Parents claim church brainwashed daughter

The Daily Oakland Press/March 24, 2005
By Catherine Kavanaugh

John Stroich said he had no idea what his family was getting into when his daughter began courting the pastor's son at Calvary Christian Church.

They contend their daughter, Ashleigh, was brainwashed by the Rev. Mark Byers.

"It bothers me so much that I didn't see this coming," Stroich said. "I put a lot of trust in a man who calls himself a minister. But a lot of dynamics were at work that we didn't realize. We were snowed."

Stroich and his wife, Dinah, who live in Shelby Township, are waging a war with the church, trying to rally support for Byers' removal through letters, e-mails and phone calls.

They were excommunicated and banned from church property Feb. 9 for their efforts.

The Stroiches say Byers influenced their scholar-athlete daughter to give up her family, friends and college plans to become the "Stepford wife" of his youngest son.

"Any church that does this to a family is a cult," Stroich said. "We used to be so close to our daughter. We had a wonderful relationship."

Byers contends Ashleigh, who turned 18 on March 9, isn't the same person because she has grown up. He calls the cult allegation ludicrous and said the underlying issue is one with which many parents wrestle.

"The question we all have to ask is when does a child become an adult?" the pastor said.

Genesis of change

John Stroich first heard Byers preach on his Kingdom Living radio show in summer 2003.

"It was a strong message at a time when people like me feel society is so messed up," Stroich said.

In July 2003, the family began attending Calvary Christian Church. John Stroich said they received a warm welcome. Soon after, Ashleigh, then 16, began dating the pastor's youngest son, Justin, who was 19.

John Stroich said he pushed for an old-fashioned courtship with chaperoned dates and mutual parental involvement. He expected the children's contact to be minimal, describing Ashleigh as a serious student at Sterling Heights Bethesda Christian School who took concert piano lessons and was involved with the National Honor Society, soccer, softball, cheerleading and band.

A month into the courtship, however, Ashleigh declared her high school was too demanding and too liberal.

"She came to us crying that Bethesda was going in one direction and she was going in another direction with the teachings at Calvary, which are more foundational," said Dinah Stroich, a registered nurse at Henry Ford Hospital.

The Stroiches said they agreed to let Ashleigh switch, at the beginning of her junior year, to Rochester Hills Christian School, in part because it has close ties to the elementary school operated by Calvary Christian Church.

In November 2003, the parents say, Ashleigh's grades dropped even though her new school wasn't as challenging. By spring, the couple had further issues with the courtship, specifically Justin's attitude.

Also, Ashleigh started denouncing her mother for working outside the home, according to her parents. And, she challenged them when they raised concerns about the courtship moving too fast toward marriage.

Trouble at home

Ashleigh's attitude had changed to arrogant belligerence cloaked by religious piety, her parents said.

Both Ashleigh and members of the Byers family started calling them unfit parents, John Stroich said.

When the Stroiches made plans for a family vacation that summer, Ashleigh wanted nothing to do with it. Her heart was set on spending a week in August at a religious camp with the Byers family and other church members. Her parents relented but made it clear they expected to have family time with their daughter.

At camp, the Stroich and Byers families clashed about whether Ashleigh would go to college, why she talked so much about her spiritual family and how they lost their parental authority.

An angry John Stroich then declared the courtship over, packed up his family and left.

For the next three months, there was little contact between the couples and their children. Ashleigh was upset at first, but her father said their lives returned to normal. Ashleigh was affectionate again. There was dinner conversation again.

That changed, however, in a matter of weeks, according to her parents. They say Ashleigh started fasting and withdrawing from them physically and emotionally.

On Nov. 30, 2004, Ashleigh moved out to spend more time with her "spiritual family." She left a note saying she won't talk to her parents until they repent to Byers.

Different mindsets

The pastor refutes allegations that he snowed the Stroiches. He calls them liars.

"The one thing he doesn't take into account is that his daughter loves my son," the pastor said. "We don't live in India, where the father chooses the spouse."

Byers said he did try to put the brakes on the courtship by ordering a three-month cooling period for their children after the confrontations at the church's summer camp. He told Justin not to contact Ashleigh and use the time to ponder his future.

At the end of the three months, the pastor said, the young couple loved each other even more.

John Stroich reels at the minister's interpretation of events. He said when he gave Ashleigh permission to be courted, he wasn't giving his approval for marriage.

Byers said the Stroiches were the ones pushing Ashleigh to attend college against her wishes to keep her from his son. She is making her own choices now, he said.

Ashleigh's view

Ashleigh Stroich said she is disappointed.

"When I said they need to submit to a spiritual authority, I didn't mean Brother Mark, although he is mine," she said. "If they're committed to the religion, they need to be under a pastor. They never learned submission, yet they expect it out of me."

Ashleigh said the Byers family didn't coerce her into changing schools. She wanted to switch because Bethesda teachers assigned too much homework.

Ashleigh said she is content with the decisions she has made. She switched schools again from Rochester Christian to Niles Continuing Education Center and will receive her high school diploma in June. She plans to enter a program for dental hygienists and some day - she won't say when - marry Justin and have a family.

The Stroiches said they love Ashleigh unconditionally and will continue to call for Byers' removal from the pulpit and the radio waves.

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