For nearly a decade, Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana held a leadership program called “220i” — a reference to a Bible verse all about living for Christ instead of yourself — designed to train young men and women to become ministers or church leaders in the future. It cost participants $5,000 (which didn’t include food, travel, or lodging).
Still, what do you think that training would include? Public speaking skills? Management classes? A deep analysis of the Bible?
Not even close.
Turns out Pastor Jonathan Stockstill led a program that encouraged gay-bashing, fat-shaming, sexism, racism, and a Christian version of Fight Club where the boys sometimes beat the shit out of each other.
That’s according to an article about 220i from Mohammed Syed and Corky Siemaszko of NBC News.
By day, the 220i interns took part in “boot camp” where they had to perform calisthenics, run and sometimes dig trenches in the stifling heat for hours in a field behind what was then the Stockstill family home on Oak Bend Drive, the former participants said. One intern described the conditions as a type of “hazing.”
[Gume Laurel], who is now openly gay, said male interns who were thought to be homosexual were targeted for torment. He recalled one day in particular when the interns were ordered into a pool and made to tread water for hours as part of a workout. Some of the program’s leaders zeroed-in on a teenager who had displayed “less traditionally viewed masculine behaviors.”
“They would be calling him f—– and they were spraying water from a hose into his mouth while he was trying to tread water,” Gume said. The former interns also said Joel Stockstill and his aides openly used the “N-word” and belittled the Black interns as “thugs.”
“There were two different fight nights,” said Danielle Ferguson, 31, who took part in the program from 2007 to 2008. “One of them was for the guys. And they really pumped it up. I mean, this is like the thing to do whether you wanted to fight or not.”
The bouts often ended with one of the combatants badly beaten and bloodied, Laurel said.
“A lot of the time they would pit somebody who was like really small against somebody that was really big,” Laurel said. “Just like a hypertoxic view of masculinity being important and a vital part of Christianity.”
It’s not just one guy doing all this, either.
Amie Stockstill would tell the female interns “to be fat meant that you had sin in your life,” [former “intern”] Claire said. She would also force the Black interns to “succumb to whiteness” by relaxing their hair and “conforming to white beauty standards,” she said.
Ugh… There’s so much more where this came from.
The Stockstill family denies all of this ever happening, which means someone’s lying. Who do you trust more: The pastor allegedly promoting toxic masculinity or the multiple victims who have similar stories about what occurred when they attended the camps and are speaking out about it now after much therapy and discussion on a private group chat?
For his part, Jonathan Stockstill issued a fairly basic apology on Facebook, suggesting this is all brand new information to him and he’s appalled by what happened under his watch.
… While there was some positive fruit that came from that ministry, there were also leadership and cultural flaws that led to painful experiences for many. Most of the negative experiences came from an internship that was connected to the student ministry called 220i. It’s obvious to me now and to the current leadership of Bethany Church that we significantly missed the mark in that program in many ways. Although our intention was to train young leaders, and some positive fruit came from it, it is stained with the bad experiences of many…
Notice that he completely ignores the specific allegations people are making. By issuing a blanket apology “to anyone that had a negative experience,” he’s hoping he’s not held accountable for the alleged physical, mental, and spiritual abuse many of those victims say they experienced because of his family.
At least he’s saying something. His brother Joel, the alleged “ringleader” of the ministry, hasn’t said anything. Nor has Joel’s wife Amie, the one who supposedly fat-shamed certain girls.
NBC reports that the Facebook post may also be an attempt to stave off a possible lawsuit “by the more than 100 men and women who have now organized a survivors group that regularly meets online.” For the sake of everyone, I hope they go through with it if their lawyers feel there’s a case to be made.
Torture under the guise of Christianity doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
The church, by the way, has only grown over the past several decades. It has over 8,000 members, multiple campuses, a TV ministry, and promotes missionary work. Maybe the question we should be asking is why those current members remain in the church when so many fellow Christians are trying to warn them about its leaders.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Loren for the link)