28 Feb 2009

Recruiting God's Army

The Stranger - Seattle February 27, 2009

Marysville Church Seeks Converts at Public Schools

by Dominic Holden

A church in Marysville has crossed the line from volunteering at local public schools to recruiting kids into a "cult," says the mother of one of the students. The Turning Point Church sends roughly a dozen adult "youth leaders" to six schools in northwestern Washington once a week, where they hang out during lunch hours, chat with students, and join in sports games.

"We can be someone in their life to say everything is going to be okay and God is still good," says Emily Masten, one of the youth staff leaders and a receptionist for the church.

Doug Honig, a spokesman for the state American Civil Liberties Union, says that although the Washington State constitution "has strong provisions about separation of religion and government, including schools," what's allowed under the constitution has been determined on a case-by-case basis.

In Marysville, problems arose earlier this week when a church delegate attempted to entice a Totem Middle School student into an evening church meeting with promises of rides, games, and espresso. The church maintains a youth group called 180 and another group called 628 (for kids from sixth to eighth grades).

Rianne Olver was alarmed when she saw a MySpace message sent from an adult female youth leader to her 11-year-old daughter, inviting her to the church meeting:

Hey, 628 tonight!
6 o clock, free espresso for visitors. Super rad games and activities.
Hang out with cool people. Plus you are really cool so it would just make it that much cooler.
Are you going to be there? If you need a ride, I can hook it up :)

"She even offered to come to my house and pick up my daughter without me knowing about it," Olver says. "I wonder how many other kids got this message and were so excited that an older person thinks they're cool and wants to buy them espresso."

The nondenominational church is unusual in other ways, too. In one sermon, Pastor Mike Villamor advocates that "Christians should be sex-perts." He goes on: "Ladies, here's the answer to 90 percent of your troubles: sex and sleep."

Several people have posted aggressively on a web page where they allege the Turning Point Church is cultish.

But Masten dismisses the cult claims. "[The church] is just different because people are actually caring," she says. "If people don't understand something, there are two reactions: You make fun of it or you get scared of it."

Masten confirms that youth leaders discuss the church and God with students on school property, but says they do so only when asked. Their purpose is "just to be there and to love them and hang out with them," she says. However, she acknowledges that if students want to provide contact information, youth leaders contact them about the evening services.

"Most youth leaders will do bulk texting to students they have met once or twice," says Masten. "It's just like, 'Hey do you want to come over and hang out at my house?'" says Masten. (Basically, adults directly soliciting social engagements from 11-year-old children.) Youth leaders may neglect to contact parents because it is "something that they are not really mindful of yet," she says.

It's something they will become mindful of soon.

After hearing Olver's complaints yesterday afternoon, the Marysville School District called Turning Point Church to tell them they must cease lunchtime visits to Totem Middle School. The group will continue renting space for sermons at the school on Sundays. Gail Miller, assistant superintendent of the Marysville School District, says, "They can't proselytize and they cannot solicit individual student's contact information."

Other groups, including retirees and Tulalip Tribe members, have been volunteering at the school this year to reverse what Miller describes as chronic "classroom disruptions." Last year, Totem Middle School students walked out to protest discipline problems. The youth leaders from Turning Point Church were allowed on campus to "increase adult presence at lunch time," Miller says.

But, she adds, "We are doing an investigation because, if [Olver] is correct in that this is what is happening, that is inappropriate. If students ask them questions, they can answer matter-of-factly, but they cannot seek them out." Although the church has been barred from lunches at the middle school, youth workers are still allowed at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

News intern Aaron Pickus contributed research to this story.

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