It’s not too hard to find yourself in subservience to an over-controlling, manipulative group, according to former members of Faith Christian Church, a campus ministry.
While former members were quick to classify the church as a cult, Michael Langone, executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association, said groups like FCC qualify as a “high-demand or high-control group.”
“One of the problems with the term ‘cult’ is, in the minds of a lot of laymen, it has a lot of connotations as something sensational,” he said. “You know, weird groups, weird people who suck blood from cats in cemeteries.”
FCC, rather, is one of these high-control groups in which, according to Langone, use persuasion over time to convince members of their authority.
In response to a requested interview, the church sent an email saying, “We do not think it is appropriate to either promote or defend our ministry.”
Neither the Dean of Students Office nor the University Religious Council had any formal complaints about FCC or related clubs, such as Native Nations In Christ, Providence Club and Wildcats for Christ. Former members had their own stories to tell.
“[Members] have been indoctrinated over the years with Biblical teaching that’s twisted a little bit,” said Jeremy Morgan, who resigned from his position as FCC’s special projects coordinator in 2009.
“[Executive pastor Steve Hall] takes that scripture — that all authority is from God — and then adds: Therefore, going against authority is rebelling against God, equating … if you go against what he says, you’re in rebellion to God,” he said.
According to Morgan and Hillary Hirsch, a UA alumna and former church member who left in 2009, none of the pastors were formally trained.
“They wouldn’t allow [educated pastors] because they used to have this thing, as Steve Hall would say it, that seminary equals cemetery,” Hirsch said. “They would just say that [outside logic] wasn’t aligned with the Bible, and that everything Steve Hall preached was aligned with what the Bible said.”
Morgan said this was a form of brainwashing used by Hall. However, according to Langone, the change doesn’t occur overnight.
“[Brainwashing] is a gradual process, it’s like a wearing away of someone’s autonomy and capacity to think independently and critically,” he said. “That’s what makes it insidious.”
Hirsch said she didn’t realize FCC was overstepping its bounds until she was reprimanded for dating.
“I started dating, and [Hall’s] daughters, Clara and Emily — and my minister at the time — sat me down and they tried to cast out demons,” Hirsch said. “That happened about three times. I would date somebody and they would say, ‘OK, you need to cast out a demon,’ so we’d have a session where they’d cast out demons and I’d think that I got over it.”
In these sessions she visited Hall’s home, who has led the group since it opened as Maranatha Christian Church of Tucson in the 1980s, and was asked to “repent.”
“I went over to their house and I was over there for six hours,” she said. “Every hour, they’d ask me if I was ready to repent, which basically meant that you tell what you were doing and ask God’s forgiveness.”
After the third time, Hall told her, “When people see the awesome power of my family, they feel like they can’t live up to it and they leave,” she said.
“We sat down and he was telling me that my parents didn’t raise me right,” Hirsch said. “My dad was a Marine, and he said Marines don’t have a good track record with raising kids. They have some weird beef with the military.”
In her time at the church, Hirsch also gave up a full-ride ROTC scholarship. She has since graduated from the UA .
“They told me serving God was a higher calling than serving the military,” she said.
The abuse of authority didn’t stop there, according to Rachel Williams, who left the church in 2007 after being a member for 13 years. She said the church used members for free labor in building project on a ranch property two hours northeast of the UA campus, and that the church said the work would bring members closer together.
“We would go out there on weekends and fix it up,” she said. “It was a shell of a house that was never finished, and we were finishing it. I honestly think Steve was using us as free labor to clear out the road, wire the electricity, put the plumbing in and finish the walls, put the roof on it.”
According to Morgan, who helped oversee the project, all of the work was done without a single permit. Records from the Pima County Assessor’s Office document the property as a vacant lot, meaning there shouldn’t be a building on the land.
Morgan said it would have been hard for members of FCC to realize following Hall’s directions might be wrong.
“If a staff member could look from the outside in, they would ask, ‘What is that person doing?’” he said. “They’re caught up in the culture, and are unaware of the consequences of their actions.”
Langone attributes this to the way Hall and the church brought members in.
“People who have been through it have difficulty explaining it because, if they were deceived in the process of conversion, they weren’t aware that they were being deceived,” Langone said. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been a deception.”
Jeremy Toedel, a UA alumnus who left the church in 2011, had advice for potential members.
“Don’t be fooled by people who are being super friendly, because they’ll start getting personal with you and start being more and more interrogative,” Toedel said. “They want to know your whole past, your whole story. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’”
Langone, who has worked with hundreds of former members of groups like FCC, had a suggestion for members and non-members alike.
“A college campus is supposed to be a place where you have a marketplace of ideas, where there’s supposedly a tolerance to different points of view,” he said. “I would encourage young people to assert themselves. Don’t be afraid to be a little rude. If [the group] is actually good, it’ll continue to be good. If they really love you, they can handle your rudeness.”