Monday, August 20, 2018
News Roundup

Offshoot of controversial Faith Christian Church comes under scrutiny at USF

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.

 
Comments
Rays defeat Royals thanks to pitching and replay

Rays defeat Royals thanks to pitching and replay

ST. PETERSBURG — That the Rays defeated the Royals 1-0 on Monday night — Tampa Bay's major-league-leading 51st one-run game — is not surprising. What is a bit unusual is how they did it.With two outs and runners on first and third i...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Rays journal: Seminole’s Brett Phillips returns home

Rays journal: Seminole’s Brett Phillips returns home

ST. PETERSBURG — Brett Phillips played at Tropicana Field in 2012 when he was a senior at Seminole High and a member of Team Pinellas in the annual Hillsborough vs. Pinellas All-Star Game. He was just weeks away from being picked in the sixth r...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Who says preseason doesn’t count for Bucs?

Who says preseason doesn’t count for Bucs?

TAMPA — Monday was a beautiful day out at One Buc Place.Sunny. Blue skies. Hot, but not a thousand degrees like it has been in recent weeks around here.The Bucs were finally back home after spending most of the past week in Nashville. And despi...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Rodney Page’s takeaways from Monday’s Rays-Royals game

Rodney Page’s takeaways from Monday’s Rays-Royals game

Replay played a big role in the game. The Rays got their run in the second when an out call at first was overturned. Then in the fourth, Kevin Kiermaier was picked off second with no outs after a replay showed his hand came off the base.Ryan Yarbroug...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Head-on crash kills three, injures two children in Zephyrhills

Head-on crash kills three, injures two children in Zephyrhills

ZEPHYRHILLS — Three people were killed and two children were seriously injured in a head-on collision that took place Sunday night, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.The crash took place about 7 p.m. on County Road 54, west of Chantel Drive.Elv...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Tampa Bay Catholics react: ‘Terrible and horrible,’ ‘betrayal,’ ‘deep disappointment’

Tampa Bay Catholics react: ‘Terrible and horrible,’ ‘betrayal,’ ‘deep disappointment’

ST. PETERSBURG — The fallout from a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing the molestation of more than 1,000 children by at least 300 Roman Catholic priests that was covered up by church officials for decades has reverberated among Tampa Bay paris...
Updated: 6 hours ago
More manatees have died in Florida so far this year than in all of 2017. Blame Red Tide.

More manatees have died in Florida so far this year than in all of 2017. Blame Red Tide.

ST. PETERSBURG — The number of manatee deaths in Florida this year has already exceeded the total for all of 2017. Blame Red Tide, which is suspected of killing more than 100 of them.So far, 554 manatees have died in 2018, with four months left to go...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Bulls snubbed in preseason AP poll

Bulls snubbed in preseason AP poll

Less than two weeks before their season opener, the Bulls finally have a gaudy accessory to complement their new Adidas uniforms.The ol' chip on their shoulder pads.USF received no votes in the Associated Press preseason poll released Monday, marking...
Updated: 8 hours ago
After parents object, Pinellas halts active shooter training videos for younger kids

After parents object, Pinellas halts active shooter training videos for younger kids

After a torrent of complaints, the Pinellas County school system is scrapping its plans to show a video to elementary school students in preparation for state-mandated active shooting drills to begin soon.The reaction came from parents after the dist...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Yes, that’s a crocodile on a pool noodle. No, the human didn’t get it back.

Yes, that’s a crocodile on a pool noodle. No, the human didn’t get it back.

A little over a week ago, Key Largo resident Victor Perez was looking out toward the bayside canal behind his house when he spotted an unusual sight."I’m on my balcony," said Perez, "and all of a sudden, I see this noodle and there’s a crocodile hang...
Updated: 8 hours ago