Offshoot of controversial Faith Christian Church comes under scrutiny at USF

Former members say the Cornerstone group manipulates and pressures USF students.
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TAMPA — On the stage, in front of hundreds of worshipers, the band sang about unfailing grace.

"Wherever the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."

On a recent Sunday morning, those words reverberated through a University of South Florida theater packed mostly with students. They belted out the lyrics, their arms raised and their eyes closed, their bodies swaying in unison.

Cornerstone Christian Church, a 200-person evangelical ministry that hosts the weekly services, has preached at USF since 2005.

"Our mission," said Bill Cooper, the group's senior pastor, "is to love God, and our hearts are to share with others."

But 10 former church members told the Tampa Bay Times that Cornerstone is a ministry that manipulates students and tries to control their lives. They say church leaders pressure students to donate money, try to control who they date, and isolate them from family members.

Cooper denied the charges, saying Cornerstone has never received complaints of that nature. But he acknowledged his ministry is an offshoot of Faith Christian Church, which came under investigation for cultlike activity at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

According to news reports, allegations there include hitting infants with cardboard tubes to encourage submission; shaming a 38-year-old woman in front of the congregation for sleeping with her boyfriend; and criticizing one family when their tithing levels dropped after the husband lost his job.

A few former members said Faith Christian's chief minister assaulted Arizona worshipers whenever he thought they spoke out of turn.

Faith Christian has a network of campus ministries that stretch from Colorado to New Zealand. Cooper said Tucson elders sent members to Tampa in 2005.

Cornerstone follows most of the same tenets, all of which require obedience to Scripture. But former members said church elders twist Scripture so that any disagreement with their interpretation is labeled as rebellion. And rebellious members are exiled, they said.

"We had been brainwashed," said Jeff Phillips, who helped found Cornerstone in 2005, "to the point that we thought, 'if we leave this church, we are going to hell.' "

• • •

USF officials are aware of the ministry's connection to Faith Christian Church, and the investigation in Arizona.

But just two people have submitted formal complaints about Cornerstone, they said, and neither are current members. Laura Fournier, 48, alleged that Cornerstone traumatized her daughter, a former member she said now suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder.

"She was told where to live, how to behave … who to date, that I was a bad parent for being divorced," Fournier wrote in an email to USF on March 8.

Lisa Phillips, another former member who helped start the church at USF in 2005, said elders pressured students to serve the ministry, causing them to neglect their studies. "Please look into this group," she wrote.

Both complaints are now in the hands of USF's Office of Students Rights and Responsibilities, which determines whether Cornerstone's behavior merits an investigation.

But the university's powers are limited.

The school said it cannot punish the church, even though the church rents space on campus. It can only punish its campus affiliate, Cornerstone Student Fellowship.

And to do that, the university would need to investigate and sustain complaints made by current members, not former ones.

"If anyone wants to come forward, that's great," said USF spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez. "But we have to deal with what we're presented."

• • •

Bobby Griffith, 29, said he first encountered Cornerstone 10 years ago, when he was a freshman at USF.

Campus ministers flagged him down near the cafeteria. Would you be interested in attending a Bible study? they asked.

A casual Christian, Griffith accepted the flier. He soon began feeling a sense of community.

He went to cookouts. He played flag football. There were always parties on the weekends. At first, "they don't even mention church," Griffith said.

"The first year is the best," agreed John Lawson, who joined the church in 2010. "They don't push anything. They just sit down with you and read the Bible."

But former members said things change once a student commits to Jesus.

"They ask about parents," Jeff Phillips said. "Were they Christian? No? That's a huge problem because they didn't teach you to become a godly young person. Did they spank you? No? That's a huge problem because they didn't teach you discipline."

Ministers tell students to keep their distance from any family members not entrenched with God.

Lawson won't discuss his family struggles, but he said he confessed to a group leader in 2013 who convinced him to reveal his "roots." Once he did, the leader barred Lawson from becoming a campus minister, citing the details Lawson had shared. The Catch-22? Those who declined to open up were shunned, Lawson said.

"Maybe," one member was told, "you should find another church where you can grow better."

Other members said they were pressured financially.

"If you were making any money," said Jeremy Yesudas, 26, who joined the church when he was a student in 2007, "you were supposed to submit to the church."

The threshold was 10 percent weekly, Yesudas said. Other former members said elders asked students to report every purchase they made, and questioned those they deemed unnecessary or extravagant.

One former member said Cornerstone reprimanded her friend for something as simple as a haircut when she could have been spending more time on the church.

Cooper said church members aren't coerced to do anything.

"Our ministry is based on love and respect," he said. "We do not shame people publicly or privately."

As for tithing, he wrote in an email: "We tell students that they are NOT to donate money from scholarships, financial aid, or from their parents into any church fund."

But former members raised other concerns.

Christina Montalvo, 29, said elders objected to her relationship with another church member, and told them to either split up or leave the ministry.

"Bill Cooper informed me that, 'I don't feel it's right for you two to be together. If you want to continue, we'll have to ask you to leave,' " she said.

Cooper said members are free to have relationships of their choosing. "But we advise them that they should pray about it before they take a big step like that."

Others talked about the way church leaders emphasized corporal punishment, especially involving young children.

"They did not think I was a good mom," Lisa Phillips said, "because I wouldn't spank my child (then 2) who was suffering from autism."

One Cornerstone member bragged about spanking his three daughters so hard, "the button on their pants came flying off," Phillips said. Others resorted to large spatulas and wooden spoons, she said.

Cooper said infants should not be punished — but they should behave. "We encourage parents to raise their children in accordance with scripture," he said.

Cooper also noted: "(Jeff and Lisa) are the only ones complaining about our child training."

• • •

Current members questioned about the church said they were happy with their experience there. After a recent Sunday service, a few members approached a reporter to say they had never heard or witnessed any coercion or misconduct.

"I've been with the church since it started, so I know the elders very well," said Joanna Jones, 28.

"I've never felt forced," said Rachel Barkwell, 21. "If you don't want to be here, you have the freedom to leave."

At the recent service, Cooper addressed the idea of financial coercion during the offering.

"If you're a student, we don't want you to use any of your scholarship money," he told the crowd. "If you have earned some money, give what you've earned."

The ushers, all students or recent graduates, walked up and down the rows.

Service ended after the congregation congratulated their newest member. Cooper prayed for individuals near the stage. Students stacked their bibles at the end of each row.

Then, everyone filed out the door, their entrance and their exit.

Contact Zack Peterson at [email protected] Follow @zackpeterson918.

 
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