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Wednesday, November 26, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Just eight words on a billboard

The message is but eight words divided into two short sentences set against puffy white clouds on a blue and black background.

One of the men behind the billboard message says his life has been threatened because of it, which seems an odd thing since those doing the threatening all profess to be Christians.

Just eight words:

"Don't believe in God?" the upper left of the billboard reads. "You are not alone," the lower right says.

I have no idea how many times I have passed the sign in the days since it went up at Colfax Avenue and Quebec Street on Nov. 17, but I never noticed it until someone pointed it out the other day.

I don't get the fuss. And yes, I appear to be alone in this.

The billboard is one of 11 in Denver and Colorado Springs paid for by a group that calls itself the Colorado Coalition of Reason, a self-described coalition of "freethinker, atheist and humanist" groups.

The sole purpose of the ads, the group maintains, is what it says: to let other freethinkers, atheists and humanists know there is a group out there for them.

Two of the 11 signs were supposed to go up in Fort Collins and Greeley, the group said. This was so until the moment the media company that owns the two billboards read the message.

The hate mail and nasty, threatening phone messages began almost immediately.

Much of it has been directed at Joel Guttormson, who mostly has been serving as a spokesman for COCORE, as they call it.

Twenty-two and a Metro State junior majoring in theoretical mathematics, Guttormson also is president of the Metro State Atheists, one of the 11 groups that make up COCORE.

"It's been kind of wild, kind of outrageous," he says of days since the billboards went up.

"It has been mostly Christians who've been calling and e-mailing," Joel Guttormson said, "which is strange since the message is not directed at Christians or anyone from any religion.

"You know, if you see an ad for migraine medicine and you don't have a migraine, why would you care?"

Almost all of the feedback, he said, has been from people who say the billboards denigrate Christians. He says he still has no idea how that is possible.

"We are not out to anger people," Joel Guttormson said. "I don't know why people think that. So much of it says we are evil and that we hate everybody.

"Have you seen the billboard? Tell me where any of them mentions evil or hate. Why is everyone so mad?"

John Matson, of Denver, was so mad after seeing the Santa Fe Drive sign that he dashed off an angry letter to the billboard's owner.

"It is a despicable act to allow that sign," the 60-year-old man said in an interview, "and for just a few pieces of silver."

He went on COCORE's Web site, and it made him even angrier, John Matson said. It is trying to gather, he said, "a constituency of what I call mob rule."

"I know they're atheists, and my opinion is they want others to believe the same thing. The billboard misrepresents their purpose," he said. "Their agenda is wolf-in-sheep's clothing political. Why don't they just say it."

Yes, he is a Christian, John Matson said.

"I also understand free speech. And I can also stand up and tell them that they are wrong."

He has yet, he said, to hear back from the billboard company.

That is about the tone of much of what he has heard, Joel Guttormson said. He saves each call, files the e-mails in a folder.

"I read them, put them away and forget about it," he says. "My sister keeps telling me I need to watch out for myself."

He began investigating religion and faith early on, he said, and by high school he was a confirmed atheist.

People ostracized him. It is rare now that he even mentions it outside of his group, he said.

"I don't tell people at work. I keep my mouth shut."

Atheism, he said, scares people, the mere possibility that God doesn't exist.

He remembers one woman running away from an event his group sponsored, "saying that if she listened to us, she would go to hell. I just sat there thinking, 'Wow! We're really that awful?' "

He is braced for the next few weeks. It is what he calls the radical Christians that are making the most noise, Joel Guttormson said.

"I'll spend more time defending this than anything else," he said. "I've already learned that anything we do is not going to satisfy them. Anything we do or say is only going to make them more angry."

I had only one more question:

Have the billboards, which will remain up through Dec. 14, worked?

"We've gotten fairly good response from a lot of like-minded people, including some people from out of state who heard about what we are doing," Joel Guttormson said.

"The cool thing is we've even had some Christians step up and defend us. They know our message is no more offensive than one that reads:

"Believe in God? You're not alone."


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Youth Minister's Wife with 16-Year-Old Church Member

Pastor Gerald Thompson from Salem Baptist Church said 28-year-old Melissa Jones came to him last Thursday crying. She confessed to having sex with a 16-year-old member of the youth ministry that her husband runs.

Prosecutors say the affair started in September. Jones faces up to 7 years behind bars for aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

"The Bible says be sure your sin will find you out. And her sin found her out," said Thompson. It's a sin the congregation at Salem Baptist Church is trying hard to forgive.

"What she did was a betrayal. She betrayed my trust in her, betrayed the churches trust, betrayed her husbands trust and betrayed the trust of the teenagers. And there's absolutely no excuse for what she did," said Thompson.

Now parents like Gary Perry struggle to tell their teens about Melissa Jones. He says her actions should not tarnish the youth group. But he doesn't understand why she did it. "

Your first instinct is not believing it. If you knew her and the young man like I do, you'd be shocked also." said Perry.

Perry's son is part of the youth group and saw Jones and her husband Dean more than once a week. Now that friendship is part of a life lesson.

"I've already talked to my kids about it. You've got to think about consequences of what you do. No man lives and dies to himself. Everything you do affects everything else," said Perry.
Dean Jones, Assistant Pastor, with wife, Melissa

Jones was kicked out of the church, but her husband and two children can stay. Pastor Thompson wants everyone to know. He will not let one person's mistake, change the church he's loved for 20 years.

"Storms come in life but we don't have to be blown away by the storms if we keep our eyes focused on the lord we'll make it through alright," said Thompson.

"This is no reflection on this church or on Christ himself. We're all human and we all make mistakes. The church is a good church, good pastor, good people, and we'll just go on.

Jones is out of jail on $10,000 bond.

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Monday, November 24, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

The compelling love of Christ

Rob Foster was 16 when his family unraveled.

He had told his parents that he wanted to leave Calvary Temple, the Pentecostal church in Sterling the family had attended for decades. But church leaders were blunt with his parents: Throw your son out of the house, or you will be excommunicated. And so that December two years ago, Gary and Marsha Foster told Rob that he had to leave. They would not see him or talk to him.

"I was devastated," he said.

For more than three decades, hundreds of families have been coming to Calvary Temple, a sprawling, beige stucco complex that sits unobtrusively behind the suburban strip malls and subdivisions of Leesburg Pike. As conservative Christianity flourished in Loudoun County and across the country in the 1980s, Calvary thrived.

Under the leadership of longtime pastor Star R. Scott, Calvary opened a school, television and radio ministries, and satellite churches around the globe. The local congregation at one point numbered 2,000.

Scott's followers see him as an inspiring interpreter of God's word. Members pack the church most nights, united in their desire to live as the Bible intended and reject what they view as society's moral ambivalence.

"Church isn't for everyone who wants to just show up," Scott said in an interview. "It's not a community club. We're not looking to build moral, successful children. We're looking to build Christians."

But for hundreds of members who have left the church during the past decade, Calvary is a place of spiritual warfare, where ministers urged them to divorce spouses and shun children who resisted the teachings. Scott is twisting the Bible's message, they say, and members who challenged the theology were accused of hating God.

They had joined eagerly, drawn to Scott's energy as a new religious broadcaster and his commitment to living by the literal word of the Bible. He defined the church. But just as he built Calvary, they say, Scott transformed it, taking it from a vibrant, open church to a rigidly insular community over which he has almost total control.

In 2002, three weeks after the death of his wife, Scott, who was then 55, stood before the congregation and announced that the Bible instructed him as a high priest to take a virgin bride from the faithful. A week later, he did -- a pretty 20-year-old who a couple of years earlier had been a star basketball player on the church high school team.

Scott said he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of church funds on a fleet of race cars and until last year devoted many weekends touring the circuit for his "racing ministry." The church Web site shows Scott and his wife, Greer, 26, posing in racing suits, helmets in hand, beside a red dragster.

Scott is Calvary's "apostle" and presiding elder, and in 1996, he named himself the sole trustee, putting him in charge of virtually all of the church's operations, its theology and finances.

In his sermons, Scott teaches that his church is scripturally superior to others and views keeping people in the fold as a matter of their salvation. "Anything that's other than a member in harmony has to be identified and expelled," Scott preached in May 2007.

Don't be afraid of "social services" if you throw rebellious children out of the house, he told the congregation in an earlier sermon, because "you obeyed God." In an interview, he cited scriptures: "Deuteronomy says if your kid doesn't follow your God, kill 'em. That's what we do, but not physically. To us, you're dead if you're not serving our God," he said.

Scott describes those who decide to leave the church as "depraved," and Calvary's practice is to cut them off. When parents have left the church, some young children have been urged to stay; a few have been taken in by pastors. Scott's family has been divided, too: Scott is estranged from his 36-year-old son, Star Scott Jr.

"Jesus said, 'I didn't come to bring peace, I came to bring a sword,' " the elder Scott said about the divided families.

Most current members declined to talk to The Washington Post, although Scott and three other leaders spoke at length.

Kim Heglund, Scott's daughter and the wife of a Calvary pastor, said members feel strongly loyal to Calvary because they believe they are living out the Bible: "This is Christianity, people being a family." Bitter feelings and divided families are the exception and caused by people who "pretended to be Christians." Calvary leaders are careful never to explicitly tell people what to do, she said. "We just say: 'This is what the Bible says. You make a decision.' "

Former members contend that much about their lives, from how they spent their money to how they raised their children, was dictated by Scott and other church leaders.

"What started out as a Christian organization has turned into a cult where people are controlled," said Jonathan Ernst, a Calvary pastor until he was blacklisted by Scott in 1994.

Scott's teachings have become well known in Loudoun's conservative religious community, where several ministers expressed criticism and said they have taken into their congregations hundreds of former Calvary members, some of whom are traumatized by their broken families and torn over the meaning of the Bible.

After Rob Foster left the family's tidy home in Sterling, his parents pored over the Bible. Foster said they posed their own questions: Doesn't Deuteronomy 21 say parents, not the pastor, determine whether a child is rebellious? Doesn't Luke 15 tell of a father celebrating the return of his prodigal younger son?

Rob had moved in with a family that had left Calvary but was homesick and would show up at his parents' door on Sundays to talk. After a few months, they took him back.

Soon, the church removed Gary Foster as the choir pianist. And last year, the couple were ejected from the church. Their two older children, still members of Calvary, stopped speaking to them and Rob.

"They think we are in rebellion to what God wants," said Rob, 19, who is studying to be a mechanic.

Of the Fosters, Scott said: "You're choosing to believe differently, and you want to just drop in and bring another philosophy? You can't do this."

Consolidating Authority

At 61, Scott still has the air of the West Coast college football player he once was. He dresses informally, smiles easily and delivers his judgments not by banging the lectern but by using a tone of New Age calm.

In his sermons, he tells of his exploits as a young man, the lure of sports, girls and parties. Born in Monterey, Calif., he was raised in a home where religion wasn't practiced. He was born again at 20.

He gave up sports for pastoring and came east to be a youth minister at a church then known as the Herndon Assemblies of God. He quickly became head pastor, changed the name to Calvary Temple and moved the church to its Sterling location on 31 acres. In 1986, Scott, then in his late 30s, led Calvary to leave the Assemblies of God denomination and become independent.

Now, Scott's church practices its own theology, a blend of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Services are demonstrative, with contemporary music and people speaking in tongues. Members try to organize their lives around a literal interpretation of the Bible, which at Calvary involves uniformity and deference to leadership.

During the 1980s and '90s, Calvary, under the name Star Evangelistic Enterprises, opened churches in Africa and several U.S. cities, including Richmond and Laurel.

Calvary "was like a mecca. It drew people to church from all up and down the East Coast, from well-to-do from Middleburg to people who could barely afford diapers from West Virginia," said Ernst, the former pastor, who works as an arborist in Richmond.

At one point more than a decade ago, Scott closed down the media ministries, along with most of the spinoff churches, to focus on 40 branch churches in East Africa.

"We used to be the biggest thing around, and I'd like to say all my motives were great, but they weren't," he said. Now, "we're better than we've ever been."

Over the past decade, former members say, Scott has increasingly emphasized the wickedness of people and the mercilessness of God. In the 1980s, members voted on who should be pastor and decisions about budgets and real estate. But control of the church has narrowed. Scott has chosen four assistant pastors as well as deacons and elders, with whom he consults on church matters, he said.

"I'm the one who is in authority, and I'll have to answer to God for that," he said.

Former members and church leaders say power essentially rests with Scott.

"If there was anyone in a pastoral position who didn't agree with Star, he was eliminated and often disparaged from the pulpit," Ernst said. Scott "would say, 'God is leading us in this direction, and you are holding us back.' "

Financial Concerns

When Bobby and Katie Timms were in elementary school at Calvary, they said, they were told not to come to class because their parents had fallen behind on tithing -- a mandatory 10 percent of a family's income. Their father had lost his job, but the church would accept that as an excuse only if the family were willing to turn over all its financial information.

All of the former members interviewed told of fundraising campaigns in which they were required to tithe 15 or 20 percent of their earnings for special projects, including one five years ago to expand and remodel the sanctuary. But many of the projects never materialized, they said.

"At the time, I didn't connect the dots. All I knew was, he has all these cars and where is the building?" said Bobby Timms, 19, who attends Northern Virginia Community College. He blames Calvary for his parents' breakup, saying church leaders urged his father to divorce his mother after she left the church.

L. Steve Gardner, associate pastor at Calvary, said the sanctuary project hasn't begun because more funding is needed. "Is money being spent on things other than the building? No," he said. "They are misrepresenting because they are bitter."

Scott's decision to leave the Assemblies of God removed a level of financial oversight, and he eliminated boards and public votes, former members said. Calvary's constitution calls for finances to be administered "by the presiding elder and/or recognized Apostle." Scott holds both positions, according to court documents. The constitution also says that if the church closes, all property will be controlled by the apostle.

The church owns $8.5 million in property, according to land records, including the church site, worth about $5.7 million, and six houses in Loudoun where church employees live, including Scott's 3,400-square-foot home with a pool, worth about $550,000.

Calvary pastors owned at least two of the homes and sold them to the church at a loss, according to land records. Former assistant pastor Richard Miller sold his home to the church in 2000 for $32,000, less than he and his wife had paid for it 11 years earlier.

Miller, who still is a member of the church and lives in the home, did not return calls requesting comment. Scott said the pastors willingly turned over their property to the church in an attempt to "take a poverty vow."

'Automotive Outreach'

With the free hand given to him by congregants, Scott launched a ministry in the early 1990s that dovetailed with a favorite hobby: expensive cars.

He bought Corvettes, Ferraris, dragsters, souped-up motorcycles and trucks, many of which are on view on the ministry Web site. The site describes the racing ministry, named Finish the Race, as "an automotive outreach."

Scott said the goal was to evangelize to crowds at racing events, and "we had thousands of people born again."

County building department records show what many former members describe: a 2,400-square-foot garage on church property where he stored the vehicles. Until last year, when he quit going on the road, Scott carted the vehicles to shows and races across the country in a huge trailer attached to a motor home with granite floors and plasma TVs, said Star Scott Jr., who added that he traveled for years with his father to car events. The son said that his father would be on the road for weeks and that Calvary would pick up the tab, which sometimes included snowmobiling, casino gambling or attending concerts.

He said his father lives off church-paid credit cards, and 2005 card statements he provided to The Post, addressed to Calvary Temple and sent to Pastor Scott's house, show personal spending of $10,000 to $13,000 a month. Items include $2,377 to a company that makes wheels for Harley Davidson motorcycles, $1,450 to a sports memorabilia firm and $544 to a winter sports rental center in Lake Tahoe.

"I don't dispute" the expenses, Scott said, adding that he has no set salary and that his possessions belong to the church. "Some may like it, some may not. I don't tell them what to do with their salary."

Church leaders said that they are selling some of the race cars and that the money will go to support the churches in Africa.

Under federal law, churches can choose any system of governance and are exempt from filing financial information to the government. Federal tax code, however, forbids an individual "such as the creator or the creator's family" from benefiting excessively -- through "unreasonable compensation," for example -- from a tax-exempt organization.

Church finances are not required to be public, but Calvary's lack of transparency is unusual, said experts with the Assemblies of God, whose tenets Scott says he still shares. In Assemblies of God churches, congregations typically vote to select a pastor and are often listed on the title to the property.

"It's not the norm within the Assemblies of God for the pastor to be able to determine everything," said Ron Hall, chairman of church ministries at Valley Forge Christian College and a longtime Assemblies minister. "This is a prime example of someone who wants ultimate control. I would think there would be serious flags."

Broken Families

About 400 members remain and are at the church most days for services or activities including fellowship breakfasts and student basketball games, former members said. Families are expected to send their children to Calvary's school, which has classes from kindergarten through high school.

Rob Foster, the Timmses and others who attended the school say punishments ranged from spankings with a thick wooden paddle to spending the day outside digging, filling and redigging holes.

Charm Kern, a nursing student and mother, says she was traumatized by Calvary teachers telling her in her early adolescence that she was too overweight to be on the cheerleading squad. As punishment for being a "glutton," said Kern, who is 20, she was tied by a rope to faster children and pulled during runs. She and her brother, who was also overweight, would be required to run while other children ate lunch, she said. By ninth grade, she was rebelling against her teachers, and pastors tried to place her and her brother with another family. Her parents pulled the family out of Calvary.

Scott said that Kern's parents initially were supportive of the efforts to help her lose weight and that such measures "are discipline, not punitive."

The school originally was open to any children but was closed to nonmembers in the 1980s as the church became more insular. That growing isolation drove some members to leave. Others left after Scott stood on the sanctuary stage in the fall of 2002, 19 days after the death of his wife after a long battle with cancer, and, according to a transcript, announced that he would take a new wife from the congregation.

Saying the Old Testament calls for a widowed high priest to take a virgin bride, Scott, then 55, said that the next week he would be marrying Greer Parker, whose father is close to Scott. Former members said many congregants were stunned.

"He kept saying it's to keep him from falling into sin, to keep the ministry going," Star Scott Jr. said of his father's explanation to his children.

Others said they began questioning Calvary's theology.

Michelle Freeman, 48, left in December after church leaders and other members urged her to reject her son and her husband, who was not a member. Her son, Channing, had left Calvary as a high school sophomore, setting off heated debates between his parents, leading to their separation.

Channing, 18, wrote an essay this year at his public school describing terrifying dreams about God and Satan he had while in the church. Calvary, he wrote, has "stolen so much of my life. For eleven years I've been devoid of a real life. I don't know what it's like to live."

Now, Michelle Freeman is among more than two dozen former members who gather for support. At a Loudoun Starbucks recently, Freeman cried as those around her talked about their wounded families.

"I've been praying for your boy," one woman told another.

"I was marked while I was in there," said another, using the Calvary term for a member who leaders say should be shunned.

After 12 years at Calvary, Freeman is livid.

"I paid good money for my children to be brainwashed and for my marriage to be ruined," said Freeman, a U.S. Postal Service secretary.

When asked about the divided families, Scott answered, "That happens." They accepted Calvary's theology until it affected them, he said. "They were ready to see it apply to others' lives for years and served many times in the orchestration of it."

Now, "I'm at perfect peace with them being gone," he said. "We're happy with what we believe, so why aren't they happy?"

An excerpt from a Calvary Chapel sermon:


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Saturday, November 22, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Atheism Billboard Only Lasts a Few Days in Rancho Cucamonga


A billboard in Rancho Cucamonga asking viewers to "imagine no religion" was taken down this week after residents and the city complained about its message. The Freedom From Religion Foundation advertisement was first installed last week causing local conversation and complaints. The pressure quickly built up and the General Outdoor sign company took it down.

The foundation's co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor was not so happy, as expressed in a statement they sent out: "Are religionists so thin-skinned they must squelch free debate? One small freethought billboard in the immense state of California is such a threat to insecure religious egos that it must be censored? With local freethinkers' help, the Freedom From Religion Foundation would love to plaster the valley with our message. Let's fight back!"


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Thursday, November 20, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Atheist Advertisements

Related text story: 'Why Believe in a God?' Ad Campaign Launches on D.C. Buses

'Godless' author, former preacher attracts large audience

Dan Barker, prominent atheist and ex-preacher, tells UC Davis his story


Dan Barker, a former preacher who has become an outspoken atheist, told his story to over 300 members of the campus community on Friday night.

Barker, the author of the recently-published Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists, spent most of his two-hour talk explaining how genuine his religious feelings and convictions were - and how they became undone by the time he was 34.

"Religion at its core is divisive; religion creates an in crowd and out crowd; the chosen versus the damned," said Barker, 59, during the opening of his discussion. "Getting rid of religion won't solve all our problems, but it'll be one less reason to fight among ourselves."

Barker became a born-again Christian during high school and delivered his first sermon when he was 15. He said he felt a calling into ministry and majored in religion at Azusa Pacific University.

Barker said he could feel God talk to him and exuded his enthusiasm for Jesus wherever he went.

"I was busy with ministry all the time because Jesus was coming soon," Barker said. "We wouldn't just pray in a restaurant - we'd invite the whole restaurant to pray."

Since he became an atheist, Barker said some critics contend he could not have been a true Christian - a claim he rejects.

"I had asked Jesus to come into my heart and I became born again. I used to preach that you're saved by faith. I also had the faith and feelings," he said. "It just felt wonderful, it just felt great."

In addition to serving as an associate pastor at three different churches, Barker traveled the country preaching the gospel and performing Christian music. He still receives royalties for two Christian musicals he wrote in 1977 and 1978: "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and "His Fleece Was White as Snow."

Barker said fundamentalist Christians like to first jump to the supernatural to reach their conclusions, and he was no exception.

In one instance, Barker said he believed God was directing him where to drive and he ended up at a dead-end next to a field. After waiting for a few minutes, Barker said he "heard" God thank him for passing a test of patience.

"I felt victorious; I obeyed God," Barker said. "These things happen a lot [with fundamentalist Christians]."

Barker now believes there is a scientific explanation as to why some people have more genuine-feeling religious experiences than others.

"I think it's possible that some of us have a susceptibility to mysticism; some of us feel it more, most of us fall somewhere in the middle," he said.

But as he grew older, Barker said some of these feelings began to fade. He said his ministry started to change because he started meeting "different flavors of Christians" and Jesus "still hadn't come again."

"I went through a process where I started preaching more love and less hell. Jesus kept not returning and eventually I moved over [to the more liberal side of Christianity] as I met different varieties of Christians," he said.

"I realized that there is no one Christianity," he said. "Each one can prove to themselves that they are the right one."

By the time he reached his early thirties, Barker said he became troubled by biblical inconsistencies and by the fact that what he perceived to be small issues of faith - such as whether Adam and Eve were historical - were tearing apart congregations.

"Paul said God is not the author of confusion, but can you think of a book that's caused more confusion than the Bible?" Barker said. "I realized that the human race has a propensity to believe things that are patently false. What makes me exempt?"

Finally, after a long struggle with his doubts and a period of keeping his disbelief secret, in 1984 Barker wrote a one-page letter to friends and family telling them that he had become an atheist.

"I didn't hate Jesus. I fell in love with reason," Barker said. "When you realize life is precious, it has more value. I would rather accept this fact, as scary as it might be, than lie about it."

Barker is now co-president of the Freedom from Religion Society and co-host of Freethought Radio, an atheist radio program broadcasted on Air America.

Barker praised the UC Davis Atheists and Agnostic Student Association, the sponsor of his talk, and argued that the rising popularity of such student groups is indicative of a national trend.

"The fastest-growing religious identification in the U.S.A. is 'non-religious.' More and more people are coming to secular thinking on their own," he said.

But not everyone is becoming secular, as evidenced by the presence of a contingent of Christians at Barker's talk.

A first-year UC Davis Intervarsity Christian Fellowship student, who wished to remain unidentified, said Barker challenged his negative view of atheists. However, Barker was not about to change the student's mind.

"I think Barker can believe what he wants, but no matter what he says, I'm going to believe," the student said. "I have a strong passion for God."

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Monday, November 17, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Disgraced Pastor Haggard: I Was Abused as Child

Ted Haggard, evangelical pastor brought down by sex scandal, says he was abused as a child

Disgraced evangelical pastor Ted Haggard says he was sexually abused as a child and that the experience "started to rage in my mind and in my heart" when he was caught up in a sex scandal involving a male prostitute. Haggard made the remarks in two recent sermons in Morrison, Ill., ABC's "Good Morning America" reported Wednesday.

Haggard said one of his father's employees "had a sexual experience with me" when Haggard was 7, according to audio recordings of the sermons posted on the ABC News Web site.

Haggard said he later became "a conservative Republican, loving the word of God, an evangelical, born-again, spirit-filled, charismatic, all those things.

"But some of the things that were buried in the depths of the sea from when I was in the second grade started to rage in my mind and in my heart," he said.

In 2006, Haggard was fired as pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs when a former male prostitute alleged they had a cash-for-sex relationship. The man also said he saw Haggard use methamphetamine. Haggard also stepped down as president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

He has said some of the allegations were exaggerated but he has never offered specifics.

Haggard, who is starting an insurance agency in Colorado Springs, did not immediately return a phone message left by The Associated Press.

Haggard previously had confessed to undisclosed "sexual immorality," and on the new audio he said: "I really did sin."

Haggard said his family suffered severely for his actions.

"My wife — all my sin and shame fell on her. People treated her as if she had fallen," he said. "And my children — they all went through carrying my shame. And I am so sorry that I did that to my family."

Haggard said he became suicidal but eventually emerged with a stronger Christian faith and marriage than he'd ever had.

Haggard said church leaders missed an opportunity to use his scandal to "communicate the gospel worldwide through secular media."

"We consistently blow it" when those opportunities arise, he said.

"A congressman in trouble, that's the time. A family member gets himself in horrible trouble, that's the time. A preacher gets himself in awful trouble, that's the time," he said, his voice rising to a near-shout.

Audio of Haggard's Illinois sermons were posted on, but the Web site was unavailable late Wednesday, carrying only the message, "Website Is Being Rebuilt."

The ABC video is available by clicking here.


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Wednesday, November 12, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Man arrested for trying to steal communion wafers

JENSEN BEACH, FL -- Parishioners at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church stopped a Connecticut man from leaving Saturday morning Mass after he “attempted to steal a handful of communion wafers from the priest,” according to an arrest report.

Martin County sheriff’s deputies found six to seven parishioners holding down John Samuel Ricci, 33, of Canton, Conn., when they arrived around 9:30 a.m. at the church, located on Northeast Savannah Boulevard.

Ricci had tried to leave the church after grabbing the communion wafers, but “the enraged and offended parishioners stood in his way,” the report said.

Ricci got angry, cursed at the parishioners and even pushed two of them to the ground, according to the report. One suffered minor injuries, while another was taken to the hospital complaining of chest pain.

Deputies arrested Ricci and charged him with two counts of simple battery, theft and disruption of a religious assembly.

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'Why Believe in a God?' Ad Campaign Launches on D.C. Buses

Ads proclaiming, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake," will appear on Washington, D.C., buses starting next week and running through December. The American Humanist Association unveiled the provocative $40,000 holiday ad campaign Tuesday.

In lifting lyrics from "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," the Washington-based group is wading into what has become a perennial debate over commercialism, religion in the public square and the meaning of Christmas.

"We are trying to reach our audience, and sometimes in order to reach an audience, everybody has to hear you," said Fred Edwords, spokesman for the humanist group. "Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of non-theists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion."

To that end, the ads and posters will include a link to a Web site that will seek to connect and organize like-minded thinkers in the D.C. area, Edwords said.

Edwords said the purpose isn't to argue that God doesn't exist or change minds about a deity, although "we are trying to plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking and questioning in people's minds."

The group defines humanism as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity."

Last month, the British Humanist Association caused a ruckus announcing a similar campaign on London buses with the message: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

In Washington, the humanists' campaign comes as conservative Christian groups gear up their efforts to keep Christ in Christmas. In the past five years, groups such as the American Family Association and the Catholic League have criticized or threatened boycotts of retailers who use generic "holiday" greetings.

In mid-October, the American Family Association started selling buttons that say "It's OK to say Merry Christmas." The humanists' entry into the marketplace of ideas did not impress AFA president Tim Wildmon.

"It's a stupid ad," he said. "How do we define 'good' if we don't believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what's good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what's good, it's going to be a crazy world."

Also on Tuesday, the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal group, launched its sixth annual "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign." Liberty Counsel has intervened in disputes over nativity scenes and government bans on Christmas decorations, among other things.

"It's the ultimate grinch to say there is no God at a time when millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ," said Mathew Staver, the group's chairman and dean of the Liberty University School of Law. "Certainly, they have the right to believe what they want but this is insulting."

Best-selling books by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have fueled interest in "the new atheism" — a more in-your-face argument against God's existence.

Yet few Americans describe themselves as atheist or agnostic; a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll from earlier this year found 92 percent of Americans believe in God.

There was no debate at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority over whether to take the ad. Spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the agency accepts ads that aren't obscene or pornographic.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

'Child-witches' of Nigeria seek refuge

Mary is a pretty five-year-old girl with big brown eyes and a father who kicked her out onto the streets in one of the most dangerous parts of the world. Her crime: the local priest had denounced her as a witch and blamed her "evil powers" for causing her mother's death.

Children from Crarn accused of being witches and wizards, protesting outside the Governor's headquarters.

Ostracised, vulnerable and frightened, she wandered the streets in south-eastern Nigeria, sleeping rough, struggling to stay alive.

Mary was found by a British charity worker and today lives at a refuge in Akwa Ibom province with 150 other children who have been branded witches, blamed for all their family's woes, and abandoned. Before being pushed out of their homes many were beaten or slashed with knives, thrown onto fires, or had acid poured over them as a punishment or in an attempt to make them "confess" to being possessed. In one horrific case, a young girl called Uma had a three-inch nail driven into her skull.

Yet Mary and the others at the shelter are the lucky ones for they, at least, are alive. Many of those branded "child-witches" are murdered - hacked to death with machetes, poisoned, drowned, or buried alive in an attempt to drive Satan out of their soul.

The devil's children are "identified" by powerful religious leaders at extremist churches where Christianity and traditional beliefs have combined to produce a deep-rooted belief in, and fear of, witchcraft. The priests spread the message that child-witches bring destruction, disease and death to their families. And they say that, once possessed, children can cast spells and contaminate others.

The religious leaders offer help to the families whose children are named as witches, but at a price. The churches run exorcism, or "deliverance", evenings where the pastors attempt to drive out the evil spirits. Only they have the power to cleanse the child of evil spirits, they say. The exorcism costs the families up to a year's income.

During the "deliverance" ceremonies, the children are shaken violently, dragged around the room and have potions poured into their eyes. The children look terrified. The parents look on, praying that the child will be cleansed. If the ritual fails, they know their children will have to be sent away, or killed. Many are held in churches, often on chains, and deprived of food until they "confess" to being a witch.

The ceremonies are highly lucrative for the spiritual leaders many of whom enjoy a lifestyle of large homes, expensive cars and designer clothes.

Ten years ago there were few cases of children stigmatised by witchcraft. But since then the numbers have grown at an alarming rate and have reached an estimated 15,000 in Akwa Ibom state alone.

Some Nigerians blame the increase on one of the country's wealthiest and most influential evangelical preachers. Helen Ukpabio, a self-styled prophetess of the 150-branch Liberty Gospel Church, made a film, widely distributed, called End of the Wicked. It tells, in graphic detail, how children become possessed and shows them being inducted into covens, eating human flesh and bringing chaos and death to their families and communities.

Mrs Ukpabio, a mother of three, also wrote a popular book which tells parents how to identify a witch. For children under two years old, she says, the key signs of a servant of Satan are crying and screaming in the night, high fever and worsening health - symptoms that can be found among many children in an impoverished region with poor health care.

The preacher says that her work is true to the Bible and is a means of spreading God's word. "Witchcraft is a problem all over Nigeria and someone with a gift like me can never hurt anybody," she says. "Every Nigerian wants to watch my movies." She denies that her teachings and films could encourage child abuse.

One British charity worker is fighting to help the children stigmatised as witches. Gary Foxcroft, 29, programme director for the UK charity Stepping Stones, Nigeria, first came to the country in 2003 to research the oil industry for his masters degree. But he was so shocked when he learned about the children's plight that he decided to help raise money for the refuge - the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (Crarn) - and try to persuade the parents to take their children back. He has also helped to build a school for the children who are refused places at local schools.

"Any Christian would look at the situation that is going on here and just be absolutely outraged that they were using the teachings of Jesus Christ to exploit and abuse innocent children," says Mr Foxcroft whose expose of what he describes as "an absolute scandal" will be screened in a Channel 4 documentary on Wednesday.

The Niger Delta is an oil-rich region but the wealth does not reach the people who live there. The locals blame their hardship on the Devil but international analysts point to the oil industry's large-scale contamination of air, land and sea.

In the documentary, the charity worker visits one of the pastors, a man who calls himself "the Bishop" and who claims to be able to drive evil spirits out of "possessed" children. At his church in Ibaka, the Bishop pours a homemade substance called African mercury, a potion of pure alcohol and his own blood, into the eyes of a young boy lying on a table. "I want this poison destroyer to destroy the witch right now, in Jesus' name," he says.

The priest charges £170 - in a country where millions of people are forced to live on less than £1 a day - for "treating" a child every night for two weeks, and holds them captive until the bill is paid.

He has recently refined his techniques for dealing with child witches. "I killed up to 110 people who were identified as being a witch," he says. He claims there are 2.3million "witches and wizards" in Akwa Ibom province alone.

The children's shelter was started five years ago when Sam Itauma, a Nigerian, opened his house to four youngsters accused of witchcraft. Today, he and his five staff are caring for 150 youngsters. "Every day, five or six children are branded as witches," he says "Once a child has been stigmatised as a witch, it is very difficult for someone to accept that child back. If they go out from this community... there is a lot of attacks, assault and abuses on the children." Children often arrive at the shelter with severe wounds, but few clinics or hospitals will treat a child believed to be a witch.

"Christianity in the Niger Delta is seriously questionable, putting a traditional religion together with Christian religion - and it makes nonsense out of it," he says. "If you are not rich and don't have anything to eat, you look to blame someone. And if you don't get anything, you blame it on the witches."

Christians have been in Nigeria since the 19th century and the Niger Delta area claims to have more churches per square mile than any other place on Earth. The vast majority of the country's 60 million Christians are moderate, but an influx of Pentecostals over the past 50 years has led some churches to be dominated by extremist views. Five years ago, the Nigerian government passed a Child Rights Act, which made abuse illegal, but not every state has adopted it.

At the refuge, a baby girl called Utibe and her five-year-old sister, Utitofong, are dumped at the gate by their mother because a "prophet" told her that Utitofong was a witch and had passed the spell to her sister. The mother, who spent four months' salary on an unsuccessful exorcism, left them at the centre because she feared they would be killed. The police are called but locals offer them no help.

Mr Itauma goes to the village to try and convince the locals to accept the daughters' return, but the older girl is threatened by a man with a machete. "Get away from our food - I'll kill you," he shouts. Utibe is allowed to stay, but the older girl has to go back to the refuge.

At the end of the film, Mr Foxcroft and all the "child-witches" stage a demonstration at the Governor's residence in the state capital, Uyo, and urge him to adopt the Child Rights Act." After four hours the Governor comes out and says the Act will be adopted. It has since been adopted, but so far not a single pastor has been convicted of any offence. And the rescue centre still takes in up to 10 children a week.

Mr Foxcroft took Mary back to her village where he was told that her father left a year ago to find work in Cameroon. A cousin says: "She is a witch, we don't want her here." Mary is now back at the refuge.

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Related: African Christians declare war on child witches

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Monday, November 10, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Monks brawl at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, site of Jesus's crucifixion

Israeli police have broken up a brawl among rival monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed the site of Jesus's crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

The church in Jerusalem's Old City, one of the most revered sites in Christianity, is home to six different Christian sects who frequently fight over the rights to maintain and worship in different sections of its hallowed halls.

This time, the fight followed an Armenian procession marking the fourth-century discovery of a cross believed to have been used in Jesus's crucifixion.

Greek Orthodox monks had apparently wanted to post a monk inside the Edicule, a structure built on what is believed to be Jesus's tomb, and blocked the procession when the Armenian clergymen refused.

Riot police broke up the fight and arrested a bearded Armenian monk and a Greek Orthodox monk bleeding from a gash on his forehead.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Running from HELL

Westboro Baptist Church protests boyscout funeralsImage by andyofne via FlickrGrowing up in America’s most hated family

The mattock, a close cousin of the pickaxe, is used to dig through tough, earthy surfaces—it loosens soil, breaks rock, and tears through knotted grass. Its handle is a three-foot wooden shaft, twice the density of a baseball bat and its dual-sided iron head is comprised of a chisel and a pick. It was Pastor Fred Phelps’s weapon of choice when beating his children according to his son, Nate Phelps.

“The Bible says ‘spare the rod, spoil the child,’” explained Nate, “and he would be screaming that out as he was beating us.” One Christmas night, Pastor Phelps hit Nate over 200 times with a mattock’s handle, swinging it like a baseball player.

Nate would hide out in the garage with his siblings, where he could escape his father’s wrath. What he couldn’t escape, however, was the fear of going to hell. He suffered much abuse growing up under the roof of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (WBC)—he still suffers today.

The church, which believes that “God is hateful,” hasn’t changed its grim outlook since Nate’s time there 30 years ago, but it has expanded its fame. WBC has become well known for picketing funerals, where its followers, predominantly Phelps family members, proclaim that God is punishing “fags and fag enablers.” To further the damage, the church frequently targets military funerals.

“WBC will picket the funerals of these Godless, fag army American soldiers when their pieces return home,” their website says. They believe God is punishing America for facilitating homosexuality, which, according to the church, ought to be a capital crime.

More recently, WBC planned to protest the funeral of Tim McLean, the young man who was beheaded on a Greyhound bus. However, they were barred from crossing the Canadian border. It is little wonder that Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary on the Phelps’ was titled The Most Hated Family in America.

Incidentally, it was when I mentioned this documentary that Nate introduced himself to me.

It was a Monday in September and I was on my way to the Cranbrook Airport. Cranbrook, a modest city of about 25,000, hides in BC’s Kootenays. It rests behind a shroud of mountains, clean air, and restful silence.

I began a conversation with my cab driver, who looked to be in his late forties, with a trimmed beard and kind eyes. He told me that he once owned a chain of print shops with his brother, that he liked the BBC, and that Pastor Fred Phelps was his father—only after I had mentioned WBC, unaware. Following this coincidence, he agreed to an interview.

Nate’s story tells of the “shadow—the dark, ugly thing at the back of their minds.” The fear of burning in hell never goes away, said Nate, who is still struggling with it himself. “It’s destructive. It’s hard to live life with that stuff in your head.” But he’s doing his best.

His conditioning began over 40 years ago in Topeka, Kansas, where WBC was formed and still exists today. As its pastor, his father very quickly alienated himself from most of the people who had seeded the church.

“A young lady got pregnant by a solider at Fort Riley,” explained Nate, “and [my father’s] response to that was to kick her out of the church…and that sent most of the people packing. There was already that siege mentality developing: us against the world.”

Sundays were particularly strict. Nate was expected to dress formally and present himself in the church auditorium by a certain time. The sermon that followed was always “fire-and-brimstone preaching.”

“I know that very early on [my father] was under the influence of those drugs,” Nate said. Pastor Phelps was attending law school and would take amphetamines to stay awake and barbiturates to come down. “It spiralled out of control [and he] was prone toward violence….He just wasn’t tolerant toward the presence of all of us kids running around—and the accompanying noise….He would beat the kids with his fists and kick them and knee them in the stomach.”

Nate doesn’t know why his father was such an angry man; he didn’t know his father very well. “I just know that that’s the way he was and I stayed as far away from him as I could.”

He remembers when his father would force him and his siblings to run five to ten miles around the high school track every night. One evening another boy was riding his bicycle along the outer lanes of the track, and Fred began yelling at him to leave. The boy’s response was to keep riding on the track, and Fred’s was to push him off the bike. The boy left, screaming, and 20 minutes later a truck came screeching into the parking lot. The boy had brought his father, who approached Fred and knocked him to the ground.

“The man was threatening to sue him,” said Nate. “Then my old man yelled at us all to get in the car and we went home, and [my father] ended up beating my mom that night.”

Nate left home the day he turned 18. For a while he worked for a lawyer in Kansas City, eventually moving to St. Louis to work for a printing company with his brother Mark. He and Mark opened up their own print shop soon after. But then, after three years and despite his brother’s disapproval, Nate returned home.

“My sisters were trying to convince me that things had changed….I attended college for a semester and realized that while he may have been less prone to physical violence, he still was the same person. He just used different techniques to violate people—with his words and his deeds.”

In October of 1980, Nate left for good. He found residence above a Volkswagen repair shop, where he went through about six months in a drug and alcohol haze. He eventually ran into Mark’s wife and she suggested that he and his brother reconcile their animosity, which had been caused when Nate returned to WBC temporarily. And so Nate moved to California to work with his brother again.

Late one night over a decade later, Nate found himself listening to his father being interviewed on a radio station in LA—it wasn’t long after Fred had gained national attention with his protests. Nate called in under the impression that the interview was a rerun, but realized after calling that his father was on the air live.

“I was freaked out. I got on and I challenged [my father]….That lasted about maybe a minute, and it devolved quickly into him calling me every name he could imagine, and then he handed the phone to Shirley, and she delivered a few diatribes.”

Shirley Phelps-Roper, Nate’s sister, has gained her own reputation for being the church’s other loud voice. Nate says that she has always been their father’s favourite. I contacted her to ask about her brother, and she responded with the following.

“Nathan Phelps is a rebel against God,” she said. “He has nothing to look forward to except sorrow, misery, death and hell….Great peace fell upon our house when Nathan left….He spit on the goodness of his mother and father. In spite of that, his father and mother loved him and did their duty to him…and required of him that he behave while he lived in their house. They loved him in the only way that the Lord God defines love! They told him the truth about what the Lord his God required of him. He was not going to have that!”

Shirley also claimed that Nate “left when he was a raging disobedient rebel with selective memory,” and asked, “What in this world is he doing in Canada?”

Nate met his ex-wife in ’81, married in ’86. They had three children together and he helped raise a fourth. They moved to a new, pre-planned city, Rancho Santa Margarita, nestled at the foot of Saddleback Mountain in California.

“It was like paradise,” Nate said. “It was a perfect little town, and we were young and starting a family. It all just seemed so ideal.”

They joined a church, where they met many other families, five of which they became close with.

“Every Sunday, I was listening closely and trying desperately to find something in the preaching or in the words that would convince me that this was right. Even while I was doing that, I was always skeptical…but I never voiced it. I was very good at playing the apologist for the Christian faith. In fact, I had quite a reputation for writing and talking in defence of Christianity.”

The turning point was one Christmas, when Nate decided to teach his children about God. In the end, his son Tyler began crying in the backseat of the car, saying that he didn’t want to go to hell.

“He wanted to believe because he didn’t want to go to hell,” Nate said. “I was just stunned because I didn’t know what I had said or how I had left him with that fear. I thought I was doing a good job of presenting it without the fear.

“Thinking about it after the fact, I realized you can’t do that. With a young mind it doesn’t matter. You can try as much as you want to talk about how good God is, but the bottom line is there’s this intolerably frightening punishment if you don’t accept it. And how does a young mind deal with that?”

Nate agrees with prominent atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins, who has said that religion can be “real child abuse.”

Dawkins tells the story of an American woman who wrote to him. She was raised as a Roman Catholic and was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. Around the same time, a Protestant school friend of hers died tragically.

“Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a seven-year-old) as yucky,” she wrote, “while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest, but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to hell. It gave me nightmares.”

“The threat of eternal Hell is an extreme example of mental abuse,” Dawkins says on his website, “just as violent sodomy is an extreme example of physical abuse.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” asserted Nate. “In so many different ways we have abused children with religion over the centuries.”

Nate said that he is being contacted by nephews he’d never previously met who have made the same choice he did 30 years ago. One of them was Tim, who told Nate that he spends many nights crying himself to sleep. He’s scared. “Once he made the choice, he’s cut off. Everything that he grew up with is taken away from him, and he gets to wonder if he’s going to burn in hell….[He’s] living with that shadow.”

Eventually, Nate told his wife that he couldn’t continue believing. Then he told the men from the five families that they were close to, and they responded by disappearing from his life.

“As far as they were concerned, I was a traitor—well, that’s how they behaved.”
In 2005, Nate’s marriage failed. Around the same time, he met another woman online, Angela. She lived in Canada, and Nate knew that he had to make a tough decision.

“The decision was that I was going to come here to her,” Nate said. “When I left, one of the first things [my wife] did was blame the failed marriage on us leaving the church.”
He moved to Cranbrook in December of ’05. Since then, he’s been doing a lot of reading and thinking.

“I do declare myself an atheist now,” affirmed Nate, “although I’m willing to admit that there’s stuff in life that I’m not real clear on yet.”

Despite this, he still lives with anxiety caused by his experiences over 40 years ago.
“I spent the first 25 or 30 years of my life denying that anything was wrong with me….Then bam: all this weird stuff just starts coming out.

“It’s so, so difficult to go back and look at stuff and try to make sense of it, especially being this far removed from it. I’ll immerse myself in it for a couple weeks, and then I got to back away because it’s too destructive. But I have to believe it’s going to turn out.”

I asked Nate what he wanted for his future.

“I think the best way to answer that is what I said to my wife when we were fighting at the end.” He paused for a moment. “That I just want peace. I want to not wake up fearful every morning.”

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