Church or cult?

Bergen Record/December 18, 2004
By John Chadwick

It began with a group of earnest young hippies who loved Jesus and lived together at a Northern California commune.

Today, the Gospel Outreach movement that emerged in the early 1970s lives in a handful of congregations nationwide - including one in Pequannock, where gentle guitar strumming and in-depth study of the Bible are Sunday morning staples.

But some say there's a dark side to the New Jersey church.

A Pompton Lakes man has filed a lawsuit that compares the congregation to a cult, accusing its pastor of dominating the lives of members for the pastor's and the church's financial gain. The suit says that church leaders pressure members to give large donations - sometimes as much as 25 percent of their gross monthly pay - and keep them in line through intimidation that includes 6 a.m. daily group meetings in which members are berated for their sins.

One member has been missing for nearly three months. His parents think he dropped out of sight because it was the only way he could bring himself to leave the church. "I think this [disappearance] was his way of getting away from the church," said Ed Carney, whose son, Tim, was reported missing Sept. 28. "My son wasn't confrontational, and I think he took the easy way out rather than confront the minister about his teachings and his authority."

Several other parents and siblings of Gospel Outreach members have come forward to say their families have been torn apart because the church encourages an "us-against-them" mentality toward outsiders.

One of the critics is former Pequannock Councilman Robert Walsh, who said he has three siblings in the group.

"The control that [the church] exercises over its members is a slow process," Walsh said in a statement. "Over a few years, my siblings have slowly ceased attending family functions. They have ceased having contact with the remaining parts of my family not in the group. This includes our children - their nieces and nephews. This has caused tremendous heartache on all of us."

Two others - parents of Gospel Outreach members - gave similar accounts to The Record of family rifts sparked by disagreement over the church.

"My daughter told me that Jesus came to split the family," said Bahaa Barsoum, a Belleville resident whose daughter joined Gospel Outreach several years ago. "She told us we weren't her real family."

Although they stopped short of saying that the church arranges marriages, critics said a number of single members have married within the congregation. At one time, single men and women in Gospel Outreach lived in separate rental houses in northern Passaic County, which the church called by biblical names, the Moriah House and the Jericho House.

Denial from the pastor

The case of Gospel Outreach raises a question: When does a congregation cease to act as a legitimate religious group and become a cult?

The church's pastor, the Rev. James R. Lethbridge, denied the accusations in the lawsuit and suggested that his congregation may seem threatening to others because it practices an authentic, grass-roots brand of Christianity that requires a life commitment. He said his church is small - about 35 members - and that some of the problems are being fueled by disgruntled ex-members and overprotective parents.

"I've been working in the community for 18 years,'' Lethbridge said in a brief telephone interview last week before declining to comment further. "So how could I be accomplishing all these things, like brainwashing people, and getting away with it for so long?"

The lawsuit, however, argues that Gospel Outreach shares many of the commonly accepted hallmarks of a cult, including an excessive commitment to Lethbridge, a preoccupation with making money and encouraging members to leave their careers and devote their lives to the church, including working for an awning repair and an automotive body repair business run by Lethbridge.

Ronald Rhodes, the man who filed the lawsuit, stopped short of calling Gospel Outreach a cult. Rather, he described it as "an extremely unhealthy church."

The 37-year-old said in an interview that the church gradually took over his life. His day began with 6 a.m. group meetings laced with accusations of sinfulness.

"You could be accused of anything - committing adultery, stealing, lusting," Rhodes said. "The best thing to do was to accuse somebody else first."

His nights were taken up with group Bible study and other church activities that often went to midnight.

At the church's behest, he said, he quit his job installing kitchen and bathroom furnishings to work for Lethbridge's awning repair business.

Through it all, he was expected to donate money that went beyond regular tithing to include money for the personal use of the pastor, the suit said.

"It was a living hell," said Rhodes, who is being represented by the law firm of McCarter & English of Newark. "I was constantly pressured, constantly exhausted and constantly feeling guilty if I didn't do everything."

The lawsuit was filed Nov. 18 in Superior Court in Paterson.

A lawyer for the church said the lawsuit is without legal merit, and suggested it was fueled by anti-cult activists and rivals of Lethbridge. He also said that no one forced Rhodes to quit his job or to devote so much time to the church.

"This lawsuit seeks damages for people praying and confessing their sins," Eric Lieberman said of the suit's reference to the group meetings. "And that is a blatant violation of the First Amendment."

The church's beginning

Gospel Outreach got its start more than three decades go in Eureka, Calif., where a preacher and real estate agent named James Durkin joined up with several members of the hippie-era "Jesus People" movement. Together, they purchased an old Coast Guard station overlooking the Pacific Ocean and started their own grass-roots Christian community.

"A whole generation was looking for something," said Durkin's son, James Durkin Jr. "We knew there was something called love and truth, and we discovered those ideals came from Jesus."

The elder Durkin died in 1996, and his son is no longer involved with Gospel Outreach.

About seven Gospel Outreach churches are in the United States, including congregations in California, Washington and Oregon.

Two telephone calls seeking comment from the church's Eureka office were not returned.

The Pequannock congregation, Gospel Outreach Christian Fellowship of New Jersey, currently meets in an American Legion Hall. Last Sunday, about two dozen people - most in their 20s and 30s - attended the service, which resembled a typical evangelical or Pentecostal Christian meeting.

But one member was missing.

Carney, 25, joined the church several years ago while attending Montclair State University.

His parents were surprised that their son became devoted to what they saw as a very strict church. But their questions sparked some tense conversations with their son, so the matter wasn't routinely discussed.

"It was the elephant in the room," said his mother, Phyllis Carney.

Recently, his parents noticed that Tim's shoes had holes. And they learned later that he had been showing up late for work and borrowing lunch money from co-workers. They thought he had been giving the church a sizable chunk of his modest income as a worker processing unemployment claims with the state Department of Labor in Elizabeth.

At 9 a.m. on Sept. 28, Carney called his supervisor to say that he was running late. He has not been heard from since. Police believe a bank surveillance videotape may show Carney cashing a check from his account several days later. His car was recovered in Newark.

A Butler police officer said he doesn't suspect foul play.

"It does seem like he took off," Detective Mike Schmiedhauser said. "But I couldn't tell you the reason without talking with him."

Despite Tim's involvement with Gospel Outreach, his parents said the church has kept its distance from them since he disappeared.

"You were good enough to take my son's money, but not good enough to help look for him," Phyllis Carney said.

The lawyer for the church said it's unfair to connect Carney's disappearance with the church.

"It's a terribly unfortunate situation, and it's understandable people want to place blame," Lieberman said. "But there is no basis to blame anybody for it."

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