Pastor, members defend USF church against cult allegations

The Tampa Tribune/April 5, 2015

By Jerome R. Stockfisch

Tampa -- Members of Cornerstone Christian Church defended their campus ministry Sunday after a traditional Easter service, with one University of South Florida student asserting the organization is “definitely not a cult.”

Cornerstone is affiliated with a Tucson, Arizona church that was evicted from the University of Arizona’s Religious Council after an investigation by the Arizona Daily Star uncovered allegations of punishment of infants, financial coercion, public shaming and shunning of those who leave the church.

On Sunday, Pastor Bill Cooper renounced all of those allegations, calling them hurtful to read.

“It’s sad that there is anybody out there that feels hurt by us or anything we’ve done,” Cooper said. “Our intention is to love God and love people and try to help them any way we can. If there are people out there that have something that has bothered them, we’re open to hearing them and getting it right.”

Cooper spoke after a Sunday service at the Oval Theater in USF’s Marshall Student Center, the church’s regular gathering spot. About 200 church members sang and swayed to Christian pop music and heard Cooper, clad casually in khaki slacks and a powder-blue shirt, discuss Jesus and the cross.

Church authorities and members had not responded to requests for interviews, but spoke openly on Sunday.

Cooper also sent the Tampa Tribune a rebuttal of all of the allegations, specifically punishing infants, financial coercion, public shaming, shunning, and members’ ability to question leaders.

“I don’t think these things in any way accurately represent who we are and what we do,” Cooper said.

He categorized his relationship with officials of Faith Christian Church on the University of Arizona campus as “friends.”

“I was a member of that church and they sent us here 10 years ago,” Cooper said. “I love them and I cherish my relationship with them. We don’t have a structure. It’s not like we’re under some big umbrella. We’re all independent nondenominational churches. We have a similar mission and vision.”

A former church official now living in Arizona has stated that the allegations that were brought up in that state are also happening at USF. He has filed a complaint with USF, as has a mother who said her daughter was “traumatized” by the Tampa church.

No USF students have filed complaints against the church.

Cornerstone Christian is “definitely not a cult,” said Marissa Vega, a junior in advertising who attended Sunday’s service. “The people are awesome. I have a lot of friends. It’s fun.”

She attended with Rejine Varughese, a third-year nursing student, who also expressed support for the church.

Kirk Allen helped start the USF church 10 years ago. “We absolutely love it and are very thankful to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s nice to be a part of a church that’s focused on serving.”

Allen discussed a spring break trip to Orlando where church members worked alongside students at the University of Central Florida. “That doesn’t sound like cult-like behavior, going and serving other churches,” he said.

Allen’s wife and two children are also church members.

Faith Christian focuses its ministry on college campuses. Recruiters from another of its affiliates in New Zealand have been banned from the Massey University campus there.

It also has affiliates in the college towns of Flagstaff, Arizona, Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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