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 north of Everett, including Totem Middle School in Marysville, 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.
The youth leaders from Turning Point Church, which proposed the lunchtime visits, were allowed on campus to "increase adult presence at lunchtime" in the wake of chronic classroom disruptions, says Gail Miller, assistant superintendent of the Marysville School District.
The Washington State constitution prohibits "sectarian control or influence" in public schools.
But it's unclear whether the church's actions cross that line. Doug Honig, a spokesman for the ACLU of Washington, says the intersection of religion and government must be taken on a case-by-case basis. However, he notes, "public schools cannot sponsor or promote religious activities. People who are invited onto school grounds by school officials are not permitted to proselytize students."
In Marysville, problems arose in late February when an adult female church delegate sent a MySpace message to Totem parent Rianne Olver's 11-year-daughter, inviting her to an evening church meeting. The church maintains a youth group called 180 and a subset group called 628 (for kids from sixth through eighth grades).
"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, which holds Sunday services at Totem Middle School, is unusual in other ways, too. In one sermon, available on the church's website, Pastor Mike Villamor says "Christians should be sex-perts." In YouTube videos, Villamor refers to elders in the congregation as "saints" and churchgoers refer to him as an "apostle." Villamor did not return repeated calls for comment.
Rick Ross, a court witness on "destructive religious groups," runs a national online forum on organizations engaged in cultlike behavior. The forum has a rich thread dedicated to the Turning Point Church, where former members and others express concern that the church is targeting children without telling their parents.
"In my experience, that leads to a breakdown in the family—a conflict between a child enthralled with the church organization and a parent who says, 'That is not my belief,'" says Ross. "The idea that any church would try to circumvent parents without notifying [them] in advance is shocking to me because the right of parents to decide the religious affiliation of their children is sacrosanct."
Masten, the youth staff leader, dismisses the charge that the church is a "cult". "If people don't understand something, there are two reactions: You make fun of it or you get scared of it," she says.
Masten confirms that youth leaders discuss the church and God with students on school property, but she says they do so only when asked. However, she acknowledges that if students provide contact information, youth leaders invite them to evening meetings.
"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, the Marysville School District called Turning Point Church to tell them they must cease lunchtime visits to Totem Middle School. Miller, the assistant superintendent, says, "They can't proselytize and they cannot solicit individual students' contact information." 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."
Students' issues with the Turning Point Church aren't new. More than four years ago, church delegates were on public school campuses during school hours, says one former student.
"People of various ages, [in their] 20s and older, were going around handing out these Bibles and saying that we should all go to Turning Point Church because it's a cool place to be," says Nick Poling, 18, who attended Totem Middle School a few years ago. The school has open-air hallways, and the youth leaders would hang out between the buildings. "They were out there waiting for us when we came out for the buses."
"There were teachers around and it's not like they tried to stop them," he says. "Back then, I just was kind of confused as to why the administration would let them do that."
Although Turning Point Church has been barred from lunches at the middle school, outreach workers continue to communicate with students at five other schools, including Marysville Pilchuck High School and Marysville Middle School.
News intern Aaron Pickus contributed to this story.