TAMPA — A theater in the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida is the local worship center for an evangelical ministry whose affiliate in Arizona was booted this week from a campus religious council amid allegations it operates as a cult.
The Cornerstone Christian Church at USF has no record of complaints or violations, a USF spokesman said, and is an active student organization.
But a former church official who helped found the Tampa offshoot and left in 2007 said the behavior is systemwide.
“The same abuses that are reported happening in Tucson are happening in Florida,” said Jeff Phillips, now a pastor with another church in the Phoenix area and an adjunct professor at Arizona Christian University. “I was there.”
The Arizona Daily Star of Tucson reported in March that the University of Arizona is investigating Faith Christian Church, which has operated on campus for 25 years. This week, the school’s Religious Council revoked the membership of the church.
Reporters for the newspaper interviewed former employees, church members and members’ parents who accused Faith Christian of punishing infants, financial coercion, public shaming and shunning of those who leave the church or question its leaders. Some told the newspaper they spent years in therapy for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving the church.
Cornerstone Christian Church leaders did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.
A current member of the church, Scott Ryan, said the tactics reported in Arizona are not part of the culture here.
Ryan joined as an undergraduate and now serves as a USF library operations manager and advisor for Cornerstone Student Fellowship. He said his experience with the church has been “nothing but positive.”
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Phillips, the man who with his wife and children cut ties to the church, joined Faith Christian in Tucson as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. He was part of the church’s leadership team from 1995 to 2003, when he went to New Zealand to help open an offshoot of the church there. He then came to Tampa, where he helped launch Cornerstone in 2005.
“My entire religious experience was with Faith Christian,” Phillips said. “They were all that I knew about how to be a Christian, about how to be a minister, so I was always very fearful about questioning authority. One of the insidious things about these churches is that they teach that church authority is God’s authority, and if you question church authority, you’re questioning God’s authority. Very quickly you learn to step in line. You don’t dare get in trouble with God.”
Phillips said he never stood up to or confronted church leaders. But during his stay in New Zealand, he and his wife began to question things.
It was the church’s position on child-rearing that ultimately led to his departure. Phillips said members are taught to use corporal punishment to control children — he said he heard of a couple spanking an infant as young as 5 weeks old — and “with our first child, we decided we were not going to do that. But we didn’t dare tell anybody ... That was sort of the first thing we began to question. That opened the door to me to start to question other things.”
Phillips said in Tampa, he began to suspect that his two sons, ages 2 and 3, might be autistic. Church leaders insisted the children were being rebellious and needed discipline, while he realized they were displaying symptoms of autism, he said.
“That was the linchpin that woke me up,” Phillips said. “I was willing to take the abuse, but I wasn’t going to let it touch my kids.”
He said he also questioned church officials’ examination of members’ personal finances and interfering in personal relationships. Phillips tells his story in a post on the Facebook page, “Former Members of Cornerstone Christian Church Tampa.” Former members of Faith Christian in Tucson also maintain a Facebook page as well as a website.
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Cornerstone church senior pastor Bill Cooper and associate pastor Will Abraham did not respond to phone messages and emails. The Tribune also attempted to contact the 17 campus pastors on Cornerstone’s website, but none responded to emails.
Ryan, USF’s Cornerstone advisor, met his wife in the Tampa church and attributes his success in life to relationships he built at there.
“It helped me connect,” he said. “Just like any other college student, I came to college with no relationships. I got to know people who had the same faith, the same ideals, the same goals in life. I was able to develop some very strong relationships there.”
He said he was never coerced for tithing or discouraged from family contact. In fact, he said church officials encouraged him to talk to his parents and others he knew and trusted when he was deciding what to do after graduation.
He called church officials “great examples of upstanding men and women,” adding, “I look to them as examples, and they’re very positive examples in my life.”
Cornerstone Christian holds services on Sundays at 11:15 a.m. in the Oval Theater in the Marshall Center. The center’s website indicates fees for the room range from no cost for student organizations holding one event per semester to $525 for university-sponsored events. There are also fees for support personnel and furnishings.
The theater typically hosts events such as workshops and lecture series and USF President Judy Genshaft’s annual Fall Address.
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While there have been no official complaints or ethics violations in Tampa, a professor recalls fielding a complaint about Cornerstone in 2012. Barbara Loeding, a professor in the Department of Special Education at USF, posted an item to the Facebook page “Former Members of Cornerstone Christian Church,” stating that anyone who had issues with the church should contact the dean of students.
“Nothing ever came of it to my knowledge,” Loeding said Wednesday. “We need to at least give the students some way to open up and share if something’s going on.”
On Monday, the University Religious Council at the University of Arizona revoked the Tucson church’s membership along with the membership of its affiliated clubs, Wildcats for Christ, Native Nations in Christ and Providence Club.
“The number, seriousness, and pattern of red flags raised compel URC members to no longer believe that Faith Christian Church and its affiliates operate at the highest level of integrity, transparency, safety for students, and respect for students, standards required for URC membership,” the council said in its ruling, which it provided to The Tampa Tribune.
Michelle Blumenberg, spokeswoman for the University of Arizona council, said it was the first time the panel had taken such action.
Meanwhile, officials at Massey University in New Zealand have banned from its campus the leaders of a ministry there that is affiliated with the Tucson church. The school issued “trespass orders” to keep individuals with the church off campus property.
In addition to USF, the University of Arizona, and Massey, the Cornerstone website lists Faith Christian affiliates in the college towns of Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.