As a teen, she felt set up

The New London Day, Eastern Connecticut, May 30, 1999
By Paul Choiniere

For Sonya Vennero, growing up in The King’s Chapel was full of contradictions and pitfalls.

As a young girl, she always found plenty of kids to play with in the youth ministry, but she had to be careful about what she said. It was hard for her to trust anyone, even her sisters. If the wrong comment were relayed to the ministry, she says, a person could end up in “the chair” — the disciplining chair that was in the home of Pastor Sam J. Wibberley.

There was nothing more painful than these sessions with pastors or prophet Syro, recalls Sonya. She describes one particularly painful “rebuking” when she was 13. She had confided in a friend that if she ever were to sleep with someone, there was a cute boy she had in mind. At Wibberley’s home a short time later, Syro accused her of having had sexual relations. At the time, she was convinced Syro had read her fantasies. And thoughts, church followers were taught, were the same as actions.

In tears, Sonya says, she “admitted” her sins and begged for forgiveness.

“I never lived up to any of the standards that I should,” she said.

As a teen-ager there were good times. Occasionally youth minister Kevin F. Hamel would allow them glasses of beer or wine, she remembers. There were games of flashlight tag, co-ed camp-outs, R-rated movies, and rough-housing with the boys and Hamel. The pure of heart, they were told, would not be tempted to sin. (Hamel and others in the ministry refused to comment on any ex-members.)

Unfortunately, Sonya says, Syro had her window into others’ impure minds. “They put you in places to set you up,” she said.

Sonya was strongly discouraged from dating “non-Christians, ” she says, which really meant “anyone who wasn’t part of the church.”

Sonya was only 5 when her mother, Maria [K], joined what was then the Dayspring Church of God, soon to become King’s Chapel. Now 25, Sonya left the church two years ago, the same time as her parents and five siblings. It was the only church she had known. She met her husband, Mario Vennero, there. They have a 22-month-old daughter and live in Jewett City.

One of her earliest memories of church control goes back to the summer after she completed the first grade. She had gone to a private Christian school in Norwich and was happy there. But pastor Sam J. Wibberley advised the family that she would be better in the public Griswold Elementary School.

Urging a Christian to leave a Christian school seemed an odd request, Maria [K] recalls, but she believed that Wibberley knew what was best. She says the pastor told her that Christians needed to learn to live in a secular world.

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