Cult Mind Control: In Va., a Powerful and Polarizing Pastor
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.”
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.’ “
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.”
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.”
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?”
Staff writer David S. Fallis and news researchers Meg Smith and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.