Christian boot camp accused of ‘abuse’ and ‘targeting Black and LGBT+ teens’

Lily Wakefield May 19, 2021
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Bethany Church leader Jonathan Stockstill

Bethany Church leader Jonathan Stockstill has apologised for the "painful experiences" of the bootcamp's participants. (Facebook/ Jonathan Stockstill)

A Christian bootcamp run by the Bethany Church megachurch allegedly used homophobic and racist slurs against teens, and forced them to fight each other until they were bleeding.

The “220i” leadership programme was run Bethany Church, a megachurch based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from 2005 to 2013.

The bootcamp, which referred to participants as “interns”, marketed itself as a programme to turn young people into “ministerial material”, according to NBC News.

But according to former interns, who have organised a survivors’ group, the 10-month programme which cost thousands of dollars was rife with abuse, from fat-shaming to racism to homophobia.

One anonymous former intern said: “Their whole pitch was if you wanted to be the elite of Christianity, you needed to be in this programme.”

“They preyed on young people’s passion and desire to change the world,” she added.

“But once you got there, it was brainwashing and submission to the church.”

The former interns claimed Joel Stockstill, the older brother of Bethany Church’s current leader Jonathan Stockstill, was the one who oversaw 220i.

The programme, they said, included “fight nights”, during which interns were made to fight each other until they were beaten and bloody.

Gume Laurel, 34, who took part in 220i in 2007 and 2008, told NBC News: “A lot of the time they would pit somebody who was like really small against somebody that was really big.

“Just like a hyper-toxic view of masculinity being important and a vital part of Christianity.”

Laurel, who is now openly gay, said that interns who were perceived to be LGBT+ or who displayed “less traditionally viewed masculine behaviours” were targeted.

One teenager, he recalled, was ordered into a pool and made to tread water for hours on end.

“They would be calling him ‘faggot’ and they were spraying water from a hose into his mouth while he was trying to tread water,” he said.

The interns also claimed that Joel Stockstill and other staff unashamedly used the “n-word”, called Black participants “thugs”, and even “separated all of the Black male interns” into the dirtiest accommodation.

Amie Stockstill, Joel Stockstill’s wife, has been accused by former interns of fat-shaming teenagers, forcing them to be weighed and telling them that “to be fat meant that you had sin in your life”.

Last month, Bethany Church leader Jonathan Stockstill posted on Facebook to apologise for the programme.

He wrote: “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.

“Most of the negative experiences came from an internship that was connected to the student ministry called 220i.

“It’s obvious to me now and to the current leadership of Bethany Church that we significantly missed the mark in that program in many ways.”

“As the lead pastor of Bethany, I would like to take responsibility and repent to anyone that had a negative experience,” he added. “Please forgive us.”

However, former intern Laurel said: “I see it as damage control.

“It looks like he’s trying to shift the blame and say, ‘The leadership at the time’. He was ‘the leadership’ at the time.”

Despite Stockstill’s apology, the church has denied all allegations of racism, homophobia, fat-shaming and so-called “fight nights”.

Bethany Church said it has opposed racism “since our ministry began”, and added: “We are unaware of any so-called reported incidents of bullying related to racism or sexual orientation.

“We condemn such behavior in the strongest way and never tolerated it.”

Bethany Church declares on its website that it believes marriage is “between one man and one woman”.

Larry Stockstill, the church’s previous leader and father of Jonathan Stockstill, has described “homosexuality” as an “unclean, unholy demon”, and said that being gay is “repulsive and deeply grievous”.

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