Louisiana megachurch accused of abusing teens
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Former members of a Christian leadership training program have come forward to detail an alleged nightmarish situation in which they claim a youth pastor subjected teens to “fight nights,” back-breaking manual labor and hellish conditions.
Over half a dozen people claimed to NBC News that they had disturbing experiences in the “220i” internship program at Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s, Bethany Church. NBC’s exposé, published Tuesday, specifically focuses on the now-discontinued 10-month youth training initiative, which ran from 2005 to 2013.
“It was a cult mentality,” said Gume Laurel, 34, who took part in 220i in 2007 and 2008. Black male interns were allegedly segregated on one floor of the dormitory-style living quarters, Laurel claimed, and male interns believed to be gay were reportedly singled out for torment, including being forced to tread water in a pool for hours. “They would be calling him f—-t and they were spraying water from a hose into his mouth while he was trying to tread water,” Laurel alleged.
Joel Stockstill, the older brother of Bethany’s current lead pastor, Jonathan Stockstill, is said to have been the ringleader of the $5,000 program. The brothers’ grandfather founded the megachurch in the family’s living room in 1963, and it has since grown to over 8,000 members across five Louisiana campuses, making it among the largest megachurches in the US.
Former interns alleged to NBC that Joel, 42, openly used the “N-word,” called black interns “thugs” and “was the main one doing the pitting and mocking.”
He’d reportedly force program members to do brutal workouts while riding his Segway and made the exhausted teens recite scripture. “At times, he and his brothers and friends would drive by on golf carts to shoot paintball guns at interns during boot camp to haze them further,” one former intern claimed.
There were also alleged “fight nights,” in which smaller male members were pitted against larger ones and made to physically brawl until one had been beaten bloody, they claimed.
Bethany denied all allegations to NBC, calling the fight nights a “totally false claim.”
“We are unaware of any so-called reported incidents of bullying related to racism or sexual orientation,” the church said in a statement. “We condemn such behavior in the strongest way and never tolerated it.”
On April 28, Jonathan Stockstill posted a Facebook apology to the approximately 500 people who attended the program over the years. “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,” he wrote in a statement. “It’s obvious to me now and to the current leadership at Bethany Church that we significantly missed the mark in that program in many ways.”
Bethany Church did not immediately return The Post’s request for further comment.
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