The holidays weren’t always happy for Doug Pacheco, but this year he feels blessed by a season of forgiveness.
For years, Pacheco says his family suffered because of his unquestioning devotion to the leaders of Faith Christian Church, which encouraged corporal punishment of infants, unquestioning obedience to church leaders and mandatory tithing even by families in financial distress.
He shared his story last spring as part of an Arizona Daily Star investigation into the Tucson-based ministry that’s been recruiting members on the University of Arizona campus for more than 20 years.
Twenty-one former followers described the church as a cult that targets UA students and inflicts financial, spriritual and emotional abuse.
New parents were trained to start spanking babies soon after birth to rid them of “rebellious” spirits, the former members and staffers said. They often used cardboard dowels from wire clothes hangers to hit infants who wouldn’t sleep, then switched to other implements as children grew, they said.
Pacheco, who joined Faith Christian’s predecessor church and left in 1990, said he and his then-wife accepted the church’s teachings. When the Star’s initial story ran in March, Pacheco — now remarried and living in Indiana — emailed links to the story to each of his children, now 33, 31 and 29.
“They knew just by me sending that article that dad is facing up to something here,” Pacheco, 58, said in a recent phone interview. “I got to call each of my children and tell them I loved them and apologize to them.
“Each of them said, ‘We love you, we forgive you, we’re with you.’ Ever since that time, my relationships with all three of them has just improved.”
His eldest son, Isaac, was about 8 years old when the family left the church. He recalls harsh discipline, living on food-bank donations and dumpster-diving for canned goods, even as his parents kept giving to the church.
“I just remember my parents fighting and crying and not having enough money for anything, like gasoline for the car, and still giving that 10 percent,” said Isaac Pacheco, now the editor of a U.S. State Department publication in Washington, D.C.
After reading the article, Isaac called his father and they spoke for a long time.
“It was kind of like the smell after a big rainfall. The air is clear again,” Doug Pacheco said of their conversation. “It was exactly like that.
“I think what my son needed to hear me say was, ‘I recognize that that was not right.’ Saying those words set him free like a bird out of his cage.”
Faith Christian’s head pastor Stephen M. Hall and executive pastor Ian A. Laks have refused for months to respond to allegations that members were harmed by the church’s practices. Neither has replied since March to dozens of calls, emails and letters from Star reporters.
Hall often advised his underlings to lay low when facing criticism, said Jeff Phillips, a former associate pastor who left the church in 2007. Phillips now is an adjunct professor at American Christian University in Phoenix.
He recalls Hall’s advice for dealing with negative publicity like this: “If someone throws mud at you, don’t try to wipe it off. Just wait for it to dry and it will fall off on its own.”
At the University of Arizona, officials say they are keeping closer tabs than in the past on three student clubs linked to Faith Christian, which has been recruiting on the UA campus for more than 20 years.
UA spokesman Chris Sigurdson said staff members from the dean of students’ office now drop in unannounced at club meetings, a practice that began at the start of fall semester. The staffers, whom Sigurdson wouldn’t identify, haven’t found any problems that would warrant disciplinary action, he said. The UA also made the clubs’ advisers take cult awareness training.
UA officials say they have authority over the student groups and must tread carefully because religious freedom is protected by law.
The UA will take complaints only from current students or their parents, but former followers say those who leave often are too traumatized to come forward until years later.
The University Religious Council, a campus entity separate from UA administration, isn’t bound by the same rules and has taken the most definitive action against the church. Council leaders did their own investigation and banished Faith Christian from the council because the church’s leaders refused to answer questions about the allegations, council spokeswoman Michelle Blumenberg said.
“The number, seriousness, and pattern of red flags raised compel URC members to no longer believe that Faith Christian Church and its affiliates operate at the highest level of integrity, transparency, safety for students, and respect for students, standards required for URC membership,” a statement from the religious council said.
To warn the new crop of freshmen that arrived this fall, the council announced its actions against the church in fliers that were included in UA orientation packages.
The council also added “religious manipulation” to its list of red flags for “religious conduct gone awry.” Religious manipulation includes “strategies that target vulnerable students, methods which seek to break down and then rebuild students, and instances of over-the-top niceness used as a form of entrapment,” the URC wrote.
The addition was specifically aimed at the Faith Christian recruiting tactic former members called “love-bombing” — showering new students with attention and affection to gain their trust.
“The University Religious Council hopes that the situation which happened with Faith Christian Church will lead more students and parents to do their homework about faith groups with whom they would like to become involved,” Blumenberg said in an email.
Faith Christian doesn’t answer to any larger policymaking body, the way a Presbyterian church falls under a synod, or a Catholic parish, a diocese.
The little accountability that did exist evaporated in April when the national Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability began an investigation into complaints from former Faith Christian members about high-pressure demands for donations and other church practices.
Faith Christian responded by resigning from the financial accountability council. The resignation halted efforts to determine whether the church met council’s standards for responsible stewardship, a council spokeswoman said.
The church remains a member of the National Evangelical Association, and touts that membership status on its website. The evangelical association has recommended pastoral practices but does not oversee member churches to ensure they are followed, the group’s communications director said.
About a dozen former Faith Christian members and supporters picketed the church’s Sunday services at the start of fall term, typically the church’s busiest season for bringing new UA freshmen into the fold.
In years past, a few hundred freshmen usually showed up. This year, “I was shocked by how few students we saw,” said former church member Rachel Mullis, 39, one of the picketers.
“It seemed like attendance was way down from what it historically has been,” agreed picketer Phillips, 43, the former associate pastor.
Laks, Faith Christian’s second-in-command, called police, but officers who responded found the picketers weren’t causing trouble and allowed them to stay, public records show.
Faith Christian, which has never built its own worship facility, has been without a home for several months. For years, the church used rented space at Amphitheater High School for its Sunday services, but chose to leave shortly after the school district began its own investigation in April.
In recent months, the church has held its services at the Tucson Marriott University Park hotel just outside UA’s main gate. Last week, a few days after the Star tried again to reach church leaders, Faith Christian’s website was changed to remove any reference to the location of its Sunday services.
The negative publicity may be affecting the church’s fundraising efforts.
Former church member Connie Cohn said she’s been approached five times in recent months by current or prospective donors who said they were put off by news reports of Faith Christian’s methods and the church’s refusal to address the allegations.
All five said they had decided against giving to the church, said Cohn, 52, a former lay leader who left Faith Christian in 1999 after 18 years.
Henry Puente, a member of Faith Christian’s financial board for several years, says when he left in 2005, Hall’s salary was around $150,000 a year and Laks’ about $100,000. The mean average wage for a clergy member in Tucson was just over $54,000 in 2013, U.S. Department of Labor statistics show.
The church also employs at least nine members of Hall’s family, according to a staff list on its website. They include Hall’s wife Teresa, the couple’s five grown children and three sons-in-law. It isn’t clear how much the relatives are paid.
Faith Christian’s assets have swelled from $200,000 in the mid-1990s to more than $5 million this year, state and county records show. That includes a ranch as well as two cabins on Mount Lemmon that were rebuilt in 2013 at a cost of $1.38 million, the church’s 2013 financial statement shows.
Faith Christian has six satellite churches as far away as New Zealand, all of which recruit on college campuses.
In New Zealand, New Palmerston Victory Christian Church — launched a decade ago by staffers who trained at Faith Christian — recruits at Massey University. In March, Massey banned nine representatives of the New Zealand church from setting foot on campus. School officials there said they’d been looking into complaints about the church prior to the Star’s investigation, but said the newspaper’s findings prompted additional scrutiny.
Massey officials became “sufficiently concerned about the actions and behaviour of certain members of the Victory Church,” spokesman James Gardiner said in a March email. “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.”
In April, the Tampa Bay Times investigated Faith Christian-affiliate Cornerstone Christian Church, which recruits on the campus of the University of South Florida campus. That school received complaints from two former students about the church’s overly controlling practices, but officials said there was little they could do without complaints from current students.
In August, the Florida school received another complaint from a former church member who claimed Bill Cooper, the church’s senior pastor, had a yacht. The writer also described the church’s controlling tactics.
“They want to know all your business. All your misfortunes. All your weaknesses. All your sins. All your family problems. If you don’t open up to then, you will be accused of a rebellious spirit,” the complaint read. “Once you decide to leave or if you’re kicked out, your contact with church members ceases. ... I couldn’t believe how fast my friends of three years forgot about me. People struggle for years after they leave.”
The mother of a UA junior from Los Angeles launched the Star’s investigation into Faith Christian when she emailed a reporter with concerns about her son. His behavior and personality had changed dramatically after two years with Faith Christian, Kathy Sullivan said. She feared losing touch with him entirely and was bewildered by the level of influence church leaders wielded over him.
“I felt like I was in a tug-of-war with strangers over my son,” she said in a recent interview. When she made the decision to contact the newspaper, “I felt like a mother bear protecting her cub.”
Sullivan is cautiously optimistic that her son, who graduated from UA this month, has read the Star’s reporting and could one day pull back from the church. In recent months, he’s been warmer and more like his old self, she said. But they never talk about Faith Christian and have not directly addressed Sullivan’s role in the media coverage.
Sullivan said she believes speaking out has protected others, if not her son.
“Even if it doesn’t succeed in getting him out, it’s had a positive impact and I’m very happy for that,” she said.
The Star’s coverage also fueled conversations within the UA’s religious community about healthy church conduct, said Ben Garren, chaplain of the Episcopal Campus Ministry at the UA. The ministry is a member of the University Religious Council, a coalition of ministers and directors of religious and spiritual groups at the university.
Garren said he heard the same refrain from many students in the wake of the Star’s reporting: “I thought there was a problem, but I thought I was the only one who saw it.”
“Once the information was out there, students started talking about it,” Garren said. “Then suddenly, they’re all nodding their heads.”
Garren said he wishes the UA could do more to shield students from Faith Christian’s influence. But without hard evidence, he said, the school can’t ban church representatives from a public campus without risking violating the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
“I’m stressing to students the need to report when they have concerns to the dean of students’ office, so if there is something happening that is chronic and systematic, the dean can see that and act upon it,” he said. “Without concrete evidence, they can’t do much.”