Ties that bind?

Has an area ministry with a focus on youth forced itself between mother and son? Or has his faith simply formed even closer

Beacon Journal, Ohio/February 8, 2009

On a Saturday night in November, as a small group gathered for a Bible study at a Fairchild Avenue church in Kent, a woman stood along the street waving a sign: "I Want My Son Back."

She brought her husband and daughter, too.

"Xenos is a Cult" and "Tom, Don't Drink the Kool-Aid," said some of their signs.

Annemarie Smith, 48, a Roman Catholic from Stow, believes her 18-year-old son, Thomas, has been taken by a cult.

She has launched a religious war that has engaged the Stow police, mayor, high school and a municipal judge. She started an Internet blog and is trying to rally others to the cause.

Online, she makes allegations of alcohol abuse, vandalism and brainwashing of young children. She calls the church leader and his family "Devil man," "Devil wife" and "Devil son."

Her son, meanwhile, left home to live with church friends and has received an ultimatum from his parents: "Us or the church."

Xenos Christian Fellowship is her target.

The congregation of about 160 rented space at Riverwood Community Chapel in Kent until Smith's sidewalk protests raised concerns among the Riverwood leadership. Now the group meets mostly in Stow and Cuyahoga Falls homes, community buildings and restaurants.

The local Xenos leader, Keith McCallum, a bearded former software writer, accuses Smith of a "terror campaign" and threatening to shoot him. He said her allegations have no merit.

In a quarter century of ministry, he said, "we've never had any lawsuits, crimes or misdemeanors filed against us."

McCallum, 52, said that his group is nontraditional in that it has no building and is focused on young people, but it is traditional in its study of the Bible.

His family has a history of Christian work. His mother was born to African missionaries. Brother Scot McCallum died accidentally in 2003 while on a mission trip in Russia.

And another brother, Dennis, started a ministry in the early 1970s - much like the one in Stow - with small group meetings.

Today, Dennis McCallum is pastor of the loosely organized 5,000-member Xenos Christian Fellowship, a megachurch on the Columbus beltway.

But as some local members joke, no matter how big or how established the church, just having an "X" in the name seems to alarm people.

Teen finds new religion

Thomas Smith had no idea in the seventh grade that when he went to a Bible study with a friend that it would lead to separation from his family.

The invitation came from Kyle McCallum, son of the church leader.

"It was seventh grade, and, oh, this was fun," he said of Xenos, but then, "eighth grade came and I really didn't care about God."

His attendance ebbed.

"It became a battle between me and Keith . . . for him to convince me to believe in God. "

At age 16, he had what he described as a saving moment.

"I accepted Christ. . . . It was amazing," he said, but he fought changing his lifestyle.

Then, last June, there a series of events weighed heavily on him. He again had dropped out of the "fellowship." He had graduated from high school and there were things in his life and at home that left him conflicted.

In one day, he lost his girlfriend and was in an accident in the car that he had purchased with money working at a coffee shop.

"I thought, what is going on in my life? What is my life? Look at what I have done and where it has gotten me. I am standing in the middle of the road. My car is crashed. What do I still have?"

For a second time, he said he had a spiritual moment.

"I was like, wow, I still have Christ in my life and I still have God."

That's when the serious rift began at home.

Baptism leads to fight

Annemarie Smith says she raised her family in a good Catholic home. Now, she says that her son has not only gone astray, but he is in trouble with the law.

Thomas was baptized Catholic and attended St. Martha school in Akron through fourth grade, at which point the family moved to Stow. After that, he said he did not regularly attend church.

His mother, a stay-at-home mom, said she had no problem with her children occasionally attending church with friends - and she believes her son's attraction to Xenos is more about friends than God.

The tension grew exponentially after Thomas' roadside reckoning and an announcement to his parents that he planned to be baptized again, this time at a Xenos service, and that he would like for them to attend.

They told him he already had been baptized Catholic and they would not attend.

The day before it was to happen, there was a fight. Thomas, by then 18, and his mother disagree on the circumstances, but Thomas left and did not return.

Thomas went to McCallum's for a few days, then moved in with some other church friends.

Blog is born

Annemarie Smith calls the baptism "the breaking point." She went to Stow police asking for an investigation of cult activity.

She also launched a blog, Parents Against Xenos, and explained her feelings about the baptism: "I was mortified. I had failed in my religion and also my son. Catholics must promise to raise their children also in the Catholic faith, I have always held that dear to my heart and this news just caught me off guard."

His baptism and discussion of his spiritual awakening were videotaped and posted on the church Web site.

"Before I was a Christian, I was a screwed-up guy. I was living for nothing," he said in the video. He wasn't sure where he would be had it not been for "the love and relationships that Keith and everyone has shown me and the Lord has shown me."

McCallum's willingness to discuss God led them to talk in a bar until 4 a.m. on a school night, he said.

His mother said she was enraged at the video.

Thomas and McCallum later said that the meeting was until 1 a.m. at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant on a weekend. Thomas said recently that he was mistaken about the time because he was emotional as he recalled the two-year-old event.

In response, his mother has accused McCallum of making people change their stories.

"So sad to see him scampering about like a rat," Annemarie Smith says on her blog.

She also is revealing about her own family, posting on the Web the fact that "my husband works in the adult industry."

Annemarie Smith said she believed Thomas was going to make it an issue, so she would be forthcoming. Leonard Smith, she said, is a financial officer for a Cleveland distributor of adult material and she hosted related in-home passion parties.

Her focus is on what she believes is a cult and brainwashing.

Allegations begin

In Beacon Journal interviews, she said some former Xenos members told her of spray painting at a local cemetery. Stow cemetery officials say there has been no such incident.

Annemarie Smith also suggested that college students took young boys and girls camping near Port Clinton. She said she wasn't suggesting that anything sexual happened, but that it was a brainwashing trip.

McCallum said the event was a camping "retreat" involving many of the families in the church - people of all ages.

The arrest of Thomas, however, has elevated the fight to the courtroom.

Thomas, Kyle McCallum and others were in a car in the Chapel Hill area several days after Christmas. Cuyahoga Falls police stopped them after receiving a report that someone was waving guns from the back seat of the car, and the two were charged with inducing panic.

Thomas says the guns were plastic, and they were playing. Their pretrial hearing is Feb. 20.

Annemarie Smith has gone to Stow Municipal Judge Lisa Coates for help.

In her letter she said: "This may sound horrible to you, but I do hope Tom has to do some time or is punished severely, because with the grace of God and some time away from this group, he may come to realize what this group has cost him and he will begin to turn his life around."

She wrote that Thomas "was a great kid, honor roll every year," but now, "his father and I believe with all our hearts he has been brainwashed."

And "as a Catholic, I believe God had a hand in Tom's arrest."

Things get ugly

For Keith McCallum, Annemarie Smith's online campaign escalated enough in January for him to go to police about something she had said a year earlier.

She told her son that she was going to get a gun and shoot McCallum.

She didn't deny it when police investigated. A department supplemental report said that she admitted saying in anger that she would like to buy a gun and shoot McCallum. She said she didn't intend to follow up on the threat but instead she would "affect Mr. McCallum's leadership" through "legal means and blog postings on the Internet."

In all, three complaints - one from Annemarie Smith, one from McCallum and another from a family alleging their daughter was being harassed - have been investigated by Stow police, and Chief Louis A. Dirker Jr. said that, as far as the department is concerned, the cases are closed.

"From our end and from people we've talked to, there is nothing that caused us concern that anything illegal or unethical is being done," Dirker said.

Parents raise concerns

Jon and Brenda Roszkowski were the ones who complained to Stow police that their daughter was being harassed at Stow-Munroe Falls High School after she left the church.

They met with the Beacon Journal at Annemarie Smith's house, along with another parent and former church member, Jackie Brown, and other family members.

"Church is No. 1 before family" at Xenos, said Jon Roszkowski. His daughter transferred to Woodridge High School to escape the problem, he said.

Stow Principal Susan Schur said she talked with students she believed were involved, warned them against harassment, but concluded that there was no behavior warranting discipline.

Brown, of Cuyahoga Falls, pulled her daughter out of the church. At one point, Brown and about a dozen family members were involved, but she became concerned about the amount of time teenagers were investing.

"They seemed to only care about the kids," she said of church leaders, and that was troubling. There is, she said, "something wrong with this church. They are turning people away from God."

Church defended

But Pastor Duane Crabbs, who heads South Street Ministries in Akron, sees it differently.

"The Jews weren't thrilled with this group of Jesus followers" in the first days of the church, he said.

Crabbs said he was influenced in his faith by the Columbus Xenos church when he lived there.

"Xenos has a hard edge to their message, but that is the hard edge of the Gospel and that involves service," Crabbs said.

Young volunteers from Xenos tutor young people at South Street twice a week, Crabbs said. Xenos members also volunteer for ACCESS Inc. in Akron.

Becky Allen, an 18-year-old Stow-Munroe Falls High School senior, rejected the idea that the group is cultish and said people are troubled because "we don't have a building."

She was one of nearly 30 high school students who met in January in the basement of church leader Greg Morscher.

For about an hour, they studied Scripture and prayed, then had refreshments.

New member Steven Collins, 17, of Stow, surmised: "I think a lot of people think it's a cult because they encourage you to read your Bible and pray, and people aren't OK with that."

And, he said, there's that "X" in the name.

"Maybe the name of the church might freak them out."

Focusing on youth

Keith McCallum said Smith's allegations are unfounded.

"If that is happening, we sure would like to know how and where, because that is pretty crazy stuff," he said.

McCallum described himself as a "flower child" when he grew up in suburban Columbus.

"I was a Christian kid." But, he said, "I was way out of my league as I got into the drug culture. I wish there had been a church that had been able to reach out to our culture that I could rely on."

McCallum said he has a "furnace burning in my heart for these younger generations" and few churches are reaching out to them.

"It breaks my heart that there are so many kids with so many tragic emotional issues going on and the Christian church is having a hard time being there to help," McCallum said.

The Xenos mission statement says that all people are accepted by God and the church, no matter where they are in life. According to the Xenos Web site, "Xenos (pronounced zee-noss) is a Greek word meaning a traveler or someone living outside their native land."

There are Xenos fellowships in Dayton and Cincinnati, too. However, the Columbus church says the satellites aren't directly connected.

Fellowship gets start

Keith McCallum, who has a journalism degree from Ohio State University and studied theology at Ashland Theological Seminary, said he has been ordained by the Columbus Xenos.

His work in Northeast Ohio began in the early 1990s, when he traveled to the Cleveland area from Columbus to plant a church. He was in software development at the time.

He launched home studies and organized the weekly "Central Teaching" sessions. In 1994, he moved his family to Bedford, then to Stow in 2001.

For several years, they met in Bedford, later in a warehouse in northern Summit County and then rented space at Riverwood in Kent. Recently, they've been meeting at the Quirk Cultural Center in Cuyahoga Falls.

McCallum said he and his wife, Darlene, work full time for the church. He said he had some savings from his business career and that in 2007, he and his wife made about $42,000, including taxable and nontaxable income.

The vast majority of Xenos church members have had no other church relationship, he said.

A lot of people "have a grotesque picture of church. Often it is either past experience or it is so alien and foreign to their cultural experience. It is like walking into The Wizard of Oz."

The church is not "hung up" on such things as services, robes or steeples, or even church music. "We don't do anything traditional," he said - with the exception of focusing on the Bible.

He said he met with Stow Mayor Karen Fritschel and Chief Dirker a few weeks ago to explain the church mission because of the controversy.

"Spiritual decisions are extremely significant and, boy, do they cause arguments," he said.

McCallum said the church's beliefs can be summed up like this:

"We believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that came down to Earth to pay for our sins and make it possible to have a personal relationship with God by grace, and not by good works or rituals, but by God's forgiveness."

And, he said, the church is praying for Annemarie Smith.

Annemarie Smith said she is "praying for the other families of Xenos."

Division remains

"I know I can't save Tommy," she said on her blog. "He has to save himself."

And over the holidays, she posted this: "Holidays are unbearable and your dogs miss you."

McCallum, meanwhile, is at a loss.

"We are all about maintaining and deepening relationships," so this dispute runs counter to beliefs, he said.

Thomas Smith said he has called his father's cell phone almost weekly, but there is no answer. His mother disputes that, although she says he left a message on the house phone a few weeks ago saying he is well.

He is a sophomore at Kent State University and working part time for a NASA contractor.

"I want to reconcile that relationship more than anything else," he said. "They are my only parents."

But, he said, "it's hard to hear your mom say she thinks you should go to jail."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.