Community Chapel (faltering on religious fringe)

Valley Daily News/May 8, 1988
by Nathalie Overland

South King County, Washington -- The drowning of a 5-year-old girl by her mother in a Portland motel room in March 1986 thrust Community Chapel and Bible Training Center into the consciousness of South King County.

The murder was linked by prosecutors and former chapel members to teachings on demons and spiritual connections - intense relationships with people of the opposite sex - at the large, nearly 20-year-old Burien-based church headed by Donald Lee Barnett.

Public scrutiny has driven the independent church further into isolation as Barnett and church officials routinely refuse public comment on Community Chapel. Critics - mainly former Chapel members - charge that the church drifted far tot he religious fringe. Some content the church has gone beyond the fringe into cult status.

In the two years since the Portland tragedy, hundreds have fled the church, only to discover that they cannot easily walk away from the troubles Barnett's teachings have brewed in their lives. Adultery, damaged marriages, divorce and even child neglect are the consequences for some.

Most who leave Community Chapel are forced to forsake friends, beliefs and a lifestyle that was dictated by the chapel. Guilt, confusion, distrust, embarrassment and lonliness are among the byproducts of their decision to quit their church.

It is former members' story of disconnecting from Community Chapel that we want to tell. As one woman who left the chapel two years ago put it: "When we left we felt like we were being worldly, independent, rebellious - all those things we weren't supposed to be. We know we had been too open, too vulnerable, and we felt very guilty about it."

After two months of interviewing former chapel members, and chapel leaders, other religious leaders in the community and cult experts, the Valley Daily News has found:

  • Spiritual connections wasn't the first unorthodox practice to engage chapel members, but it was for many the breaking point that forced them to quit the church.
  • Among the victims are the children, who are described by one former member as "pawns." In Barnett's efforts to manipulate his congregation. Children are neglected as parents spend hours with their spiritual connections.
  • Outside organizations initially established counseling programs in 1986 to assist those leaving Community Chapel, and some churches have welcomed former chapel members. The problems ex-members bring out of the church, however, go far beyond a need to simply talk. Many grapple with guilt, embarrassment, and confusion that take months - even years - to rectify.
  • Despite early warnings by cult expert Dr. Ronald Enroth, Seattle-area pastors and the media declined to investigate Community Chapel - until tragedy struck. Local church leaders maintain there isn't much they can do to influence fringe churches such as Community Chapel.

Barnett and church officials have maintained their silence. Repeated requests by the Valley Daily News to talk with church leaders, including barnett, went unanswered. Even the church spokesman - the only person appointed to talk to the media - refused to return telephone calls.

All church members are forbidden by leadership to talk with reporters, and they are abiding by that order.

"They have been trained not to talk to the media," said one former church leader, who asked not to be named. "You are an agent of the devil."

The three part series researched and written by Valley Daily News reporter Nathalie Overland begins today. (next)


Dave and Paula, the King family and Jamie are among the hundreds who have left Community Chapel in the past three years, making what they often call the "agonizing" decision to leave a church that controlled their time, their minds and their lives.

They have fled an independent, charismatic church whose sanctuary, chapel, kindergarten through 12th grade school and Bible College spread out on more than 40 acres between Burien and Normandy Park.

Once the flagship to 22 satellite churches in the United States and Canada, the Burien church now oversees only 12. Ten satellite have closed their doors since 1985.

With the exception of Doug and Melinda King and Mark Tokers, most of those interviewed requested anonumity and have been given pseudonyms. Some are involved in legal action against the church. Others want to insulate themselves from a past that has at least temporarily reduced their lives to rubble. Many are just humiliated.

"It's really embarrassing at first to think we could be manipulated like that," said Mrs. King, who like many former members still lives near Normandy Park, not far from Community Chapel. "If you'd ask me then I wouldn't say I was being controlled. But I was."

When former members talk about the chapel, they often pause when attempting to explain terms that used to roll easily off their tongues, terms like "warrior bride" and "connection love" and "manifesting a demon." It seemed so real then, they said, but now former members sometimes laugh at the phrases that once were the cornerstone of their belief in Community Chapel's idea of religion.

Humor, however, has not come easily. It has taken many ex-chapel members months - even years - to come to terms with what happened to them in the church.

It all began in the late 1960s, according to one former church leader, when Barnett taught that the end of the world was at hand and that his Community Chapel was being groomed to be "the bride fo Christ," part of an elite work of God to win the world to Christ in the world's final days. To be prepared, chapel members were told to "purify" themselves.

In the 1970s, the chapel took another turn toward the religious fringe. The congregation became obsessed with "movements of God," new experiences that were to purify chapel members, said the former church leader who asked not to be named. Soon wave after wave of new "moves" kept the faithful thirsting for something new and increasingly appealing - from falling down under the "power of the Holy Spirit" as if fainting from some supernatural power to casting out demons that they believed had taken over people.

The church's subtle control of members began with these moves and ushered in constant change that was supposedly ordained by God, former members said.

"Many of these things would come and go, but Barnett would always point out how dead and boring other churches were and how alive Community Chapel was," said the former leader.

King, a 37-year-old electronics technician who works for King County, said the congregation was primed for a new move of God in the mid-1980s. "The church was so captivated by the supernatural. Everyone was ready to go for anything that seemed spiritual. It got to the point where you didn't know how much was emulation and how much was real."

Spiritual dancing was the new move of God, and it eventually would rend the congregation. Mark Yokers, a former elder and Bible college teacher who resigned his chapel posts last month, said spiritual dancing was never a move of God.

"The deception of spiritual dancing lies in the mixing of what people call spiritual love that also involve erotic love," said 39-year-old Yokers, one of three elders to resign since spiritual dancing began. "People are deceived into thinking it's God when it's a mixture of things."

Dave and Paula found security in the church

Dave and Paula, who left the Community Chapel in early 1986, began attending the church when it was a Bible study meeting in a Des Moines home. They were welcomed into the cozy gatherings even though they were burned out on drugs. The teenage couple soon traded their hippie lifestyle for the security of the growing church.

"The teaching didn't seen bad at first," said Dave, a 42-year-old who works in construction. "They were preaching the gospel and the church was growing. But everyone who came in was a new Christian and they didn't know the word of God. All they knew was through Barnett and we had to totally submit to him."

Like many chapel members, they lived humble lives, refusing to indulge in pleasure and declining to purchase a home because they believed the end was near. Many members didn't decorate their homes or allow their children to sleep between sheets adorned by cartoon characters. Most non-church interests were considered too worldly, and church activities always came first.

"I would have taken my kids to the park more," Dave said. "But I was head of the Sunday School department and we had to make our own curriculum because everything else was inferior. So I didn't have time for things like the park>"

In the early 1980s, Barnett visited one of Community Chapel's satellite churches in Wisconsin and returned with an account of how the Wisconsin pastor had successfully rebuked a demon in one of the Wisconsin members. Although some Burien members were skeptical, testimonies from visiting Wisconsin members convinced most that rebuking demons was bonafide.

Anger was no longer an emotion. It was a demon. Fear wasn't just a reaction. It was a demon. Doubt wasn't a thinking process. It was a demon.

In 1985, spiritual dancing and "connections" between individuals of opposite sex were introduced to the congregation. The demon theme helped legitimize the connecting. Demons would be blamed for such normal reactions as jealously.

In 1984 Paula and Dave were facing personal problems and considered leaving Community Chapel. However, Barnett's promise of a new move of God that would heal the couple's hurts convinced Paula and Dave to stay.

"So we were ready when spiritual connections came the next year," Paula said. "We were broken and looking for something to renew us. I used to go stand in front of the church because I knew God wanted me to have this new experience. I thought I needed it."

Dave wasn't convinced, and stood on the sidelines as he watched his wife become swept up in the new trend.

"Then one day it happened," Paula recalled. "I was dancing with someone and this force gripped me. He wasn't an attractive man, but I felt I couldn't live without him because he was part of this experience. It was like a drug, but we thought it was God."

Dave objected to his wife's new obsession, but he soon found there was no relief for him.

"I felt I was wrong and our relationship was really torn," he said. "But I couldn't go to church for counseling because they would just say this was a move of God."

Dave began losing sleep, and by the fall of 1985, he was contemplating suicide. A nervous breakdown followed. One evening the church security arrived at his doorstep and temporarily removed all the guns from his house. As Christmas approached, church counselors recommended that Paula not return home but instead spend time with her connection. She did as she was told.

"This was typical of the way Community Chapel stepped in to control your lives," Dave said. "It was played out a hundred times at the church."

Soon after Christmas, Paula said "something snapped" and she lost interest in her connection. Paula and Dave celebrated New Years in Hawaii and decided there that they had to leave the church.

"We knew then that the connections were wrong, not us," Dave said. "We could see the lust and seduction that had become involved."

The King family found a commitment to God

Doug and Melinda King weren't looking for a new church in 1977 when they accepted a friend's invitation to visit Community Chapel. They liked the commitment to God they saw there. Their established and conservative church in Renton seemed dead compared tot he lively worship at the chapel. They joined.

"It seemed that the church started to get a little larger, then it just grew and grew and grew," King said. "And as the church grew, there were more employees, and all the power seemed to affect Don."

Barnett began to claim new "visions" and "revelations" from God and in the summer of 1983 he claimed to have a new form of worship which was revealed to him by God, former members recalled. This new worship was "dancing before the Lord" initially a free form of individual expression that was allowed in the sanctuary.

By 1985, this dancing had evolved into a teaching that encouraged members to find a "Connection," or dance partner. Soon partners were instructed to stare into one another's eyes, eventually known as "connecting." Partners were told that Jesus was in their eyes, and that they were to love their spiritual connection to express the love of Jesus. Hugging and kissing followed.

"Don was preaching at the time that we have so many inhibitions, God was using connections to break down these barriers," Mrs. King said. "He had all the bases covered and so well explained by scripture."

Hundreds obeyed the pastor, eagerly seeking the spiritual experience that was promised from connecting. Families began to erode, bringing them into their homes. Single church members and even children also were encouraged to find connections - sometimes with married individuals.

"We were told God was leading us in this," King said. "We were to give in , that it would go against everything we know as right and wrong, but to let God move."

Mrs. King refused, but didn't leave the church.

"I didn't think the elders and pastor could be so far off the track, but at the same time I couldn't bring myself to do it," she said. "And I thought that if I left the church, I would be out of the will of God and possible wouldn't be a Christian anymore."

King was employed half time to oversee the church's electronics. Between work and worship services, his life was largely spent at the church. While his wife would slide away whenever anyone would sit next to her in a pew, King decided to try connecting.

"It didn't make sense to me, but I figured who am I to question leadership? I just left myself open and waited to see all this good we were told we would see."

Soon two women began pursuing King, calling him and coming to the house to visit.

"When Melinda was jealous, counselors told me she was just trying to inhibit the move of God," Doug said of his wife's reaction to his spiritual connections. "Our marriage began to fall apart."

Church counselors advised King to maintain his connections, even though he said he was not "overwhelmed" by them. In January 1986, Mrs. King left the church. Six months later, her husband followed.

"I didn't ever see God in it," King said. "And I never felt the same way about my connections that they felt about me. Everyone was running on pure emotions and there was no clear direction. It became confusing."

Jamie found her connection mystical

Jamie, who was attracted to Community Chapel in 1981 when she witnessed members "zeal and serious commitment" to Christianity, wasn't like many of the other chapel women, preferring no-nonsense clothing to the romantic lacy styles donned many others.

"I didn't want to dress that way, but I thought it was just a matter of pride," Jamie said. "So I told the Lord to make me into this little defenseless pink ball of fluff, and when I left the prayer room I ran into a man I respected a lot who told me that God was going to turn me into this pink ball of fluff. To me, that he used the same words I had prayed was beyond coincidence and boosted my faith in the church."

The next weekend, she found the first of three connections. Her last connection, she said was "the most powerful."

"There really was something supernatural about it, like mysticism," Jamie said. "I started feeling I couldn't live without this guy. And I felt like I had the Lord's love for him."

In late 1986 Barnett, who had selected Jamie as one of his connections, asked the attractive brunette to be his "mega" - or main - connection. Jamie estimates that Barnett has had some 30 connections, all young and attractive, since connections were introduced to the congregation in 1985.

"It was great flattery, having the pastor interested in you. It was like the greatest honor in the church," she said. "But I still had this other guy who was just sweeping me off my feet. He was just the opposite of what my husband was, and I was in love."

Jamie and her husband, recognizing the damage to their family from her connection, left the church in December 1986, but were talked into returning by other church members. She returned to her connection. In January, a counselor coaxed her husband to return to church and he found a connection.

That spring, Jamie's connection, who was single, began dating a woman from the chapel. That gave her more time to analyze her situation at Community Chapel.

"We weren't supposed to gossip or think thoughts, but it got to the point where the place was just weird," she said. "I decided I couldn't stay there. I still thought connections were a move of God, but people were handling it all wrong. Everyone was becoming obsessed with themselves."

Meanwhile, her marriage had deteriorated to "the most miserable thing." She considered divorce but decided she didn't have biblical grounds to leave her husband. Jamie and her husband decided to rebuild their marriage, and last August left the church without a word, except to resign from her job at church.

"We were told that we were all on a potter's wheel," Jamie said. "We didn't look good now, but things will be beautiful when they are finished."

That, she said, never will happen at Community Chapel.

Dave put a gun to his head seven times in 1985. He almost pulled the trigger twice.

His children knew what was happening behind the master bedroom doors in their home near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Dave was despondent because his wife was dating another man - with the encouragement of his church, Community Chapel and Bible Training Center.

His wife Paula was advised by counselors at the Burien church to spend more time with the other man. Dave, Paula was told, needed to be free of demons of jealousy, insecurity and rejection.

She was advised to leave her husband of more than 15 years. She did.

Jamie gave birth to her first child in 1984, quit her job and discovered she had more time to become involved in activities at Community Chapel, her church since 1981. Jamie always enjoyed gourmet cooking and throwing elegant dinner parties.

At the chapel, however, such pastimes were frowned upon as useless, and church friends accused her of having a demon of the fear of rejection.

Jamie soon abandoned her hobby, turned off her television set, quit reading newspapers and magazines and spent most of her time at Community Chapel. When the local church started dancing during services, she initially liked the idea of expressing herself that way during services. Her solo dancing turned to dancing with men in the congregation and eventually evolved into a succession of church-condoned relationships or "connections" with men other than her husband.

In late 1986, Community Chapel pastor Donald Barnett asked the attractive brunette to become his "mega connection."

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