A university in New Zealand has banned religious leaders from an affiliate of Tucson’s Faith Christian Church, which dozens of former members say is a cult, and a trade school there is in the final stage of doing the same thing.
In response to concerns from the public, Massey University issued “trespass orders” against nine leaders of Victory Christian Church — if those individuals step on its three campuses, they are trespassing, spokesman James Gardiner said in an email.
“They are not welcome on any of our campuses and will be asked to leave if they are seen at Massey,” he wrote. The university “will continue to uphold our duty to protect the well-being of our students.”
The Universal College of Learning, a polytechnic school with three campuses in New Zealand, is finalizing trespassing orders to bar those religious leaders from its Palmerston North campus. The school hasn’t received any formal complaints, but has heard concerns about the church’s practices, a spokeswoman said via email.
Officials with Victory Christian Church, led by former Faith Christian ministers Joel and Jaime Miller, did not respond to emailed requests for comment on Wednesday.
Victory Christian is one of six Faith Christian affiliates, which all focus their recruitment efforts on nearby university campuses. Victory Christian was launched a decade ago by staffers trained at Faith Christian.
Former member Jeff Phillips helped launch Victory Christian in the early 2000s, before he left the church in 2007. Its practices are a “carbon copy” of those employed at Faith Christian, said Phillips, who now pastors part-time at a different church in Phoenix.
More than 30 ex-members of Faith Christian Church told the Star that the church and its campus ministries recruit vulnerable students and then exert increasingly tight control over members’ lives. They say the church’s teachings are far out of line with mainstream Christianity, promoting corporal punishment of infants and cutting ties with family and friends outside the church. Allegations of its authoritarian practices include forced tithing, social isolation, public shaming of members and shunning of anyone who leaves the church or questions its leaders.
Ex-members, most of whom were UA alumni, say they suffered severe psychological effects, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, for years after their involvement in the church.
Plans to bar the church leaders from Massey’s campus predate the Star’s March 8 investigation into Faith Christian, Gardiner says. But the Star’s reporting prompted local media in New Zealand to investigate allegations against the church in recent weeks, he says.
Massey officials are now “sufficiently concerned about the actions and behaviour of certain members of the Victory Church,” Gardiner wrote. “What has been alleged is that vulnerable young people have been offered friendship and support, but then made to feel dependent on the church and its members and isolated from other support networks, such as family and friends, with a consequent loss of self-esteem.”
Victory Christian’s ministers who have been barred from campus could shift recruiting responsibilities to student leaders, but the university’s move sends a strong warning to students about the church, Phillips said.
CHURCH UNDER SCRUTINY
This month, the University of Arizona’s Dean of Students’ Office launched an inquiry into Faith Christian’s three campus ministries — Wildcats for Christ, Native Nations in Christ and the Providence Club — in response to a formal complaint filed by the parent of a UA junior who is involved with the church. The dean’s office has since received at least 31 complaints about the church or its affiliated campus ministries.
And the UA’s University Religious Council is considering whether to suspend Faith Christian Church’s membership in response to the Star’s reporting, a council official said.
Faith Christian leaders have agreed to meet this week with the council, which is comprised of the leaders of 19 religious and spiritual groups that have a presence on UA’s campus. Council treasurer Michelle Blumenberg said she can’t comment on details of the meeting.
Head pastors Stephen Hall and Iak Laks haven’t responded to the Star’s repeated requests for comment about the allegations over the past month.
Contact reporter Emily Bregel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 807-7774. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel