Anyone that knows me here knows I'm pretty private and can be a little weird about my identity. I don't share very much personal information, I enjoy a certain amount of anonymity on the internet. But I'm about to share some things that are very personal, I hope that in itself shows how important I think this issue is.
As much as it may shock some people, I have stated before and am pretty open about the fact that I was once a devoted Christian. At a certain point of my life, I was even pretty radical and possibly a little fundamentalist, I was a 6 day creationist and bible literalist. However, I was always more concerned with Christian ideas of charity, caring for the poor, homeless, widows, and less fortunate. I saw Jesus as a pacifist, not a warmonger, and I put more stock in verses like "love thy neighbor" and "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" than old testament verses about how people should trim their beard and what clothes to wear. It was seeing church corruption, evil acts of Christians, the petty bullshit, this constant judging of others and oppressing of anyone who seems "the other", that first started making me question Christianity. I was quick to call out fellow Christians, and I was never afraid of authority and church leaders and would often speak very plainly about their actions, this obviously lead to some rather strained relationships even while I maintained my religion. I was called a Satanist, possessed, the AntiChrist, the devil, a trouble maker, a deceiver, a rebel, a problem, etc all while I still held Christianity very close to my heart and followed very mainstream beliefs in theology. It was simply because I was disgusted by Christians and church leaders using "God" as a way to lie, cheat, and steal from others, and said so.
I have a lot of interesting stories of church corruption. I've had a lot of opportunity to see it, especially as I had some unique positions close to lots of different church leaderships. But now, even out of the church, I find I have another front seat row to a disgusting and nauseating situation I'd like to share, and this one is especially troubling to me because of the respect I once had for this church (or at least some within it).
First let me tell you a little history. I first started attending this church at the height of my religious experience, I was relatively young, recently baptized. While I had grown up in the church, I had made my own conscious decision at 18 to become a Christian after being a tad "rebellious" as a younger teenager, and my recent "born again" conversion had me "on fire" for my new but familiar faith, but I was also becoming more educated in theology and the bible. My previous church where I was "converted" and baptized was in another town, which I moved to right out of high school, and after a year I had to move back to my home town for personal reasons. I was eager to join a church, so I was excited to hear of one that someone I knew attended a few times at the community college. They met in the community college cafeteria on Sunday mornings, since the school was essentially empty (and they had permission to be there). Despite the location, there weren't many young people...there weren't many people in general, a hundred or two max (it was much smaller at first). I quickly became not just a regular there, but got close to the youth leader, the music team, a few elders, the two pastors, and a few who would later take more active administration roles. I also met people there who got me involved in other Christian organizations in town, where I eventually got connections to virtually every church leader in the city.
Eventually I moved to another city in another state, and then after that went to college (I was a little late to hop on that bandwagon). But I still maintained several of my connections at that church, some in my family continued to attend that church, and I went back any time I was in town. After several years I moved back there temporarily for awhile, and went right back attending and was fairly active at the church. All of this is not to try to toot my horn or anything, as all of this doesn't really mean jack to me anymore, but I want to demonstrate that I had a history with that church from a point near it's beginning, a deep personal connection with core people of that church, and somewhat of an insiders perspective.
The first little controversy happened in 2007, after I had moved away. After years of being in the community college cafeteria, the church had purchased a building. This was a site of an older church, an established and respected church in a central area of town. Ironically that church had just built a new facility near the community college slightly out of town (a very very large new facility I might add). My old church purchased the property for about $3 million. That might seem pretty steep, but this town does have pretty outrageous real estate, so for a pretty big central property most people didn't make too big a fuss about that cost. But the church wanted to renovate the old church on the property. Originally this project was going to cost an additional one million dollars. Where the community started to raise eyebrows was when during construction the church then needed another million dollars. This church of a few hundred went from meeting in a school cafeteria to having a property of $5 million. The renovation was essentially a complete remodel, nothing of the old church was recognizable, and in the sanctuary is an Italian baptismal fount and a large mosaic made in an old monastery in the state that the church paid a large donation to in order to get the art piece (the pastors made a big deal about it). Plus new state of the art sound equipment, kitchen supplies, things for the youth and day care centers, etc. All for a congregation of about 300. Now was the church nice? Yes, but was it worth millions? Probably not. Does a church of that size need a building that costs $5 million? Should churches be spending millions on such things at all?
The next controversy was around the same time, maybe a little later. As I mentioned, this church had two pastors. One was the "senior pastor" to appease the larger PCA system this church is a part of, but essentially they viewed themselves as equals. One of these head pastors, we'll call him Larry, I had always viewed as more conservative and never really liked much. He looked like a tv evangelist and had this too perfect hair cut, expensive sweaters and dress shoes, and this mustache that just had Ron Burgundy all over it. He comes from a wealthy Texas steel family, sort of says it all. I had been to his house a few times, a huge mansion of a house worth millions I'm sure (and apparently he has a second in Dallas), absolutely overflowing with taxidermy animals he had killed on African safaris. Definitely took the part of Genesis about man being in dominion over the animals a little too literally. Well there was other stuff in Genesis he took too literally. He made news by throwing his money and weight behind a big anti-evolution movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. But he didn't just give it support, he was co-executive producer. This is a film that grossed $7.6 million, nearly $3 million opening weekend. It also got really horrible reviews, most notably from the NY Times, primarily because it used sensationalism and hyperbole (and outright lies) to try to smear evolution not just in general but in the school system, using such tactics as essentially blaming Nazism on Darwin. Shit you expect from teenagers here on DA, not something you expect from a big budget documentary. Certainly not something I ever expected to come from this little church I attended, which I always saw as more socially liberal and tolerant despite the money and some conservative groups (those little groups are probably in every church in america). I know for a fact many in that church aren't creationists, many accept evolution, so that this pastor went out of his way to associate with such a radical movie was pretty strange even to those within this Christian circle. And it made the church the laughing stock in the town.
But wait, it gets better! A year or so later, as the church settled into the new building, they brought on a new assistant pastor into the church leadership. I honestly never really knew her that well, but I was there while she was on staff. I have to admit, it was a little shocking to see not just a woman at the front of the church on Sundays, but a young woman at that. Let's be honest, it's not every church that lets women be in leadership positions. Can you see where this is going yet? That's right, "Larry" was getting a little friendly with the new young woman. People noticed it too. How could you not, they were practically flirting right at the pulpit at the head of the church Sunday mornings during the services in front of everyone! It got downright weird and uncomfortable sometimes with his wife and new baby sitting right there. It was getting around too, to the point where someone in my family overheard at a hair salon someone saying that Larry was having an affair with this woman. People in the church starting speaking out, saying that Larry should step down from his position. But, being the great sexist religion it is, when the heat was on it was this poor single woman that the church attacked. They tried to scapegoat her, to demonize her and put all the blame on her, perhaps try to paint her as a slut or something, and even though they brought her in from out of state and even though she had basically done nothing wrong they gave her the boot without much warning. Larry continued to work there, preaching on Sundays and ministering to people. But the pressure didn't go away even after the woman was kicked out the church community, and eventually Larry announced he was "taking a break" from the church for a bit. As far as I know, there was no formal dismissal, no apology or even acknowledgement of any wrongdoing, I don't even think he or the church ever said that he quit or stepped down. But it's been awhile since then, Larry lives in Texas again I hear (still married after a lot of counseling), and there's a new associate pastor. I have no idea what happened to that woman, I don't even think anyone in the church has talked to her since (so fucked up). The church still claims there was no actual sexual misconduct, that there was no affair, who knows. I think for the pastor it was more an ego trip anyways, he was always one for getting attention and always thought highly of himself (those Presbyterians sure do love the idea of being God's chosen). I just recently heard that the other pastor said as much, saying what Larry's real issue was was arrogance (and hilariously called Larry a "princess") which I would say is pretty accurate.
All this is interesting and sort of funny, but it's not the real issue I wanted to bring to your attention. What really disgusts and enrages me.
Through all this bullshit I still have family that attends that church. Recently I was informed that they had met with someone who is part of the inner circle of that church (or was until they basically kicked her out of her own womens program, probably because she was too strong and independent a voice for women). Apparently the church has new building additions planned. That's right, that brand new building they already spent $5 million on wasn't good enough, they need to build more. One of the primary things they plan on building is a theater for the youth. The cost for this little project? SIX MILLION DOLLARS! Are you feeling nauseous yet?
I don't like hearing things second hand, so I got in touch with church leadership myself (they don't know I'm now an atheist, and I left that church even before I was an atheist from disgust of all the money there). They confirmed that they are planning on spending $6 million for building additions. The youth theater will seat 120 people. This for a youth of maybe 30 kids, on a good day (I would know, I used to help the youth leadership). When asked how they plan on financing such a project, they would not go into specifics, but they did say they do not plan on taking any bank financing, that the expect the church members will pay for all it. They would not answer specifics about construction (I work a little in construction so I wanted to know if they were getting taken for a ride), it's still very early in planning, but based on their last construction project I wonder if we could even expect the construction budget to increase. They would not answer how much they planned these facilities to be used. I know for a fact that church already sits empty and unused nearly every day of the week. Even with just a few simple questions, they got defensive and tried to paint it as necessary, and said something about a church overseas and how they work with a homeless ministry. They would not give me any specifics on this church overseas though, nor would they give me the name of the homeless ministry or say how often they helped the organization. But I learned myself that there is a homeless organization that's a pet project of someone in the church, but as far as I can see they don't even use the church facilities, they feed people once every three months in the Salvation Army parking lot! And regardless of these other programs, they said specifically that it would be the construction of these church additions that would cost $6 million, the other projects are funded separately. And my feelings anyways are so fucking what? Is a church spending $6 million ever justified? Does them feeding someone once every three months, or even once a day, mean that it's ok for them to spend $6 million on themselves?
(Not to mention I also uncovered another mini-scandal during all this. There was someone in the church who wanted to start a program to help immigrants and open the church doors to an English as a Second Language program, as this area has a large Spanish speaking population. Well the church denied it and shut down the program, saying it was "too big a liability" to have them in the building. This person didn't go so far as to call the decision racist, though it was implied. So when it's someone's wife's little pet project that doesn't really involve the church but might make it look good, it's ok, but when someone actually wants to help people then it's a "liability"...especially if they're poor Latinos. Makes it sort of hard for them to claim they're interested to help the community and the poor and open their facilities to people.)
Let me give you some statistics on my old home town. The child poverty rate is over 20%. In the state that goes up to 25%, a quarter of every child in the state is living in poverty. According to the US Census Bureau, about a sixth of the total population of this town lives below the poverty line (a 5th of the total state population). A local paper has recently done a series on increasing homelessness. My guess is this has to do with the fact that the small county has by far the highest foreclosure rate in the state. While the official unemployment rate is a little below the national average, it still more than doubled what it was before the subprime mortgage crisis. Lately, thanks to the fucking tea baggers, there have been a lot of cuts to public services. I know of three elementary schools and two middle schools that have been recently closed just in my old town (ironically over a budget deficit of about $6 million). They plan on cutting more this year, specifically they're cutting education programs for special needs children, all over a $4 million budget issue. These types of financial figures are something I expect from government and politics, or shady transnational corporations, but not from a small church of about 300 members in a relatively small town. There are numerous issues that a church could spend money on if it were interested in helping the community, and when you think of the world (a child dies of starvation every three minutes, how many are dead since you started reading this?) then the opportunities to help are really limited only by your imagination. What would you do with $6 million? The LAST thing I would do is build some overpriced theater for a few rich white kids from yuppie Christian families. If they want to build a theater why not build one for the whole fucking city, especially as all the schools are closing? They're merely reinforcing their privileged Christian bubble, and their throwing such money around doing it is just a slap in the face to the community.
I wrote a long letter to the head pastor expressing pretty openly how I felt about this spending. I have yet to hear a real response. Though he has continued to defend the project to others I know who have begun questioning the spending of $6 million on building additions, he's so delusional that he says this theater will bring people from around the world to their church.
What I really want to know is who is financing this project. Something tells me if you follow the money, it will lead to some interesting places. And how much of this money will really go where they said it will go? How much do these church leaders make? And they never have to pay a dime in taxes. Something tells me there is some serious corruption here, with so much money how can there not be? But even if there's not, just the fact that they're doing this is disgusting enough. They have demonstrated perfectly why I left that church, why I started questioning Christianity ("God" really wants to spend $6 million on a theater while kids are starving?), and are a great example of Christian hypocrisy in general.
I am outraged and ashamed that this is happening at a place I used to be a part of and in my community. But I also have a unique opportunity to share this information and make some noise about an issue I don't think many others will know about or openly discuss. This church is certainly getting quiet about it. I have contacted local newspapers with this information, as well as some local atheist groups. If you're interested in helping spread this information, or even if you want to contact the church, I would greatly appreciate the support.
Listening to: NunFuckRitual (yes that's a real band name)
Reading: Wind Through the Keyhole
Watching: Bones of Turkana