The following is an open letter detailing experiences at Grace Baptist Church and Grace Baptist Christian school by former student and member, Chelsea Cooper.
It has been 5 years since I’ve been to Grace Baptist Church as an attendee. I’ve moved on completely from that lifestyle and those beliefs. I’m in the science field now, and I am busy with my career and my education. The only thing I hold on to from my days growing up at Grace Baptist are the injustices I witnessed at the expense of my friends. Injustices that have never been rectified.
My first experience with the church was a lady and her young kids coming to the apartment I lived in with my brother and my single mom when I was around 11 years old. She told my mom that she was going to hell if she didn’t come to the church and learn how to be “saved.” She repeated over and over in my mother’s face while she laid sunning in her lawn chair that she was going to go to hell.
About 6 months after this, we started attending another Baptist church in town. We went there for a little while and it was just something we did on Sundays. Eventually, my mom got more interested in Christianity and living “by the Bible.” This eventually led us to start attending Grace Baptist in the year 2000, the year I turned 12. It went from a Sunday morning thing, to a 3 times a week and more. We started dressing differently, only skirts past the knee and short haircuts and a tie for my brother.
Our lives also changed drastically because she took us out of our schools and put us into the church school. We had lots of new rules to live by, such as we couldn’t watch movies anymore except old family style movies and shows or stuff for kids. We couldn’t listen to music anymore and had to listen to only music made by people in the church. We lost all of our friends, were isolated from family because they weren’t “believers” or had the same standards, and we were thrown into an environment so foreign to us and it seemed like it all happened overnight.
My mom was a single mom as I mentioned, so we were fairly low income, but we had a nice apartment town house and liked to do fun stuff on the weekends like rent movies, go to the park, etc.
A few months after being regular members of Grace, my mom quit her only job and source of income to work full time for free in 5 of Pastor Jenkins ministries. He convinced her, through the preaching, that she had something to pay back for living a long life previously of not tithing and not living by the Bible. He convinced her that if she gave her whole entire life and money to god that she’d get it back ten-fold. Well, we got evicted from our town house because we couldn’t pay the rent, and we had to move to a very sketchy trailer park on Center St, that has since been bulldozed. We got our car repossessed. Our electricity was shut off and we didn’t have food most of the time. I couldn’t wear any of my previous clothes because I had to wear all dresses now, so the only clothes I had were old fashioned and out dated skirts that my mom found at the Goodwill. We would spend hours and hours in our trailer taking turns reading the Bible or going to clean the church to pay for our school tuition. We spent our days at the church because my mom volunteered all her time there, and this is when the sexual abuse started to come out all around me.
My first experience with sexual abuse at Grace Baptist was in 2001 or 2002, when a friend of mine was over at my house for a sleepover and she told me that an adult man bus worker had had sex with her in the church van while they were out inviting kids to church on Sunday. I was around 14 years old at this time, and she was maybe 1 or 2 years older than me. When Pastor Jenkins found out that this abuse had occurred, he sent the man off to another church and that man and his wife ended up abusing more children. They both went to prison. It is sad to think that another victim may have been spared if Jenkins had just called the police.
My second and third experiences were both involving teachers at our Christian school. The first was my math teacher. His name was Mike Willand, and when class began he would write some problems on the board, and then make his way back to his office with a few of the more popular girls in tow. They would go in there, shut the door, and remain in there for the rest of the class period. When he would write the questions on the board at the beginning of class, some of us would try to hurriedly ask questions before he would go to his office with the girls, and he would scream and yell and say things like “you should know this stiff by now!!”
My whole education experience at this school was like this. It is another thing, in my experience, that should be investigated. We spent most of our time in our classes goofing off or doing manual labor for church functions like Camp Meeting and Teen Spectacular. I didn’t graduate with any math past Pre-Algebra, which I got a D- in. I have had to work really hard in my post high school education to get to where I am today.
Getting back to Willand, as I mentioned he would go back to his office with these girls every day, and everyone knew that there was inappropriate activities going on with him and multiple teenage girls. When Jenkins let him go and sent him off to a new state, he did now warn Ruthy’s mother that there had been teacher on student activity, and he did not inform the police. Ruthy was close with their family, and had unknowingly been raped by Willand BEFORE he left to move to Washington. Ruthy at 13 years old went to Washington with them to help them move. Again, no parents were informed and no police were called, so Ruthy’s mother had no idea of anything inappropriate. The only people that knew of the previous girls being preyed upon was Jenkins and his staff. Ruthy ended up being assaulted at 13 during her time in Washington. When she came home, she told her mom, and her mom called the police. Jenkins did not call like he has said, nor did he go with her mom to the police station. He only had one meeting with Ruthy, and that was to ask her if she was going to sue, and that if she ever felt mad at Willand that she could “go into his office and cuss his name whenever she wanted.”
After my friend Ruthy was groomed and preyed upon, the general attitude toward the situation was that Ruthy was a whore and that she asked for it by dressing provocatively. Jenkins family members said that, classmates said that, parents agreed with this, and basically Ruthy was an outcast from that point on. The you pastor, Derek Hagland and his wife, would treat Ruthy differently and always be on her about how she dressed and just treated her with complete distain. It was hard to live through, but I was just a kid and was very, very brainwashed by what they told us to think about situations like these.
A few years later, we got two new teachers. They came together from the same town and started teaching right away. One of them was named Dave Beckner, and he started out being well liked, but eventually his temper would show itself on multiple occasions and he started being liked by students less and less. He liked to hang out with and write letters back and forth with the tenth grade girls, which was not appropriate in any setting, but especially in our setting because we were always supposed to stay away from “the appearance of evil.” Evil being any type of relationship between the two genders in any situation. He started getting obviously close to my friend Brianna Stevenson, who like me, didn’t have a dad in her home and lived in a low income single mom situation as well. She started to visibly cut herself off from the rest of us, and became very very close with the Beckner family. She eventually stopped talking to us altogether, and would only sit in the corner writing Beckner letters back and forth, which he signed “Daddy.” Two students that I know of wrote to Beckner and told him that his influence over Brianna was wrong. He wrote me back and threatened to harm my family if I didn’t stop trying to harm his.
Eventually, what was going on between Beckner and Brianna was obvious, and ex staff members and former parents have confirmed that they confronted Jenkins about it, despite him saying that he never knew of these matters until 2011. This all happened in 2005-2006, and everyone in the church were all well aware. Beckner was given a choice to be able to leave quietly, and he took it. Brianna ended up moving to WV with his family because we lived in an environment that didn’t protect or value young women. If it was known that you had sex before marriage, you were very much looked down upon and viewed as “damaged goods.” No one valued Brianna anymore, and she was sent away with the monster himself.
Our parents could have done more for us, but they didn’t. As bad as it sounds, it was because they would have been ex communicated from church for going against the pastor, who was viewed as god’s living mouthpiece. It was a hard life to live, and I am grateful that it is all starting to come out and that future girls and boys can be spared from this hell.
There were other male victims in this church that were preyed upon by older women, but one victim has since passed. But it is important to point out that abuses have happened as recently as this past summer, and their stories will come out soon.
There is SO MUCH more I could say, about my time in their “college”, about child porn from staff families never being reported, for professors sleeping with college students who’s parents send them there to learn about god and to be safe from worldly influence. Stories about how I had to marry so young before I was ready to, so that I could avoid “sin.” Embezzlement that they didn’t report, children being hurt and even dying at their bus activities, and so much more.
I don’t think it is fair that Jenkins told the news and the church in his public statement that he didn’t know about Beckner’s abuse until 2011. Or that he didn’t know that Willand had sexual relations with minors before he moved away or that he called the police. If he had told his people that this was just the way things were handled back then, that would be fair. They could make their own decision based on the truth.
What he’s doing is covering up what he’s always covered up, and there is just too many of us this time.
Thank you for listening,
Chelsea Cooper- former GBCS student