Corporal punishment. Women in skirts. No questioning authority. No dancing.
Lansing City Pulse dives deep into what critics call the "cult-like" religious sect and church that raised former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who's been accused of sexually abusing his sister-in-law starting when she was as young as 15. Rebekah Chatfield met the ex-politician while a student at Northern Michigan Christian Academy, where Lee was a teacher and his father, Rusty Chatfield, the superintendent. The elder Chatfield is also pastor at the affiliated Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church.
Chatfield's church is Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB), a conservative form of Christianity that City Pulse reports sees men as authority figures, women as subservient, and children as rebels in need of breaking.
... the leaders of these churches are deities of sorts, who nurture a cult-like sphere of influence prone to extreme sexism, purity constructs, bans on interracial or inter-religious marriages and education that fail to address anything beyond the insular communities in which they live.
Women and girls are required to dress to modestly so as not to entice men, but at the same time remain feminine, wearing skirts. Ditto at the school run by Rusty Chatfield, where The Detroit News earlier this month reported a knee-length skirt requirement for an "America Day" and that Rusty once questioned a female student who'd cut her hair short, telling her long hair is a glory to women because it was given to them as a covering. (Two men with the school denied allegations of sexism in The News' report, noting that women teach at the church and Sunday school.)
Sex before marriage is, of course, another no-no. Rebekah Chatfield has said she and Lee's brother Aaron married young, after Rusty Chatfield intervened upon discovering they'd had sex. City Pulse describes a culture of almost arranged marriages, in which "fathers pray about matches and discuss them among themselves." If God approves, a monthlong courtship under close supervision follows, then marriage. Interracial coupling is not allowed and inter-faith discouraged.
The religion also relies on corporal punishment, which is reportedly allowed at Rusty's church and a practice Lee Chatfield has defended.
IFB is also accused by some of facilitating a culture of sexual abuse. A 2018 investigation by a Dallas paper reportedly found more than 400 allegations against leaders at nearly 200 independent churches and institutions across the country. Rusty Chatfield, for his part, did not report allegations of unwanted sexual touching last year between two 11-year-old students, according to a police report obtained by City Pulse.
Justin Woodbury, a 41-year-old who left IFB, described for the alt-weekly how a deference toward authority helps keep abuse under wraps. He said he was sexually abused by a woman at his IFB church in Ann Arbor starting when he was a 17, and recalled an instance involving a father who pulled a gun after abusing his wife and children one evening.
One of the children called the pastor “begging” for help, Woodbury said.
“He told her, 'As long as you are under your dad’s roof, you must submit to his authority and God will protect you from anything bad happening,’” Woodbury recalled. “There is a strong emphasis that a man could do no wrong.”
Emily, who is using an alias to discuss what she described as the brutal sexual assault of her young daughter, was a teacher at a school attached to another rural northern Michigan IFB church. When she brought allegations to church officials, as well as law enforcement, she was encouraged not to discuss it publicly, she said.
“You don’t want people looking at her in 10 years, when she’s 15, and singing her heart out in the choir and saying, ‘Oh, that’s that poor girl who was abused,’” she said a pastor had told her.
When she refused to stay quiet, her home and vehicles were vandalized.
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