The Phoenix Gazette, by Michelle Bearden
When she was 16, Debbie Christensen claims she was raped by a member of her church. When she told her pastor about it, he said that she probably deserved t and to “shut up about it” – or else.
Jeff Jacobsen found himself destitute and hungry, living in a beat-up van in a parking lot, giving whatever money he made to his church. The pastor, on the other hand, drove a fancy car and lived in a spacious beautiful home.
Mary Katz, who was spending six to seven nights a week at her church, began to view her Christian parents as satanic, and cut them out of her life.
All three of these Valley residents are victims of religion gone wrong. Today, they are part of a newly formed support group called Second Chance, which helps former members of cults, destructive groups and radically fundamental Christian organizations get back on their feet again.
The support organization is the first of its kind for the Phoenix area, which has been described as a “hotbed of activity” for religiously fanatic groups.
“We share something that most people can’t begin to understand,” says Christensen, who still bears emotional scars from her experience four years ago with the “La Puerta” church in El Paso. “It’s dramatic and it’s devastating. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.”
She was an impressionable teenager into drugs and alcohol when La Puerta members recruited her. All it took was one day, and she was hooked.
Christensen, now a 22-year-old mother of two, says she was “love-bombed” by church members, who repeatedly told how much they and Jesus loved her. But there was a dark side to the comforting words. If she dared to stop witnessing and leave the church, she would be damned and go straight to hell.
That threat was affirmed when one friend dropped out and a week later her parents died in a tragic auto accident.
“The members kept saying it was all her fault, that she caused her parents’ death,” Christensen recalls, her eyes brimming with tears. “They have a way of trapping you with guilt and backing you in a corner. You almost need permission to go to the bathroom.”
The rape finally woke up Christensen. She left El Paso to escape the church and moved to Phoenix in an attempt to rebuild her broken life. In her spare time, she campaigns vigorously against the estimated 600 branches of the worldwide church, which operates under several names and is headquartered in Prescott.
Several efforts to contact church founder Wayman Mitchell at his home were unsuccessful.
“I feel I lost my youth to that church,” she says. “I still can’t even read the Bible. It was all spoiled for me. It all comes flooding back.”
When Katz moved from Los Angeles to Prescott for a slower pace of life, she was “ready and willing to walk into something.” That something was Mitchell’s church, then called Foursquare Gospel Church (now Potter’s House).
Mary and her sister, Roberta, became devoted followers, spending as much time as possible raising money and recruiting new members. Mitchell was their reverend leader and they would do anything for him.
Including cutting their ties to the rest of their family.
“The church was our home. After all, we were spending all our nights and all our money there,” she says. “Our parents were very upset and hurt, but that didn’t stop us.”
It was boredom that finally drew Katz out of the fold. After five years, she grew tired of making the church the center of her life, and rebelled by doing something “outrageously” independent: She bought a television.
“We were glued to that set for weeks,” she says. “Television, music, books – anything not approved by Wayman was definitely sinful. It was our first break to freedom.”
After her departure, Katz says she was forced to leave the city and move to Phoenix.
“I couldn’t live a functional life in Prescott,” she says. “The members harassed me beyond belief. I had to get out before something bad happened.”
Following another preacher blindly will never happen again to Katz, who vows “No one dictates my walk with God. I learned that lessons the hard way.”
So did Steve Schoner, one of the founders of Life After Potter’s House, a support group for ex-members of one of Mitchell’s churches in Flagstaff. He gave up ten years of his life tot he church, most of it in the discipleship program in preparation for the ministry.
With a degree in religion and philosophy from Northern Arizona University, he appeared to be on the right career path. But Schoner became uneasy about having “absolute submission to the headship” of the church and began backing off.
Church officials were not pleased.
“I was labeled a backslider for shirking my responsibilities,” he recalls. “My perspective was somewhat different, however. I saw it as their unwillingness to allow me to question and think for myself.”
He was warned that f he left the group, he would be in the devil’s grip and God would abandon him. He took the risk and paid a dear price.
“I would guess it took me about three years to feel normal again,” says Schoner, who now works for the National Park Service. “I wasn’t unusual; depression is a real hallmark for people coming out of groups like this. I went through extreme disillusionment toward God and religion in general.”
He now attends Flagstaff Christian Fellowship, but it’s without the psychological addiction he experienced with Potter’s House. While he’s comfortable with religion organization again, he doesn’t feel it’s essential for his walk with God.
“The only thing I can’t shake are the bad dreams. I wake up in a sweat, and the bad feelings all come back again,” Schoner says. “maybe they’ll never go away.”
Jacobsen was raised a Lutheran but visited the United Pentecostal Church at age 16 while living in South Dakota. He says he had a “mystical experience” that kept him a follower for six years.
For Jacobsen, the realization that he was living in poverty and his preacher was basking comfort began to make him uncomfortable.
He also began to question some of the doctrine outlined by his minister. That was akin to doubting God, and surely the work of Satan himself, he was told.
“I figured for all my sacrifice, I was due some peace. And it just wasn’t coming,” he said. “When I finally left, it felt like I was leaving my entire belief system. It took several years before I could feel whole again.”
Although Jacobsen considers himself a Christian, he doesn’t feel he needs to join a church anymore.
“Any church that separates society into an us-versus-them state is dangerous,” he says. “The main lesson I learned is that not all religion is good. If I ever became interested in a group again, I would do a lot more research beforehand.”
Information about Second Chance is available at 438-0308.