Sunday, February 17, 2019

Chelsea Cooper's Grace Experience revised.

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 and my family. 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 or 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 did not fit in well because my brother and I were born in “sin”, while most of the other kids had nuclear families whose parents went to Bible College and did everything “right.” 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 and 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 townhouse and liked to do fun stuff on the weekends like rent movies, go to the park, go to grandma’s, 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 and through counseling, 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 and her life would go from a mess to being blessed. Well, we got evicted from our townhouse 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 outdated 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 instead of just sending the man away. The victim from all of those years ago has since confided in me that Pastor Jenkins offered her mother and the victim a free year in the Christian school if they did not go to the police. She went to our school for one more year and then got expelled for reasons unknown to me.

My second and third experiences were both involving teachers at our Christian school. The first was my math teacher. His name was Aaron 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. Every day 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 stuff 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 were inappropriate activities going on with him and multiple teenage girls. Jenkins and Derek Hagland, who was our youth pastor, were both notified that Willand had been seen in compromising situations with teenaged girls.  When Jenkins let him go and sent him off to a new state, he did not warn Ruthy’s mother that there had been teacher on student activity, and he did not inform the police. No parents were informed of the teacher’s behavior. The reason Willand got let go from the school was because he was continuously caught alone in inappropriate situations with students, and Jenkins and staff knew this. Ruthy was close with the Willand family, and had, unknown by her mother, been raped by Willand BEFORE he left to move to Washington. Ruthy at 13-14 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 before she went to Washington. Ruthy ended up being assaulted 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, like he has said in the past. 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.” There was no police involvement on his part, despite his statement to the press and to the church. I know all of these things because Ruthy told me herself when we were in High School. Details are more clear to me now because I have recently heard Ruthy re-tell her story, but she told me the main framework of the story and Jenkins’ response when we were both teenagers in school together.

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 youth 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 disdain. She was not “loved and prayed for” like their public statement has said. 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. I was under the impression that my classmate and friend was a whore, based on what I was being taught at the time.
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 would blow up during Chapel preaching sessions, saying he wished he could be in a young man’s body for one day so he could physically harm the male students. 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. There was no dating allowed between students, no physical contact, no hugging, no being alone, nothing. I was a very strict environment, so the attention he showed female students was well noticed. He started getting obviously close to my friend Brianna Stevenson. 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.” One student that I know of wrote to the administration and told him that his influence over Brianna was wrong. I personally wrote a letter to Beckner telling him that what he was doing to Brianna was wrong. I told him that our Principal, Robert Perrotti at the time, did not get close and write letters to the female students, so why does he? I told him that he was making Brianna act differently and that he needed to stop, and that her friends wanted her back. He read the letter, his face turning beet red as he whipped the pages around his desk. He wrote me back and threatened to harm my family if I didn’t stop trying to harm his. This part of the letter was written in furious, scribbled print as if he was going insane. The rest of the letter said things like “I did not know you wanted a relationship with me so badly, I will try harder.” He had obviously missed the point and I was very, very frustrated. The other teacher that was friends with Beckner and came the same time as he did started paying attention to Brianna’s sister, calling her things like “beautiful” when he thought no other students could hear. So, while we are all supposed to be learning and being kids, we had these two teachers causing all of this on a daily basis. 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. This has been confirmed by a past staff member that attended all the meetings and is willing to speak publicly on this. 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 the church for going against the pastor, who was viewed as god’s living mouthpiece. No one looking in on the outside will understand this unless they lived it. 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 was also a male victim that I knew of named David. He was in high school at the same time I was. His abuser was a woman in her 40’s or 50’s named Kyla McCloskey. I was friends with her daughter and would hear from her daughter at school about ways that her mom would act with David that upset her. It got to a point where everyone knew what was going on with David and Kyla, but nobody really did anything about it from what I observed. Their family got to move away as well, with no police called and nothing was done for the victim.

As far as how this church has hurt my family personally, aside from all of the sexual predators I had to be around in the school, and how my friends were raped around me, the story is a long and painful one. Pastor Jenkins taught parents that they needed to “break the will of their children.” This teaching harmed my brother and me and caused my parents to turn into monsters. My mom, previous to attending this church, did not practice this type of discipline. It started after we started going there. We were in trouble ALL of the time, and I mean every moment of every day was dedicated to discipline and trying to get us to repent and be model Christian children. Breaking our will meant breaking us of anything that may make us think for ourselves, to have a backbone, to be an autonomous being. Breaking the will of a child was taught to be executed physically as well as emotionally. Parents were supposed to spank for ANY infraction, no matter how minor. I was spanked all the way until I left for college, per Pastor Jenkins’ teachings. The physical and spiritual abuse that Jenkins taught his congregation to act out on their children was practiced in full force in my home. And Pastor Jenkins continually taught this throughout the time I was growing up, so this home environment never ceased or eased up in any way. He promised parents that these teachings would yield results and that you could not give up. This brought me great mental and developmental harm until I was well into my twenties when I decided to see a therapist about it.

Another way Grace Baptist Church harmed my family was encouraging my mother to isolate us from the rest of our family because they weren’t Baptists. Growing up with a single mom, we were really close with our Grandma and would go there every day during the summer time and very often during the school year. After we started going to Grace, my Grandma started questioning how much we were changing, and called Pastor Jenkins and told him that he had too much control over her daughter. Jenkins told my mom that my Grandma just wasn’t “saved”, and that she didn’t understand that we were trying to live by the Bible now. This caused my mom to isolate us more and more from our Grandma and our extended family because we were taught to stay away from the unsaved because their lifestyle could rub off onto us and hinder our spiritual growth. I eventually lost touch with every single person in my family and did not speak to my Grandma for over six years. I was not able to attend the funeral of my Grandma Miller, whom I loved, and this grieves me more than any one thing I can remember. This harmed me emotionally on a level that I cannot express in words. It tore my life apart. It took people in my life away from me that still lived in reality. I was from then on surrounded ONLY by people within the IFB and their beliefs.

The next step in my life was to go to college. The ONLY option I was given was to go to Grace Baptist College. I left home and started there in the secretarial program. I paid 800 dollars a month for a worthless degree and to live under some of the most strict rules I’ve ever heard of now that I’m out of the cult. I did not know that it was not normal to be watched and monitored as an adult 24/7, to have to sign in and out so they could track you, to have to get a pass to go anywhere, to have my phone confiscated at night and to have my clothes approved every single morning when I woke up. While I was here, it came out that the Vice Presidents son had gotten caught watching child pornography, and one of the professors came around and told us to stay away from him. His name was Kendall DuFour, and no police were called and I never witness Kendall get into any trouble. Their family told the college that God was calling them away. Well, right before this happened  I ended up getting expelled because I got stranded in Mackinac City with another girl due to the bridge being closed, and had to stay in a hotel. Well, two male students ended up being stranded as well. It was Spring Break and a lot of students were trying to get home to the U.P, so we pooled the little money we had and all stayed in the same room. Being alone with the opposite gender, even as adult college students was against the rules. The administration found out and I got expelled, and Pastor Jenkins himself had a meeting with my mom and my boyfriend at the time and told them that I had gotten expelled because I had shown my breasts to a boy. This did not happen. It was a lie literally pulled out of thin air, and the rumors that Jenkins started about me ruined my reputation there and it was never the same for me again. This also affected my mental health greatly and I considered suicide for years after this. I felt that I had done all of this to myself for not reading my Bible and praying more, or for not tithing enough, or for having iniquity in my heart. Despite being so hurt, I was not equipped to live in the real world, so I went back.  I gave them all my money and eventually started working at the call center located in their building. They did not own the call center but somehow were allowed to start taking my whole check without giving it to me first, and only giving me 10% of it to live on. I lived a pitiful existence until I got married at the young age of 21 years old and moved 3,000 miles away, where I lived with my wounds from this place for years. I lived the life of a recluse. It was not until I moved back to MI in late 2013 that I started trusting people again, and started to make my way back into society little by little. I started going to real college at 26 years old and have come so far. Almost two degrees, a career and tons of real-world experience doing things the cult would have told me was wrong helped me see that I was worth something. I am nowhere near fully healed, but I have hope now. It is because of therapy and the power of a real education that I am still alive today. I only tell my story because I want this to stop. I do not want attention, I do not want money, I just want it to stop. There is so much more to my story, but I have tried to sum up the main points as best as I remember them.

There is SO MUCH more I could say, about my time in their “college”, about professors sleeping with college students whose 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.” 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 reading,

Chelsea Cooper- former GBCS and Grace Baptist College student