A faith dispute goes public

maincollage1The Akron Beacon Journal published quite a story Sunday that touches on issues with which many families struggle, but so rarely do they spill out into the public square. In this case, a family’s personal controversy over the child’s decision to join a non-denominational Christian group known as the Xenos Christian Fellowship created a story that the newspaper could not ignore.

The article could have been limited to the police and court reports, but instead, the newspaper published an epic 2,700-word news feature:

Annemarie Smith, 48, a Roman Catholic from Stow, believes her 18-year-old son, Thomas, has been taken by a cult.

She has launched a religious war that has engaged the Stow police, mayor, high school and a municipal judge. She started an Internet blog and is trying to rally others to the cause.

Online, she makes allegations of alcohol abuse, vandalism and brainwashing of young children. She calls the church leader and his family “Devil man,” “Devil wife” and “Devil son.”

While the article leads with the perspective of the mother, it makes clear early and often that there is definitely another side to the story. Readers are left deciding for themselves which side has more validity. The journalists’ job of avoiding the temptation to take sides, or to make individual judgments, can twist a story into an appellate brief designed to convince the jury of readers of certain morality judgments that have no place in news features such as these.

The mother’s accusation that her son has joined a cult goes a bit deeper than that, but the article captures it well:

His mother, a stay-at-home mom, said she had no problem with her children occasionally attending church with friends — and she believes her son’s attraction to Xenos is more about friends than God.

The tension grew exponentially after Thomas’ roadside reckoning and an announcement to his parents that he planned to be baptized again, this time at a Xenos service, and that he would like for them to attend.

They told him he already had been baptized Catholic and they would not attend.

The article totally gets the faith aspect of the story and leads with it in the article’s subhead. The article’s grasp of the importance of faith to these individuals and all that comes with that helps the author explain to the reader some of the more difficult-to-grasp concepts present in this saga.

The story gets much darker, with a few twists and turns, and one has to wonder how this can end well. One criticism that could be leveled against the article — and this one came from a reader that submitted the story — is that the article could have quoted another Catholic other than the mother. However, this is very much a personal story that is unfortunately playing out in the public square.

The other area I wish the article had focused on is the organization’s history, its activities outside the immediate controversy, and how the group maintains its funding. The article gives a definite sense of what the group is not about, but less about what the group is about. Are members of the group are expected to maintain a financial commitment while involved and what are some of the group’s main accomplishments since it was launched?

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  • Brian Walden

    To me it seemed like this is primarily a family problem; religion just provides a convenient excuse for fighting. Mrs. Smith’s argument from religion doesn’t seem cogent. She didn’t make her son fulfill his basic obligation to participate in Sunday Mass while he was a minor living under her roof, but now that he’s 18 and on his own she doesn’t want him to get re-baptized. She admits that she has an duty to raise her children in the faith, yet her husband works for a porn distributor. It appears that religion wasn’t a big factor in the Smith’s lives until Thomas left home.

    Whether my interpretation is right or wrong, I appreciate that Carney gives lots of details from the perspectives of each side and lets the reader draw their own conclusions.

    Another financial question that jumped out at me is who’s paying the son’s college tuition?

  • Brian L

    I remember when my family was horrified that I had joined a “cult.” They didn’t want me to divorce my wife, renounce my family, and go to live in a monastery, etc.

    It has been 11 years, but they’ve finally come to accept that being a Southern Baptist minister is not so bad after all…

  • Dave

    At least Mom didn’t have Sonny kidnapped and “deprogrammed” as was all the rage in the 1970s.

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    I recall hearing about Xenos in Columbus, OH; a blogger friend of mine went to the large Xenos church in Columbus at the time. I don’t recall it being any more cultic that a typical evangelical church, although it did lean a bit in the emerging-church direction and focused quite a bit on small group fellowship. The church seem to have started as a series of fellowship groups that coalesced into a church, so their focus is on small groups rather than the main Sunday service, which gets called “Central Teaching” in Xenosese. That might make it seem a bit on the cultic side to the outsider.

    The church in question in Stow (old stomping grounds from my graduate school days at Kent State) is a spinoff from that Columbus church; Stow is a upscale suburb of Akron, and Kent is just east of that.

  • Brian L

    Mark has a good observation. Xenos was ‘emerging’ before emergent was cool.

  • Maureen

    For purposes of Mass attendance obligations, anyone over the age of reason (usually 7) is responsible for his own behavior. So if Mom was willing to let the kid incur sin on his own soul, both parents and child are permitted to go their own ways.

    Rebaptizing is very much more serious. First of all, the kid is saying that his family and the pretty much the entire Catholic Church are not baptized Christians at all. Certainly an attitude you don’t expect from your own son, even if you’re lax in the Faith yourself. Second, there’s something intensely creepy for a Catholic about finding out that someone is abusing his own Baptism and thus committing one of the older heresies. Again, even somebody who never goes to Mass at all would be shocked and sickened. (Indeed, it’s often the people who never go to Mass who secretly set most store in Baptism.)

    It makes me kinda shudder, even thinking about it. “Sure, I used to believe that God’s mark on my soul was indelible, but now I figure it was never really there and I was always a godless heathen until this week.” Brrrrrrr.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Maureen, rebaptizing is indeed a serious issue, but it’s also a common practice among churches that recognize only “believer’s baptism” as legitimate. For those churches, it’s equally “creepy” to hear about a person who thinks he is a Christian but has never made a public profession of faith and submitted himself to baptism by immersion.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Daniel, I’m not sure that the author “gets” Xenos. Here are the ways that he describes Xenos, both in the Stow area and the Columbus area:
    * Congregation
    * Group
    * Ministry
    * Loosely organized…megachurch (love that one)
    * Church
    * Fellowship

    Emergent churches, house churches, and other non-traditional churches are booming but still seem below the radar of most in the media. Religion reporters need do some homework, and quick, or risk looking pretty ignorant. Putting Xenos in context would have helped this article a lot.

    Also, as Mike noted above, the fact that rebaptizing is a common practice seems lost not just on the mother — who attempts to equate it with cultic behavior — but on the author.

    It’s a lengthy article, but not necessarily a good one. A “C” grade at best on this one.

  • Bob

    I disagree strongly with what Maureen said about participating in Mass after reaching the age of reason. Catholic parents are hardly absolved of our responsibility to form our children in the faith simply because they are seven years old, and participating in the sacramental life of the Church if fundamental to forming children in the faith. When she says that “both parent and child are permitted to go their own way,” I wonder: permitted by whom? Certainly not by the Church, who regards parents as the first and primary religious educators of their children.

    How can Mrs. Smith claim that she raised her son as a good Catholic when he rarely attended Mass as a child (which means the family rarely attended), Mr. Smith works for the porn industry (I find it interesting that she uses the euphamism “adult industry”) and she herself hosted “passion parties” in her own home (when young Tom was present?). It seems to me that Mrs. Smith had her baby boy Baptized, sent him to Catholic school for a few years, and thought her responsibility for his religious formation ended there.

    I don’t know anything about Xenos, except that it sounds like a lot of other similar churches, but it seems to me that Mrs. Smith doesn’t have much room to complain. She failed to fulfill her obligation toward her son. Perhaps she’s acting more out of guilt that genuine concern.

  • http://neoxenos.org Darlene McCallum

    My husband & I are the “devil” & the “devil wife” from the article. My husband is senior pastor of Xenos Christian Fellowship of Northeastern Ohio. Our home churches meet in Stow, Cuyahoga Falls, Kent State University campus, & Findley College in western Ohio.

    This has been an interesting adventure for us. A lot of the questions you ask are answered on the following links which include our public blog & website: issues.neoblogs.org/posts/cult-accusation/ & neoxenos.org/inside/akron-beacon-journal/. I could explain here, but these links do it best.

    We, too, would like to see the Beacon-Journal take a different tact, but newspapers, after all, tend to focus on the controversial. We tried very hard to encourage the reporter to focus on who we actually are. It is hard to criticize them for this as their goal is to bring in readership. Jim Carney, the reporter, tried for 3 months to get this right & yet still maintain his objectivity. We applaud his efforts despite the fact it was not our choice to be followed around for 3 months & end up with an article about us on the front page. We do pray God uses it for His glory & pray consistently for this mother & for the reconciliation of their family.

    Our focus is on the “unchurched” youth of our culture. It is a disturbing trend that even “Christian” kids from Christian homes are leaving the church in droves. Both Barna & Josh McDowell have statistics on this. Upwards of 80% of these kids leave the church by their 20’s & never return. Much of this exodus is due to the fact that kids do not see the relevancy of Christ or the church in their lives. Their faith never becomes their own & their only option is the world system which has a lot to offer. If kids growing up in the church don’t see the relevancy of Christianity, how can kids who’ve never been exposed to the Gospel see it? The Christians they know look no different than anybody else. In fact, what little they see is not attractive – rules, traditions, & judgment rather than grace & love relationships. For more info from us on this see: neozine.org/inside/can-they-be-rescued/

    We don’t have a “worship service” which only Christians enjoy, btw, but do worship as per Romans 12:1,2. Our emphasis is on evangelism, discipleship, & deep, personal relationships with each other, those outside our fellowship, & with Christ. The Bible says we show our love for the Lord not by singing or other traditional forms of worship, but by sacrificially loving others. John 13:34,35; 21:16, 17. This takes incredible amounts of time & sacrifice than merely participating in a worship service. Not that worship services are wrong, but they often take the place of real worship. We believe strongly that the early church has much to teach us & try to emulate Acts 2:44-47.

  • Julia Duin

    Too bad the reporter had no background as to what those of us raised in the Jesus movement did in the 1970s. Heavens, not only was I rebaptized at the age of 17 (and to this day I oppose infant baptism) but after college I moved into a Christian community where we pooled all our salaries and underwent intensive discipleship. My parents weren’t happy but they visited our households, talked with the leaders and simply waited until I moved out 2 years later.
    So what this teenager is going through with Xenos is light compared to we all used to do way back when.

  • http://neozine.org Keith McCallum

    Hey! Another Jesus Freak! Cool!

    I really enjoyed these comments — I had to laugh, too.

    Y’all have pretty much figured us out at NeoXenos. I’m the “anti-Christ” Mrs. Smith blogs against daily. Definitely appreciate the attention, because we’ve really gotten a raw deal from Mrs. Smith’s activities. On her latest blog she accuses us of cannibalism! (http://parentsagainstxenos.wordpress.com/2009/02/12/i-dont-know/) What a hooter!

    But the history of the event is described here http://neoxenos.net/inside/2008/12/refugee-life/

    This is a cool site, with a good purpose. I’m definitely bookmarking it.


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