In Virginia, a Powerful and Polarizing Pastor: A Loudoun Minister Inspires Loyalty From Followers, Anger From Ex-Members With Torn Lives and Moral Pain

Rob Foster was 16 when his family unraveled. He had told his
parents that he wanted to leave Calvary Temple, the Pentecostal church
in Sterling the family had attended for decades.


But church leaders were blunt with his parents: Throw your son out
of the house, or you will be excommunicated. And so that December two
years ago, Gary and Marsha Foster told Rob that he had to leave. They
would not see him or talk to him.

“I was devastated,” he said.

For
more than three decades, hundreds of families have been coming to
Calvary Temple, a sprawling, beige stucco complex that sits
unobtrusively behind the suburban strip malls and subdivisions of
Leesburg Pike. As conservative Christianity flourished in Loudoun County and across the country in the 1980s, Calvary thrived.

Under
the leadership of longtime pastor Star R. Scott, Calvary opened a
school, television and radio ministries, and satellite churches around
the globe. The local congregation at one point numbered 2,000.

Scott’s
followers see him as an inspiring interpreter of God’s word. Members
pack the church most nights, united in their desire to live as the
Bible intended and reject what they view as society’s moral ambivalence.

“Church
isn’t for everyone who wants to just show up,” Scott said in an
interview. “It’s not a community club. We’re not looking to build
moral, successful children. We’re looking to build Christians.”

But
for hundreds of members who have left the church during the past
decade, Calvary is a place of spiritual warfare, where ministers urged
them to divorce spouses and shun children who resisted the teachings.
Scott is twisting the Bible’s message, they say, and members who
challenged the theology were accused of hating God.

They had
joined eagerly, drawn to Scott’s energy as a new religious broadcaster
and his commitment to living by the literal word of the Bible. He
defined the church. But just as he built Calvary, they say, Scott
transformed it, taking it from a vibrant, open church to a rigidly
insular community over which he has almost total control.

In
2002, three weeks after the death of his wife, Scott, who was then 55,
stood before the congregation and announced that the Bible instructed
him as a high priest to take a virgin bride from the faithful. A week
later, he did — a pretty 20-year-old who a couple of years earlier had
been a star basketball player on the church high school team.

Scott
said he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of church funds on a
fleet of race cars and until last year devoted many weekends touring
the circuit for his “racing ministry.” The church Web site shows Scott
and his wife, Greer, 26, posing in racing suits, helmets in hand,
beside a red dragster.

Scott is Calvary’s “apostle” and presiding
elder, and in 1996, he named himself the sole trustee, putting him in
charge of virtually all of the church’s operations, its theology and
finances.

In his sermons, Scott teaches that his church is
scripturally superior to others and views keeping people in the fold as
a matter of their salvation. “Anything that’s other than a member in
harmony has to be identified and expelled,” Scott preached in May 2007.

Don’t
be afraid of “social services” if you throw rebellious children out of
the house, he told the congregation in an earlier sermon, because “you
obeyed God.” In an interview, he cited scriptures: “Deuteronomy says if
your kid doesn’t follow your God, kill ’em. That’s what we do, but not
physically. To us, you’re dead if you’re not serving our God,” he said.

Scott
describes those who decide to leave the church as “depraved,” and
Calvary’s practice is to cut them off. When parents have left the
church, some young children have been urged to stay; a few have been
taken in by pastors. Scott’s family has been divided, too: Scott is
estranged from his 36-year-old son, Star Scott Jr.

“Jesus said, ‘I didn’t come to bring peace, I came to bring a sword,’ ” the elder Scott said about the divided families.

Most current members declined to talk to The Washington Post, although Scott and three other leaders spoke at length.

Kim
Heglund, Scott’s daughter and the wife of a Calvary pastor, said
members feel strongly loyal to Calvary because they believe they are
living out the Bible: “This is Christianity, people being a family.”
Bitter feelings and divided families are the exception and caused by
people who “pretended to be Christians.” Calvary leaders are careful
never to explicitly tell people what to do, she said. “We just say:
‘This is what the Bible says. You make a decision.’ “

Former
members contend that much about their lives, from how they spent their
money to how they raised their children, was dictated by Scott and
other church leaders.

“What started out as a Christian
organization has turned into a cult where people are controlled,” said
Jonathan Ernst, a Calvary pastor until he was blacklisted by Scott in
1994.

Scott’s teachings have become well known in Loudoun’s
conservative religious community, where several ministers expressed
criticism and said they have taken into their congregations hundreds of
former Calvary members, some of whom are traumatized by their broken
families and torn over the meaning of the Bible.

After Rob Foster
left the family’s tidy home in Sterling, his parents pored over the
Bible. Foster said they posed their own questions: Doesn’t Deuteronomy
21 say parents, not the pastor, determine whether a child is
rebellious? Doesn’t Luke 15 tell of a father celebrating the return of
his prodigal younger son?

Rob had moved in with a family that had
left Calvary but was homesick and would show up at his parents’ door on
Sundays to talk. After a few months, they took him back.

Soon,
the church removed Gary Foster as the choir pianist. And last year, the
couple were ejected from the church. Their two older children, still
members of Calvary, stopped speaking to them and Rob.

“They think we are in rebellion to what God wants,” said Rob, 19, who is studying to be a mechanic.

Of
the Fosters, Scott said: “You’re choosing to believe differently, and
you want to just drop in and bring another philosophy? You can’t do
this.”

Consolidating Authority

At 61, Scott still has
the air of the West Coast college football player he once was. He
dresses informally, smiles easily and delivers his judgments not by
banging the lectern but by using a tone of New Age calm.

In his
sermons, he tells of his exploits as a young man, the lure of sports,
girls and parties. Born in Monterey, Calif., he was raised in a home
where religion wasn’t practiced. He was born again at 20.

He gave
up sports for pastoring and came east to be a youth minister at a
church then known as the Herndon Assemblies of God. He quickly became
head pastor, changed the name to Calvary Temple and moved the church to
its Sterling location on 31 acres. In 1986, Scott, then in his late
30s, led Calvary to leave the Assemblies of God denomination and become
independent.

Now, Scott’s church practices its own theology, a
blend of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Services are demonstrative,
with contemporary music and people speaking in tongues. Members try to
organize their lives around a literal interpretation of the Bible,
which at Calvary involves uniformity and deference to leadership.

During
the 1980s and ’90s, Calvary, under the name Star Evangelistic
Enterprises, opened churches in Africa and several U.S. cities,
including Richmond and Laurel.

Calvary “was like a mecca. It drew
people to church from all up and down the East Coast, from well-to-do
from Middleburg to people who could barely afford diapers from West
Virginia,” said Ernst, the former pastor, who works as an arborist in
Richmond.

At one point more than a decade ago, Scott closed down
the media ministries, along with most of the spinoff churches, to focus
on 40 branch churches in East Africa.

“We used to be the biggest
thing around, and I’d like to say all my motives were great, but they
weren’t,” he said. Now, “we’re better than we’ve ever been.”

Over
the past decade, former members say, Scott has increasingly emphasized
the wickedness of people and the mercilessness of God. In the 1980s,
members voted on who should be pastor and decisions about budgets and
real estate. But control of the church has narrowed. Scott has chosen
four assistant pastors as well as deacons and elders, with whom he
consults on church matters, he said.

“I’m the one who is in authority, and I’ll have to answer to God for that,” he said.

Former members and church leaders say power essentially rests with Scott.

“If
there was anyone in a pastoral position who didn’t agree with Star, he
was eliminated and often disparaged from the pulpit,” Ernst said. Scott
“would say, ‘God is leading us in this direction, and you are holding
us back.’ “

Financial Concerns

When Bobby and Katie
Timms were in elementary school at Calvary, they said, they were told
not to come to class because their parents had fallen behind on tithing
— a mandatory 10 percent of a family’s income. Their father had lost
his job, but the church would accept that as an excuse only if the
family were willing to turn over all its financial information.

All
of the former members interviewed told of fundraising campaigns in
which they were required to tithe 15 or 20 percent of their earnings
for special projects, including one five years ago to expand and
remodel the sanctuary. But many of the projects never materialized,
they said.

“At the time, I didn’t connect the dots. All I knew
was, he has all these cars and where is the building?” said Bobby
Timms, 19, who attends Northern Virginia Community College.
He blames Calvary for his parents’ breakup, saying church leaders urged
his father to divorce his mother after she left the church.

L.
Steve Gardner, associate pastor at Calvary, said the sanctuary project
hasn’t begun because more funding is needed. “Is money being spent on
things other than the building? No,” he said. “They are misrepresenting
because they are bitter.”

Scott’s decision to leave the
Assemblies of God removed a level of financial oversight, and he
eliminated boards and public votes, former members said. Calvary’s
constitution calls for finances to be administered “by the presiding
elder and/or recognized Apostle.” Scott holds both positions, according
to court documents. The constitution also says that if the church
closes, all property will be controlled by the apostle.

The
church owns $8.5 million in property, according to land records,
including the church site, worth about $5.7 million, and six houses in
Loudoun where church employees live, including Scott’s
3,400-square-foot home with a pool, worth about $550,000.

Calvary
pastors owned at least two of the homes and sold them to the church at
a loss, according to land records. Former assistant pastor Richard
Miller sold his home to the church in 2000 for $32,000, less than he
and his wife had paid for it 11 years earlier.

Miller, who still
is a member of the church and lives in the home, did not return calls
requesting comment. Scott said the pastors willingly turned over their
property to the church in an attempt to “take a poverty vow.”

‘Automotive Outreach’

With
the free hand given to him by congregants, Scott launched a ministry in
the early 1990s that dovetailed with a favorite hobby: expensive cars.

He bought Corvettes,
Ferraris, dragsters, souped-up motorcycles and trucks, many of which
are on view on the ministry Web site. The site describes the racing
ministry, named Finish the Race, as “an automotive outreach.”

Scott said the goal was to evangelize to crowds at racing events, and “we had thousands of people born again.”

County
building department records show what many former members describe: a
2,400-square-foot garage on church property where he stored the
vehicles. Until last year, when he quit going on the road, Scott carted
the vehicles to shows and races across the country in a huge trailer
attached to a motor home with granite floors and plasma TVs, said Star
Scott Jr., who added that he traveled for years with his father to car
events. The son said that his father would be on the road for weeks and
that Calvary would pick up the tab, which sometimes included
snowmobiling, casino gambling or attending concerts.

He said his
father lives off church-paid credit cards, and 2005 card statements he
provided to The Post, addressed to Calvary Temple and sent to Pastor
Scott’s house, show personal spending of $10,000 to $13,000 a month.
Items include $2,377 to a company that makes wheels for Harley Davidson motorcycles, $1,450 to a sports memorabilia firm and $544 to a winter sports rental center in Lake Tahoe.

“I
don’t dispute” the expenses, Scott said, adding that he has no set
salary and that his possessions belong to the church. “Some may like
it, some may not. I don’t tell them what to do with their salary.”

Church leaders said that they are selling some of the race cars and that the money will go to support the churches in Africa.

Under
federal law, churches can choose any system of governance and are
exempt from filing financial information to the government. Federal tax
code, however, forbids an individual “such as the creator or the
creator’s family” from benefiting excessively — through “unreasonable
compensation,” for example — from a tax-exempt organization.

Church
finances are not required to be public, but Calvary’s lack of
transparency is unusual, said experts with the Assemblies of God, whose
tenets Scott says he still shares. In Assemblies of God churches,
congregations typically vote to select a pastor and are often listed on
the title to the property.

“It’s not the norm within the
Assemblies of God for the pastor to be able to determine everything,”
said Ron Hall, chairman of church ministries at Valley Forge Christian
College and a longtime Assemblies minister. “This is a prime example of
someone who wants ultimate control. I would think there would be
serious flags.”

Broken Families

About 400 members
remain and are at the church most days for services or activities
including fellowship breakfasts and student basketball games, former
members said. Families are expected to send their children to Calvary’s
school, which has classes from kindergarten through high school.

Rob
Foster, the Timmses and others who attended the school say punishments
ranged from spankings with a thick wooden paddle to spending the day
outside digging, filling and redigging holes.

Charm Kern, a
nursing student and mother, says she was traumatized by Calvary
teachers telling her in her early adolescence that she was too
overweight to be on the cheerleading squad. As punishment for being a
“glutton,” said Kern, who is 20, she was tied by a rope to faster
children and pulled during runs. She and her brother, who was also
overweight, would be required to run while other children ate lunch,
she said. By ninth grade, she was rebelling against her teachers, and
pastors tried to place her and her brother with another family. Her
parents pulled the family out of Calvary.

Scott said that Kern’s
parents initially were supportive of the efforts to help her lose
weight and that such measures “are discipline, not punitive.”

The
school originally was open to any children but was closed to nonmembers
in the 1980s as the church became more insular. That growing isolation
drove some members to leave. Others left after Scott stood on the
sanctuary stage in the fall of 2002, 19 days after the death of his
wife after a long battle with cancer, and, according to a transcript,
announced that he would take a new wife from the congregation.

Saying
the Old Testament calls for a widowed high priest to take a virgin
bride, Scott, then 55, said that the next week he would be marrying
Greer Parker, whose father is close to Scott. Former members said many
congregants were stunned.

“He kept saying it’s to keep him from
falling into sin, to keep the ministry going,” Star Scott Jr. said of
his father’s explanation to his children.

Others said they began questioning Calvary’s theology.

Michelle
Freeman, 48, left in December after church leaders and other members
urged her to reject her son and her husband, who was not a member. Her
son, Channing, had left Calvary as a high school sophomore, setting off
heated debates between his parents, leading to their separation.

Channing,
18, wrote an essay this year at his public school describing terrifying
dreams about God and Satan he had while in the church. Calvary, he
wrote, has “stolen so much of my life. For eleven years I’ve been
devoid of a real life. I don’t know what it’s like to live.”

Now, Michelle Freeman is among more than two dozen former members who gather for support. At a Loudoun Starbucks recently, Freeman cried as those around her talked about their wounded families.

“I’ve been praying for your boy,” one woman told another.

“I was marked while I was in there,” said another, using the Calvary term for a member who leaders say should be shunned.

After 12 years at Calvary, Freeman is livid.

“I paid good money for my children to be brainwashed and for my marriage to be ruined,” said Freeman, a U.S. Postal Service secretary.

When
asked about the divided families, Scott answered, “That happens.” They
accepted Calvary’s theology until it affected them, he said. “They were
ready to see it apply to others’ lives for years and served many times
in the orchestration of it.”

Now, “I’m at perfect peace with them being gone,” he said. “We’re happy with what we believe, so why aren’t they happy?”

Source: Washington Post

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