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Let Us Prey: Big Trouble at First Baptist Church

A string of assaults and sexual crimes committed by pastors across the country have one thing in common: The perpetrators have ties to the megachurch in Hammond, Indiana.

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Nine of the offenders, from top left: (row 1) A. V. Ballenger, Christopher Settlemoir, Chester Mulligan; (row 2) William Beith, Jack Schaap, Tedd Butler; (row 3) Joseph Combs, Craig Sisson, Russell Overla
Nine of the offenders, from top left: (first row) A. V. Ballenger, Christopher Settlemoir, Chester Mulligan; (second row) William Beith, Jack Schaap, Tedd Butler; (third row) Joseph Combs, Craig Sisson, Russell Overla
 

The sermon was called “The Polished Shaft,” and in the many times that Jack Schaap, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hammond, had delivered it, it was the kind of showstopper that made him a rock star to his flock. (Or would have, had Schaap not habitually railed against the evils of rock music.)

As with most of his sermons at the northwest Indiana megachurch—the 14th largest in the country and the biggest Independent Baptist house of worship in the nation—the message struck as bluntly as a pounded nail: Submit to God’s plan for your life or be snapped like a twig and flung away (as Schaap would demonstrate by cracking a stick over his head, tossing it aside, and barking, “Next!”).

When you do submit, be prepared to endure excruciating pain. God will hold a metaphorical knife to your throat (as Schaap would illustrate by holding a steel blade against a twig the way an assailant might press on a jugular). Only then, he would growl, will you become a “polished shaft”: one suitable for God’s bow.

At this point, the sermon’s climax, Schaap would heave up a high-powered crossbow and fire an arrow into a red X painted on a fake rock a few feet from his pulpit.

The effect was powerful, and it inevitably produced the desired result: swarms of male teenagers trance-walking their way to Schaap (pronounced “Skop”), ready to commit their lives to becoming pastors. And, equally important, to attend the church-owned Hyles-Anderson College a couple of miles away, one of First Baptist’s biggest coffer fillers.

But in July 2010, an hour into the “Polished Shaft” sermon—in a church packed with thousands of teenagers there for a youth conference—Schaap went further. He lifted a stick in his left hand and a silver cloth in his right. He moved the bottom of the stick near his groin and angled it away from himself. Head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut, mouth gaping, he began rubbing the shaft rapidly with the cloth, up and down, up and down. “Ohh! Oh! Ohhhh! Oh! Oh, God, that hurts!” he shrieked.

Then, his voice dropping to a guttural whisper, he said, “Oh, oh, God. Thanks for what you’re making me.”

Schaap continued to rub the stick—up and down, up and down—and converse with God, sometimes angrily, sometimes ecstatically, for more than a minute. What he was doing was unmistakable: simulating masturbation, in front of thousands of children, in the middle of a church service. A row of white-coated high-ranking churchmen seated behind Schaap watched in silence. At the end, as usual, young men streamed up to the stage.

To the hundreds of people who posted comments under a YouTube video of the event, the lack of reaction is as shocking as Schaap’s sermon itself. But to the congregation of First Baptist, it was all in a day’s preaching.

The true believers of the ultrafundamentalist Independent Baptist movement were accustomed to Schaap’s style. If he wasn’t scolding his flock for not living up to God’s demands (tithing, volunteering, “soul winning”), he was delivering R-rated sermons that, for example, likened the Lord’s Supper to having sex with Jesus Christ. “He would just repeatedly talk about sex and repeatedly talk about women, how they were dressed and body parts . . . in graphic detail,” recalls Tom Brennan, who attended the church for six years and is now an Independent Baptist pastor at Maplewood Bible Baptist Church in Chicago.

Unfortunately, it went well beyond talk. Last September, Schaap, 54, a married father of two, pleaded guilty to taking a 16-year-old girl he was counseling at First Baptist across state lines to have sex. Denied bond, he awaits sentencing in the Porter County Jail; the minimum term is ten years.

But Schaap is not simply one of those rogue evangelists who thunders against the evils of forbidden sex while indulging in it himself. According to dozens of current and former church members, religion experts, and historians interviewed by Chicago—plus a review of thousands of pages of court documents—he is part of what some call a deeply embedded culture of misogyny and sexual and physical abuse at one of the nation’s largest churches. Multiple websites tracking the First Baptist Church of Hammond have identified more than a dozen men with ties to the church—many of whom graduated from its college, Hyles-Anderson, or its annual Pastors’ Schools—who fanned out around the country, preaching at their own churches and racking up a string of arrests and civil lawsuits, including physical abuse of minors, sexual molestation, and rape.

It is a culture, past and present members say, enabled by cover-ups and cultlike control. For example, after Schaap’s conviction, many church members blamed his victim as a temptress. “We were taught to not question and to take the ‘man of God’s’ [Schaap’s] word over everything,” says Julie Silvestrone Busby, a former First Baptist member who now hosts a Christian radio show in Iowa. She left the church after alleging that Schaap behaved inappropriately during marriage counseling sessions in 2004 through 2009.

First Baptist Church’s longtime lawyer, David Gibbs, declined a request for comment on this story. The spokesman for the church, Eddie Wilson, did not return numerous calls requesting an interview. Schaap did not respond to an interview request made through Porter County Jail.

It’s important to stress that even the people I spoke with who felt victimized by the church did not suggest that the majority of members are anything other than sincere seekers of Christ. “There are some very good people still there whom I love dearly and who truly have hearts for the Lord but were deceived,” Busby says. “I grieve for them.”

Nevertheless, the story of First Baptist is epic enough to rival the most sordid Old Testament tale. “It really is astonishing,” says Jeri Massi, a researcher from Raleigh, North Carolina, who has been documenting the sexual abuse of children in Christian fundamentalism since 2001. “The wickedness, the heartbreak, the ruining of lives.” Examples from First Baptist “take in everything: pedophilia, violence, defamation of the innocent to protect the guilty, heresies against Christian doctrine, defiance against lawful authority. . . .” And all this barely half an hour’s drive from downtown Chicago.

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Photography: courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana

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