On an April evening this year, Tom Bowen sat in a support group with about two dozen others and declared happily: I have been Kings Chapel-free for a year.
There was applause and jokes about whether he should receive a one-year medallion. The analogy to Alcoholics Anonymous was not lost on those gathered at the Jewett City home. They also were ex-parishioners. They, too, talked of experiencing the addictive grip of The Kings Chapel.
Tom, 37, and his wife, Sallie, who is three years younger, joined the church when they were young and very impressionable. It was the early 1980s. They had a newborn son, their first child. They were searching for God.
The people were really nice and friendly. It was really like they had something, Sallie said.
Jean Spademan told the Bowens they should move from Danielson into one of the apartments the church then owned and was remodeling on North Main Street in Jewett City.
We were told this was the chosen city of God, Sallie said. Syro said the Lord felt it was the Jewel City.
Both Tom and Sallie say they were instructed to work at Sam Wibberley Tire in Danielson. Sallie says she worked for free for five years. Tom was paid, but when he wasnt at the shop, he was at music practice for the church, attending prayer vigils or services, or volunteering his labor at the homes and businesses of church leaders and other members.
For years, Tom says, church leadership defined his world. Evil forces needed to be combated with around-the-clock prayer. If you doubted the leaders, Tom says, you feared those doubting forces could possess you.
You stop using your critical thinking. You stop using your reasoning, he said. You just start believing that, hey, I dont have to understand this. I just have to do it.
At any time, he says, Wibberley or another pastor might call his house to say that he or Sallie should confess some sinful deed or thought, such as lust or greed.
Sallie says that it was the treatment of her children that finally broke the spell. During a Sunday service her daughter, then 11, went forward to pray at the altar. She prayed aloud for forgiveness, admitting she had gossiped about friends. As Sallie recounts it, Kevin Hamel, the youth minister, rebuked her daughter, telling her he was tired of her coming to repent, that she really didnt want to be a Christian, and that she was the nastiest little girl hed ever seen in his life.
She was devastated and was withdrawn for weeks afterward.
When her teen-age son began to show adolescent rebellion, the Bowens say, Hamel and Wibberley said an evil spirit controlled him. The boy should be shunned and ignored, they recall being advised.
When I questioned the approach, they said I had to love God more than I loved him (her son), Sallie said. Ironically, after that, the control began to fall away.
A little more than a year ago she left, taking her two children and moving in with a relative. Tom followed a few weeks later, after agreeing to get counseling from the pastor of another Christian church.