ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Former members of the upstate New York church where two teens were viciously beaten paint a picture of a once vibrant and joyous house of worship that declined into a place of fear and intimidation under new leadership.
“When I first arrived, it was warm and welcoming. It was encouraging. It was helpful,” said Chadwick Handville, a massage therapist in Phoenix, Arizona, who left the Word of Life Christian Church in June 2000 after 10 years that included a stint as a worship leader and trustee. Things went downhill after founder Jerry Irwin returned from some time away and reclaimed his position as pastor, Handville said.
“What was off the wall was his attitude toward others,” Handville said. “It wasn’t happy. He accused every male of lusting after his wife.”
Handville said Irwin’s preaching was filled with personal attacks on parishioners, whom he forced to work long hours renovating the Irwin family’s apartment on the third floor of the former school building that houses the church in New Hartford, which is 100 miles west of Albany.
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“He did have good points,” Handville said. “Through him I was able to memorize half the Bible. He taught me a lot. What he failed to teach me was how to use what I read, how to treat people.”
Handville said many current and former church members are afraid to talk publicly about the church for fear of recrimination.
In a letter to the Post-Standard of Syracuse, former congregant Nathan Ames said the church started out as a fast-growing Pentecostal church but declined after Irwin reclaimed leadership. Ames described Irwin as controlling and intimidating.
Since Irwin’s fatal stroke several years ago, his wife, Traci, and their children — Tiffanie, Daniel and Joseph — have been in charge. Ames said they continued in the style of the founder.
Six church leaders and parishioners now face charges including manslaughter and assault for a brutal beating in the sanctuary last Sunday that left 19-year-old Lucas Leonard dead and his 17-year-old brother Christopher hospitalized. Church members Bruce and Deborah Leonard, parents of the victims, face the most serious charge, manslaughter. Deborah Leonard’s daughter, Sarah Ferguson, and Joseph Irwin, both face assault charges.
Police say the beatings arose out of a “counseling session” that may have been related to Lucas Leonard wanting to leave the church.
The New York Times reported that Daniel Irwin told investigators that his sister, Tiffanie, the pastor at Word of Life, told the church congregation that some members were practicing witchcraft. The newspaper reported that Irwin said Lucas Leonard was one of them and that he was going to make a voodoo doll of a church leader.
New Hartford police said there is “no evidence that we are aware of that supports that Lucas Leonard was engaged in any such activity.”
The roughly 30-year-old church has declined from about 40 members to around 20, New Hartford police Chief Michael Inserra said. Remaining members are devoted to their pastor and often “wait to be told what to do,” Inserra said.
Traci and Tiffanie Irwin haven’t been charged and haven’t commented.
David Bromley, professor of religious studies and director of the World Religions and Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University, said there are thousands of similar small, independent Christian churches around the country. They’re typically very conservative, following a very strict fundamentalist theology with a literal interpretation of the Bible.
“Every now and then, one pops up that has gone awry,” Bromley said. “That’s statistically not shocking because there are so many of them.”
The trend toward independent, conservative churches coincides with a decline in membership in mainline Christian churches. “A lot are forming in reaction to the liberalization of mainline churches,” Bromley said.
The churches generally start with a pastor, sometimes branching out from an existing congregation, who starts out with a group meeting in a home or rented storefront. Many disband after a few years, but some flourish. As with any organization, leadership may take a bad turn, Bromley said.
“There are certainly cases of charismatic leaders who abuse their power,” Bromley said.
The theology of a congregation may lead to strong resistance to a member’s wish to leave the group.
“If you get into a very conservative group where there is only one way and God’s wrath is about to be unleashed on humanity and we’re the faithful remnant, then leaving the group is a very serious condition from the point of view of members,” Bromley said. “Essentially, if you leave you’re walking into Satan’s dominion and your soul is lost.”
There are cases where groups use physical restraint to prevent a person from leaving, he said.
“These cases look very bizarre to outsiders,” Bromley said. “To scholars, they look like rare, radical events that occur in groups that are tightly organized and very conservative.”