The Freemans, followed to Spokane by a troubled past, are a concern to their former adherents and the Whitworth administration
When Bill and Patsy Freeman bought three houses adjacent to the Whitworth campus late last year, the investment was more than just a million dollars of north Spokane real estate.
It was a move to revive a 40-year-long ministry that has left a trail of broken churches, families, relationships and a small town’s worth of disgruntled ex-members, say a dozen sources who have known the Freemans — some for more than a decade — and who are now concerned about the Freemans’ presence at Whitworth.
“They’re a danger – they haven’t changed their pattern,” said Howard DeYoung, who graduated from Whitworth in 1973 and knew the Freemans for about 13 years. “They consider going their way is the Lord’s way.”
For the past few years, Patsy Freeman lived near Portland, Ore., and Bill Freeman lived in Moses Lake, an eastern Washington city. The couple, who have been married for nearly 50 years and are in their late 60s, came together again last year after a five-year separation. Now the Freemans and a handful of loyal followers have moved to Spokane.
A Whitworthian investigation that included interviews with pastors, college administrators, professors, students and former members of the Freeman group points to a history of the Freemans that is complicated and messy.
Ex-members say the Freemans and their followers are a meandering group of Christians who have no strong ties with any outside Christian group and that its leaders, Bill and Patsy, are spurred on by a need to control others and oversee a flock of adherents.
Specifically, critics say Patsy Freeman has a “lust” to manipulate and micromanage others’ lives — even subtly dictating to some members what clothes they wear, what color they paint their house, how they clean their house, when to do laundry and how to discipline a child by “breaking their will.” Ex-members say her husband — a Fuller Seminary graduate, author and owner of a publishing company — provides the funds to run their ministry and acts as a “figurehead” to the group.
The Freemans reportedly maintain that they are here because they like Spokane and the Whitworth environment. Loyalists of the Freemans said the critics’ accusations are false and spurred on by former members’ bitterness toward the group.
Though a variety of ex-members were interviewed — ranging in age, location and level of involvement with the Freemans — most asked that they not be named. Most of the ex-members said this was the first time they were speaking out publicly about the Freemans.
Many also said they would still like to see their relationships with the Freemans salvaged some day and did not want to worsen things now by being named. Others said they feared retribution from the group if named.
Some former members had glowing remarks about the Freemans, though they also emphasized their concerns about the group’s practices and future ambitions.
One longtime friend of Bill Freeman’s said the 67-year-old was “one of the greatest Bible teachers I have ever heard. He inspired people.” But the ex-member also said a number of women feel they “lost a big chunk of their lives” because of Patsy Freeman’s control tactics and her husband’s repeated silence and deference to Patsy.
Bill Freeman spoke briefly with The Whitworthian but refused to answer many of the accusations that have piled up over the years. Repeated requests for an extended interview with either of the Freemans were denied.
E-mail ‘uncalled for’
A Feb. 4 all-student email sent out by the Whitworth administration said that “numerous individuals previously involved with the Freemans contacted us to say that the couple had exerted negative influence on their personal lives.”
The next day, Freeman said he was surprised by the e-mail and did not think “things would have escalated by moving here.”
“We’ve just been here to serve the Lord,” Freeman said. “We just want to be Christians and live the Christian life.”
Freeman chastised the administration in a short interview: “In ministry, you don’t like to uncover other peoples’ sin,” he said. “Unfortunately, what’s happening now is – who’s spreading the truth now? Why (does the administration) have a vendetta?”
Freeman said the e-mail was “uncalled for,” questioned whether it was “righteous,” and said the administration had taken information from sources that “you could almost put in the category of hate” and escalated the claims into a “type of crusade.”
“When you’re in the ministry as long as I’ve been, people are going to be disgruntled,” Freeman said. “These are all normal things that happen to a church.”
Freeman said he wanted to talk to the administration before making any further comments. But after a conversation with Whitworth President Bill Robinson last Thursday, he did not respond to an interview request.
An interview request with one of the Freemans’ five children, Billy Freeman, was not answered. However, one longtime loyalist of the Freemans, Sue Johnson, called the couple “wonderful people” who have “just caused me to love God’s word and to want him to be Lord of my life.”
Johnson, 54, and her husband, who live in Lake Oswego, Ore., gave the Freemans $47,000 sometime in 1998 or early 1999 while the Freemans were in Scottsdale, Ariz., according to public court records. The records indicate that the money was likely used to buy an extra house for the Freemans.
Johnson said concerns about the Freeman group expressed to Whitworth administrators in mid-December are simply the natural fallout of past church splits and frustrated congregants.
“There are people who have real problems,” Johnson said. “They tend to blame the leaders instead of what’s going on in their own lives. It’s unfair to look at the leaders because it can be really disgruntled people who have brought on their own troubles. Leaders can get blamed for things that are not their fault.”
Johnson said the Freemans are a dedicated Christian couple.
“They’ve been people that have led me to the Bible and led me to Jesus Christ,” Johnson said. “I don’t even know if I can express that to you adequately – it’s really Christ that has been their focus.”
Asked about some of the specific accusations made by many of the former members, Johnson said: “As a sister in the Lord, I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about all those kinds of things. I think I’ve already expressed to you what time and experience tells a person – and that’s that leaders get blamed for things.”
Another friend of Bill Freeman’s, Ken Sandberg, lives in Moses Lake and has three grandchildren enrolled at Whitworth. He says he has known Freeman since 1968 and, up until last fall, Freeman had lived in Sandberg’s basement for a couple of years.
Sandberg said many people have raised concerns about the Freemans because “a lot of things can get going around and just get tweaked a bit.”
He said he had never heard of the Freemans being the “direct cause” of a divorce among married couples.
But a number of former members of the Freeman group said Bill and Patsy Freeman have left many divorces in their wake. One ex-member, Lynne Young, who says she knew the Freemans for 25 years, said the number of broken marriages is “just astronomical in numbers.”
The ex-members’ claims are backed up by 1993 letter signed by 71 elders of a worldwide Christian movement commonly known as the Local Church. The Freemans were an integral part of the Local Church movement in the 1970s and 80s, but parted ways 19 years ago.
The six-page reprimand addressed to Bill Freeman said he and his family practiced a “form of legalism which reached into and touched every aspect of the church and family, including the most basic and personal decisions of everyday life and relationships.”
“Splitting up homes and marriages for the sake of oneness with the Freemans became acceptable, often resulting in great distress and irreparable damage,” the letter continued. “There are too many husbands who have and can testify that the loyalty and dependence of their wives to your (the Freeman family) exceeds that to their own husbands.”
Another letter signed by 27 elders in the Local Church was sent to Bill Freeman last December. The letter was “a word of strong concern, especially with regard of the practices of interfering with others’ marriages,” said Jim Clark, an elder at the Local Church-affiliated Church in Spokane. Bill Freeman used to be a regular guest speaker at the church two decades ago.
“The stories we heard were very alarming to us,” Clark said. “There is a controlling influence on the lives in families. It’s disturbing to us that families seem to be in the process of being broken up.”
There is a general consensus among critics of the Freemans that the couple will continue its practices at Whitworth since they have regularly attracted students from college campuses in the past. Many ex-members themselves were attracted to the Freeman group by their campus ministries and some helped attract other students into the Freeman fold.
“Bill Freeman still has not gone away from his devastating practices and devastating teachings,” said Chuck Smith, a former member of the Freeman group.
Another ex-member sent out an e-mail last month to some people in Spokane detailing the Freemans’ reputation. It said there are “several hundred” people who can back up these concerns and that a “controlling organizational structure” in the group allows Patsy Freeman to arrange both the marriages and divorces of its members.
“Many will confirm that the Freemans have caused more damage and destruction to innocent Christians and innocent children than any other church leaders they have ever known,” the e-mail read.
Another former member of the Freeman group who wished to remain anonymous because some of the ex-member’s relatives are with the Freemans, said, “In my view, it would be better for any young person who has a desire to follow the Lord to completely avoid this group.”
David Cherry, the director of Whitworth’s Masters in Teaching program and an eight-year member of the Church in Spokane said it is likely the Freemans have not changed over the years.
“The Freemans have a history. It seems their history is primarily related to a need to draw young people and families into their religious group and then control their living once they begin to meet with them,” said Cherry, who has not personally met the Freemans but says he has a good knowledge of their practices.
“If you study the result of their pattern of behavior and operation, the evidence suggests that they have left a trail of destruction with families,” Cherry added. “They have meddled into very personal family affairs and have been instrumental in the separation of husbands, wives and their children. … I am concerned that one or more of our students will be drawn in and held somewhat captive by the Freeman group.”
Young, the former longtime member of the Freeman group, was blunter.
“I’m so concerned about the students,” she said. “I can’t stand the thought of another group of students getting into this. I just can’t stand it.”
As students finished up their fall semester last year, the Freemans moved in.
The couple bought two houses in September. They paid $242,000 for the brown house at 114 West Hawthorne Road and $475,000 for what is commonly called the “Blue House” at 118 West Hawthorne Road, according to Spokane county tax records.
In early November, they paid $325,000 for the red brick house at 205 West Hawthorne Road that neighbors Robinson’s house.
A person who has observed the Freemans over the past few months said that in addition to the three-house cluster, members of the Freeman group occupy two other houses in the Whitworth neighborhood. The observer asked to speak anonymously.
On Dec. 10, 2004, President Robinson and his wife, Bonnie, had dinner with Bill Freeman and his daughter, Desiree. Patsy Freeman did not attend the dinner. At that time, the Freemans seemed like “very warm, Christian folks,” President Robinson said.
A few days later, the e-mails and phone calls started pouring in.
“I was disturbed when I heard recently that the Freeman’s had moved again, this time to Spokane,” wrote a Spokane native who says she spent 15 years of her life with the Freemans. “When I learned the Freeman’s had moved to Spokane, I knew they would attempt to begin a campus ministry there.”
The e-mail to Whitworth chaplain Terry McGonigal continued: “In a nutshell I can say the group is exclusive and controlling. I cannot recall once during my years of involvement with their student ministries where the group reached out to partner with other Christian organizations on campus. Their purpose in being involved with campus work is to serve their own ministry and needs. I consider myself one of the fortunate ones to have left their following and am often thankful to the Lord for his mercy.”
Another e-mail from Young, was more poignant: “New converts or even new visitors are … controlled in every aspect of their lives. The control ranges from where you live to if and who you marry. If (you are) single, it is worse for you because to be spiritual you must live with them in what they call ‘corporate living.’ Now they tell you when to get up, who you are to live with, whom and where you serve. … Marriages are broken, long time friendships are broken. Lives are broken. This is what ultimately (led) me to leave.”
McGonigal received the brunt of the e-mails and phone calls from former members of the Freeman group, but the messages were passed on to other administrators.
While the Whitworth administration was discussing what to do with the concerns, the Freemans and their followers continued to establish themselves.
Many in the Freeman group —but not Bill or Patsy — worked on refurbishing and adding to the homes, said a person who has observed the Freemans in the past few months. The source said that on weekends, large groups of people drive up from Portland to help paint, remodel the house, and fix the electrical and plumbing systems.
The Freemans settled into the “Blue House.” A handful of women in their 40s or 50s also live there with the couple, said Joel Tampien, a Whitworth sophomore and grandson of Sandberg, Bill Freeman’s friend from Moses Lake.
Tampien said a handful of young men live in the brown house next door while the red house across the street has been transformed into Bill Freeman’s office (Freeman runs a publishing company called Ministry Publications). The red house’s garage was turned into a massive library with multiple rows of nine-foot shelves packed with books on Christian theology and history.
Tampien, who does not live with the Freeman group but knows Bill Freeman and visits the group occasionally, said the women living with the Freemans spend their time cleaning the house.
“They’re always working, always on the go,” Tampien said.
He said one woman spends her time cooking all day.
At least three of the college-aged residents in the Freeman group are Whitworth students, the anonymous observer said. Tampien said he knew of at least two members of the Freeman group who are students.
Cherry, Whitworth’s MIT director, said he was taken aback by the Freeman’s moving in next door.
“The Freemans were presumptuous to come into the Whitworth community with no communication regarding their intent,” Cherry said. “They aggressively and boldly bought houses close to campus.”
A few people who have gotten to know the Freemans a little in the past few months say they are intrigued by the closeness of the group.
Tampien said he doesn’t know why they “always travel like a herd. The just do.”
The anonymous observer said the closeness of the community was impressive at first.
“I’ve never seen people live so well together,” the observer said. “There is complete brotherly and sisterly love.”
But the observer said that the excessive authority of Bill and Patsy Freeman commanded made them seem like a “king and queen bee.” The observer became “more standoffish” toward the Freemans after a while.
President Robinson called the tight community “interesting,” but had some questions about whether the group members are too dedicated to the Freeman couple.
“I want my loyalty always to be to Christ,” Robinson said. “We have to be cautious about any dependency that rivals dependency on Christ. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good idol or bad idol – it’s still an idol.”
In late January, only a few students knew about the Freemans.
The college’s small group coordinators — students who help oversee the Chapel-organized Bible studies on campus — were given the basic facts about the situation. Some SGCs told their small group leaders about the Freemans.
On Jan. 21, Kathy Storm, the vice president for Student Life, and Dale Soden, a history and politics professor often involved in administrative actions, met with Bill Freeman. Storm said the meeting lasted about one hour and Freeman said he was in Spokane because he liked the city and Whitworth environment.
Storm and Soden told Freeman about Whitworth’s ban on outside groups that want to proselytize on campus. Freeman said this was not an issue since he was in the “traveling and publishing business,” Storm said.
“What I tried to convey to Mr. Freeman is that we are an educational institution and want everyone on campus to be informed about everything,” Storm said. “I wouldn’t want any students to be in a situation where they are so influenced that they won’t be allowed to make informed decisions.”
Storm said that if the Freemans were here to just speak and publish, then they have “every right to do that, and I want to live respectfully next door to that.”
Six days after the meeting, Storm sent out an e-mail to all the faculty and staff at Whitworth that was similar to the one sent out a week later to all students. Bill Freeman quickly learned of the Feb. 4 all-student e-mail.
The next day Freeman said he was going to write a letter to the administration expressing his frustration. Storm said she never received a letter from Bill Freeman.
Last Thursday, however, President Robinson had a “good talk” with Freeman that “highlighted the tension we have to harness,” Robinson said.
“On one side of the facts, they moved to Whitworth, were welcomed by all of us, did nothing to hurt us, and now it feels to them like we are hurting their ministry,” the college president said.
“On the other side, we have been alerted by many and varied sources of people who feel very damaged by their ministry. So, we feel obligated as administrators to caution our students that these reports are out there. And we feel obligated as Christians to resist judging others. So we’re just trying to be people of truth and grace, and in this case it isn’t always clear when we’re succeeding.”
Robinson says he’s “seen no actions from (the Freemans) on campus that I see as threatening, but the concerns that surround them I do see as threatening.”
A Feb. 7 e-mail sent out by the Facilities Services department forwarded a message from Whitworth employee Rodney Ferguson that said he was “saddened by the tone of some recent e-mails expressing ‘concerns’ about Mr. Freeman.” Ferguson’s e-mail caused some confusion among students.
Nevertheless, Robinson said he was OK with the e-mail and that he would “never discourage anyone from expressing an opinion,” but added that he wouldn’t want campus-wide e-mails to be the “channel through which we debate this.”
Whitworth administrators say they are faced with a tricky situation and don’t want to jump to conclusions. At the same time, they are well aware of the e-mails, phone calls and documents they have received.
“I can’t remember a situation where we have received so much warning and concern,” Soden said.
Some of the former members of the Freeman group sense that the Freemans’ ministry is coming to an end. Too much has happened and too many are willing to speak out against the Freemans, they say.
One ex-member, who spoke anonymously and is especially critical of what he says is Patsy Freeman’s controlling tactics – calling her the “queen of the ant hill” – said much of the accusations and stories from former members have not been made public until now.
“Spokane may be her last Alamo,” he said.
History of Freemans
If the Freemans were to end their ministry now, it would be to some the finale of more than 40 years of preaching, teaching, studying, fellowshipping and church-building. To others, it would be the inevitable crumbling of a couple that has caused multiple church divisions, taught and practiced harsh disciplinary tactics, and been the catalyst of numerous divorces.
Understanding the Freemans’ somewhat nomadic past puts their current situation in context. The Freemans did not offer an account of their history, but multiple sources both friendly and critical of the Freemans gave a rough sketch of their past.
The couple married in 1956 while both were in their late teens. After Bill Freeman abandoned his Catholic roots, he and his wife joined a Quaker church known as a “Friends Denomination” in Garden Grove, Calif.
In the late 1960s, he parted ways with the Quaker church and joined a fledgling Christian movement that launched its effective church-planting campaign in the United States from Yorba Linda, Calif.
The movement – called the Recovery Movement, but more commonly known as the Local Church – was headed by a Chinese immigrant referred to as Witness Lee. In 1970, Lee, the Freemans and others planted a church in Seattle. The church grew and Freeman held high leadership positions in the congregation.
Bill Freeman lived and traveled to various locations over the next 16 years, including spending four years at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., where he graduated in 1979.
Though Freeman was an integral member of the Local Church leadership, he started his own ministry company on the side, called Ministry of the Word (which he still runs today), and went on to publish more than a dozen books. His commitment to his personal ministry and increasing complaints that Patsy Freeman was causing strife in the church by involving herself in peoples’ personal lives led church leaders to confront Bill Freeman in late 1986.
“It appeared on the surface as a doctrinal difference between Bill Freeman (one side) and Witness Lee and his supporters (other side),” read a July 17,1999, letter in “The Scottsdale Tribune” of Scottsdale, Ariz., a week after an article had appeared in the paper detailing some of the Freeman’s practices. “Underneath, though, was the fact that Bill Freeman could not face criticism that had mounted against his wife and her inordinate need to control people’s private lives.”
The schism between those loyal to the Freemans and those loyal to Witness Lee put the Church in Seattle through a tumultuous time. Dianne Denton, a former member of the Freeman group who grew up in the Freeman-established private school, said Bill Freeman was “raked over the coals” by leaders of the Local Church.
Eventually the Freemans moved down to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1987 and brought about 60 followers with them – a third of the Seattle church. Denton said it was a “very confusing time” that broke up families and friendships.
Phil Neher, an elder at the Seattle church and a member for the last 33 years, said the Freemans “left us because their practices were different than ours. They had practices that we didn’t feel were biblical.”
In Scottsdale, the Freemans established the Church in Scottsdale. They eventually purchased multiple homes in the area and the church grew to about 150 members over the next decade. At least one member left during the mid-1990s because she felt Patsy Freeman was mentally abusive. But the church remained steady.
Then, in late Dec. 1998, Patsy Freeman filed for divorce against Bill Freeman. After the couple proceeded with the case long enough to turn over some financial information, the case was dismissed mid-1999. It’s unclear what sparked the divorce proceedings, though one elder at the Scottsdale church called it a “heated family disagreement.”
The couple never technically divorced, but Patsy left for Portland suburb Lake Oswego, Ore., in 1999 and Bill Freeman left the church. He moved to Moses Lake a few years later.
Members of the church say that after the Freemans split ways, a number of the couple’s troublesome practices that had previously been noticed only by a few now rose to the surface.
Nevertheless, about 60 loyalists followed Patsy Freeman to Oregon, where they gathered occasionally but did not start a formal church.
Five years later, however, the couple came together again.
Former members of the Freeman group say Bill and Patsy Freeman have a symbiotic relationship – one can’t operate without the other.
Critics paint the picture of the couple like this: Bill Freeman needed a congregation to lead and Patsy Freeman needed money and a pastor to have a legitimate church. Patsy Freeman had her loyal followers and Bill Freeman had his Ministry of the Word company, his own Web site (www.thechristian.org), and his Fuller-Seminary training.
“I knew they would (get back together),” said a former longtime member of the Freeman group. “She was going to run out of money.”
As for Bill Freeman: “He’s not connected or affiliated with anything or anybody. He’s not in control, just a figurehead.”
McGonigal, Whitworth’s chaplain, said he’s concerned about the Freemans’ track record with colleges.
“(Based on) a lot of the information we have, one of the strategies of the Freemans is to target students,” McGonigal said. “We had some serious questions about the effect of the Freemans’ ministry on college-aged students.”
President Robinson said students should be on guard, but not quick to judge.
“We’re encouraged in scriptures to test the spirits,” Robinson said. “We should have our spirit-testing machine well-oiled and functional. We should demand the truth and be filled with grace. We just really need to be vigilant, but not so vigilant that we find something that’s not there.”
Many former members of the Freeman group said that the group’s influence and credibility is waning and is much more diluted than it was during the Freeman’s zenith in Seattle.
“It’s really different now than it used to be – they don’t have the strength they used to have,” said Denton, the former member.
Another former member said that even without media attention, the Freeman group will “fall apart anyway.”
“Once word gets out, eventually this thing will die anyway,” he said. “It’s over. Too much has happened.”
— Peter Burke contributed to this report