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Potter’s House: Pearly gates or prison walls?

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Arizona Daily Sun/October 2, 1988, by Ted Bartimus and Karen M. Bullock

“They say, ‘Where’s the fruit?’ The answer is we’re the fruit. We’re wasted, we’re brainwashed. I’ve yet to meet anyone that has come out of this who has anything positive to say about it.”

-Mark Workman, former Potters House member.

Lou Muccitelli, an 11-year member of the Potters House who was recently expelled, feels like a small child discovering the many wonders of the world for the first time. But Muccitelli is not a child. He is a 42-year-old divorced man who is trying to put his shattered life back together.

Doris Workman used to have two sons. Now she feels she has only one. Her youngest, 32-year-old Neil Workman, is a member of the Potters House and has apparently alienated his family, including his brother Mark, who broke his church ties about five years ago. Mrs. Workman, who is a born-again Christian, said she still cries for her “lost” son and thinks about her grandson who she has seen only once.

These views of the worldwide fundamentalist church, which has one facility in Flagstaff, are not unique. Many ex-church members feel they have been brainwashed, deceived and most of all, cast out by a betrayed friend. Many have given thousands of dollars to the church in tithes (donations), buying into a promise of salvation. But some say they received only a large helping of religious and cultic rhetoric, topped off with a twisted Christian doctrine, all sprinkled with the threat of eternal damnation.

The apparent horror stories told by former members of Potters House are all very similar. Many left the church on their own, many had family members intervene and a few say they were expelled for asking too many questions about the church’s doctrines and financial dealings.

The Potters House, first known as Victory Chapel, has its international roots in Prescott. The church was established in 1970 by Pastor Wayman Mitchell, who continues to be the ruling authority. Mitchell originally belonged to the International Church of Four Square Gospel, but in the late 1960’s he separated himself from the organization and founded Victory Chapel.

The organization took its name from scriptures and literally means what its title implies: a place where people are molded and shaped like pottery into good Christians.

From its modest roots, the Potters House has grown into a powerful religious organization, numbering more than 600 churches worldwide. No one can even guess how many followers are in the church’s flock.

The current Potters House, 520 N. Switzer Canyon Drive, was one of the first churches started after the birth of the Prescott facility. Assistant Pastor Tom Eickmeyer said the church is unique in that it keeps no membership rolls and people can come and go as they please.

But Eickmeyer rejects former church members’ attacks, claiming they are unfounded and untrue.

“We teach from the biblical standpoint and church membership is built as people…ask Christ into their life,” he said. ” We do not typify what you would call a cult. Not in any way do we represent a cult.”

Another unique aspect of the church is its sterile and pure appearance. No biblical paraphernalia adorns the interior walls; no stained glass graces the windows, and no saintly statues guard sacred doors. None of these worldly creations appears in the Bible, said the assistant pastor, so they do not appear in the church.

Eickmeyer also said the Potters House does encourage its members to tithe only because it is a biblical practice. It is not a mandatory practice and the congregation is expected to give 10 percent of its gross earnings only when they can.

Because the church claims to follow the teachings of the Bible, pastors are not required to attend Bible school. Eickmeyer said Bible school does not give hands-on experience, which is essential to effective pastoring. In addition, Bible school attendance was not required of Jesus’s disciples; therefore it is not a Bible teaching, Eickmeyer said.

But the Bible does have specific teachings concerning the role of women in life.

“We have a number of ladies in the church that work jobs, but we do not encourage…for the wife to work, especially when there are children involved,” Eickmeyer said. “In a real sense, the woman’s place is in the home with her family. The ideal situation is for the wife to take care of the home, take care of the children and be a wife to her husband.”

The Potters House is also known as Praise Chapel, The Door, Grace Chapel, La Capilla de la Victory, La Casa Del Alfarero and La Puerta. It has churches in Australia, Europe, the Phillipines, Mexico and South America.

Eickmeyer said the church’s philosophy is a simple one: to preach the gospel according to the New Testament and to spread the word through discipleship, derived from early Christianity. The local church is run by Pastor Conrad Orosco.

“Our position…is that people who come in, if they so choose, can leave at any time. We are not here to dominate people,” Eickmeyer said.

“We understand very clearly that people are people…and we do not have the right to tell people what to do or who to see.”

Eickmeyer said the church is considering action because of verbal attacks on the church, but would not disclose the type of action.

“I feel that it is just a personal problem that they (ex-members) have. They have taken something, I believe, that in essence is nothing and in their own struggle… have tried and fairly successfully made something out of nothing,” Eickmeyer said. “The whole thing is crazy. It’s insane what they are doing.”

But those who feel they have finally found the inner strength and emotional stability to speak out against the church and its preachings do not think they are insane. In fact, many feel they are experiencing sanity for the first time in a long while.

“This is going to be ‘Pottergate’ when the full story comes out. A lot of things which have been hidden are going to be exposed,” Muccitelli said. He was apparently expelled from the organization for asking to see the financial records.

“It is getting to the point of Jim Jones and in 10 years it will be a full-fledged cult and very dangerous to the community,” he said.

Mrs. Workman already believes the Potters House is a cult.

“It takes over your life. It has been devastating to both myself and my husband. It’s heartbreaking to see Neil now,” she said. “Neil always had a good heart. Now he lies a lot to protect the church.”

Former church member Dave Diver said he sought truth through his soiled, black Bible, the pages speckled in the margins with handwritten notes. He alleges that many of the Potters House’s tenets do not conform with the Bible’s teachings.

The college graduate who has intended to be a Lutheran minister became a member of Potters House, then known as Victory Chapel, 13 years ago. He left in January.

“It’s humiliating to some people to say you bought this rap,” he said. “What got me out of there was my understanding of the Bible, plus the damage I saw there.”

Diver said he was at a transition point in his life when he joined the Potters House. He said people are more apt to join when they are vulnerable.

Considering the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37, Diver maintains the Potters House has “gotten to the point where the ends justifies the means, which also is like a cult.”

The Biblical story in which Jesus praises a good Samaritan for his humanitarian character can be paralleled to non-church persons such as Rick Ross, a deprogrammer or exit counselor.

Ross has treated ex-members of the Potters House for a number of years, trying to help them reconstruct their confused and segmented life. He uses a simple yet powerful technique on his patients: the power of their own mind.

But Eickmeyer appears to doubt Ross’s methods and his authenticity.

“Mr. Ross… is a non-Christian man and his position is a position that is not a Christian position,” Eickmeyer said.

“It’s the religious guy who want sot make it complicated so he can merchandise and glorify over it,” Diver said.

“They (certain church leaders) can do things that are methodical, that go against humanitarianism, against common virtue, and call it Christianity – that’s what got me upset.”

Church leaders maintain that a person can be an individual as long as they follow Biblical teachings. However, Diver maintains he was taught being an individual was not a part of Christian teachings.

But how Biblical teachings are interpreted apparently sparks disagreement. Diver alleges that Potters House members are brainwashed to the point that they cannot think for themselves and cannot come up with their own Biblical interpretations.

Diver also said Potters House teachings urge members to be selective about what they read and see on television.

“Christ said it’s not what comes in the man that’s sin, it’s what comes out of the man that’s sin,” Diver said.

Post-Potters House disorder

Like clockwork, Steve Schoner awakens in the middle of the night, trying to shake the feeling of standing in church naked.

The effects of the nightmare subside, but the depression continues.

“I would be depressed. I would get extremely angry, angry at my wife,” Schoner recalls.

“And then every night between 3 and 4 (a.m.) I would wake up. Sometimes I would have nightmares: I would dream about being in church stark naked – there’s probably meaning to that.”

Schoner’s condition has been compared to the post-traumatic stress disorder of Vietnam veterans. But he says his anxiety is couched in the firing fields of church preachings – experiences that no amount of sleep can shake free immediately.

“I still occasionally wake up around 3 or 4, but I’m coming out of it now,” he said.

Schoner began drifting away from Potters House between 1982 and 1985.

“It was hell. I went through some depressive attacks,” he said.

Schoner finally made the conscious choice to leave the Potters House, but he had forgotten what the outside world was like. The close-knit atmosphere of the church made the outside world hostile.

And then there was the overriding omen of his going to hell because he left the church.

Eickmeyer denies the church tries to make people feel guilty for leaving.

“Our feeling and our position is.. if they choose not to stay, they have that perfect right,” he said. “We’re not here to dominate people.”

Former member Mark Workman maintains that church techniques are designed to make the congregation submissive, keeping members sheltered within the church’s world.

“We’re kept inside this little make-believe world and it doesn’t work. Then suddenly, you are out and you still have those church things buried inside your mind,” Workman said.

Workman said he also experienced the “withdrawal” symptoms similar to Schoner’s.

Workman decided to leave the church because Bible studies were structured around videotapes made by Potters House leader Wayman Mitchell.

Schoner said several things prompted him to leave the church. he said that his run for mayor in the early 1980s attracted the church’s loathing.

Shortly after his failed bid for office, Schoner sat at a church service attended by nearly 300 members. An evangelist was talking about man’s commitment to God.

Schoner recalled the evangelist’s comment: “He said, ‘Steve Schoner, are you running for mayor or are you running for Jesus?’ My face flushed.”

Muccitelli also likens his strange dreams and cold chills to the feelings of a Vietnam veteran. He often gets an eerie feeling that he and his home are filled with evil spirits. But he is slowly learning to deal with the feeling and says his attendance at another Christian fundamentalist church is helping.

Mind control

Schoner made his decision to leave Potters House after talking to the pastor.

Schoner said the church became too time-consuming. Once, he left a service early to get his 2-year-old daughter to bed before 10 p.m. He said he was scolded for leaving early.

“I said, ‘Listen pastor, I just can’t take it. I don’t have enough rest. I’m tired.’ He (pastor) said, ‘Well, Steve, other men of God do it.’ He said, ‘Steve, if you don’t answer the altar call tonight, you might just as well not come to church.'”

Failing to attend church results in no blessing from God, Schoner said Potters House rules exhort.

Former Potters House members claim threats of not being blessed and presages of going to hell are used to control members’ minds and make them submissive.

It has been reported by former members that they opted to stay in the church rather than move to another city for a better job.

Eickmeyer maintained that churchgoers have “the perfect right” to leave the church, but former worshipers say they are pressure to stay.

In a tape-recorded sermon in 1979 at the Victory chapel, Pastor Jack Harris tells his congregation: “A brand new convert gets saved and God puts him in this church, the first thing the devil will tell him, ‘You need to leave this town; there’s no work here.’ Hogwash. Stay here by faith and starve to death serving God and keep looking for a job. If you die of hunger, at least you’ll go to heaven. That’s right, that’s right. Oddly enough, I haven’t ever really seen anyone starve to death yet. Amen.”

The tape was obtained by The Sun from a former Potters House member who asked that he not be identified.

Former members also say church leaders dictate personal lives through pressure.

In another tape, the former member identifies Orosco giving a sermon Sept. 13, 1987, titled “Spiritual Unity.”

On the tape, Orosco says, “See, when you guys come tome and ask me to get married and I tell you no, that’s what God, the Father, is telling you.”

Schoner said he was part of the problem too and is sorry about it.

Schoner, who was a Potters House Bible study leader, remembers talking to two women who were thinking about leaving the church.

“To the first girl, we really laid a heavy rap on,” Schoner said. “We said, ‘Hey, if you leave the church, God is not going to bless you and you’re going to be a sheep out of the flock… and the wolves are going to come out and get you.’

“I can’t believe I used those words,” Schoner said. “I’m so ashamed. What I was looking for when she left was for her to fall and she did. I said, ‘I told you so.'”

Eickmeyer denies such tactics are used, including the threat of going to hell. “That’s not a Scripture statement,” he said.

Concerning allegations that church leaders try to control minds, Eickmeyer said allegations that church leaders try to control minds are not true.

Nevertheless, Workman recalls an instance in which a Potters House evangelist questioned the virtue of Workman lifting weights.

“He said, ‘You need to get your heart together about weightlifting.’ I said, ‘What will happen tome?’ He said, ‘I don’t really know what will happen, but if I were you, I wouldn’t mess with God.’ I was really scared at that point,” Workman said.

Workman said he was told by church leaders that lifting weights was too “worldly.”

Eickmeyer responded: “I can’t say whether anyone made those comments to him.

“I would say that is a very untrue statement.”

Eickmeyer said he use to life weights and is thinking about starting again.

Eickmeyer pointed out that Workman is a large man. “I could envision someone looking at Mark and making a comment about his weightlifting,” but the assistant pastor said discouraging weightlifting or any other fitness activities “certainly is not a doctrine or tenet of our church.”

Separation from family, friends

Muccitelli divorced his wife 11 years ago and left their four children at the encouragement of the church. He also gave up a number of good-paying jobs in other cities because there was no Potters House in the area. He justified all his shortcoming by believing it was the Lord’s way.

“My wife was not happy with the change in me and would not come out here. My first thoughts were to go back east and patch things up. But my pastor advised me not to do that. So I stayed and lost my family,” Muccitelli said. “I stayed here; unemployed and without a family, but I was a faithful disciple. As I lost my family, I pulled closer to the church group.”

“I still love the individuals at the church but hate the false doctrine. It is not Christian. Yes, I am bitter because I lost my family. All this time I have been waiting for divine intervention. I had actually resigned myself to being a dishwasher or a cab driver and never to see my kids – all in the name of being a good Christian and going to heaven. I was brainwashed.”

Muccitelli also said church leaders used public ridicule as another means of control.

“They place a lot of stress on the members by telling them everything outside the church is evil. You are not supposed to associate with your family if they are non-members,” Muccitelli said. “Unmarried people have to be in the church before they can even date and then the people they can date and marry are just a select few.”

During his tenure as a church member, Muccitelli saw his parents only once. With two weeks of vacation coming at Christmas time a few years ago, he decided to see them. But Muccitelli said his pastor discouraged him, saying he would not be able to separate himself from the church for more than four days.

“It was like a post-hypnotic suggestion. After four days I could not stand it anymore and I came home. I sat in my room for a whole week with nothing to do,” Muccitelli said. “Part of the reason I stayed with the church so long was because of the price I paid. It was stifled.”

Mrs. Workman also feels her son has been stifled by the church and told not to associate with his family because they are not of the Potters House fellowship. Her son Neil has been in the church for about eight years.

“He kept telling me to get out of my church and if I didn’t, I would go to hell. Pretty soon he stopped coming around and we would only see him twice a year,” Mrs. Workman said. “Neil was a real ham. He was the clown of the family and was always around. When I was working he would always have lunch waiting for me when I got home. It all just stopped.”

The situation became worse when her husband had three severe bouts with lung cancer. During this period, Neil apparently only visited his father twice, saying he could not spare anymore time at the risk of missing a church service.

“Anything related to Christianity in our house he rebukes. If he comes home at all it is just for the holidays and is only for a couple hours,” Mrs. Workman said. “The church also arranged his marriage for him.”

But Eickmeyer denies that the church preaches against the family. He said the church actually promotes the family as on of the most important teachings in the Bible.

“We are very pro-family. Personally, I as an individual am very, very family orientated. Family is an important and precious thing,” Eickmeyer said. “We as a congregation absolutely do not advocate that people should not and cannot see their family. We are a family church. Many, many of our members have family and friends which are not Christians and they visit them all the time.”

Eickmeyer also said that because the Potters House is comprised of people from all walks of life who have converted to Christianity, the church is very accepting of those outside its beliefs and no restrictions are placed upon its members’ family visitations.

While there may be no strict rules forcing members to attend church activities, strong suggestions, littered with omens of going to hell, prompt church members to attend regularly, according to another former member who left the church three years ago.

“They would insist I go to church all the time,” said Doris Toomey of San Diego. “It brought a strain on my marriage. He (her husband) would say, ‘Why don’t we go to a football game?”‘

Her husband was not a member of Potters House.

“The marriage ended in a divorce – I had to choose between my husband or the church. he filed for a divorce.”

Offerings and tithes

When people choose to join the Potters House, they are encouraged to tithe or give 10 percent of their gross earnings to the church, Eickmeyer said. But tithing is strictly voluntary and is expected only of those who can afford it.

“It is a very scriptural principle and has been ordained by God for the work and support of the minister,” Eickmeyer said. “During the service we pass the baskets and (the people0 have the opportunity to give or not. Never once have I heard of anyone going to an individual and saying they need to tithe.”

Those who do not tithe are also “encouraged” to place their donation in a church-provided envelope with the enclosed amount written on the front. At the end of each year, these people are notified of their total amount, Eickmeyer said.

But the offerings do not stop with tithes. Special gifts are often needed from the congregation in order to send pastors out seeking new members for the flock. Special needs are also funded with added donations, Eickmeyer said.

But the Potters House version and ex-members’ versions of tithing differ significantly. Pastors use the fear of damnation and unacceptance against those who do not put their fair share in the basket, Muccitelli said.

Muccitelli figures he has given the Potters House more than $20,000 in the past decade, yet all of his worldly belongings fit in the back of a small pick-up truck. He has given up a college education because he said the church does not believe in education. A church member’s life is very focused, Muccitelli said, and anything done against the “false doctrine” of the church is punishable by eternal damnation.

“I even got behind in my child-support payments so I could pay my tithes. I am not proud of this,” Muccitelli said. “The church is paying for his (Pastor Orosco’s) house, his car and his van. The congregation idolizes him and not in a theological sense.”

Mrs. Workman’s story concerning her son Neil is similar.

“Neil gives his tithes and his pledges and they are living in poverty,” Mrs. Workman said. “Three years ago Neil came home for Christmas and told us he had no money for gifts. He thrilled us all with a card. But I later found out he had bought Pastor Orosco a recliner chair. He said it was because he loved the pastor. Members of congregation bought Orosco a boat because they love him.”

Eickmeyer countered the accusations by saying members are actually discouraged from lavishing large gifts upon Orosco. However, Eickmeyer said members do occasionally show appreciation for their local leader, giving him small gifts at Christmas and for his birthday.

The controversy surrounding the Potters House apparently has spread nationally. “Geraldo,” a national talk show hosted by television journalist Geraldo Rivera, recently aired a story concerning the Flagstaff Potters House and cults in the nation.

Ross, the deprogrammer who was featured on the show, said he is receiving more and more phone calls from people both in and out of the Potters House who apparently need help. Those people can expect a long road to complete recovery, Ross said.

Such is the case with Muccitelli.

“God is slowly healing me,” he said. “I laugh more and am discovering more about myself. I feel like it is no longer a long-distance call when I pray. Before I felt like I had to pray for a half hour before I got through.

“They (Potters House pastors) told me if I left, I was the devil, a heretic and their arch rival. They said the Earth would open up and swallow me. Well, I’m still here.”

Source: RickRoss.com

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