Hell or a godsend: women tell their stories

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on March 18, 2008 by hillsongchurch

March 18, 2008

MORE young women who say they were damaged by their time in Mercy Ministries have come forward to tell their stories, as further details emerge of the fundamentalist group’s questionable practices.

“I have been in the program, too: once in Sydney … and the other time at the Sunshine Coast home, where they kicked me out when they caught me trying to hang myself, [saying] I was a risk to their program,” Melissa, 24, said yesterday.

“Their methods are harsh. You get separated from the entire non-Christian world: no TV, no newspapers and just three, 15-minute phone calls home a week.”

Melissa, who did not want her last name revealed, said she, too, began to harm herself in Mercy Ministries. Since she was kicked out in 2005, she has sought professional care for depression, bulimia and drug addiction.

“I went to another place, one that treated me like an adult and helped prepare me to cope in the real world,” she said.

“I saw a lot of girls come and go from Mercy Ministries during my time there – many were in very extreme situations.”

Another woman – a 24-year-old from Castle Hill who did not want to be identified – entered the Sunshine Coast house in December 2004, after she developed bipolar disorder and tried to kill herself. “Until this morning I thought I was the only one to have been through this – now I know there are others,” she said last night.

She described “eight very long months of sheer hell” in which she was prevented from using prescription medication to help her sleep, triggering debilitating migraines. The staff refused to let her have even the most basic painkillers to cope with the symptoms. “These are only some of the times I was denied medical and psychological help. There are many more,” she said.

The Herald invited the former managing director of Mercy Ministries, Peter Irvine, now its sponsorship manager, to give contact details of young women who had successfully graduated from its program. No response had been received last night.

But one graduate wrote to the Herald about her positive experience in the ministry’s Sydney house: “I graduated four years ago from the Sydney home after having previously being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and borderline personality disorder. Before I entered the program, my life was in danger – being in Mercy completely changed that around.”

Since graduating, she had completed a degree, was part way through her honours year and has been accepted into a doctorate program, she wrote, because of the lessons she learned in Mercy Ministries.

Ruth Pollard

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/03/17/1205602341994.html

The business of giving Mercy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on March 18, 2008 by hillsongchurch

March 18, 2008

DEEPLY felt ties bind Mercy Ministries, Gloria Jean’s and the Hillsong Church, connected through a complicated chain of directors and former directors – as well as donations.

As they deal with allegations, revealed in the Herald yesterday, of inappropriate treatment of residents in Mercy Ministries’ Sydney and Sunshine Coast houses, they insist the organisations are completely unrelated, despite sharing common board members and directors.

“Hillsong do not own or run Mercy Ministries … Hillsong are a financial supporter, as are many churches in Sydney and around the country,” said Peter Irvine, who until recently was both the managing director of Gloria Jean’s Coffees and a director of Mercy Ministries.

Mr Irvine is still on the board of Mercy Ministries and is responsible for its corporate sponsorship, and told the Herald he had taken a back seat at Gloria Jean’s Coffees, although he is still a board member and shareholder.

He said there was no conflict of interest in holding the two roles, saying he had focused for the past year on publishing a book and consulting businesses on franchising rather than any day-to-day running of Gloria Jean’s.

Mercy Ministries’ accounts were audited each year, Mr Irvine said. However, it produced no annual reports and would not publicly release any financial information.

A copy of its financial statements and reports submitted to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission last October indicate it had income of $1.365 million in 2006, yet it is unclear how much of this includes transfers of Centrelink payments by the young women who seek out Mercy’s help.

As to the women’s allegations, Mr Irvine said: “In any program you will always get a few that are disenchanted because they do not get their way and then criticise everything.

“The girls are not forced to come into the program … our people go out of their way to explain and prepare them.”

Two former directors of Mercy Ministries, Mark and Darlene Zschech, who brought the program to Australia from the US in 2001, have also been associate directors of the Hillsong Church’s annual conference.

Darlene, described as “one of the key worship leaders at Hillsong Church”, and her husband no longer appear to have any connection to Mercy Ministries.

Mercy Ministries’ accountant, Stephen Crouch, is married to another organiser of the Hillsong conference, Pastor Donna Crouch.

The Hillsong Foundation, the church’s charitable arm, supports Mercy Ministries to deliver the programs.

Gloria Jean’s Coffees supports Mercy Ministries through corporate donations and fund-raising activities that include cash donation boxes in stores and an annual fund-raising weekend, “Cappuccino for a Cause”, where 50 cents from each cappuccino sold goes to Mercy Ministries, a spokeswoman said.

However, information on how much financial support Gloria Jean’s contributes to the ministry, support that has continued since 2003, was unavailable, she said.

And despite the swag of allegations over the Mercy Ministries program – including claims that young women with mental illnesses had been forbidden from gaining access to medical or psychiatric care unsupervised, or from doctors independent of the program, and claims of the use of exorcisms to treat health problems – the spokeswoman said Gloria Jean’s would not be reviewing its sponsorship arrangements.

The Catholic Sisters of Mercy, who have long been involved in health care, education and social welfare programs throughout the country, have stressed that they have no connection with Mercy Ministries.

“All Sisters of Mercy in Australia wish to make clear to their co-workers, family members, friends and associates, current or potential benefactors and any other interested persons, that they have no relationship whatsoever with Mercy Ministries Inc,” a spokeswoman said.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/03/17/1205602341996.html

Corporates move quickly to cut ties

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on March 18, 2008 by hillsongchurch

Ruth Pollard
March 18, 2008

Advertisement

SEVERAL businesses that Mercy Ministries claimed as official corporate sponsors are deserting the organisation, alarmed by the allegations of mistreatment and keen to distance themselves from the controversy.

Rebel Sport had asked Mercy Ministries to immediately remove the Rebel Sport logo and any reference to an association between the two organisations from their website, said Kristian Haigh, the company’s national partnership manager.

“Rebel Sport has no ongoing sponsorship commitment to Mercy Ministries in either cash or in kind,” Mr Haigh said yesterday. “We have been in contact with Mercy Ministries directly regarding our indicated ‘sponsorship’ and are awaiting an official reply.”

Bunnings Warehouse was another business listed on the website as a corporate sponsor.

“Bunnings has no ongoing arrangements of any nature with Mercy Ministries,” a Bunnings spokeswoman said.

The electronics and whitegoods company LG said there was “no formal agreement or longstanding relationship between the two groups”.

“LG Electronics Australia has only donated products to Mercy Ministries, and each request has been assessed case by case. The approximate value of the product donated is less than $4000,” a spokeswoman said.

LG would “review its relationship with any company that was operating in a questionable manner”, she said.

Gloria Jean’s Coffees said it had no plans to change its sponsorship arrangements with Mercy Ministries, despite the allegations.

Other corporate sponsors that had been listed on the Mercy Ministries website included the Sydney Kings, the Balmain Tigers and Australian Opal Cutters.

However, references to specific corporate sponsors appeared to have been removed from the website yesterday.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/03/17/1205602341992.html

Ethics, financial probity for review

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on March 18, 2008 by hillsongchurch

Ruth Pollard
March 18, 2008

FORCING sick, vulnerable patients to see a doctor in the presence of an unrelated third party was both dangerous and potentially unethical, the Australian Medical Association warned yesterday.

Young women who entered Mercy Ministries’ residential care program were required, as per the organisation’s policy, to see a doctor in the presence of a ministry staff member or volunteer, it was revealed yesterday.

“I wasn’t allowed to talk to the doctor by myself; they had a staff member or volunteer with us at all times, and the doctor never mentioned my anxiety or the other conditions I was suffering,” said Megan Smith*. She was in the organisation’s Sunshine Coast house for three months because of anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and other mental health problems.

“The staff used to bring our folder, which I guess contained our medical records, but the doctor would just flip through it and we were in and out in five minutes,” she said.

The executive manager of programs at Mercy Ministries, Judy Watson, confirmed that all doctors’ visits were monitored.

“Monitoring of a general practitioner visit is to assist with accurate medical information relayed and received for the benefit of the resident in their ongoing care whilst at Mercy Ministries,” she said.

But the AMA’s president and chairwoman of its ethics committee, Rosanna Capolingua, said patients must be able to talk freely to their doctor about how they are feeling, without the potential influence of a third party.

“It may be that the patient is under some kind of … duress or coercion to have that person accompany them,” she said.

Without the ability to disclose that, their doctor might be none the wiser. “It would be very difficult for the doctor to determine whether the patient is freely requesting that the person be in the room with them.”

And even if the doctor did ask the patient whether they had consented, the patient may not be able to answer.

“They are already vulnerable, they are coming in potentially under duress and they have another layer of fear on board … they might not have the courage to answer.”

Such is the wider concern that Dr Capolingua has referred the matter to the AMA’s federal ethics committee for consideration, aiming to advise doctors how to manage the situation.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the transfer of Centrelink benefits to Mercy Ministries is under way, after allegations that young women were signing over their benefits, but also encouraged to go onto a disability support pension so the organisation could collect carers’ payments as well.

The Minister for Human Services, Joe Ludwig, has asked Centrelink to investigate the allegations and report on its pay arrangements with Mercy Ministries.

* Name has been changed to protect her identity.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/03/17/1205602342005.html

Cult-rescue group ‘concerned about’ Mercy Ministries

Posted in Uncategorized on March 18, 2008 by hillsongchurch

Barney Zwartz
March 18, 2008 – 1:19PM

Anxious parents, friends and relatives of young women involved with Mercy Ministries have kept the phones busy at a Melbourne-based international cult-rescue organisation.

Raphael Aron, director of Cult Counselling Australia, said Mercy Ministries was not a traditional guru or disciple cult but its exploitation of vulnerable people put it in the cult spectrum.

Mercy Ministries is an American-style fundamentalist Christian group treating young women for drug addiction and pyschological disorders using prayer, exorcisms and Pentecostal religion.

Yesterday it was revealed that some residents have their Centrelink benefits paid directly to the organisation, which has links with HillSong, Australia’s biggest church. Mercy Ministries yesterday said the report contained inaccuracies.

The group has facilities in Sydney and the Sunshine Coast, but has said it plans to expand into Melbourne.

“We’ve known about this organisation and been concerned about it for quite some time,” Dr Aron said.

“My experience of these groups is that they are well meaning but totally misguided. They take away the women’s opportunities and give false hope, then the women find they hit a brick wall and have nothing.”

He said that quite apart from the religious elements, such as exorcisms and speaking in tongues, Mercy Ministries was medically inadequate, lacked medical professionals and was not accredited.

Dr Aron said that when such groups were made public there would be a rush of inquiries, and some would lead to his organisation working with families.

Mercy Ministries Australia director Peter Irvine said the organisation received overwhelming positive feedback from graduates, their families and the community.

He said it was founded in 2000 as a Christian-based charity offering a free six-month residential program.

“We provide a holistic, client-focused approach addressing physical, emotional and spiritual needs,” Mr Irvine said in a statement.

He said the group was funded mostly through donations and sponsorships, and worked closely with Centrelink. “Where a young woman is eligible for Centrelink benefits this amount goes a small way towards providing 24-hour care seven days a week.”

Mr Irvine said residents knew the program details before they joined and could leave at any time.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/03/18/1205602343838.html

The High Cost of Faith

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on February 19, 2008 by hillsongchurch

The High Cost of Faith

News Limited, Australia/April 29, 2006
By Jennifer Sexton

As crowds – and their cash – flood into Hillsong Church, former members tell Jennifer Sexton about the heavy price they paid for leaving the flock.

Whoa! I wanna know you, I wanna know you today.” With that catchy lyric, the lead singer rips into a punky-pop riff on his electric guitar as the band and side-stage choir spring to life. Over a sea of raised arms, five cameras capture the action as the audience, in time with the lanky, tousle-haired lead singer, belts out a thundering chorus: “You’re the best thing that has happened to me.”

No, this isn’t MTV live. It’s Hillsong Church, part religious service, part rock concert, part multi-media conglomerate. Every weekend at Hillsong churches in Sydney 19,000 people sing, clap and jump through a two-hour tribute to a God who rocks. As traditional religious congregations shrink, Hillsong attendance expanded more than 13 per cent in 2004.

There are no images of Jesus being tortured on the cross at Hillsong headquarters in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills, no vaulted ceilings. The audience sits not on wooden pews but on 3500 cushioned theatre seats. Under each one is an envelope and credit card form for believers to donate their pre-tax 10 per cent salary tithe. Ushers flood the aisles and pass black buckets down each row. The buckets have holes in the bottom, presumably to discourage parish-ioners from giving coins. And the rivers of cash keep flowing: donations and salary tithes to Hillsong were $15.3 million in 2004; merchandise, CDs, books and DVDs, returned a further $6.93 million, while total church revenue has now passed the $50 million mark – all tax-free thanks to Hillsong’s charitable status. And then there are the donations – it’s anybody’s guess how much – from the owners of the $40 million Gloria Jean’s coffee empire, Nabi Saleh and Peter Irvine, who are both senior members of Hillsong, the former as treasurer. The message of Hillsong’s prosperity gospel is: the richer you are, the more you can help others.

But along with the expanding congregation and profit margins have come the ugly rumours that won’t go away – of underhanded treatment of disaffected church members, of attempts to silence critics, of profiteering from the faithful. Only last month, the Labor Mayor of Blacktown in Sydney’s west, Leo Kelly, accused Hillsong of attempting to pressure him, via an ALP state official, to dampen his criticism of their use of public funds.

Hillsong’s main benevolent arm, Hillsong Emerge Ltd, has been accused in federal and NSW parliament of misappropriating commonwealth grants worth millions of dollars. And a former member, Robert John Orehek, was charged with fraud after allegedly fleecing believers of up to $20 million, which he sank into failed and fraudulent property investments.

The king of Hillsong evangelism, Brian Houston, bounds onto the stage, clad in a dapper suit. “The faithful are in church tonight,” he declares, surveying the auditorium. “Awesome!” The background music fades away and the house lights brighten. People reach into their bags for Bibles and notebooks. Houston savours a silent pause. He’s been thinking about the seven deadly sins. “What would be my deadly sins, destructive in the lives of people?” Avarice, gluttony and wrath are apparently old hat. Houston instead says the sins are negativity, regret, complacency. Just a few weeks later, Hillsong’s formidable marketing arm has swung into action, releasing a four-CD set of Houston’s teaching on the sins that undermine potential in people, retailing for $35 in the church shop.

Houston has become the most influential pastor in the Pentecostal movement, and is a household name to born-again Australians. He also has political pulling power: Prime Minister John Howard, Treasurer Peter Costello and former NSW premier Bob Carr have all addressed the Hillsong congregation in recent years. In the last federal election, Hillsong member Liberal Louise Markus narrowly snatched from Labor the seat of Greenway, next to Hillsong’s Baulkham Hills church.

After the service – there are 30 every week in the two main Sydney venues, Baulkham Hills and Waterloo – people pour into the Hillsong shop. Half of the back display is devoted to the CDs and books by Houston and his perky wife of 28 years, Bobbie. Their bright white teeth and perfect hair seem to shine down from dozens of book and CD covers. In Bobbie’s CD set She Loves and Values her Sexuality she proclaims, “You might be happy with your weight but is your husband happy with your weight? … How are you going to do anything that might surprise your man when you need a hydraulic crane just to turn over in bed?” Boob jobs and face lifts get the thumbs up, as do good sex and a husband who says sorry with an impromptu spending spree at the jewellers. It’s a feel-good message, and when it doesn’t feel good, money makes it better.

Geoff Bullock knows all about Hillsong’s brand power and merchandising. He helped build it, even coming up with the name Hillsong more than 17 years ago. He launched the church on the international Christian music scene when he wrote most of the original songs, such as Power of Your Love, Refresh My Heart and Have Faith in God. For the church’s first decade he was Brian Houston’s best friend. For eight years, until a messy split in 1995, he ran the music department, nerve centre of “the brand”. Although his songs are now rarely played at Hillsong, they are popular on the international Christian music scene and Bullock lives off composition royalties paid through APRA (the Australasian Performing Rights Association).

When I meet Bullock at a sunny, beachside terrace cafe he is edgy and constantly apologises – for knocking the table as he crosses his legs, for being unable to eat much of his salad. A short, tidy man with intense blue eyes, he is approaching his 50th birthday. He hasn’t slept much in anticipation of revealing the backstage story behind the “miles of smiles” at Hillsong. “It was very nice being at the top of the tree but it just … ” He pauses, swallows. “This is going to sound dramatic. They stole my soul.”

Bullock’s moment of religious revelation struck in 1978 at Sydney’s Koala Motor Inn, where Houston’s father, Frank, was preaching. Bullock was 23 and had been touring the east coast in a rock’n’roll band, smoking dope and reading Carlos Castaneda’s stories of magic and sorcery. “It was wild,” he recalls of that November night. They sang hymns to a funked-up polka tune played with live piano, drums and bass. In the latest fashion blue safari suit, at the centre of the throng was the bespectacled 56-year-old preacher, Frank Houston, who declared that he used to smoke cigarettes before Jesus saved him. “People were trying to put cigarettes in his mouth,” says Bullock. “He lay down and he spat them out. It was a show of great confidence and charisma.”

Bullock was a needy, naive Sydney North Shore lad, schooled at the Presbyterian Knox Grammar. He believed in a higher being and was willing to try anything to reach Him, including cannabis. “I was absolutely ready for brainwashing. I was absolutely ripe for ‘love bombing’.” So, just two hours after walking into his first evangelical experience, Bullock answered God’s call, and his 21-year-old Anglican girlfriend from Lithgow in country NSW, Janine, followed. Individually, in back rooms, they were counselled. They had been born again and were now committed to Jesus. Satan would fight to get them back, they were warned. “I went in with a confident world view and I came out quite rattled. My whole belief structure had been turned on its head.”

He said goodbye to his rock’n’roll band, Arnhem, and to smoking, drinking and playing the occasional gig in topless bars in Sydney. A church leader came to his house and threw out his extensive collection of music – Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, The Beatles. “I had this wonderful group of friends, a great lifestyle, going listening to bands. All of that was viewed as being ‘of the devil’ … I didn’t lose some friends, I lost all my friends.”

Five years later, when 29-year-old Brian Houston set up his own church, Hills Christian Life Centre, in the newly suburban northern hills of outer Sydney, Bullock was a founding member. Young Houston was inspired by Tony Packard, who established a high–profile Holden car dealership in the area at Baulkham Hills with the catchcry “Let me do it right for you.”

Bullock was among the 70 believers at Pastor Brian Houston’s first service on Sunday, August 14, 1983, at Baulkham Hills Public School. From here a Pentecostal phenomenon called Hillsong was born. Bullock sang, played piano and was music frontman on stage for at least three services every Sunday. He recorded the church’s first six albums, three of which went gold, one platinum. He also ran the Bible college curriculum. For this he earned no more than $45,000 a year from the church and gave back a pre-tax tithe of 10 per cent, even when he couldn’t pay his growing family’s bills. Now he is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder after being expunged from the church he helped build.

Bullock and Janine married in 1980 and had five children within a decade. At the height of his Christian stardom in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Bullock toured the United States, Britain, Asia and New Zealand with an expanding repertoire of songs. For Sydney Sunday services they rose at 6am to set up the band and audio equipment and then rehearse ahead of morning, afternoon and evening church services. He was too busy to notice he was failing as a husband and father. “We had to put our parenting on hold,” he says.

Bullock began to feel like a real estate agent selling a manufactured ideal of God rather than one he really believed in. “I think Hillsong’s still got it, this feeling that God smiles a bit more when we’re singing our songs, and we’ve got good hairdressers, dentists, cosmetic surgeons. I came to think that the patron saint of Hillsong was Gianni Versace.”

Christmas Eve 1994 was the end for Bullock. He had rehearsed the choir and band to play the standard church repertoire for three Christmas services. Just hours before the first service, Houston discovered Bullock had not rehearsed traditional Christmas carols. “He just tore me to shreds and then left me to do three services,” Bullock says. Houston got his Christmas carols that night, but it finished his partnership with Bullock.

Once Bullock departed, a campaign of whispering about his morality and sexuality filtered throughout the church. When he broke up with Janine a few months later, his subsequent relationship with a married woman (whom he later married) was, he says, twisted to become the reason he had been forced out. At the same time, Houston preached about dark forces intent on undermining the church. “They ran a huge campaign to discredit me,” fumes Bullock.

Janine says she changed her phone number to stop friends from the church calling to tell her Bullock’s departure and their marriage break-up was against God’s will. She once hid in the wardrobe when a woman visited her house a second time. “I couldn’t bear her preaching at me again, telling me that this wasn’t of God.”

Janine still goes to Hillsong once a month, but says she can’t help but be cynical about the facade of spirituality compared with the lack of compassion and understanding she experienced. But, she adds, “there’s some beautiful Christian people who attend there”.

Geoff Bullock isn’t the only founding member of Hillsong to question its methods and ethics. For a decade until 1991, Stephen Grant was paid $100 a week to preach at Hillsong and was dean of the church’s Bible college. He admits that, as an eccentric, he was a strange fit for a fundamentalist church.

Still, Grant came from a wealthy family – he now runs a successful art gallery in Sydney’s Redfern – and had pledged (but never paid) $150,000 to the church’s building fund. He had a beautiful wife and was entertaining at the pulpit. He wore loud, colourful suits and sometimes a red leotard. When he blew on the congregation, the entire room of people would fall over.

But he realised his views diverged from Houston’s when they travelled together to the US in 1988. “In the US, I saw the wholesale commercialisation of born-again Christianity. I went, ‘Nah, truth is becoming a commodity here. It’s not a question of internal search, it’s a question of external commodification.'” But Houston liked what he saw and soon Hillsong’s fundraising became increasingly glitzy.

“I started to question what the bloody hell I was doing,” Grant, 46, reflects. “I was preaching all over the world. But I was getting really depressed.” He had lost both his parents and his marriage was under pressure. Grant subsequently discovered that, in the inner sanctum of the church, his wife was being encouraged to recognise that he did not belong.

His clinical depression was seen by the church as a sign of faltering faith. “I knew there was nothing wrong with my faith, and yet I was told: ‘You are not believing in Jesus enough.'” The Hillsong website backs up Grant’s claim. “Depression,” it declares, “is a supernatural spirit straight from the devil.”

When Grant broke up with his wife and left the church, like Bullock, he had to start life all over again, outside the Hillsong fortress. “People find a lot of healing in the church. I don’t have a problem with that. But … if you are kicked out, you are f—ed.”

The Christian message of the shepherd seeking lambs lost from the flock doesn’t apply at Hillsong, says Grant. “It was forbidden for me to be visited by the members of the church. Damn the lost lambs.” His recovery took five years.

The sentiment is echoed by theology student Penny Davis, who took years to rebuild her self-esteem after a shattering experience at Hillsong, which began in 1995 when she was just 20. Women who don’t fit Bobbie Houston’s mould at Hillsong, or those brave enough to challenge the male hierarchy, are swiftly brought into line, she says. With ambitions to become a pastor, Davis quickly realised she needed to change her wardrobe. “To get anywhere, you had to become a clone,” she quips. “I grew my hair, started wearing make-up and doing all the nice girly things.”

Life became very full, and it was all about church. She moved into a share house with four other young women from Hillsong, volunteered two days a week at church and did paid work with the Hillsong community youth centre three days a week, earning a weekly income of $600, less the 10 per cent salary tithe. “The pressure at Hills to be glamorous and have everything as well – it’s quite difficult on a low income.”

Just months after joining, she slept with a woman from the church – one who later confided about the liaison to a youth leader. Davis was immediately counselled that homosexuality was a sin. “I was just so vulnerable,” Davis says simply. She was assigned a mentor, who claimed she had successfully corrected her own “dysfunctional” sexuality. They spoke at least once a week, when Davis had to confess any lesbian fantasies. The mentor also read Davis’s diaries. After the “problem” persisted, she was put into an 18-week “ex-gay” program called Living Waters, then conducted at Hillsong. Once a week she attended the Living Waters group sessions, where she was told to focus on problems in her past which may have triggered her sexual “dysfunction”. “I was committed to getting these things fixed,” Davis says.

Three years of counselling, sessions with a psychiatrist and group therapies failed, however. Davis resorted to grabbing joyful glances at a video of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras while her flatmates were out, she laughs. “I started to subconsciously realise that this was not going to change … the shame and guilt were eating me up inside.”

Davis decided her sexuality and spirituality could never be reconciled at Hillsong and made the momentous decision to leave. In response, her Hillsong friends sent a barrage of text messages quoting the Bible on the “sin” of homosexuality. She was kicked out of her house and then her friends froze her out, ignoring her emails and phone calls. “She’s gone, we have restructured, there’s no need to continue communicating with her” was the message sent to her Hillsong friends by church leaders, claims Davis.

Social worker Tanya Levin, who spent her teenage years at Hillsong, says that those who question church policy are first shouted down and later ostracised if they persist. Levin has been commissioned to write a book about growing up in an evangelical church. For research, Levin attended the annual Hillsong women’s conference Colour Your World last March and took offence when poor children in Africa were being marketed for sponsors in the audience on the basis of being cute. “They are actually for life, not just for Christmas,” Levin shouted before walking out of the auditorium.

When she wrote an email the next month to the Houstons asking to meet them on a regular basis in order to gather material for her book, she got this curt response from the general manager, George Aghajanian: “We are aware that during your attendance at our recent Colour Your World Women’s Conference you caused a significant disruption. It is for this reason that we ask you to refrain from attending any future Hillsong church services or events; including accessing Hillsong’s land and premises at any time.” Aghajanian closed by saying the church’s leadership and staff were unable to provide assistance for the book.

When Levin subsequently attended a Sunday evening service, a pastor asked to speak to her outside. When she attempted to get back in to retrieve her bag, two security guards blocked her path, picked her up by the elbows and escorted her off the premises.

Brian Houston refused numerous opportunities to comment for this story, except to say: “More than 19,000 people come to Hillsong Church every weekend and I know that the overwhelming majority of them would testify to a healthy experience for both themselves and their families. They would also speak of the constant positive impact they see on others who are being helped through Hillsong Church and its many community programs.”

There is no doubt that Hillsong – or, closer to the mark, its loyal parishioners – perform many good deeds. The church has a number of charitable arms, including Mercy Ministries, a residence for girls dealing with unplanned pregnancies and eating disorders established five years ago by Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech, the country’s most popular and successful Christian singer. Although recently mired in controversy, the church’s main benevolent arm, Hillsong Emerge, has helped people find jobs and recover from addictions. Hillsong attendees sponsor about 2600 children in Uganda, and generously gave $500,000 to victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

But the criticism seems likely to persist as long as Hillsong makes $50 million in revenue, pays no tax and yet spends just $2.67 million on “welfare services”. It is not clear how much Mercy Ministries gets from Hillsong, but its total donations were just $304,840 in 2004. And Hillsong Emerge’s 2004 accounts show it got only $646,666 from the Hillsong Foundation Trust and about that again in government grants.

And Houston has been less than transparent about his own income. Until last year he had failed to declare that he and Bobbie had sold their own personal property holdings to a Hillsong-related entity of which he is a director, Leadership Ministries Incorporated. Bobbie sold a Bondi beachfront apartment on the same block as Jamie Packer’s pad to the not-for-profit LMI for $650,000 in February 2002. The couple also sold a waterfront property on the Hawkesbury River in October 2004 to LMI for $780,000, making $535,000 on their 1998 purchase price. They continue to use both these properties.

LMI is the tax-free entity Hillsong set up as a vehicle to pay the couple’s income. In breach of Office of Fair Trading reporting rules, no financial statements had been lodged since its inception in October 2001. Only after the property deals were uncovered by The Australian were the accounts filed in August last year. When the numbers came in they revealed the golden couple got a measly net income, after donations, of just $21,658 in the year to December 2002, $12,739 in 2003 and $69,041 in 2004.

If this is all there is, then how do the couple and two of their three children pull off a property buying spree worth $1.738 million over 12 months in exclusive beachside Bondi? On August 26, 2003, son Joel, who is a lead singer in the Hillsong band and earns song-writing royalties, bought a $676,000 apartment a few minutes’ walk from the LMI-owned apartment, paying $276,000 up front. That same day Brian and Bobbie paid $650,000 with a collateral mortgage for the apartment next door to Joel’s. Exactly a year later, son Ben borrowed just $90,000 to buy a $412,000 apartment a few streets from the other family holdings.

And questions persist about why it took 30 years for Brian Houston’s father, Frank, to be exposed over a complaint of sexual abuse of a boy in his homeland of New Zealand. Houston says his father was banned from preaching in 2000, when he confessed. But Frank continued to live on the Hillsong account, in church digs, until his death in November 2004.

Houston has hiring and firing rights over the board, and has appointed some influential and rich men to control the church’s empire (there are no women, he says, because one of the board members won’t allow it). The general manager of Hillsong – psychologist George Aghajanian – now oversees a $100 million property portfolio. And Hillsong has its sights on lucrative new markets in Europe – it opened a church in Paris last year and already has churches in London and Kiev.

Geoff Bullock says he can’t help but admire Houston. “He works hard and is gifted. He deserves to be a wealthy man.” But when told how little Houston is claiming as net income Bullock is incredulous – especially knowing the charismatic pastor’s fondness for Valentino suits and first-class plane tickets. And then there are the thousands of dollars in “love offerings” Houston regularly personally pockets for every talk he gives on the international Pentecostal speaking circuit. “Why not just be open about it?” Bullock asks.

As Bullock watches the church lurch from one controversy to the next, he has a sense of foreboding. He muses there is a valid expectation that the church should pour more money into helping others and less into promoting itself and amassing wealth. “In the end, it’s just sad,” he says, looking into his coffee cup. “It does look like it’s approaching a train wreck.”

Hillsong McJesus

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on February 18, 2008 by hillsongchurch

Hillsong is changing Gods word into something thats bland, tasteless and devoid of value.

Hillsong is selling McJesus to the world.