The University of Arizona’s University Religious Council is seeking answers from Faith Christian Church and has launched an investigation into its practices, separate from a UA dean of students’ inquiry into the church’s on-campus ministries.
The URC emailed Faith Christian Church leadership Wednesday to request a meeting about allegations uncovered in an Arizona Daily Star investigation.
But church leaders haven’t responded to the meeting request, Michelle Blumenberg, treasurer of the URC, said on Saturday.
She said the URC will send church leaders one more request, advising them that Faith Christian’s membership in URC could be suspended if they don’t respond. The URC is a coalition of the ministers and directors of religious and spiritual groups at UA, providing spiritual support to students. Faith Christian is among 19 groups represented in the URC, which meets monthly.
For almost three weeks, Faith Christian Church leaders Stephen Hall and Ian Laks have not responded to the Star’s repeated requests for comment on the findings of an investigation into the church and its ministries.
The Star has interviewed more than 30 former church members, ex-staff members and parents who described the church as cultlike and controlling. They said Faith Christian’s on-campus ministries — Wildcats for Christ, Native Nations in Christ and the Providence Club — aggressively target vulnerable college students, with negative long-term effects on their psychological well-being.
The URC investigation — running parallel to the dean of students’ inquiry — is in direct response to the Star investigation and its “worrisome” findings, Blumenberg said. Typically, a complaint from a current UA student is required to launch an inquiry into a URC member group, she said.
The Religious Council doesn’t have the authority to limit the campus activities of Faith Christian’s campus ministries or revoke its status as a university-approved club. But suspending the church’s URC membership could signal to students that the council doesn’t endorse its practices, she said.
Any religious group can come onto the university’s open campus, but groups with club status, like Faith Christian’s ministries, can get access to services such as club funding and meeting space, Blumenberg said.
The URC investigation will focus on whether Faith Christian is violating the council’s standards of conduct for religious groups on campus. Its five red flags for “religious practices gone awry” include religious stalking, invasiveness, deception, pressure and shame.
“We’re walking a tightrope between (respecting) different faith organizations and their beliefs and freedom of expression, and these allegations,” Blumenberg said.
DEAN OF STUDENTS
The UA Dean of Students’ Office recently launched an investigation into Faith Christian’s on-campus ministries after correspondence with a Los Angeles-based mother who was concerned about her son — a junior at the UA — and his deep involvement with the church. Kathy Sullivan said after two years in Faith Christian, her son’s personality and behavior changed drastically, and she worries about losing touch with him completely.
The UA hadn’t previously launched an investigation into the church’s campus ministries because they had never received a formal complaint related to a current UA student, officials said.
But ex-members say complaints from alumni or their parents should have prompted an investigation long ago, since the most egregious problems with the church often emerge after students graduate, when the church tightens its grip.
More than 14 former members or their parents told the Star that the church advocates corporal punishment of infants. Former members also say the church estranges members from their families, prohibits dating and exerts control over members’ personal lives and finances, such as what they should major in, how they should dress and whom they should marry. Many said they suffered from panic attacks or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for years after leaving the church.
Last week the Dean of Students’ Office issued a call for feedback on the church’s on-campus ministries, and the responses have been overwhelmingly critical. So far, the university has received at least 25 formal complaints, and one complimentary email, about the church and its ministries, according to records provided to the Star in response to a public records request. The names of those who submitted the complaints were redacted.
Last week, an assistant dean of students met with the Wildcats for Christ president and its faculty adviser, Dr. Merlin Lowe, an associate professor of pediatrics at the UA College of Medicine. Lowe did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment last week about whether he was aware of allegations that the church is abusive.
UA officials won’t comment on what happened at the meeting with Wildcats for Christ leaders, or provide details of the investigation unless it results in university action, such as revoking the campus ministries’ club status, said Chris Sigurdson, UA spokesman. He emphasized that the dean of students’ investigation will focus solely on the church’s on-campus clubs, not the church itself, which is outside the university’s jurisdiction. The investigation will focus on practices that affect current UA students, he said.
Ex-members say the UA lends legitimacy to the group by allowing its ministries to recruit on campus.
One complaint sent to the UA last week said, “I believe alumni testimony is just as valid (as current students’) since our experiences with the church did not begin within church walls, or at a community event, but began right outside our dorm rooms, on our dorm floors and at school-sponsored student orientations and welcome functions. ... My hope is that the University of Arizona recognizes that welcoming this group to their campus by giving them access to campus rooms, campus events and access to dorms is not in the best interest and health of students, and also tarnishes the reputation of the university.”