Former members of the House of Prayer Christian Church off Airport Road in Hinesville claim the church and its leaders are running a cult, not a house of worship.
About 20 protesters were in front of the church over the weekend as a handful of Liberty County Sheriff’s Department deputies kept order.
The demonstrations followed months of allegations that have been aired on a website apparently run by former members, www.hopcc.com. The protests were likely timed to coincide with an annual gathering of the House of Prayer branches from around the country.
Critics of the House of Prayer claim church leader Rony Denis manipulates his followers, degrades women and children and say he is committing fraud. Church members paint a different picture, however.
Jim Benton called the allegations “ridiculous.”
“Instead of doing their own thing they’d rather cause trouble and be stupid for no reason. If they were throwing anything out (allegations) that were legitimate…if anything was going on…something would have happened,” he said. “Why don’t they go through the right channels? They’ve called anybody who will listen to them…anybody who will give them an ear and they’ll see we are doing this or that and please have this place inspected…they do whatever they can to cause trouble. It is not legitimate. They are talking nonsense.”
My son is in this cult
“My son Cesar Vargas is in this cult,” Gladys Jordan yelled into her battery powered megaphone during Friday’s protest in front of the church. “Denis is a false prophet.”
Jordan was the most vocal of the group and said House of Prayer opened in 2004 when Denis left the New Testament Church of Christ in Hinesville.
She was a member of NTCC and said she and others followed Denis to the new church.
Jordan said things went well until Denis became domineering and money hungry. She now alleges the church is committing fraud.
“And just recently, because I went against what they were teaching…because I was finding out the truth about them…about their real estate scams and everything…they’ve cut my son off (from me),” Jordan said. “This church separates families. And there are a lot of schemes happening behind closed doors that these ministers are not telling their people. They are not telling the people here the truth.”
Jordan has two sons, including Cesar Vargas, 22, who is still in the church. Her younger son, 14, walked alongside her at Friday’s demonstration.
She said her younger son, who she did not name, was in the church as well until he started speaking out in class and was then kicked out.
“They have a fraudulent day school,” Jordan said. “They are not accredited. They are not going to get a high school diploma.”
Jordan said Denis also claims he has the power to grant divorces, whether couples want them or not. She’s not the only one.
"The church has divorced my marriage,” former member Denise Stanley said. “All because I wouldn’t give my testimony.”
Former members said Denis controls who members date and marry and calls himself the true God. They said those who go against the church leadership are immediately cast out, losing their homes, cars and sometimes the rest of their family.
Some said they left the church because of what they called “unchristian-like” behavior.
Protests are unfair
Inside the House of Prayer on Friday night, the sanctuary was packed with people standing, seated or kneeling as they prayed. There, church members disputed the stories told by those who stood outside.
“It’s all false,” long time church member Jeff Derby said. “I can put my hand on the Bible…it’s like they are crazy. They are saying the church is breaking up families. The church has helped my marriage tremendously. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God led me here. I have seen miracles. It has cleaned up my life.”
Derby said the protests are unfair.
“Most of those people have not even been to the church,” he said. “For them to be out here with their signs…it is all about common sense, intelligence and facts. It is not accurate for them to say all this when they haven’t even been to the church.”
Claims of crimes
Stanley said she was 12 when her family started attending the NTCC church in Graham, Washington.
“He (Denis) was my family’s pastor and my pastor in another state when I was a teenage girl…he knew that I was raped and he brought me into a meeting with several other ministers and he wanted me to give the graphic details of my rape.”
Stanley said she later married Roscoe Stanley, also a church member. She alleges the church's real estate deals aren't what they seem.
“It was all a front…I didn’t know it at the time but it was a front to use and manipulate the people,” she said “When I realized…and they realized I wasn’t going to be a part of it…they wanted to see how they could make me quiet and stop me from talking. It’s all a game and it’s all about money for Denis. He is trying to be the big black man on the block.”
One protester, Diana Carrasquillo, said she was recruited into the church from WalMart in 2004.
“I wanted a change in life and I thought this was it. I got my children involved and now I regret it dearly,” she added. “I’ve seen teenagers who were stood up and told to confess they were whores…just because she liked a young man in the church…they are teenagers…teenagers like each other…but they were made to stand up on the stage and to say they were whores.”
As the protests continued, Vargas walked over to Jordan and disputed her claims.
“Pastor Denis has done a lot for me through God and God has done great things in my life,” Vargas said. “I have not a care in the world…everything that they are saying is false. She doesn’t understand….we have to grow up…I can’t stay a baby in my mom’s house forever…I am 22 years old. I am making my own decisions and she doesn’t understand that. She wants me to be a little kid and in her mind I am still her little so called baby.”
Vargas said no one is forcing him to stay in the church.
“This is my decision. This is the place where I have gotten all of my help and where I have been nurtured spiritually, physically and this is my life and I am blessed to be here. What they are saying is completely false and they know it’s false,” he said.
The Courier will continue to follow this story.