NBC News interviewed a handful of former students (or ex-interns) regarding a Christian leadership training program at Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, LA. These ex-interns attested that the program was abnormally brutal. They described their disturbing experiences.
The “220i” youth training program was available from 2005 to 2013 at Bethany Church. The church marketed 220i ministry nationwide to other churches. Participants were taken in, not only from across the United States but also from other countries, an ex-intern advised. The 10-month program promised teen participants would be transformed into “minister material” while teaching them bankable skills.
“Their whole pitch was if you wanted to be the elite of Christianity, you needed to be in this program,” said one former intern, known only as Emerson.
Former interns describe hellish conditions and alleged abuse at the hands of the Stockstill family who have always run the organization.
Roy Stockstill — grandfather of the current leader of the Bethany Church, Jonathan Stockstill — founded Bethany Church by hosting non-denominational Sunday services in the family’s home living room in 1963. Since then, the church has grown to five Louisiana campuses and over 8,000 members. Now it’s one of the country’s largest megachurches.
Lately, the church has been under leadership of the brothers Jonathan and Joel Stockstill who held leading roles during that period where these claims of abuse originate.
Claims regarding the abuse include pastors forcing the teens to participate in “fight nights,” where they fought, often until they were bloodied and injured. Trainees were taught the Way of the Cross through “boot camp” tactics of extreme physical exercise until some would vomit or soil themselves. They were required to haul heavy logs beyond exhaustion under the sweltering summer sun, often with little water to drink.
Black participants or those suspected of being gay were denigrated with racist and homophobic insults and assigned to the worst dorms for living quarters. The former interns also said Joel Stockstill and his aides openly used the “N-word” and belittled the Black interns as “thugs.”
Larry Stockstill, Roy’s son and father of Jonathan and Joel, defined “homosexuality” as an “unclean, unholy demon” and claimed it is “repulsive and deeply grievous.”
One woman interviewed, asking to be identified asSharon Adams,said shewas compelled to “rescue” her daughter from the program in 2012. “At first, everything seemed OK,” said Adams. “What I learned later was that they told them not to rely on their family, that they were their new family.”
According to another teen mother, interns were told, “What happens in the program stays in the program.”
NBC News contacted these former interns after April 28th. On the same day, Jonathan Stockstill addressed the accusations and posted a public apology on his own Facebook page.
In part, the apology says, “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,” Jonathan wrote. “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.”
Incidentally, “Jonathan Stockstill limited who can comment on this post,” according to Facebook notice.
Most of the comments replying under the Facebook apology sang the author’s praises. But those who spoke to NBC News were not about to beat that drum. They view his request for pardon as a publicity stunt, an effort to sequester possible litigation by ex-interns now part of an online survivors alliance.
Some ex-interns, who used aliases to avoid retaliation from the megachurch, made these comments about the response to the allegations.
Gume Laurel — a past participant of the “220i” youth training program between 2007-2008 — said, “I see it as damage control.” The 34-year-old Texan added, “It looks like he’s trying to shift the blame and say, ‘The leadership at the time.’ He was ‘the leadership’ at the time.”
Laurel reported that “It was a cult mentality.” He said they feared the most significant punishment, which was “being expelled from the program because then you would just be essentially excommunicated.”
They also noted that Jonathan was fully aware of the abuse yet did nothing to resolve it. They said the primary leader was Joel Stockstill. He was the ringleader of the $5,000 program.
Joel Stockstill has yet to present an apology. But you can witness him grandstanding (8:48/55:02) in a video saying, “the Lord has given me a creative ability for servanthood and discipline.”
He added, “I just have supernatural creative ideas on how to administer the rod of brokenness to the backside of a foolish intern,” in the video.
Ex-interns said that Joel Stockstill’s second wife, Amie, would “police our clothing, our hair, or makeup, even our weight,” Emerson said. She labels herself as a life coach for Christian women on her site called Let’s Echo.
Ex-intern, Claire, accused Amie of body-shaming the female teenagers. She forced them to get on the scale as she would tell them, “to be fat meant that you had sin in your life.”
Amie would also force the Black interns to “succumb to whiteness” by relaxing their hair and “conforming to white beauty standards,” said Claire.
Joel Stockstill, 42, continues to run The Global Church Planting Movement called Surge, which his father, Larry Stockstill, started in 2001.
Several former students created a community among themselves through an online survivors group. There they can shed light on the abuses they endured in the program.
“It’s important that people know what they did to us,” said ex-intern Clair. “Lots of us are still dealing with what happened.”