Broken faith, severed lives

Note: This church is independent and not affiliated with the Church of God congregations.


The Hamilton Spectator/July 23, 2001
By Peter Zimonjic

A changed church: Pauletta Willis grew up in the Church of God, travelling the world on evangelical missions that preached a good Christian life filled with love. But things changed, and church leader Danny Layne began wielding an ever tighter grip on his flock, telling them what to wear, who to marry and where to work, she says.

Pauletta Willis has been told she can never speak to her parents again. Two of her brothers have signed a letter excommunicating her from the church she knew most of her life. They say she has been delivered into the hands of Satan. But the crimes that brought this wrath down upon her were neither heinous nor evil by the standards of most.

She is being condemned for wanting to date her husband before marriage, for wanting to become a nurse and for helping others like her flee the fundamentalist Church of God that rules its congregation with an iron fist.

Although some of her family has disowned her, including her parents, Pauletta has other siblings who don't treat her life choices so harshly. Her mother gave birth to 13 children, and only bothers Ray and Jerry Tinsman remain in the church. Most of her family still speaks to her; they still call her sister.

Losing contact with her parents and brothers, she says, was a small price to pay for having the courage to step out of what she believes is a cult that was ruining her life.

Born and raised in the rural community of Farmland, Ind., near the Ohio border, Pauletta's parents joined the Church of God when she was only a child. At first, her life didn't change much. She prayed for the souls of the world, she sang in the choir and she learned the psalms. But as she grew older the church's California-based leader, Daniel Layne, slowly changed from preacher to dictator, she says. Inch by inch, Layne took control of every facet of her congregation's lives. He would go on to demand his flock dress, think, act, associate, marry and spend according to his word -- the word of God.

Layne was impressed with Ray and at age 15 Tinsman was preaching to the congregation. Ten years later, he is second only to Layne in the church's hierarchy. Layne's word , is feared as though it was the word of God.

He took his gospel across the U.S. and to Germany, Mexico, British Columbia, Manitoba and Aylmer, Ont. His church grew from the tiny congregation Layne started in 1988 in Oklahoma to nearly a dozen churches worldwide.

On July 4, seven children from a family in his Aylmer congregation were taken into custody by the children's aid society over allegations their parents were spanking them with whips and other objects.

When a second family in the church was investigated, Aylmer minister and former Hamilton resident Henry Hildebrandt worked with Ray Tinsman's church in Dayton, Ohio, to ship about 75 children and their mothers south. Ray, his father Jerry Sr. and preacher Jerry Jr. are hiding families in their rural Farmland homes.

You can't swing a Bible in Farmland without hitting a church or a Tinsman. They own the local businesses, they populate the houses and their roots sink deep into the fertile ground.

When the children fled, Ray, Jerry and Layne came out to say corporal punishment is a part of their religious practice, is used only for discipline, and never extends to abuse.

But while Ray preaches for the religious freedom of the families he is hosting, his younger sister, Pauletta, has a very different tale to tell about the Church of God and its teachings.

She recalls a childhood where she would be whipped with a belt until her skin would split and her flesh would welt. Her friend, she says, was once beaten with a two-by-four.

"My parents joined the church when I was eight years old," she says from her new home in Farmland. "In the beginning it was lots of fun. We travelled all over the U.S., the Cayman Islands, Mexico, the Philippines and Canada."

Pauletta says the families selected for the evangelical missions would be responsible for the costs. "In those early days, it was enjoyable. The church wasn't fault-finding and we were taught to lead a good Christian life, to love Jesus and to feel guiltless. But that changed.

"It didn't happen overnight, but as time went on it got to a place where the ministers would tell you what you could and couldn't do.

"First the women had to wear skirts, no pants were allowed, then the skirts had to have pleats. Then women had to wear the same style vests over their dresses. Then the children all had to dress the same. Soon men had to wear long pants and sleeves, with no tie and the shirt buttoned up to the collar -- even our underwear had to be the same."

Pauletta says anyone who objected to the dress code was warned that to challenge the word of Layne was to challenge the word of God.

"I started working in a health food store and Danny found out about it somehow. He called me from California and told me I was out of order, that I should have consulted the ministry for permission first. He liked to be in control of everything."

When Pauletta's older sister, Rhoda, turned 17 Layne gave her permission to marry Carl Rabel. Layne had to approve all marriages and no courtship was allowed beforehand.

Rhoda and Carl moved back to Carl's church in Chilliwack, B.C., and within a month she was pregnant. When it came time to deliver the child, Rhoda did so at home, but with fatal results. The Church of God believes medicine and doctors are Satan's work and Rhoda was encouraged to give birth without a nurse, without painkillers, without a hope, although her mother was present.

Her labour lasted for two days; she lay screaming in pain for most of it. No one called a doctor, no one called a nurse, prayer was Rhoda's only medicine. Her son came into the world in November 1992, a matter of minutes before she left it.

Rabel brought Rhoda's son to Aylmer, remarried and had three more children. When the families in Hildebrandt's congregation fled from Aylmer, Rhoda's boy was among them.

"Rhoda was beautiful," says Pauletta, showing the first signs of sadness in her otherwise joyful face. "She would never hurt a living soul, everyone came before her." Despite their daughter's death, Pauletta's parents remained in the church and Layne's grip on his flock grew stronger.

"He tells the women they have been chosen," says Pauletta. "He is such a smooth talker and he knows how to take the scriptures and twist them to his advantage. He hooks the wives and the husbands have little choice but to follow. It has broken up marriages --my sister's marriage is horrible.

"The icing on the cake for me came when I was 18. I had arranged to spend a night over at a friend's home and then go shopping the next morning. Somehow Danny Layne found out about it and called from California again. He told me he wasn't pleased. He said I didn't have permission and should have asked the ministry first. I thought to myself 'things have gotten ridiculous.' I read and I read but I couldn't find a basis for these rules in the Bible.

"Finally a police officer friend in Farmland took me aside and told me I had to take charge of my life, that I was living in a cult and it had to stop.

"He really opened my eyes. Because I was raised in the church I didn't know there were any other ways to live. The church told us people outside the congregation were evil and were dammed to hell. I was frightened of so many people in society because I was told they were akin with Satan."

On a rain-soaked summer evening in 1998, Pauletta walked out the doors of her parents' home in Farmland with everything she owned. She got into her car, turned the stereo on full blast, literally let her hair down and drove 50 kilometres west to a Muncie hospital. When asked the date, she spits out "July 24!" like it was her birthday.

At the hospital, she would start her first night as a nursing assistant. Despite being home-schooled for most of her life, as demanded by the church, Pauletta worked hard, passed her college entrance exams and went on to become a registered nurse.

She attributes her success at school in part to her mother's high quality home schooling.

When Pauletta left the church, her brother Ray refused to speak to her until she repented and came back. Her parents also kept their distance but communication lines, although fractured, were still open. This changed dramatically when Pauletta helped a teenage congregation member flee the church by offering to shelter her in her house this year.

For Layne and Ray, this was the ultimate insult. In their eyes she was now a rebel chipping away at the church.

On April 7, 2001 Layne, Ray and Jerry Tinsman, and two other preachers from the church drafted a scornful and vindictive excommunication letter.

Ray read the letter from the pulpit of Pauletta's former church in Huber Heights outside Dayton.

"We deliver you to Satan for the destruction of your flesh, that you might learn not to blaspheme the Lord," the letter read. "We excommunicate you from any spiritual or social contact with the saints whatsoever. This includes all services of the church such as weddings, funerals, etc. As well as contact with family members who are with the body of the saints.

"We reject you as you have rejected us. We will not eat with you. We will not receive you into our homes. This sentence of excommunication or banning from the church will last until you are dead. Any among us who do not fully comply with and obey this ban against you will come under the same fate until they repent."

The scorching words from Ray's mouth rained down like fire and brimstone on the heart of Anthony Tinsman, Pauletta's 17-year-old brother who sat in the pews. But for Anthony, forbidding him to ever see his sister again was the final straw. He loves his sister very much and three weeks later, he left the church. He moved in with Pauletta, a stone's throw from Ray's house in Farmland.

Their parents remain in the church, Anthony works for his father still but the Tinsman family is deeply divided.

"Danny Layne has forbidden my parents to have any contact with me. If I see them in town they look the other way or cross the street to avoid me. They will have nothing to do with me.

"My dad is an intelligent man. His company employs about 30 people from the church. I just can't believe he has allowed the ministry to do this to him. But I guess they feel the church is their only way into heaven and they really want to get there bad enough.

"It's heartbreaking, we were so close when I was young but if my family want to be that way I don't want to see them."

Although the order of excommunication forbids Pauletta from attending any church functions, she says if one of her parents dies she will make it to the funeral if she has to get a police escort.

At 22, the Church of God has forever changed Pauletta's life. But through the emotional and spiritual torture she has retained her warmth and innocent beauty. Throughout our interview her husband, Daniel, calls several times from work. He is a railway engineer on a freight train on his way to Cincinnati.

As she recounts her life story from the rocking chair in her living room, her baby boy Justin sleeps on her chest, his tiny hands caught up in her blond hair.

Her bright eyes are full of enthusiasm for the freedom she now enjoys. Her courtship and marriage to her husband, her profession and her new family are her successes -- and the church's blasphemy. Despite all the bad blood she holds no ill will towards the members of her family who remain in the church and she prays for their souls.

"Little by little people are starting to realize what this ministry is doing.

"There's still good people in that church but they are frightened, scared they will not go to heaven, scared their families will be torn apart if they leave, scared of everything."

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