Heaven or Hell?

While seeking heaven in Des Moines, many have found only a spiritual hell.

Cityview - Des Moines/February 28, 2001
By Tim Schmitt

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. 1 John 3:7

If you want to go to heaven, you'll first have to move to Des Moines, Iowa.

Wanda Mason says she first heard this in 1975 when, while visiting her sister, she attended the Gospel Assembly Church in Des Moines. She had been living in Fort Worth, Texas, until then, but believed the man who gave her this message and would soon move her family to Iowa.

She came hoping to reach heaven, but what she experienced in Des Moines was closer to hell.

Wanda came to worship under Lloyd Goodwin, the charismatic and well-loved pastor of the Des Moines Gospel Assembly Church now located at 7135 Meredith Dr. in Urbandale. She says he told her his was the only true church, that he was the anointed man of God. And she believed him.

Her sister, Sharon Netzer, had moved to Des Moines from Oklahoma about six months earlier to worship under Goodwin.

"We started praying for our family to be led there," says Netzer. "We were taught that this was the only way to God. I was really happy there and wanted my family to feel what I felt."

In her brief visit to the church, Mason was so moved by Lloyd Goodwin and his message that she agreed to leave her home, and her family if necessary, to be in the presence of this man.

"I remember him telling me, 'You go home and pack, and if God don't touch your husband's heart, you come anyway,'" recalls Wanda.

Her husband came along to try to save his marriage.

"That's why a lot of people came here," she says.

Among those is her current husband, Robert Mason. Robert was also living and worshipping in Texas with his then wife and their two children when Lloyd Goodwin spoke to his congregation. Soon after, at least four families, including Robert's, had moved to Des Moines.

"He told us, 'The only way you're going to be saved is to move to Des Moines,'" says Robert.

Robert was skeptical, but was willing to move for his family.

"That's why I moved up here," says Robert. "When he made that statement to me I knew what he was, but I came to save my marriage."

Dozens of people tell similar stories of coming here to worship under Lloyd Goodwin, a man they once believed was hand picked by God to personally lead them to heaven.

"Lloyd Goodwin said he was called out as the anointed one for the end time," recalls Robert. "I remember him saying, 'You might think the greatest day of your life was when you met the Lord, when you were saved. I'm here to tell you that the greatest day you'll have is when you met me, the Man of God, because I'll be the one who takes you there.'"

Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name claiming, 'I am he,' and will deceive many. Mark 13:5,6

Lloyd Goodwin died suddenly in church in 1996, but those who worshipped under the man say little if anything has changed since his death. Even now, they say, Lloyd Goodwin is considered an apostle. His practices of control and deception continue, and the church's current leaders refuse to acknowledge or even consider any allegations made against the church.

The Gospel Assembly Church has been in Des Moines since 1938, according to Glenn Goodwin, Lloyd's nephew and the current pastor of the church. The early version was part of a larger movement started in the 1930s by William Sowders, a pastor from Kentucky.

The church's teachings are based in the Pentecostal tradition that includes speaking in tongues and the casting out of demons.

Tom Jolley, a pastor from St. Louis, sent Lloyd Goodwin to Des Moines in the early '60s to head the local church. Goodwin broke fellowship with Jolley in 1963 and later split from most other Gospel Assembly churches in 1972.

It was after the last split that former members say Goodwin began touting himself as a holy man with the keys to heaven. At first, only a few churches followed Lloyd. But his ministry grew quickly. The local congregation swelled at one time to about 400 members, and Lloyd established churches across the country and as far away as Kenya.

After his death, the ministry was passed to his brother, Vernon. When Vernon died a year and a half later, the pastor's job went to his son, Glenn, who until then had acted as the church attorney.

Glenn Goodwin says there are 100 churches in 30 countries in fellowship with the Des Moines church and he denies that the Gospel Assembly Church is anything but legitimate.

"It is not a cult," he says. "We are a group of sincere Christians who are trying our best to serve the Lord as best we can.

"We don't have any messiah figure other than Jesus Christ. We don't have any private revelation other than the Bible. We don't force laws or rules against anybody that are separate from the laws of society."

But dozens of people who've left the church over the last 20 years claim otherwise.

They charge that under Lloyd Goodwin's leadership, women and underage girls were sexually assaulted. They claim they were pressured into giving large amounts of money to the church and directly to the Goodwin family. And they say the church is a family-run dictatorial cult that has destroyed families and the spiritual well being of many of its members.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. 2 Corinthians 13:5

Webster's dictionary defines a cult as "a quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices, or beliefs."

Countless other definitions exist, some which would include the Catholic Church, the Girl Scouts and Amway among the most dangerous. The definition depends largely on who is doing the defining.

Bill Reisman knows the difficulty of identifying cults. As a pastor in Acton, Mass., in the early '80s, Reisman witnessed the beginning of the International Church of Christ, a Bible-based group widely considered a cult because of it's controlling doctrine and recruitment efforts.

Reisman studied theology at Harvard Divinity School and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and spent more than two decades studying cult and occult groups. He has traveled the country speaking about these groups for 15 years.

"I can't define a cult," he says. "I can't do it. One man's cult is another man's religion."

Many churches that are considered cults are merely dedicated and zealous organizations, says Reisman. Some might argue that these are refreshing alternatives to the more do-what-you-will mainstream religions.

Reisman has no personal knowledge of the Gospel Assembly Church, but speaks in general about the signs of a destructive cult.

"What makes a cult so powerful is there is so much trust in them," he says. "The teachings of a cult are often the beliefs of a leader. It's usually a matter of opinion, but they make it a matter of faith."

But, he says, 10 church leaders may interpret the same Bible verse 10 different ways and each is likely to believe they are correct. That's why it is vital that a member of any group be allowed to question doctrine put forth as fact.

"When a leader starts requiring something that goes beyond the authority of the Bible, that's problematic," he says. "That's why it's important for Christians to know the Bible."

There are two types of cults, he says. Some are not necessarily dangerous but are theologically heretical. Others are more advanced and dangerous because of the leadership, the teachings and increased isolation from family, friends and community.

"A cult group might have none of that Jim Jones scary type of stuff," he says. "But whether you're talking about Jim Jones or David Koresh, they never set out to be dangerous groups. The real danger is where are these groups going to be in five years? I wish someone had written about David Koresh five years before the standoff at Waco."

For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction - because he is the messenger to the Lord Almighty. Malachi 2:7

While many claim the Gospel Assembly Church is a destructive cult, even more are content to worship there and at affiliated churches around the world.

One of these is Genny Karl. Karl moved to Des Moines from Phoenix to join the church after hearing Lloyd Goodwin speak.

"This is what I looked for my entire life," says Karl. "I know what to expect here, I know what to do."

Karl remains active in the church and knew Lloyd Goodwin for many years. She says the allegations of corruption and sexual abuse are unfounded.

"I knew Reverend Goodwin and worked under him for 19 years," she says. "I saw nothing, and I'm sure I would have seen something. It was a shock to me when I heard those things. He would not have stood for that. Rev. Goodwin would have gone to the authorities himself."

But a former elder of the church does not believe that to be true.

Gary King quotes chapter and verse of the Bible with ease and confidence. Two Bibles, the pages ragged and thin from hours of use, are within arms' reach at all times.

Much of King's Biblical knowledge comes from his 17 years in the Gospel Assembly in Des Moines, where he rose to become the second in command. As an elder, he often spoke from the pulpit and defended the church from criticism. When Vernon Goodwin died, the pastor position was to become his, but a last minute change gave the job to Vernon's son, Glenn.

King says that despite his position of authority and leadership, he was not aware of what was truly happening in the church until shortly before he left.

"These guys are masters of manipulation and they use the inherent fear within man," says King. "They're masters of mind control.

"We were taught that the gossips were cursed by God," he says. "But the truth is not gossip." Yet for years he disregarded as gossip anything negative spoken about the church or its leaders. This, he says, was part of the mind control.

"I was supposed to be close to them and I didn't know about anything," he says.

But Karl stands by her statement.

"I was at church every day cleaning and there's no way I could not have known. Even if something happened, and I don't think it did, what could we do about it now?

"There's nothing different here now."

Which, says King, is exactly the problem.

Christ Jesus came in to the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst. 1 Timothy 1:15

Looking back at the experience, King says he did many things he is not proud of.

King says he edited out of sermon tape recordings any statements made by Lloyd Goodwin that may have caused the church legal problems. He turned a blind eye to an affair between Lloyd Goodwin and a teenage girl. And he says he lied to IRS agents who were investigating church finances. King says doing this was in line with church doctrine and was condoned and approved by Glenn Goodwin, the church's attorney.

"We were in Glenn Goodwin's office and he sat at my right hand," he says. "I was instructed what to say."

Glenn Goodwin denies that anyone was encouraged to lie during the investigation. But King says church doctrine includes the practice of righteous deception - lying to protect the interests of the church.

"We knew what we were doing," says King. "I don't care what he says, we were using deception. That's the teaching. We used deception and misleading tactics."

Says Glenn: "One of our cardinal teachings is that it's a sin to lie under oath. I was told last year that someone was saying we advocate lying under oath and that is an absolute falsehood."

But he admits that church doctrine does allow for righteous deception.

"I can see how somebody might disagree with that as a doctrinal position," he says, but adds the doctrine does not apply to speaking with the press.

"(Righteous deception) does not deal with lying to reporters," says Goodwin. "I am willing to take an oath before you. I am an attorney and I have certain ethical obligations. I don't know what else to say. I have told you the truth today. There's not one thing I've said today that I lied about."

Another piece of doctrine that King now questions is the church's Biblical defense of bribery. The church handbook states that it is wrong to take a bribe, but that in doing the work of the Lord it is acceptable to grease the palms of corrupt officials.

Goodwin admits that this is a belief of the church, but adds that it has only been used in other countries.

"In certain third-world nations we have had difficulty getting churches built," he says. "There are nations in Africa where we can not get permission to buy a piece of land or to build a church building without lining somebody's pocket. It's a corrupt governmental system, and 20 years ago or so we had a real issue with this. Is it wrong to line somebody's pocket in order to have a place where we can worship in Bali or in Uganda?

"The question is, is this a sin? We took a doctrinal position and that was the first time we did that. We have churches now and church buildings where people can gather in third world nations that we wouldn't have had."

Would bribing officials in the United States be defensible?

"It's not been necessary," says Goodwin.

In addition to doctrine that King believes is legally questionable, he says the moral example set in the church should never have been held in high esteem.

King says he was taught not to listen to any rumors and to trust in the "Man of God" to deal with all problems. He recalls once pulling a church member off his wife whom he was beating in the street. Lloyd Goodwin, he says, told him he'd take care of it and not to say a word about it to anyone. Though nothing appeared to have come of it, he left it alone.

After Lloyd's death, King began to hear stories from people who questioned practices in the church. Once Lloyd was gone, it seemed many people began to speak up.

King learned from another member of a boy allegedly fathered out of wedlock by Lee Ray, another pastor in the church. He learned of sexual assault and rape allegations against Ray and Lloyd Goodwin in both the church and school.

Detective Terry Dippold of the Urbandale Police Department says he was approached by former members of the church with stories of sexual abuse. But because much of the information was second-hand or would have passed the statute of limitations, no investigation was undertaken.

"If anybody would have come to me in those years and told me that that kind of thing had happened, I would have encouraged them. I would have advised them to go to the proper authorities," says Glenn Goodwin. "Obviously as a church, we do not believe in, we do not condone child abuse in any manner. That is immoral, that is reprehensible conduct."

But King says the church taught never to question leaders and that's likely the reason no one came forward.

"I was taught if a person has problems with the church, they were on their way out," recalls King.

When he began asking questions of Glenn Goodwin about the sins of the past, he says he was forced to leave the church.

"What we're dealing with are people who refuse to repent," he says. "I loved those men. I was there when Vernon drew his last breath and stood with Glenn, but it was a one way street."

When Glenn Goodwin ignored the allegations, King says he had to leave. "I said, 'I can no longer stand with you.' They said I was bitter because I never got the church. When I found all this stuff out, the first thing I did was call people and apologize."

Many of the former members say an apology is all they really want from the church, but they've yet to receive one.

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Hebrews 3:12

"All I ever really wanted was for Glenn Goodwin to say some things were done wrong," says Mike Davis, a former church member who also graduated from the church school. "They'll never admit they're wrong, they're always right. It's them against the world - a cult mentality."

Davis left the church because he felt he'd been led astray, but he was not bitter about the experience and did not often think about it. When a good friend told him in 1999 that she had been sexually assaulted as a teenager in the school, the feelings returned.

He'd heard the stories from former members and, using his prowess at Web page design, created an online forum for these stories to be shared.

At his Web site, www.gospelassembly.com, dozens of former members have posted tales of their experiences.

The stories are often similar. Some speak of sexual abuse, some of more subtle emotional and spiritual suffering. Most claim conflicting emotions to this day. The church was a safe haven, a place where they felt secure and loved. They believed they were among the chosen few who would someday make it to heaven. These feelings have been hard to shake, even though they now believe the church is a destructive cult.

Davis does not want to appear obsessed with the church. He says he spends very little time maintaining the site and has moved on with his life and put the experience behind him.

But the response has been overwhelming. Since it went live in November of 1999, more than 42,000 unique users have visited his site.

Dozens of former members post on the message boards daily and he's posted excerpts from church literature, sound bites of sermons and legal documents given to him by these members who want the truth to be known.

The sound bites include Lloyd Goodwin speaking about the importance of having followers as loyal as Hitler's. Describing a face-to-face meeting with Jesus Christ and detailing the clothes Jesus was wearing. Others are conversations allegedly held between Lloyd Goodwin and the young woman with whom he was said to have an affair.

Sharon Netzer's story is posted here. She details how she came to the church and was overjoyed by the experience in the first few months. She prayed for her family to come to Des Moines and was thrilled when her sister, Wanda Mason, did so.

Netzer says she left the church after months of sexual advances by Lloyd Goodwin. When she told her family about this and left, Wanda remained behind and refused to speak with her for at least two years. Wanda says she did this under the direction of Lloyd Goodwin.

Elsewhere on the Web site are legal documents from the lawsuit with the IRS that found that "Love Offerings" to Lloyd Goodwin were illegally hidden from the agency.

Like many who've posted their stories, Davis says he was drawn to the church because he was taught that all of life's answers were to be found there and there alone.

"What you've got is somebody who says they've got all the answers and that's pretty appealing," he says. "Who wants to wake up in the morning and not know all the answers?"

The appeal was so strong that even when he left the state for a few years, he knew he'd come back.

"I still had the mindset that I would have to go back," he says. "Once you get used to that dogma, you're stuck with it."

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as Disciples of Christ. 2 Corinthians 11:13

The Gospel Assembly Church has faced allegations of cult-like activity in the past. In 1993, the church placed a six-page ad in The Des Moines Register to counter the charges.

Early last year, Steve Buttry, The Register's religion reporter, spent weeks working on a story which detailed the allegations of sexual abuse and tax fraud in the church. Buttry accepted a job at the Omaha World Herald and though the story was complete, it never ran.

Buttry says the story was set to go for weeks before he left and does not know why it never ran.

"This story should be told, and I'm sorry The Register decided not to tell it," says Buttry.

Glenn Goodwin says he was not aware of these charges until last year and does not understand why allegations of past misconduct have brought the church under scrutiny.

"It amazes me that many of the complaints go back many, many years," he says. "To me it's a history matter and not current news."

Has anything changed since then?

"The doctrinal position of the church is the same as it has been.

"What I want to make clear is that we sincerely try to serve the Lord to the best of our ability," says Glenn Goodwin. "We are a bona fide association of churches. I'm sorry that these people don't feel that they can walk the way we walk. If we're wrong, the Lord can deal with that.

"If this is of God, leave it alone. If it's not of God it will come to nothing. I feel like that's wisdom. If what we're doing is right, don't fight it. If it is wrong, leave it alone. It will fall."

But Robert and Wanda Mason say the scars run too deep for them to simply leave it alone. Wanda says she was so controlled by the church that she returned to worship there even after she accepted the truth of her sister's sexual harassment allegations. She says her first marriage failed because of the church and she's lost contact with a brother who is still involved.

Robert also blames the church for the failure of his first marriage. The Masons say the only positive things they found in the church are each other.

"That's the one good thing that's come out of this," says Wanda. "We love each other and have a good Christian marriage."

Both Robert and Wanda have reconciled their differences and are friends with their ex-partners, who have also since left the church. But they continue to speak out about the church in the hopes of reaching more people.

"We're not trying to bring down any church," says Wanda. "We're just speaking about what we know. I'm not just reaching out to those who have left, but those who are still involved."

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