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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The church building in Hammond today
The church building in Hammond today
 

Judges

Walking into federal court last September for a hearing about his alleged sexual misdeeds with a minor, Jack Schaap smiled and looked relaxed. Wearing a gray blazer, a red patterned tie, and dark pants, clutching a Bible in his left hand, he stopped in front of the TV cameras and planted a long kiss on his wife, Cindy, 52.

Before the judge, if Schaap wasn’t exactly defiant, he was far from submissive. He said that he didn’t know he had broken “man’s law” but knew he had violated “God’s law.” With that, he entered a guilty plea—and was immediately escorted to Porter County Jail to await sentencing.

Back at First Baptist, prayers for “Brother Schaap” have been asked for and received. (Similar concern has yet to be expressed for his victim.) One of Schaap’s adult children, Kenneth, has mounted a letter-writing campaign to the judge.

Eddie Lapina, a Hyles-trained church fixture, is acting as interim pastor while a committee searches for Schaap’s replacement. Among his moves: announcing in October that fully a quarter of the church’s staff had been laid off.

Hyles-Anderson College appears to be struggling, too. About 1,000 students are currently enrolled, down from 2,700 in its heyday, according to admissions director Joe Peete, who gave a Chicago intern a tour of the premises in late October.

Meanwhile, the church’s lawyer, David Gibbs, has called for other victims to come forward with their stories. He promises that “there will be no cover-up. There will be nothing swept under any rug. . . . This is a moment when we need, as people of integrity, to be honest in all of this. So [authorities] have asked us to come in and conduct a thorough investigation. And it shall be done.”

Critics are skeptical. “They will no doubt tighten the reins some,” says Glover. “But all that needs to happen is for the right pastor to come along—i.e., a man with a strong, charismatic personality who is a leader—and boom! They are right back in the same trap.”

Another person who is keenly aware of the lure and peril of personality is Murphrey. She was “sickened and literally brokenhearted,” she told me, when she heard about her brother-in-law’s arest. “Don’t get me wrong—I certainly believe Jack Schaap is guilty of a crime and deserves punishment. But I wondered: If my dad had been taken off his self-constructed throne long ago and people had known the full truth about who he was, perhaps Jack Schaap would never have been given the liberties, the complete lack of accountability, and the power that eventually led to his own demise.

“Instead,” she continues, “he was allowed and encouraged to perpetuate what my father began: idolatry, secrecy, adultery, and a harshly punitive culture based on an endless list of legalistic rules that served ‘the man of God.’ Not God—or at least not a God that I would want to know.”

Since Schaap’s arrest, a Facebook page dedicated to supporting victims has popped up. Trisha LaCroix, the former Hyles-Anderson student and one of the site’s administrators, says she has heard from hundreds of people who have shared stories of abuse—mental, physical, and sexual. The site has more than 1,200 members, she adds.

“There are still many, many victims out there,” says Busby, herself involved with a group of former First Baptist members who have their own abuse stories. “So many hurting, scared, broken women who are so afraid, who don’t know that they’re loved, who want grace, but they have only heard all the things they need to do. They’re being shamed about how horrible they are. They need to know that there is help. And there is grace.”

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Photograph: Frank Hanes/Chicago Tribune

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