Back in May, two former members of Gospel Outreach of Eureka, a church that grew out of the Christian hippie commune at Lighthouse Ranch, contacted the Outpost to report a COVID-19 outbreak among the congregation. However, they wound up talking more about the church itself — with the enthusiasm of people who’ve been waiting to tell their stories.
They described the tight-knit congregation of roughly 150 people as zealous and insular and the church as a place where children are forced to spend long hours singing, arranged marriages are the norm and negative emotions are considered selfish and sinful.
In the days that followed, other former members reached out wanting to tell their own stories.
“I grew up in the church and it’s a dark place,” Christen Chauvin said in an email.
Another emailed later that day. “I left/escaped from there when I was 19,” she wrote. “I would be willing to talk to you about the abuse I witnessed and received.” She asked to remain anonymous to protect younger siblings still in the church. We’ll call her Sarah.
Eventually, we spoke at length with seven former members of the church, all of whom felt it was important for the larger community to know what goes on there.
The Outpost was unable to confirm the COVID outbreak — emails and voicemails left with Gospel Outreach went unreturned, and when we knocked on the church’s doors, no one answered. We also sent emails and left voice messages asking to speak with church leadership for this story but got no response.
The 8,000-square-foot church resembles a convention center, with the peaked roofline of its cream-colored exterior set off against a backdrop of spindly redwoods. The building sits at the back of a large parking lot down a dead-end street originally called “Holy Spirit Lane.” Jutting off Harris near Redwood Acres, the short road is now named St. James Place, though people familiar with the church — even some of its members — refer to it as the “cult-de-sac.” The suburban-style tract homes lining St. James Place are filled almost exclusively with members of the church.
“It’s definitely a cult,” said Esther Mandville, a 24-year-old former member who was raised in Gospel Outreach. “It did take me a year to realize that, but I would definitely describe it as a cult.”
As evidence, she and others described a pattern in which children attend a church-run school, girls’ primary career path is teaching in the school, boys can aspire to work in a handful of businesses owned by church members, male elders confer to arrange marriages and family ties make the prospect of leaving feel nearly impossible.
Former members also allege that elders and other adults regularly discouraged and dismissed reports of physical and sexual abuse of minors, allowing the abuse to continue and spread to others. Most of these allegations concern incidents from many years ago that were not reported to law enforcement or child welfare services, making them impossible to corroborate via official records.
Gospel Outreach emerged from the hippie utopia that was Lighthouse Ranch, a commune of ragtag spiritual seekers, recovering addicts and countercultural Jesus People who, during the 1970s and ‘80s, lived and worshiped at the abandoned Coast Guard station that once sat atop Table Bluff.
Born at Lighthouse Ranch, the Gospel Outreach movement aims to proselytize every last soul on Earth in hopes of prompting the Rapture. In the early years it morphed and expanded under the charismatic leadership of Pastor Jim Durkin.
Ray DeSoto, who grew up in the church with his brothers, described Durkin as “a positive character” who would welcome homeless refugees from the beach into his religious commune.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s the Gospel Outreach movement spread around the globe, establishing churches in U.S. cities from Alaska to Hawaii to New York and sending missionaries to Europe and Central and South America.
Notably, Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt became a convert and, following a 1982 military coup in that country, he employed Gospel Outreach in the notorious rural pacification program known as “beans and bullets.” Church members supplied food, medicine and clothing to local residents before Montt’s forces came in and razed their villages, killing hundreds of indigenous Mayans and rendering survivors wards of the government.
Celeste Villareal was nine when, in 1997, she, her mom and stepfather joined Gospel Outreach after moving to Eureka from Mexico, where they’d been doing missionary work.
At that time, the church still had “the last vestiges of the hippie Jesus movement from Lighthouse Ranch,” she said. “Members would be barefoot, running around with ribbons on sticks.”
Durkin’s death in 1996 had created a leadership vacuum – and a power struggle – within the organization. Many church members assumed that Durkin’s son, Jim Durkin, Jr., would take over, but instead it was a man named David Sczepanski, who’d been among the early residents at Lighthouse Ranch. (He can be seen in video clips from the period.)
Around 1999, Villareal said, leaders from Gospel Outreach Eureka began meeting more frequently with leaders from sister churches in Grants Pass and Olympia.
“After [these meetings], church families would go up to Lighthouse Ranch, and there’d be just hours of us kids doing whatever we wanted,” she said. “It was very loose, not a lot of parental oversight. We’d climb trees for hours, run down to the beach, jump off the bluffs. Boys and girls were very much equals.”
Villareal remembers an elder or pastor from the church in Grants Pass questioning this practice. “He said, ‘Oh, you let girls play paintball and tug of war with the boys?’” she said. After that, “girls were not allowed to play paintball. When there was a potluck, girls would bring a dish. There were these ingrained gender roles. We were expected to stay in the kitchen. That’s when the big shift happened, when we became more cultish.”
Villareal, Chauvin and others said things grew even more regimented around the turn of the century when Gospel Outreach opened a full-time school. The teachers were women from the church, none of them accredited.
“We never had a consistent science class. No biology. Our history [classes] relied a lot on the Bible,” Villareal said.
Abigail Mandville, Esther’s younger sister, said instruction — both in school and out — was more about indoctrination than education.
‘Brainwashing is kind of an overused phrase, but it really is brainwashing.’
“As a child there’s — how I describe it is brainwashing,” she said. “From the moment you’re born you start memorizing catechism.” She means Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, a book published in 1529 to teach kids about the Ten Commandments, the Sacrament of the Eucharist and other elements of Lutheran faith.
There was also a huge emphasis on music. “By the time you got to a certain age, 11 or 12, you would be expected to join the worship team and the choir that sings every Sunday,” Abigail said.
Questions and independent thought were discouraged. “When I’d try to say something from my own opinion, they would kind of attack you,” Abigail said. “They wanted you to adhere: Don’t stray off the script.”
Chauvin got the same message. “It’s all very interesting, looking at it afterwards,” she said. “Brainwashing is kind of an overused phrase, but it really is brainwashing.”
‘The sky is green’
Much of the education at Gospel Outreach reinforced the church’s strict gender roles, which call on women to be subservient, according to the former members we spoke with.
Chauvin recalls watching the movie version of Taming of the Shrew because “it fits into their theology very well,” she said. In Shakespeare’s play, a man named Petruchio marries then “tames” a headstrong “shrew” of a woman, Katherina, by employing psychological torments — telling her the sun is the moon, for example, until she agrees, at which point he says the opposite. Petruchio also tortures her by withholding food and water until she becomes compliant and obedient.
Abigail said Gospel Outreach’s instruction used similar tactics. “They’d say [to students], ‘The sky is green?’ and we’d say, ‘Yes.’ ‘The grass is blue?” ‘Yes.’ You’re supposed to repeat back illogical things to teach you not to disagree with what the leadership tells you.”
She and others said the phrase often employed to reinforce this lesson is “come under.” Anyone showing signs of independent thought would be told to “come under” their leader, be it a babysitter, a soprano coach or an elder.
Villareal agreed self-expression was discouraged.
“The mentality is that everybody is totally depraved,” she said. “If you do something well, that’s God working through you. If you do something evil? That’s you. … And if you point out that something’s wrong or doesn’t seem right? That’s you having independent thinking. That’s frowned on.”
Giving your all
Chauvin, who is now 34, was entering sixth grade when the Gospel Outreach school opened, and she remembers it as a turning point. “It became something where your whole life is that church,” she said. “The thing that’s really hard for people who grew up in this religion is knowing how to explain how it’s a cult. So much of it is being told the same thing over and over again until you develop a language and phrases not used in the outside world.”
Sarah remembers the schedule as exhausting. “The school is extremely emotionally abusive and taxing,” she said. “All the music, the meetings — you’re hardly sleeping. I would often get three or four hours [of sleep] a night because there was always a new recital or a project or a play.”
“I definitely suffered from sleep deprivation and insomnia,” Esther Mandville said. “I also wasn’t eating properly.” Eating disorders were common among girls in Gospel Outreach, Mandville said.
Skipping meetings and playing hookie weren’t really options, according to DeSoto. “You did go to any and all choir practices or else your zeal was questioned,” he said. “If you weren’t daily giving your all for the glory of Christ, why were you even here? There was this sort of false positivity you have to maintain all the time, which can be taxing.”
Gospel Outreach School is registered with the California Department of Education as a nondenominational religious private school offering first through 10th grades. It does not award high school diplomas or offer special education. Sczepanski is the executive director and sole administrator.
Chauvin said that when she turned 16 she was told that it was time for her to be done with school, so she took the high school proficiency exam.
“Then I became a teacher in the school for free,” she said. “I taught for the next three years. I taught pre-algebra. They don’t go very high — just Algebra 1. … In the morning you’re doing math and language, basic subjects. We never really got much science or literature. Then after lunch all we would do is sing until 3 or 3:30. Sometimes we’d come back in the evening for more singing.”
Villareal and Esther Mandville were also enlisted to teach at age 15 or 16. “For a woman, that was pretty much the only career option until you’re a mom,” Mandville said. “You could be a teacher or you could work in one of the businesses” owned by church members, including North Coast Floor and Tile, SameDay Auto Scratch and Dent Repair and, until it was recently sold, New Life Services Company.
Be zealous and repent
The former Gospel Outreach members said punishment was typically meted out — both at home and at school — in one of three ways: monetary fines, psychological torment or physical violence.
“We’d be encouraged to brag about the spankings we got,” Villareal said. “It was how we knew our parents loved us — because they cared enough not to spare the rod.”
Then there were the fines. “We were charged $20 fines if we left something at home,” Esther Mandville said. “Like, I’m 9 and I forget my notebook — that’s $20.” She paid her debts by doing odd jobs like babysitting and car washing.
Worse was getting singled out for judgment.
“My teacher from
age grades five through 12 would laugh at us and berate us,” Villareal said. “She took her pen to mark up my arm and then told me I wasn’t allowed to wash it off. … She’d make fun of how I dressed.” (Though the school is only accredited through 10th grade, Villareal said, “The boys generally continue taking classes until grade 12, [and] the girls will only take select classes if any at all past age 16, as they’re generally placed in teaching positions.)
DeSoto said kids are expected to maintain a cheerful demeanor. “I remember as children being told that being grumpy because you’re tired — because you’ve been practicing choir for four hours, plus school and then choir for two hours after — is not an excuse. The tiredness is just showing your true soul, so you need to repent for being grumpy.”
The most stressful scenario for many of the kids came during the morning circle meetings, where students would gather with Pastor Sczepanski to talk about his latest sermon and other spiritual matters. Regularly, our sources said, one student would be singled out for some infraction, such as having a bad attitude or failing to recite the Ten Commandments, and be made to confess and repent.
“The circle meetings usually end up with everyone fiercely berating one person, trying to get them to break and give themselves over, like breaking a horse,” Chauvin said.
“I think a lot of times the students were just looking for who was going to be the one that day,” DeSoto said. “There was this self-policing to find the one who was the most out of line so everyone could gang up on that person to explain why they were utterly failing and in sin and need to repent. Quite often that reason is just made up.”
Esther Mandville said the only way to get off the hot seat was to admit guilt and show remorse, even if it was a performance.
“They would push you for honesty but if you weren’t giving them what they wanted you had to make it up,” Mandville said. “There were scripts you could follow. Sometimes I would have to make up a sin, like, ‘I’ve been really hating my brother’ or ‘I’ve been thinking about sex and that’s bad.’”
DeSoto said the cruelty of these scenarios didn’t really become clear to him until after he left the church and had some time to reflect.
‘Eventually someone cries and then we can go to choir practice.’
“Myself and other former cult members jokingly say, ‘Remember when they’d lock us in a room until we made another kid cry?’” he said. “Eventually someone cries and then we can go to choir practice — it was really so predictable like that. Two to three days a week that would happen.”
The strictly enforced insularity of Gospel Outreach acts as a containment mechanism, a way to keep members dependent and submissive, DeSoto said. Anyone who finds themselves on the outs will be shunned completely.
“If you had a disagreement, you could be ostracized from the community in a moment,” he said. “Certainly, as a kid, if you got in trouble at school you were in trouble in literally every aspect of your life. If your homework assignment was late you weren’t allowed to go to choir practice or play on the weekend. In this strange way it pushed you to be part of the community 24/7. You’re in constant fear of being ostracized because the community is honestly all you know.”
The former members of Gospel Outreach said talking to people from outside the church was discouraged, and so virtually all social interactions, including work, school and family, occurred within the group.
“Most of the marriages are arranged,” said Anne Robinson, another former Gospel Outreach member. She explained that the men will often talk among themselves and decide, “My son will marry your daughter.”
Villareal said sometimes a young man will initiate matters by going to his father and saying he’s ready. Maybe he has a specific bride in mind. “His dad would then talk to the elders, and if the elders approved they’d quiz [the young man] to make sure he could support a family, buy a house and a car, that he had money in the bank, etc. If the elders decided he qualified, they’d recommend someone to him for marriage,” she said.
Young women tend to accept their fate. “They’re not telling you you can’t say no, but I guess I would say it’s frowned upon,” Sarah said.
Chauvin actually wanted to get married, “but I was looking around at my selections. It was not a large pool,” she said. “These were guys I grew up with. I thought of them like brothers. I couldn’t imagine being romantic with any of them. Now I think, ‘Thank God I’m out.’”
Sarah said she’s not surprised that most Humboldt County residents have no idea such a community exists right here in Eureka. “You don’t think of a cult as something you see every day — you think of it as, like, sister wives and all that,” she said. “That’s not what this is. It’s a lot more subtle.”
Shameful and hidden
Villareal said her stepfather regularly abused her and her mother for years, starting shortly after he married her mom, continuing during their missionary work in Mexico and following their move to Humboldt County.
“He would abuse us both, but instead of banding together, we would turn against each other,” Villareal said.
She described her stepfather as excessively controlling and emotionally volatile, often having “all-out screaming arguments” with her mom and regularly spanking Villareal for such transgressions as getting an answer wrong in her multiplication tables.
Her mom suffered from gaps in her memory due to the emotional and physical trauma, Villareal said, but when she tried to talk to other women in the church about the abuse she was told to “come under” and stop gossiping.
She said her stepfather would play emotional games that kept her up well past midnight. “It was part of his controlling thing,” she said. “He’d accuse you of doing something … . You’d have to spend hours searching your soul … . He’d make me stand in the middle of the room. There were countless times I’d wake up when my body was hitting the floor.”
He would also take her clothes from her as punishment, she said, ordering her to get naked and do chores, a form of discipline she remembers being particularly disturbing when she was 12, 13, 14 years old and “very much struggling through puberty.”
Her mother declined, through her daughter, to be interviewed for this story. Reached by phone, her stepfather declined to comment on any specific things Celeste alleged, but in general, he said, “I really don’t want to tear down the church and I think that she’s not accurately representing the way that I raised her.”
Now pursuing a career as a police officer, Villareal has gotten training in how to recognize signs of abuse. Looking back, she realized that in her teens she ticked all the boxes.
“Others too,” she said. “Kids wetting the bed way too old, kids with speech impediments past when they should. All of that, as a child, that’s [treated as] your problem: ‘Why can’t you talk right? Why can’t you stop peeing the bed?’ Or it was shameful and hidden, just not brought up.”
One day, feeling numb and depressed, Villareal went to church without doing her hair or makeup. Another girl’s mom approached her and commented on her appearance. “She said something like, ‘Remember, we don’t put care into our appearance for ourselves; we do it because there are people here who have to look at us.’”
To Villareal, this hammered home a message she’d been getting all along at Gospel Outreach — that women are accessories who should look nice, regardless of what they may be feeling.
“About a week later I attempted suicide,” she said.
After the attempt, she remained despondent and numb. Eventually, she said, one of the dads recognized that she was suffering — a rare thing to acknowledge at Gospel Outreach, Villareal said — and asked what was wrong. She told him it was stuff at home that she wasn’t comfortable talking to him about and he asked if there was a woman she’d like to speak with. She chose the woman who’d been her regular teacher during much of her education, a stern and sometimes cruel woman — the same one who’d written on Villareal’s arm and mocked how she dressed — but one who seemed capable of getting her way. Villareal confided in her, telling her about the abuse she’d been suffering at the hands of her stepfather, including his habit of taking her clothes.
“She asked if anything was sexual,” Villareal said. “I felt like the thing I told her was. … My stepdad makes me do my chores naked and you’re asking me if this is sexual? … I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘If you have to think about it, it probably wasn’t.’”
‘She told me … if I became virtuous then the Lord would give me a husband and take me away from all the abuse.’
Villareal was at a loss. With her mom stuck in the same cycle of abuse, she had gone to the only person she could think of who might be able to help and instead felt dismissed.
“She told me if I just put my head down and ‘come under,’ if I became virtuous, then the Lord would give me a husband to take me away from all the abuse.”
Your father’s nakedness
At Gospel Outreach, an all-male group of elders sits atop the hierarchy. Every weekday at 7 a.m. they hold a “men’s meeting” where they pray, drink coffee and discuss various matters, sometimes rendering binding decisions on issues ranging from child discipline to marriage approvals.
DeSoto remembers being intimidated when, as a teenager, he became one of the boys tasked with preparing and serving coffee to the elders at these meetings. “As a child you see this weird inner sanctum vibe going on,” he said. “There’s this divide: That’s the men’s meeting.”
Chauvin and Sarah recounted how their own stories of abuse were met with dismissive attitudes and religious slogans.
“The phrase they’d use is, ‘Don’t uncover your father’s nakedness,’” Chauvin said.
That’s a reference to a passage in Genesis in which one of Noah’s sons, Ham, finds his dad drunk, passed out and naked inside a tent, and instead of covering him up tells his brothers about it. As punishment for shaming him, Noah curses Ham’s offspring to a life of slavery. (This same passage was employed by Christian slavers as justification for human bondage.)
“Basically the culture [of Gospel Outreach], with the ultimate leadership being the men, it really lends itself to abuse,” Chauvin said. “The father is the ultimate authority. It starts with spanking but leads to much more … and reporting it is considered uncovering your father’s nakedness.”
Sarah said she was beaten and molested by a younger church member. “He was very physically abusive and my parents would tell me it was my fault because I was antagonizing him,” she said. “He would punch me, push me into the wall, this or that. My arms would just be bruised, black and blue, and my parents would be like, ‘Don’t antagonize him.’”
The abuse didn’t stop there. “When I was nine— .” Her voice broke. “Sorry, I’m gonna cry. He had sexually abused me. I told my mom and [my parents] had him buy me a new pair of rollerblades. That was it. And we never talked about it again.”
Sarah blames the church culture more than her own parents. “My parents didn’t intend on being morally wrong [or] bad parents, but they take all their issues to the church. The women were always covering for the men, and if the men did find out about abuse that was happening, the women were told that the men would take care of it.”
One case that all seven of the former Gospel Outreach members talked about involved a boy who, as a teenager, allegedly molested a number of young girls. Because he was a minor when the alleged abuse took place and has not been convicted of the crimes, we’ll call him Todd (not his real name).
Chauvin was working as a part-time teacher when she first heard that Todd had molested two girls. The mother of one of the victims caught him when he was pushing her daughter on a swing, she said. “The mom came out [of her house] and saw that he’d pulled her underwear down and was touching her in her private areas,” Chauvin said. “She freaked out. She stopped it immediately and told the leaders. I was at school with [the mom] that next day, and she privately spoke [to another teacher] in the kitchen. She was horrified and so angry.”
David Sczepanski, the pastor and sole school administrator, was brought in. “Anything like this is dealt with in the men’s meeting because women are not in charge of anything,” Chauvin said. She was told that Sczepanski had a talk with Todd and warned him not to do anything like that again or else Sczepanski would be legally obligated to report him.
Regardless, according to Robinson, Todd did go on to abuse other girls – and she was one of his victims.
“I was four or five; he was 15 or 16,” she said. She initially didn’t tell her parents or anyone else about it. “At the time,” she explained, “I believed I was respecting my elders.” She eventually told her mom what happened but said her mom chose to keep it private.
‘That was one of those things that was swept very much under the rug. I mean, it’s molestation.’
DeSoto had heard about Todd’s crimes and said the cycle of abuse expanded. “That situation developed into [some of] those young kids, the victims, reenacting those experiences with other very young children,” he said. “Anytime you experience that — a young child playing sexual games — you can assume they were also victims of abuse. That was one of those things that was swept very much under the rug. I mean, it’s molestation.”
Robinson and others said that eventually Todd wound up admitting to at least some of the crimes he’d been accused of, but his only punishment was that he wouldn’t be allowed to marry anybody in the church.
Robinson, meanwhile, was treated differently after word spread about her allegations. “People looked at me like I was the problem, like I asked for it,” she said. “In the church, when they find out you’ve been touched, you’re [considered] dirty. … You’re no longer pure in the eyes of God.”
As for Todd, he’s still a regular member of the church.
“The last time I was there,” Robinson said, “he was teaching the kids Sunday school.”
Suffer little children
Abigail Mandville began cutting herself around the time she turned 17. She realized after leaving the church that she’d been suffering from depression for years by that point.
“I would cut my legs, just places nobody would see — higher up on my thighs. I did it to my shoulders as well,” she said. “At one point it was all I could do to feel. I don’t know; that was my coping mechanism.”
As she grew older she tried harder to fit in and make people happy. She even told her parents about the cutting, and they were sympathetic.
“At first my dad didn’t think it was that big of a deal — he thought it was just my hands,” Abigail said. “At some point — I think it was when we went swimming in the summer — he saw the scars on my legs.”
She was told to go talk to Pastor Szcepanski and his wife. “He prayed over me and said I had unconfessed sins and that [my cutting] must have something to do with that.”
At age 11 she’d been diagnosed as diabetic, a condition that required her to get regular insulin injections. “That also had a big part to play in me staying in the church for so long,” she said, “because they don’t teach you how to live on your own — how to refill prescriptions or get insurance or apply for a credit card.”
At the height of her depression, she started having dark fantasies.
“There was one or two times when I thought — really seriously thought — about giving myself just a ton of insulin, just go out that way,” she said.
The church teaches that depression and other mental health issues are the result of selfishness, Villareal said. “If you’re selfless, if you’re here to serve and be a vessel, then you don’t have any time or energy to be sad or anxious or depressed.” Sczepanski would invoke Incurvatus in se, a Latin phrase used to describe a life turned inward. Martin Luther employed the phrase to describe human nature as so thoroughly corrupted by original sin that it “curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.”
Several of the people we interviewed for this story remember Josh, a young man who left Gospel Outreach when he was 17 years old. He’d long been depressed, they said, and about a year after he left the church he killed himself.
Villareal holds the church at least partly responsible. “It was a mixture of clinical depression and the church’s lack of response, or inappropriate response to it,” she said. “And the fact that Humboldt County’s mental health services are just not enough to address the need. He was failed on so many levels, but a big part was the church.”
Esther Mandville believes their peers were suffering just as much. “We’d all be in the classroom early before school, listening to Bastille or some other emo music. I remember looking around the room going, ‘We’re all depressed and just not talking about it.’”
‘All of us were just constantly sick. It messed with your immune systems, the stress and the amount of sleep we were getting — it just wasn’t good for your body.’
As a teenager, Sarah was prone to illness and infections, which she later attributed to stress. “I was losing hair, including eyelashes,” she said. “As soon as I left, everything got better. I know a lot of other girls had health issues when they were there that subsided when they left. All of us were just constantly sick. It messed with our immune systems, the stress and the amount of sleep we were getting — it just wasn’t good for your body.”
Abigail said Josh’s suicide continued to weigh on her, though she stayed in the church for more than a year afterwards. Eventually she decided she needed to get out.
“He was definitely a major reason,” she said. “I realized I was in a place that makes me unhappy. I was just getting worse and worse and I realized the church was the culprit of those feelings — the culture, the upbringing, the people there and the teachings. I decided this is a cult and I left.”
An irregular but steady stream of young adults have defected from Gospel Outreach in recent years — or “escaped,” as several of our interviewees characterized it.
DeSoto said his older brothers’ disaffection began with typical teenage angst and questioning. “But one of the aspects of cults is that they push teens to make bigger ultimatums — you’re either all in or all out, “ he said.
And “all out” means just that.
“That was, like, a big rule: You don’t talk to anybody that left the church,” Abigail said. “They’re fallen from grace. They’re listening to the devil.”
Sarah escaped when she was 19 and drove to the house of a friend whose entire family had left the church six months earlier. Her dad followed her and tried to order her to come back home with him but she resisted, with support from her friend’s family.
“Then I went back the next day to get some of my clothes and they’d already changed all the locks,” she said. Eventually, her dad asked her to get coffee with him and they had a conversation. “He said I could have just told him I wanted to leave, but I had been telling him,” Sarah said. “He told me there were four godly young men waiting in line to marry me.” That failed to convince her to return. “I always wondered who they were,” she said.
Chauvin’s situation was different: She didn’t leave by choice. When she was 19, her father, who was an elder, went to his fellow leaders with theological questions — what he saw as contradictions between the lifestyle at Gospel Outreach and the teachings of the Bible — and when their answers didn’t satisfy him he left the congregation, taking his whole family with him.
“Embarrassingly to admit, I was horrified,” Chauvin said. “I literally thought my life was over because they tell you there’s nothing outside, that if you leave, you will go crazy, do drugs, become a lesbian. Most people who leave do go a bit wild because they don’t know how to function in the real world, so they [church leaders] use them as examples: ‘Look at him; he went into sin.’”
Esther Mandville struggled after leaving, as many do. “You’re ripped away from everything you’ve ever known — that’s really hard,” Mandville said. “At that point I was particularly vulnerable and I fell into a relationship with someone toxic from a sister church [in Olympia].”
She was staying with him in Tumwater, a suburb of Olympia, when he raped her and another woman, Mandville said.
“I told my parents and they were concerned about me but also kind of pushing me not to talk about it because his parents still go to the church and he has a lot of brothers and sisters.”
She reported it to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, she said, and officers here contacted officials in Thurston County, Wash., but the case was dropped due to a lack of evidence.
Mandville recently went to visit their dad on Father’s Day, in part “to prove to my sisters that I’m not a demon spawn under the control of Satan,” she said. Her dad apparently felt otherwise.
“He called me outside and told me that because I was living with my fiancé I was in an evil spirit and I was a puppet of the devil.”
Mandville believes there are plenty of good people at Gospel Outreach, including their parents, “but my dad has really bad depression and a really horrible guilt complex. … They’re being subjected to the same thing I was, but they’re also perpetuating it. It’s just a cycle of abuse.”
Chauvin started college at age 30 and is now in the nursing program. She said it took her a while to be ready for that.
“When you’re told that college is evil and you don’t have any transcripts, so much prevents you from doing things,” she said. “I’ve worked a lot on that, and now I’m able to pursue things I like. I have a career. But I see a lot of the baggage in my marriage. My poor husband has had to deal with it. He’s very loving but I’m always waiting for him to hit me or berate me. I have to say, ‘It wasn’t you; it was me.’ It’s hard to work through those things.”
Robinson said it took her a while to realize the full extent of how Gospel Outreach affected her. “Learning that I was brainwashed my whole life was interesting,” she said with a bit of a laugh. “I’ll still do certain things — like constantly worrying if everyone else around you is okay. My boyfriend, I’ll ask him every five minutes if he needs a drink or food. I’m always checking on people around me.”
Abigail Mandville no longer cuts herself, and she’s feeling better about the world and her place in it. “It’s neat to see how far I’ve come, not just physically … but also mentally,” she said. Looking back she thinks that this containment, this narrowing of the world into a hermetic and rigidly controlled society, is as damaging as anything else at Gospel Outreach. Asked what she hopes for in telling her story, she just wants the kids still inside to have more information.
“I’m hoping if someone is having doubts and they know about this article, I’m hoping they can get some clarity,” she said. “I’m thinking about my siblings and the other kids going through what I went through. I don’t want anybody to have to go through that.”
Below you’ll find some suicide-prevention resources: