

"It was really hard for me to leave those friends," King said. "It was like taking all your friends and all you've learned and throwing it out the door."

Kim, who asked that her real name not be used, had never been involved with a church before she stepped into Community Chapel's sanctuary. She was looking for a new dimension to her life in the early 1980s, visited Community Chapel, and decided to stay. There, in 1984 she met a young man, made plans to get married, and learned that she was pregnant.

Chapel counselors told the couple to break up because they were incompatible. It they didn't follow that advice, the counselors threatened to expel them from the church for "spirits of rebellion." Kim miscarried. Her fiance left her and the church in 1986. Kim stayed, leaving four months ago after deciding that she didn't want to spend time, "connecting" with married men. Today, she, too, is confused about religion.

"Being a new Christian, I didn't understand that they were wrong," said the dark-haired soft-spoken woman. "Now I know that you should never get involved in a place that tries to fit you into their mold. They wanted me to be things I am not."

Now she occasionally attends a church that meets in a home, but she isn't really satisfied because the music - which initially attracted Kim to Community Chapel - isn't the same. She chose a church that meets in a home, she said, because it seemed safe and removed from the sprawling Community Chapel sanctuary.

"I'm actually taking a break now," she said. "I have a real big fear of putting myself under a pastor. It's like who can you trust and who can't you trust?"

Richard, who also requested anonymity, joined Community Chapel in the late 1960s to attend the church's Bible College that taught Barnett's brand of Christianity. Following graduation, Richard assumed a leadership post in the chapel, a position he held for more than a decade.

Richard went along with Barnett when dancing was introduced to the congregation in the early 1980s, but left the church when spiritual connections were encouraged. As a church leader, Richard's responsibilities included some marriage counseling.

"I was helping to save and mend marriages," he said. "It wasn't the dancing, but the (spiritual connections) dating that led to break up marriages because adultery was practiced but never condoned. I couldn't support that."

Richard no longer attends church, and he feels betrayed.

"My sojourn at Community Chapel is something I now view as a mistake," he said. "I no longer want to be identified with that place in any way."

(Next: Early warnings about Community Chapel ignored; other churches feel powerless to intervene)

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