Greater Grace World Outreach: Religion under fire

Nineteen years ago, the Rev. Carl Henry Stevens Jr. left Lenox, the headquarters of his The Bible Speaks evangelical empire, after a federal court ordered him to repay a Lenox woman $5.5 million that Stevens had persuaded her to donated to his ministry.

Today, Stevens operates a similar ministry, the Baltimore-based Greater Grace World Outreach, which lists 55 affiliated churches nationwide and hundreds worldwide. That total includes Massachusetts branches in Lee, Braintree, Marlborough/Framingham, Saugus, Townsend and Woburn.

Miles away and years later, Stevens’ work remains a source of controversy. There are near-daily Internet postings about Greater Grace, whose former members have made allegations of mind control, sexual misconduct, child molestation, fraud and extortion against the churches. Former members also say their marriages and families have been torn apart as a result of following the ministry.

“I do think the group is destructive,” said the Rev. Robert T. Pardon, executive director of the New England Institute of Religious Research. “The people who come out of this group are often very damaged. … I see it happen again and again and again, where families are torn apart by this group and others like it. They have subtle ways of alienating you from your children or your family.”

Greater Grace officials have denied the accusations levied against them and did not return repeated phone calls by The Eagle requesting information. Although no charges have been filed by law enforcement authorities, cult experts and religious leaders who have investigated the allegations say Stevens’ ministry exerts “a cultic mindset” over its followers through false doctrines.

Those doctrines include the “geographical will of God,” which says members could endanger their lives — such as dying in an accident or contracting cancer — if they leave their churches. There also is the doctrine of “delegated authority,” in which followers must adhere to the spiritual authority God has given church leaders or else fall under the attack of Satan.

A cult of Christianity

In doctrine and in practice, this organization is – theologically – cult of Christianity

Greater Grace, on its Web site, says it offers a Christ-centered ministry with a “strong emphasis on the unity of the family,” but former church members have posted 78,000 complaints about Greater Grace on the Internet site FACTnet.org, which promotes investigation and discussion of cult and mind-control issues.

In 1991, Pardon helped establish one of the few long-term-care facilities in the country for cult survivors, Meadow Haven in Lakeville, Mass. Pardon said the facility has assisted 30 to 40 former Greater Grace members who have suffered from mind-control abuses and alienation from their families and friends for leaving the church.

David Henke, an ordained Baptist minister and founder of the Watchman Fellowship Inc., an independent Christian research group in Columbus, Ga., said Greater Grace dissidents consistently describe spiritual and emotional abuses commonly found among high-control groups.

Henke has a Web commentary on Greater Grace called “Evaluating High Control Religious Systems,” and he’s working on a spiritual recovery workbook for cult survivors.

“It’s an aberration, a dysfunctional religious group, and it teaches certain doctrines that empower the leadership, which also create powerless followers,” Henke said. “It leads to emotional or spiritual injury for people who question or step outside (the ministry).”

Joseph P. Szimhart, a therapist for cult survivors for 20 years in Pennsylvania, describes cults as eccentric groups led by charismatic leaders with an “elite” message.

“Most cultic groups see themselves as elite, as having an insight into God that no one else has,” Szimhart said. “That sometimes attracts people who are vulnerable and have a need to belong. When they’re recruited, they’re made to feel special, that if they learn and follow the doctrine, they will help save the world and themselves.”

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Citing declining health, Stevens, 76, has passed his authority of the Greater Grace ministry to the Rev. Thomas Schaller. Neither Schaller, Stevens nor the church’s spokesman — Baltimore attorney Michael E. Marr — returned phone calls made by The Eagle. But two years ago, Marr told The Baltimore Sun that the church denied allegations it paid off an angry husband to cover up an affair between his wife and a clergy member. Marr also predicted that the church would grow stronger than ever despite being “persecuted” on the Internet.

Lenox roots

Stevens started The Bible Speaks in Maine in 1973, but moved its headquarters to an 86-acre campus on Kemble Street in Lenox three years later. The campus included housing for members who sold their homes and donated the proceeds to the church.

In 1987, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge ordered Stevens to repay Lenox resident Elizabeth Dayton Dovydenas $6.5 million that she had signed over to The Bible Speaks, which had 70 branches, including 23 in New England.

According to the suit, which accused Stevens of deceit, Dovydenas was told that her husband and relatives were under demonic influence and that she should donate millions on instructions from God. In 1989, the U.S. Court of Appeals lowered the amount of Stevens’ payment to $5.5 million.

Stevens received federal bankruptcy protection later that year, moved to Baltimore and re-organized his church into the Greater Grace World Outreach. The Dovydenases, who declined to comment for this story, acquired the Lenox campus through a bankruptcy auction and later sold the property. It now houses the theater group Shakespeare & Company.

In Baltimore, Stevens operated his ministry out of an old theater and then a funeral home. Greater Grace World Outreach Inc. now operates out of a shopping mall it purchased in 1997. The mall is assessed at $3 million and houses the church and the Maryland Bible College & Seminary, a non-accredited institution.

Back to the Berkshires

In 1995, Stevens’ ministry acquired the Berkshire Bible Church at 160 High St. in Lee — the church had been affiliated with The Bible Speaks — and changed the church’s name to the Greater Grace Church of the Berkshires. The modest white church, formerly First United Methodist Church, sits next to a Catholic school on a quiet residential street. It is described as a nondenominational Christian church in the phone book.

Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason said the town has received no complaints from residents about Greater Grace, which offers services on Sundays and Wednesdays and which drew more than 30 people to a recent Wednesday service.

The Rev. David Stambovsky immediately welcomed two newcomers before the service began with 20 minutes of Christian hymns from a live band.

In his announcements, he told all churchgoers about a plan to sell the Greater Grace Manor, a veterans home at 475 East St. in Lee, and he asked his congregants to help repair the building and keep the property manicured for potential buyers.

Stambovsky then gave a half-hour sermon.

“God is not as interested in getting millions of people to worship him as he is in getting you to understand what He’s all about,” Stambovsky said.

He later left a message on a reporter’s voice mail, thanking her for attending the service.

“I’m always blessed when people visit,” he said.

Citing time constraints, Stambovsky declined to speak with The Eagle about Greater Grace, except to say that the church has helped improve the lives of hundreds of people. He pointed to the church’s “fruits,” or various ministries, that have assisted people in need.

But cult experts such as Pardon and Henke — along with former members of Greater Grace — say the ministry’s leadership often attempts to discredit the opinions of dissenters by saying they are mentally ill or on the “fringe” of society.

Laura Frank, a 52-year-old Lee resident, recalled what finally prompted her to leave the church in Lee. She said she was confiding in a fellow churchgoer about her marital problems when her pastor interrupted the conversation and told her to divorce her husband.

“That was the day I thought, ‘This is not Jesus,’ said Frank, who nonetheless separated from her husband.

Frank’s 21-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter still belong to Greater Grace, her son in the Lee church and her daughter in Baltimore. Frank said Friday that her children hadn’t been home for the past two days despite the fact that both had been staying there. She said she feared they might be talking with Stambovsky, falling further under the church’s influence.

Frank, who was raised Unitarian, had been drawn into the church by her husband. She said she was told she was mentally ill and was encouraged to work

menial jobs, even though she had a master’s degree from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. She now teaches opera and music at Berkshire Music School in Pittsfield.

When she left the church, Frank said she could not think clearly and felt lonely and depressed after losing her friendships within the church. She soon discovered a wealth of information on the Internet about Greater Grace churches and their cultic tendencies, reading stories of other former members who had been through similar experiences.

“It’s just amazing what they’ve done to people and how they’ve ruined families,” said Frank, who acknowledged she is seeing a therapist for her problems. “This is mind control, and our First Amendment rights have been taken.”

Thomas Mitchell, an ordained minister and former pastor at the Baltimore church who now lives in Hanover, Pa., said he has counseled nearly 50 past followers of the religion, including Frank. Mitchell pointed to his experiences as a pastor in the church in trying to convert prostitutes and drug addicts in Baltimore’s red-light district.

Mitchell said he and his wife brought a young woman into Greater Grace a few years ago when Stevens was preaching a Sunday sermon. Stevens directed his sermon at some pastors in the audience, criticizing them for hiring prostitutes. Mitchell said Stevens screamed that God called them “whores.”

“I pushed past security and went right up to him after that service,” Mitchell said. “I told him that a young lady had been searching for God, was in need of help, and that she will never come back here or anywhere else after what he had just said.

“To just throw that out there is very tactless and cruel,” Mitchell continued. “(The woman) never expected to go to a church and hear that from a pastor, and it just hurt her so much. … I was left trying to scoop up the pieces of what was left of her heart.”

Mitchell said that, as far as he knows, the woman returned to her lifestyle as a prostitute.

Mitchell also recalled another service when Stevens demeaned churchgoers who had gotten up to use the bathroom during one of his sermons.

“He said, ‘If you walk out on a message like this, you’ve got to be a spiritual moron,’ ” Mitchell said. “I mean, people had to use the bathroom. It was ridiculous.”

Neil Patrick Carrick of Canton, Mich., is a former member of Greater Grace’s Baltimore church who was raised as a Southern Baptist and served as a Baptist pastor in Baltimore. Carrick said he was a manager of information systems for Greater Grace from 1994-98, working 80 hours a week and earning $10,000 a year.

Carrick now works as a technologies administrator for AeroTech in Canton.

His wife, Keri, divorced him a month ago. Carrick said he sees very little of his four children and has not spoken with his wife for 18 months. He said he left the church in 1998, and church leaders pressured his wife to dissociate herself from him.

“I blame our inability to have any marriage counseling on Greater Grace,” Carrick said. “I’ve seen this happen to so many people, and I don’t know a way of winning.”

Carrick said church leaders had warned them not to marry in the first place; Carrick believes they wanted his ex-wife to serve as a missionary. When they eloped despite the warning, Carrick said they were shunned by churchgoers.

‘Love balmed’

Past followers of Stevens’ ministries say they initially were “love balmed,” or made to feel like part of the church’s family at a vulnerable time in their lives.

Carrick explained that he had been depressed and working as a cook in Baltimore when a woman from Greater Grace walked into his restaurant with pamphlets about the ministry. Two days after he attended his first Greater Grace service, Carrick was hired by the church and was welcomed as part of its “family.”

Roberta Fernalld of Lenox said Stevens visited the Log Church in Auburn, Maine, near her hometown of Rumford, the same week her grandmother died. She explained that members of neighboring churches often attended services that featured Stevens.

Stevens preached about heaven that evening in the early 1980s and later walked down the aisle to hug Fernalld, who said she was surprised by his foresight into her personal life.

“It never dawned on me until years later that my pastor had probably told Stevens about my grandmother,” she said. “They used my emotional state to draw me into the church, which I think is evil and manipulative.”

Fernalld said she devoted herself as a member of The Bible Speaks in Rumford, selling everything she had to donate to the church and live on site. In 1983, Fernalld said she moved to the Lenox campus and was “rewarded” with Bible classes and a job in the bookstore.

At the time, Fernalld said she was instructed to remove copies of The Eagle from the newsstand on campus because a reporter had been writing about the ministry’s questionable practices.

“Anything bad about the ministry was an evil report, and we weren’t allowed to read it,” she said.

After Stevens left the Berkshires, Fernalld said she and her boyfriend returned to their Rumford church in Maine, where they got married and stayed a few months. They soon returned to Lenox and attended Berkshire Bible Church, which was associated with The Bible Speaks and was housed at an East Street shopping center.

Fernalld was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease that attacks lymph nodes and the immune system. She said the pastor at Berkshire Bible Church told her Satan was trying to lure her away from serving God, and that the pastor knew what was best for her. She said a friend in Baltimore was going through a severe illness and also was told by church leaders that she needed to commit herself to serving the body.

Fernalld said she and her husband decided to leave the church and stay together, even though men were instructed to divorce their wives for leaving the ministry. She said they later received threatening phone calls warning them not to talk about The Bible Speaks to reporters. Fernalld’s friend suggested she call a cult deprogrammer, Doris Quelet. Quelet then informed the Fernallds about the group’s cultic tendencies.

“Stevens made us feel elite, like we were a part of something bigger, that we were the only church on fire for God, and we were proud of that,” Fernalld said. “We would have done anything for him. … We were stunned. I felt very odd about myself, like I should have known that I was in a cult.”

‘There is hope’

Jack and Lee Leonard, both of Boston, said they witnessed the ministry’s demise in Lenox during the 1980s. Jack Leonard, who served as president of the bible school on the church’s Lenox campus, also briefly testified during the Dovydenases’ trial in defense of Stevens.

After Stevens filed for bankruptcy, the Leonards tried to put their lives back together and raise their three sons. They moved to Boston, where Jack Leonard discovered that the degree in Bible studies he had earned from the school was worthless because the school was not accredited. He found a job teaching at a Catholic school and earned his doctorate in education, which he uses today as a public school principal. Lee Leonard returned to her artistic talents as a painter.

“Our hearts go out to those who are suffering because we know that you’re left completely emotionally and mentally devastated,” Lee Leonard said. “I think people are shocked that, in their 30s and 40s, they find that they have to rebuild their lives, but we’re here to say that there is hope. Just put one foot in front of the other, and you’ll get through it.”

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