Anchorage Daily News/March 23, 1989, by Marilee Enge
An Anchorage woman is battling members of a fundamentalist Christian church for the custody and loyalty of her 14-year-old son.
Claiming Potter’s House Christian Center is a cult that brainwashed the boy and convinced him she was an unfit mother. Marna Paron turned to the police and then to the court for help in bringing 14-year-old Aaron home.
The single mother of three joined Potter’s House a year ago, hoping to find a spiritual home for her family. Nine months later, she had grown disillusioned with the church, whose members practice the laying on of hands, speak in tongues and talk frequently of the devil.
But when Paron stopped attending services, her son refused to leave the church.
:When I stopped going, my son became suicidal. He said he didn’t want to live here anymore. He wanted to live with Jesus,” she said.
Two months age, the boy ran away from home. The night he left, a church member called Paron to tell her that Aaron was with him. But she called the police and insisted officers take Aaron to a shelter for runaways.
Aaron is home now, but his mother said he’s not happy about it. A legal agreement is keeping him away from Potter’s House and the church members away from him. Through his mother, Aaron declined to talk about his case.
Pastor Robert Overson refused to answer questions about Paron and her son, citing the agreement in which he promises to have no contact with Aaron or talk about him, his mother or their home situation.
“I wish I could defend myself, but I can’t,” he said.
Paron is not the first person to leave Potter’s House telling stories of fanaticism and brainwashing. And the Anchorage branch of the nationwide religious organization is not the first such custody fights.
A Phoenix man who specializes in cult deprogramming, and who has studied Potter’s House and its affiliated churches since 1983, said Paron’s case is reminiscent of others he has reviewed. According to Rick Ross, ex-church members across the U.S. have told him stories of the church dividing their families when one person decided to leave.
“We’re dealing with a group that comes very close to fitting the definition of a destructive cult. I call it a destructive Bible group,” Ross said. “They break up families. It’s endemic with the church all over the country.”
The Anchorage branch of Potter’s House on DeBarr Road is one of an estimated 500 to 850 churches affiliated with Christian Fellowship Inc., an umbrella organization based in Prescott, Ariz., according to Ross and the minister of the local church. The churches go by several different names, including Potter’s House, La Puerta and Victory Chapel. The organization was founded in about 1970 by a man named Wayman Mitchell.
Overson, who has been with the Anchorage church for two years, said the local branch is 6 ½ years old. There are 170 to 200 members, the vast majority of whom range in age from 18 to 22, Overton said.
He denied that the church is a cult. Potter’s House is just a “full-gospel,” Christian church that believes in the word of God, he said.
“There’s no ball and chain around people’s legs when they come to that church,” said Overson.
“I believe the family is important and Christ came to reconcile families together, to heal homes and families. It’s by no means to split families and tear families apart. If that was the case, we couldn’t call ourselves Christians, could we!”
Paron joined the church in February of 1988. After several troubled years in which she had undergone an emotional breakdown and a difficult divorce, she said she wanted to find a church that could give her family support.
But it became apparent Potter’s House was not for her, she said.
“The sermons were becoming very negative. If it rained outside, they’d say the devil made it rain. The devil this, the devil that. My 8-year-old started to have nightmares.”
Meanwhile, however, Aaron had become a devoted follower of the church.
“I kind of let Aaron do a lot of stuff with the church because I thought it was a good thing. Within the first two months, he became real fanatical,” Paron said.
“What they did is poison his mind against me.”
When Paron left the church in December, she said, Aaron grew rebellious. He broke curfews, staying out with church members until after midnight as they preached to the teen-agers who cruise “the strip” – Benson and Northern Lights boulevards. He was disciplined at school for preaching in the hallways. He told his mother he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs.
Another church member, who quit after Paron did, said she began to hear strange rumors. Beverly Carlson said she heard that she sexually abused her children, “…That she was walking with the devil and sleeping with her boyfriend. That she wasn’t allowing her son to come to church.”
Then, Carlson said, Overson warned her to avoid Paron and another former member – “backsliders,” as the church calls people who have pulled away.
Before she quit, Carlson said she overheard Overson and a church member named Henry Bates talking about Aaron in the pastor’s office.
“Harry Bates was saying he would be more than happy to take custody of Aaron, or another couple had a license to take in teen-age kids. They were sitting there mapping out a life for Aaron.”
When Aaron ran away from home in late January, Paron said, she got a telephone call from Bates, who said Aaron was at his home in Patter’s Creek. Paron promptly called the police and instructed officers to pick up her son and take him to a shelter for runaways.
Bates also refused to discuss specifics of the case. He spoke briefly last week in a Superior Court room after the legal agreement was reached.
“It’s a dispute between a boy and his mother. When the dispute erupted, the boy left home. I was contacted. I sat down with him. I have tried to find out what his rights are,” Bates said.
“The basic conflict is his mother is trying to restrict him from going to church and the boy wants to go to church.” The dispute is about “parental rights versus a 14-year-old boy’s conviction,” he said. “It seems like we stepped on sacred ground.”
Ross, the deprogrammer, said other churches in the chain have tried to turn children against their “backslider” parents.
“They will instigate constant confrontation between parent and minor to the point where the parent will throw the minor out of the house. They will create this situation where the parent will burn out.” However, he added. “They recognize that they cannot gain custody of a minor.”
Paron said she wasn’t willing to give up on her son. She asked Anchorage police to investigate the matter.
“It’s really a bizarre story,” said police Investigator jack Chapman, who agreed to look into it.
Chapman interviewed Aaron, who told him that he didn’t need to attend to school or ever get a job because the church would take care of him.
“At one point, he attacked his brother, told him he was walking with the devil,” said Chapman. But the boy said his mother never mistreated him.
On March 3, after Aaron had been living at the Covenant House shelter for several weeks, he checked himself out, according to an Anchorage Police Department report. Paron asked APD to help her find her son.
Officer Lisa Coffey went to Potter’s House with Paron and another officer to look for Aaron because there was a service that night. She introduced herself to Bates and asked if Aaron was there. He responded that he might be, according to Coffey’s report, and asked if she had a search warrant.
Meanwhile, Paron was looking around the church and found Aaron hiding in the baptismal pool. He jumped out, according to Coffey, ran to his mother, laid his hand on her forehead, raised his right hand in the air and began to speak loudly in tongues.
“He told Satan to flee from her and continued the loud praying in an undeterminable language,” Coffey wrote. “As we escorted him from the church, the people remaining there, mostly young teen-agers, but many adults, followed us – also raised their hands and loudly prayed in tongues all the way to our cars.”
Chapman later took the case to the district attorney, who declined to prosecute Overson and Bates on charges of harboring a runaway and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Last Friday, they agreed to a legal stipulation that they would not harbor Aaron, entice him away from his mother, attempt to influence his behavior or take any action that would interfere with Paron’s parental rights.
“According to the law, only parents, grandparents and other close relatives and the state can enter into custody fights like that,” said Paron’s attorney, Vince Usera.
“Their alleged antics of hiding him and enticing him into running away and harboring him is making her miserable. And it’s not doing much for the boy, either.
“According to the psychologist who’s seeing him, he’s completely brainwashed. He has given me and affidavit to that effect. He needs to be kept away from them for a while and worked with to be deprogrammed.”
Aaron is home now. “One minute he’s fine, the next minute he wants to go live with his ‘real family,’ ” his mother said. She expects it to take a long time to regain his trust.
“It’s got to be prevented from happening to anyone else’s family,” she said. “I’ve been a damn good mother. I’ve got my problems, but I know I’ve been a good mother. What these people have done to my family is inconceivable.
“If that’s Christianity, I don’t want any part of it.”