Controversial Cult Moves Pastor, Dog, Stock, Flock to Maryland Suburb
The first sign was the Massachusetts license tags. Then all those people camping out in suburban fields or crowding into apartments. And finally, residents of this Baltimore suburb spotted Pastor Carl Stevens himself.
Years ago, he moved his church out of Maine after a confrontation with angry townspeople. This summer, a federal bankruptcy judge blamed him for “an astonishing saga of clerical deceit, avarice and subjugation” and ordered him to sell his Massachusetts chapel and Bible college. Now Stevens has settled--along with his wife, their brand-new $24,000 Sterling 825 SL, a golden Pekingese named Nicky and about 1,000 loyal followers--among Maryland suburbanites who do not know what to make of them.
Until June, Stevens was pastor of The Bible Speaks, a fundamentalist church with 16,000 members in 25 U.S. affiliates and 23 foreign countries. From an 88-acre campus in Lenox, Mass., Stevens ran a Bible college, a worldwide network of missionaries and a satellite radio operation.
Over the years, former church members and parents of current members have joined with several mainstream Christian groups in criticizing Stevens’ recruiting methods and theology. Parents tell of young people who join the church, then break off contact with their families. Some religious scholars who have studied the church say Stevens’ followers adore him and follow his every command, even when he asked them to sell their homes and give the proceeds to the church.
Actions Called ‘Despicable’
In May, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled that Stevens had deceitfully and methodically bilked Elizabeth Dovydenas, heiress to the Dayton-Hudson stores fortune, out of $6.6 million. The judge called the pastor’s behavior “despicable” and ordered the church to refund Dovydenas’ contributions. To meet the judge’s repayment order, a court-appointed trustee is selling off the assets of The Bible Speaks--the chapel and the swimming pool, the Palm Beach condominium with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and vibrating bed, the state-of-the-art TV broadcasting equipment--all paid for with the heiress’ gifts, court records show.
Stevens’ lawyer has appealed the judge’s ruling.
Still proclaiming his innocence, Stevens quit the church he had built from a tiny Maine Baptist congregation. Telling his followers that “this happens to all good Christians, to Jesus and Paul and Dr. Falwell,” Stevens said his church had done nothing but preach the gospel. “We’re a college, not a cult,” Stevens said. “We’re loving and kind.”
In July, he moved to Baltimore County, where, he said, “the native Christians want us.”
Since then, hundreds of Bible Speaks members have stuffed their few belongings into old cars and sagging vans and followed Stevens to Maryland, without promise of home or job.
They settled in the suburbs of Perry Hall and Fullerton, just down the road from The Bible Speaks church that has been on Belair Road in Baltimore for almost a decade. Another small Bible Speaks church has operated in Columbia since 1981.
Find Makeshift Homes
If they had no apartment, church members moved in with other followers or camped out in sleeping bags behind a strip shopping center.
That stopped when Baltimore County zoning officials ordered the church to move its members and some buses they were parking in fields.
Stevens says that about 350 people have come with him. But Bob Johnson, a church member who moved down in August, says the figure is up to about 850. And opponents of the church in Maryland and Massachusetts say they have counted more than 1,000 transient followers.
Whatever their number, The Bible Speaks members are quite evident, at services that regularly draw 700 worshipers, and especially in three townhouse developments where they have rented dozens of apartments.
If the native Christians wanted Stevens in Maryland, some of them have welcomed the newcomers in an odd manner.
“They can say they’re being welcomed, but the truth is they are shocked by the reaction in our neighborhoods,” said Doris Quelet, a Perry Hall resident who is working with the Cult Awareness Network and parents of church members to try to get rid of Stevens. “We are afraid for our children and our families. We do not want them here.”
“They are infiltrating this area and proselytizing all over,” said Father Larry Gesy, a Catholic priest who has organized clerics, educators and residents opposed to Stevens. “They (are) tearing down people’s families and faiths and then rebuilding them as they choose to. We’re going to cause them enough hardships that they pack up and go.”
Several Catholic and Episcopal priests have warned their congregations to be wary of Stevens and to decline offers of free Sunday school for children. Baltimore County Council member William Evans said his constituents are frightened by what they have heard about the church, “but the government is powerless unless we have proof of any wrongdoing.”
Stevens, 57, is back on the air with his daily “Grace Hour,” heard on religious radio stations in Baltimore and 12 other cities. And he is attracting large crowds to services in motel meeting rooms around southeastern Baltimore County. More than 600 women went to Stevens’ Women’s Seminar at the Sheraton Washington in September. And church members say they spend several nights a week “blitzing"--Stevens’ term for winning converts--in shopping malls, at the Inner Harbor and along downtown Baltimore’s pornography strip. “Bring them in!” reads a sign in the lobby of the headquarters of the church, which now uses the name Greater Grace.
A church question-and-answer sheet prepared to respond to worried Marylanders says Greater Grace is looking for a new home for its missionary and church operations. In answer to the question, “Why did you move to Baltimore?” the sheet says, “As each and every man of God is led by God into that call on his life for that service which He desires for us, so, at this time, God has led Pastor Carl Stevens . . . to establish a new ministry in Baltimore.”
The church “has been targeted by a group who claim to be protectors of society from certain cult and cultlike groups,” Pastor John Love wrote in the message to Marylanders. The church does not break up families, but rather it has a long history of reconciling marriages and children with parental problems, he wrote.