Teenagers pitted against each other during “fight nights” staged by a youth pastor running a Christian leadership training program.
“Boot camps” where the trainees learn the Way of the Cross by exercising until they vomit or soil themselves — and by hefting heavy logs on their shoulders through the sweltering summer heat.
Participants who are Black or suspected of being gay being taunted with racist and homophobic slurs, and female interns being fat-shamed.
Those are just some of the alleged abuses that were described for this article by more than a half-dozen people who took part in the “220i” leadership program that Bethany Church, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ran from 2005 to 2013. The program promised to turn participants — referred to as interns — into minister material while providing them with marketable skills like media production.
Among those interviewed was a woman who felt the program was a cult from which she had to “rescue” her daughter.
NBC News reached out to them after the church’s current lead pastor, Jonathan Stockstill, posted an apology on his Facebook page on April 28 for the “painful experiences” many of the 500 or so young Christians endured in the program, the stated goal of which was to “train young leaders.”
“While there was some positive fruit that came from that ministry, there were also leadership and cultural flaws that led to painful experiences for many,” he wrote. “It’s obvious to me now and to the current leadership at Bethany Church that we significantly missed the mark in that program in many ways.”
The former interns — some of whom spoke on the record, while others used pseudonyms out of fear of retaliation from the powerful megachurch, which has thousands of members — said he was aware of what was going on and did nothing to stop it.
They said the ringleader was his older brother, Joel, who tormented the interns with the help of aides known as “second years,” as well as Joel’s late wife, Amy, and his current wife, Amie.
Founded by the Stockstill brothers’ grandfather Roy in 1963, the nondenominational Bethany Church grew from having Sunday services in the living room of the family home into one of the biggest megachurches in the country. It has more than 8,000 members spread across five campuses in Louisiana and is opening another in New Orleans, runs a television ministry and supports missions at home and abroad.
This church program is accused of abusing teens with extreme ‘boot camps,’ ‘fight nights’ and shame (nbcnews.com)