Controversy follows new church

Members say a local congregation is Bible-based and family-centered. But some call it a cult.

The Orlando Fl. Sentinel/August 21, 1994
By Cory Lancaster

DAYTONA BEACH - Fifteen people sit on metal chairs in a country club banquet room, listening to a pastor preach about Christianity and the importance of finding Jesus Christ.

The people stand and sing upbeat religious hymns as the lyrics flash onto a screen from an overhead projector.

They clap and during the sermon, say "Amen," when they agree with the pastor's message.

The 12 years in Grand Forks, N.D., pastors Ed and Renee Julison moved to Daytona Beach early this year and started conducting services in the Pelican Bay Main Clubhouse.

A permanent church home in the Nova Village shopping center on Beville Road is being renovated and should open in coming weeks.

Ed Julison says the couple moved to Daytona beach because of the success of its Victory Church in Grand Forks, N.D.

But former members say the Julisons operated a cult in Grand Forks, lived lavishly off church donations and ruined the lives of many families in town.

Fifteen former members sought the help of a cult deprogrammer after leaving the church in the past year, according to the cult expert.

Victory Church was spotlighted on Oprah Winfrey's television show in June for a segment on cults and has generated many stories in the Grand Forks newspapers.

In an interview last week, Ed Julison blamed the criticism on disgruntled church members and an anti-Christian movement that seeks to destroy Bible-based churches.

"What they [ex-members] are trying to do in North Dakota is kill anything we have here," he said. "They say I'm the devil. If people want to leave the church, that's fine. It happens all the time. But this is unnecessary."

Julison, 47, is a former electrician who was "born again" in the early 1980's and called into the ministry. He said he received ministerial training at Rhema Bible Training Center in Tulsa, Okla.

School officials, however, say Julison took a few classes in the early 1980's but never graduated.

"He has never held credentials from out training center," said Larry Johnson, and administrative assistant at the Bible training center. "He is definitely not associated - nor has he ever been - with any of our ministerial association."

Ex-members say Julisons took control of their lives.

Several former members who were involved in Victory Church for more than a decade, say they were brainwashed by the Julisons and eventually gave up control of their lives.

The Julisons began to make day-to-day decisions for them, they said. Members were asked to give money generously and frequently, as a way to salvation, and they complied. Only the Julisons handled the money, and there was no oversight on how it was spent, the members said.

Dr. Anthony Chu, a gastroenterologist in Grand Forks, left the church in April after 11 years. During that time, he gave $20,000 to $30,000 a year to the church and later learned that his wife also bought groceries, dieting products and even cosmetics for Renee Julison, he said.

Chu has filed for divorce from his wife, Sandra, who still belongs to the church. The couple is battling over custody of their three children, ages 8 to 16.

"The Julisons have no accountability," Chu said. "They keep asking for money for God, but it's for them. People were told if they gave more, they would be blessed by God. People went into debt, took out loans, to give [to] them.

"everybody that has left the church is traumatized," he said.

Karlene and Brad Croy belonged to Victory Church for 12 years and appeared on Winfrey's show in June. Karlene Croy served as a church elder and was considered a member of the Julisons family, Ed Julison said.

Julison claims Karlene Croy was kidnapped by her "abusive" husband last fall and brainwashed against the church.

But Brad Croy said he tricked his wife into meeting with a cult expert as a last resort to save their marriage. The couple filed suit against the Julisons in March, seeking at least $50,000 in damages for abuse and suffering, they said.

"What you see at the beginning is a wonderful group of loving people," said Karlene Croy, 35, a hairdresser in Grand Forks. "The group is very accepting of you. But it's all staged and pre-planned."

It's called love-bombing, and it draws people to the group who are lonely, suffering and vulnerable, she said.

"At first, it's a positive message: If you give to God, he gives back to you. But over time, the rules change. You lose your boundaries. They control who people marry, where they work, who they target to join the group."

Karlene Croy said Renee Julison told her not to have children because they could be boys and end up like their father, who was "rebelling" and pulling away from the church.

Church practices border on cultic, expert says

The Julisons believe in shepherding, a religious teaching that says pastors are the ultimate authority of the flock and members are submissive sheep, said Rick Ross, a cult expert from Phoenix.

Members become cut off from their families, are told what they can and can't read, and are warned that accidental death can befall those who leave the group, Ross said. After awhile, members can't distinguish between God's will and the Julison's will, he said.

Ross was hired by family members to persuade 15 members to leave Victory Church. Former members also hired him to lead a two-day seminar in Grand Forks for 60 former members.

Calling Victory Church a cult can be misleading, Ross said.

The word brings to mind Jim Jones who persuaded 917 followers to commit suicide in the Guyana jungle in 1978, or the Branch Davidians. Leader David Koresh and 78 disciples perished in a fire last year after a standoff with federal agents.

Nothing that extreme happens in Victory Church, which still operates in Grand Forks with 40 to 200 members, depending on whom you ask. The church helped many people get their lives together. But eventually members become a "cash cow" for the Julisons, Ross said.

"The former members of the group feel very strongly that it is a cult," Ross said. "The best I could say about Victory Church is that it's an extremely destructive Bible-based church, bordering on a cult.

"The issue is zero accountability. The church's coffers have become nothing more than the Julisons' personal piggy bank. The church id their cash cow," he said.

Members, such as Karlene Cory, did all the housework, grocery shopping and yard work for the Julisons, he said. They also bought the Julisons expensive gifts, such as a $7,000 baby grand piano. When one of the Julisons' children, Danielle, was getting married, the Julisons had six showers for her and told members to buy gifts for each one, he said.

"Families I talked to worked their hands to the bone - scrubbing, cleaning, refurbishing their home," Ross said. "They thought they were working for God. It's heartbreaking."

One family was near bankruptcy from tithing 20 to 30 percent of its gross income and also paying for remodeling projects such as building a deck for the Julisons' home, he said.

Victory Church members: Charges are 'hogwash'

Mr. and Mrs. Z [Note: the Z. family later left Victory Chapel and are no longer associated with the Julisons in any way, shape or form] run Victory Church in Grand Forks for the Julisons, who are still considered the church pastors. The couple have belonged to the church for 10 years and can't understand "the lies" being told about it.

"It's a bunch of hogwash," said Mrs. Z, 32. "The stuff that's been printed in the papers has no grounds… We're not going to let the media take an anti-Christian slant.

""We're a normal church. It's a born again, spiritual church. WE believe the Bible is the ultimate authority. We encourage strong family relationships. I don't see anything wrong."

About 10 families have left Grand Forks and moved to Daytona Beach to help the Julisons start the new church, ex-members say.

Julison said last week they have 40 members in the new Daytona Beach Faith Center International. Members witness to people around town and try to convert them to the church, he said.

A church bulletin lists a schedule for door-to-door witnessing and for street witnessing by its youth group. It says 27 people have been born again in two months from their efforts.

Said Ed Julison: "Things are going very well for us here. It's a very nice town. There are a lot of Christian people down here - very friendly people."

Counters Karlene Croy, "We just don't want to happen to other people what happened to us. We're just average people. I thought I was joining a Bible study. I just opened myself up tot he wrong people."

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