Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/XenosIsACult
His ancestors would not be notified for about a week, but on the afternoon of May 14, 2013, a adolescent man declared Kwesi Sample drowned off the bank of Holden Beach, North Carolina. The 21-year-old was accommodating in a GPS-guided scavenger coursing accepted as “geocaching” with added adolescent adults in his church, an Ohio-based megachurch declared Dwell. The accumulation was attempting to bathe several hundred meters to locate a decidedly difficult “cache,” but by the time they accomplished the ambit was too far, it was too late. “As they swam above the ocean inlet, Sample began to attempt and went underwater,” an Ohio appeals cloister afterwards wrote. “The others were clumsy to save him.” (The abbey has said in cloister filings that it notified Sample’s ancestors aural hours of the incident.)
In a blameworthy afterlife clothing that followed, Sample’s ancestors took aim at Dwell, alleging that abbey leaders were behindhand in acclimation the activity. But their complaints went able-bodied above the day’s adverse events. In assorted acknowledged filings, the ancestors claimed abbey leaders acclimatized extensive ascendancy over its members, addition accomplished Sunday sermons and into about every bend of their lives. (The abbey declared this abstraction “absurd” and said Sample’s attorneys took their commodity out of context.) It agilely recruited affectable adolescent members, the ancestors claimed, and accomplished them to blindly chase leaders who were “chosen by God.” Shortly afore his death, they said, Sample had alike confused into Dwell accumulation apartment to accept “spiritual teachings” and “guidance on how to alive and worship” from its leaders.
“A lot of bodies who leave [Dwell] feel [like] they’ve been isolated; they feel like they’ve been manipulated,” Adam Richards, an advocate for the family, told The Daily Beast in a contempo interview. “And again one day they deathwatch up. And sometimes it’s too late, and sometimes it’s not.”
In contempo years, a growing movement in Columbus, Ohio, has started aural the anxiety on the church, claiming it is manipulative, controlling, alike dangerous. Hundreds of afflicted above associates accept formed an online abutment group; about 200 accept submitted testimonies to a bounded blog. The abbey alike afflicted its name two years ago—from “Xenos,” which it had acclimated for decades, to “Dwell”— admitting its leaders affirmation the move was altered to the bad press. Still, there has been no apparent acknowledgment from accessible officials.
Over the aftermost two months, The Daily Beast interviewed 25 above Dwell followers, whose associates spans about four decades. While the capacity of their adventures differed, the aftereffect was the same: Dwell, they said, was a abbey that drew them in aback they were adolescent or lonely, showered them with absorption and compliments, and bound angry dark. A abbey that pressured them to abandon all their chargeless time, to cut ties with their alfresco accompany and family, to move into accumulation houses with their adolescent members. A abbey that dictated who they could date, breadth they went to school, and how they clean-cut their anatomy hair. A abbey that pressured them to breach in calumniating marriages and abhorrent them aback they were raped. A abbey that warned them that walking abroad from Dwell would be walking abroad from God.
What they were describing, abounding of them said, was not a abbey at all, but a cult.
In an annual with The Daily Beast, Authoritative Pastor Brian Adams alone this label, calling it “an anti-Christian slur.” The church, he said, was aloof “a accumulation of committed Christians who are acquisition consistently to adjure and abstraction the Bible and adore community.” Anybody was arrive to participate up to their own abundance level.
Executive Pastor Brian Adams says the abbey is “a accumulation of committed Christians who are acquisition consistently to adjure and abstraction the bible and adore community.”
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon, Emily Shugerman/The Daily Beast/Getty/YouTube
“We absolutely appetite anybody who walks through our doors to accept a abundant experience,” he said. “What it comes bottomward to is compassionate what the Bible teaches, and do you appetite to chase it or not?”
Of the allegations of cultishness and airy abuse, he added: “It’s sad to hear, but we can accept [it if] addition says, ‘What you’re accomplishing there, we appetite to accompany commodity different.’”
Dennis McCallum, the 70-year-old architect of Dwell, is thoroughly assertive that his abbey is angry a war with Satan. In his book, “Satan and His Kingdom”—one of 14 books he has appear on Christianity—McCallum claims that the devil is a alive being, and that a “spiritual war” is angry adjoin him about the world. He claims Christians charge act as soldiers, accessible to abide acute suffering, cede their possessions, and chase their leaders’ orders. Soldiers in the airy war, McCallum writes, “aren’t chargeless to appearance up alone aback they appetite to.” On the battlefield, “exertion may about be to the point of absolute exhaustion.”
Former associates who batten to The Daily Beast say this burden to be consistently “on” for Jesus pervades Dwell. New associates alpha by accessory Sunday sermons declared “central teachings” and annual Bible studies declared “home churches,” but they are bound apprenticed to participate added and more: in sex-segregated “cell group” meetings; affairs with a airy advisor accepted as a discipler, and administration courses appropriate to beforehand in the abbey ranks. There are affairs for new parents, academy students, bodies in recovery, bodies who accept absent a admired one or were sexually abused as children. Associates can calmly acquisition themselves accessory a altered Dwell accident every day.
The affairs are not an absolute requirement, but associates say the advance to appear them—to be an alive affiliate of the church, rather than a “pew-sitter”—is intense.
“[I begin myself] activity to six affairs a week,” said ex-member Justin Stapleton, 36, who abutting the abbey about 15 years ago. “The accomplished time they’re cogent me, ‘You’re not committed enough. You’re not committed enough.’ But I’m spending all my time there.”
Ex-member Callie Nicholson, a 25-year-old diet apprentice and behavioral therapist, told The Daily Beast she struggled with an bistro ataxia while in Dwell. Aback her analysis affairs appropriate she appear beneath abbey affairs in adjustment to focus on recovery, she said, her home abbey leaders were furious. They insisted that her therapists didn’t accept her because they were “of the world”—Dwell analogue for annihilation alfresco the church. (In a blog column afterwards this adventure was published, Dwell pastor James M. Rochford said that pastoral agents “spoke with the leaders of this adolescent woman’s group, and heard a altered account.”)
Another woman, who asked to be bearding for abhorrence of avengement from accepted abbey members, said she was pressured to stop visiting her ancestors already a ages because it conflicted with Friday corpuscle accumulation affairs and Sunday abode meetings. Associates told her she was actuality “unloving” and “wasn’t confined the girls in the accumulation able-bodied enough,” she said. She cut aback on the time with her family.
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Younger, austere Dwell associates are prodded to move into “ministry houses” that beddy-bye up to four per room. (Stapleton said a abode baton told him the point of the awkward abode was to anticipate association from masturbating.) Already there, associates are accepted to absorb best of their chargeless time adorning with abode associates or evangelizing to abeyant recruits. Studies are an afterthought; at atomic one actuality said they brash alteration their above to commodity beneath accurate to accommodated the demands of the church. Several above associates told The Daily Beast they alike angry bottomward offers to celebrated out-of-state colleges in adjustment to alive in the admiral houses.
Madeline Beal, a 24-year-old amusing assignment apprentice who was built-in into the church, said she alone a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago to appear Ohio Accompaniment University at the bidding of Dwell leaders and peers.
“What bodies said to me chat for chat was aloof like, ‘God has a plan for you here, and he’s put you here, and you can’t leave,’” she said. “That would be disobeying God.”
The burden to allotment claimed advice in the admiral houses—in adjustment to authority anniversary added “accountable,” as the abbey brand to say—is enormous. Beal said a accepted activity at abode affairs was a bold declared “Oys, boys and joys,” breadth associates aggregate one acceptable event, one bad event, and one adventurous accident that happened to them that week. If the abode baton acquainted like one affiliate didn’t accessible up abundant during the activity, she said, they would chase up afterwards to pry out added information.
Madeline Beal, pictured in 2018, about a year afore she larboard Xenos. She says she alone a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago to appear Ohio Accompaniment University at the bidding of Dwell leaders and peers.
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/XenosIsACult/Madeline Beal
Other associates said this affectionate of claimed information-gathering is common, alike alfresco the admiral houses. BJ Brown, 46, a above aerial academy accumulation leader, said she met annual with two abbey leaders who approved to get her to acknowledge claimed capacity of the students’ lives. At one meeting, she said, an ancient asked her whether she anticipation addition baton in her accumulation was lesbian. (Adams, the authoritative pastor, said in an email that “gossip is a sin accursed in the bible and it’s not commodity we appetite to see any of our administration practicing.”)
“We’d aloof sit there and allocution about people’s claimed problems and issues like it was a accustomed affair to do,” Brown recalled. “I can’t accept how advisedly the leadership—including myself aback I was there—openly talked about people’s raw issues.”
Members said the accumulation amid itself into abounding added areas of their lives, from who would be in their bells to how they clean-cut themselves. (Two women said they were told by added abbey associates to barber their armpits because anatomy beard was apparent as a abeyant turnoff for recruits.) Abounding above associates who batten to The Daily Beast said they were acerb beat from spending time with accompany alfresco the abbey unless they were actively recruiting them. Alike spending time with Christians in added churches, they said, was apparent as a decay of time because they were beneath acceptable to be recruited to Dwell.
Ex-followers said the abbey additionally wielded outsize admission on their dating lives. Oliver Long, 36, said McCallum about arrive bodies over to altercate who was seeing whom, whether they were acceptable for anniversary other, and how the abbey could baffle if not. He said McCallum kept a account of bodies accounted “spiritual enough” to be dating, which he aggregate openly. Numerous added associates told The Daily Beast they were told not to accompany addition central Dwell because they were not accounted “ready” to date, or because the added actuality was not airy abundant for them. (Adams said the Bible doesn’t say accurately who you can and cannot date, and “in our acquaintance we don’t advise annihilation like that.” (After publication, the abbey said McCallum denied befitting such a list.)
The ex-member who asked to abide bearding for abhorrence of avengement said she started dating addition she met online adjoin the end of her time at the church. She said adolescent abbey associates cautioned her adjoin dating addition who was “of the world” and added acceptable to “live in sin.” Her above discipler, she said, instructed her to accord her admirer an ultimatum: Join Dwell in the abutting two months, or she would breach up with him. The woman banned and larboard the abbey because of it.
In an email, Adams said the abbey did not crave anyone to absorb a assertive bulk of time adherent or blind out with added members, and that anyone who acquainted “unfairly pressured” should address it to the church. “Many of the allegations brought alternating assume to be bodies who larboard the abbey because alive according to the ethics and precepts of the Bible is adamantine or because they acquainted burden to do more,” he added. “We can’t ascendancy how bodies feel.”
But Dr. Janja Lalich, a sociologist and arresting band expert, said the aerial levels of ascendancy at Dwell were archetypal of a cult. While the accumulation may not accept a archetypal absorbing leader, she said, its adherence to a single, austere credo still dominates members’ lives. Its arrangement of home abbey leaders are deputized to achieve that ideology, she said, isolating them from the alfresco apple and abrogation them in a “bounded reality.”
“People are giving up their own autonomy. They’re giving up their own accommodation making. They’re pawns,” she said. “And if they anticipate about abrogation again they’re activity to lose everybody they apperceive and their family.”
She added: “It’s archetypal band stuff.”
McCallum founded Dwell as a apprentice at Ohio Accompaniment University in the 1970s, with a backpack of added hippies who capital to abstraction the Bible but blade the acceptable church. (He is still addicted of adage he begin God in a bastille corpuscle afterwards actuality arrested for marijuana possession.) To this day, the abbey maintains some of its anti-establishment bent; associates appear sermons in jeans, alcohol aboveboard in home church, and smoke like chimneys.
But there is an breadth in which above associates say the abbey charcoal acutely regressive: women.
Nicholson, the woman who struggled with an bistro disorder, told The Daily Beast she was raped at a acquisition of non-Dwell associates in 2020, aback an attendee ashore his easily bottomward her pants and assaulted her aback she froze in fear. For weeks, Nicholson abhorrent herself for not adage “no” and believed the advance was her fault. She assuredly confided in a friend, who told her that what happened was abduction and encouraged her to allege with a discipler. (The Daily Beast batten to this friend, who accepted Nicholson’s adaptation of events.) Aback she assuredly formed up the adventuresomeness to do so, Nicholson said, the discipler brash her to adjure and repent. Later, the discipler apprenticed Nicholson to acknowledge her “sins” to her absolute corpuscle group.
“I’d be like, ‘What do I accept to acknowledge about? I was raped,’” Nicholson recalled of their conversations. “And she’d be like, ‘Well, we both apperceive you had a allotment to comedy in this.’”
In his email, Adams said Dwell leaders had interviewed Nicholson’s attached afterwards the adventure and apprenticed her to alarm the police. He said a coach afterwards “encouraged her to accessible up to others about how she was accomplishing and to let God advice her with the claimed problems she was facing.” Nicholson acquainted like she was actuality confronted for actuality assaulted, he said, “but that wasn’t the case.”
Left, Callie Nicholson and added Xenos associates at a abbey event. Nicholson says she struggled with an bistro ataxia while in Dwell and that abbey leaders were bent aback she capital to appear beneath affairs to focus on her recovery. Right, a photo of a whiteboard from a “cell group” affair breadth Xenos associates strategized how to ability out to specific abeyant recruits.
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/XenosIsACult/ Callie Nicholson
But addition woman—the ex-member who asked to abide anonymous—told The Daily Beast she, too, was sexually assaulted while a affiliate of Dwell. The woman said she was assaulted by addition she anticipation was a acquaintance while at a bells out of accompaniment in 2018. (Another acquaintance who batten to The Daily Beast accepted that she told her about the advance anon afterwards abiding home.) Aback she told her home abbey about the incident, she says, addition affiliate asked her whether she’d absolutely collapsed into “sexual sin” and was inventing the advance to awning it up.
Other associates were added supportive, she said, but that didn’t stop administration from blame her to acknowledgment to abbey affairs afore she was ready; from cogent her not to let what had happened behest her life. In one decidedly memorable moment, she says a baton told her:
“God has a plan for your pain.”
The abbey says it carefully confined the leaders of aerial academy groups from dating their boyish disciples. But one ex-member, Katie Oliver, said she started dating her 20-year-old aerial academy accumulation baton aback she was aloof 17. Aback the abbey begin out they were sexually active, she said, her admirer was kicked out of his admiral abode but accustomed to breach in fellowship. Oliver, meanwhile, was affected to go through a activity declared “admonishment,” in which 10 to 15 added women—including her mother—called her into a allowance and “took turns basically ripping me apart,” she said.
A anniversary or two later, aback Oliver abounding her annual corpuscle accumulation affair with added girls her age, a accumulation baton took anybody for ice chrism afterward. Oliver had to breach behind.
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“I actual abundant acquainted like I was cutting a scarlet letter,” she said. “I was absolutely targeted to the point breadth I larboard the church.”
Because the abbey does not acquiesce pre-marital sex, above associates said, there is burden to get affiliated young—and quickly. But the abbey additionally heavily opposes divorce, acceptance it in alone three circumstances: adultery, abandonment, or death. Two women told The Daily Beast they backward in calumniating relationships for years because abbey leaders counseled them to stick it out.
One ex-follower, now in her mid-forties, said she affiliated addition Dwell affiliate aback she was 23, in a rushed bells the weekend afterwards her nursing finals. She says her bedmate bound became authoritative and decumbent to acrimony adjoin her and their three children. But aback she went to abbey leaders, she said, they told her to try to accomplish things work.
“That’s all the admonition I kept accepting was, ‘Suffering is allotment of actuality a Christian, and alliance is hard. You aloof accept to abide the suffering,’” she recalled.
“Well, it was affecting abuse,” she added. “It was terrible. I was accepting agitation attacks.”
When she eventually did book for divorce, the ex-member said, she abhorred Dwell affairs for several months. Aback she returned, she says, she abounding aloof one or two affairs afore a accumulation of abbey leaders pulled her abreast and told her what she was accomplishing was a sin. They instructed her to deliver her alliance or accede abrogation the church. She never went back.
Another member—who asked that we use alone her aboriginal name, Amy—said she abutting the abbey in 2006 at the appeal of her then-boyfriend. Anon afterwards the two wed, she says, her accomplice became acutely controlling: ambuscade all the passwords to all their collective accounts, administering her spending, and tracking her abode obsessively. (His babe from addition marriage, who charcoal abutting with Amy, accepted he was authoritative and anytime analytical of both his wife and children. Badge annal appearance admiral were declared to the home several times to arbitrate disputes amid Amy’s bedmate and his kids.)
When Amy went to Dwell attorneys about the issue, they brash her to accumulate alive on her marriage. Once, at her breaking point, she asked a abbey baton how abundant best she was declared to abide this treatment. She says the baton told her: “Jesus endured adversity at the easily of his abusers until His death. It’s not about how you are loved, but how you adulation others that matters.”
Amy says she responded: “And I’m not Jesus.”
Adams said the abbey would never abolish a affiliate for divorcing addition who was physically or sexually abusive, but that it does ask associates to save their alliance “whenever possible”—through counseling, alliance classes, and account accordant Bible passages. He added: “This is the able aisle and alone seems aberrant through the lens of civil association abnegation the best basal credo of Christianity.”
Members say the abbey additionally acerb opposes same-sex relationships. (Adams beneath to animadversion on this directly, adage alone that sex alfresco of marriage, of any kind, is a sin.) One ex-follower, Seth Grover, said he watched as a aerial academy chief accepted his animosity of same-sex allure to his absolute admiral abode afore he confused in. At abode affairs afterward, Grover said, the affiliate appear that he was “working on” his animosity and that his ambition was to feel admiring to and ally a woman. Aback Grover accepted his own animosity of same-sex allure to a discipler, he said, the baton told him he was ambiguous himself and wasn’t absolutely queer.
Beal said that assorted associates of her academy accumulation were additionally fabricated to acknowledge their animosity of same-sex attraction, including one woman who was affected to acknowledge her drove on Beal. Aback the adolescent woman came to her allowance in the admiral abode to confess, Beal said, there was no apprehension that annihilation adventurous could appear of it. “She was aloof confessing this as a sin because she had to,” she recalled.
Members who do not chase the church’s rules on sexuality, premarital sex, or any added cardinal of sins can be removed through a activity declared “disfellowshipping.” Above associates said this usually involves a academic affair in which the sinner’s transgressions are laid out—in occasionally awkward detail—before their absolute 20- to 40-person home church. The affiliate is accustomed a adventitious to acknowledge afore their adolescent congregants vote on whether to bang them out.
Adams affected these affairs as “a Biblical process, not a punishment”—a aftermost resort to altercate unrepentant associates to booty albatross for their actions. But above associates say it is an carefully barbarous activity that the abbey uses as a bastinado to accumulate associates in line. As above affiliate Mark Kennedy put it: “These bodies are actuality emotionally brutalized. It’s a accessible shaming.”
Some associates said they had been removed for sins as accessory as not accessory abundant affairs and not accepting a absolute attitude. Three said they were excommunicated for agreeable in pre-martial animal activity; two said they witnessed others get excommunciated for actuality gay. (Adams banned to accord the church’s attitude on aboveboard gay members, adage alone that “everyone is admired by [God] dearly.”)
When a affiliate is removed, above associates say, their adolescent home abbey associates are instructed not to allege to them—a adverse aftereffect to those whose absolute amusing lives circumduct about the church. (After publication, Rochford denied teaching this and said the abbey “continue to accumulate in acquaintance with bodies who accept been removed from fellowship.”) Two women told the Daily Beast they advised suicide afterwards actuality ousted.
Megan McGowan, a 33-year-old accessibility specialist who abutting the abbey in 2012, anguish up in a two-week fractional analysis affairs afterwards she was disfellowshipped in 2016 for again agreeable in “sexual sin” with her boyfriend. Adams said associates who appearance anguish at their affairs are accustomed the befalling to apologize and return, but McGowan said she begged to breach in the accumulation and was told it wasn’t enough. One affiliate of her home church, she said, told her she bare to hit “rock bottom” afore her affection could change.
“Rock basal for a baleful actuality is death,” McGowan said.
Eight years afterwards Kwesi Sample died off the bank of North Carolina, an Ohio appeals cloister ultimately sided with the church, cardinal that it was not answerable to assure its associates from the dangers of open-water swimming. But the years-long acknowledged activity absent the abbey some goodwill, alike amid its members. Sample was well-loved by the congregation, and association associates were affronted aback Sample’s ancestors declared that no one from Dwell had contacted them until a anniversary afterwards his death. (The abbey said in cloister filings that it contacted Sample’s ancestors associates by buzz in the hours afterwards his afterlife and batten to his grandmother the day afterwards he anesthetized away.) Later, the abbey approved to altercate that the bank cruise was not a Dwell-sponsored accident at all, but a “personal vacation”—which assorted above associates said acquainted duplicitous.
Sample’s mother, Raynette Cornish, died afore the case was resolved. Richard, the family’s lawyer, said she about talked about how she acquainted the abbey had taken her son abroad from her alike afore he died. Afterwards Sample abutting Dwell, she said, he spent beneath time with his ancestors and seemed beneath advanced and accepting.
“She saw changes in him that she didn’t anticipate were constant with the aftermost 18 years of his life,” Richard said. She told him: “I don’t appetite addition ancestor to anytime lose a child, let anyone lose a adolescent like I did.”
Since Sample’s death, an accretion cardinal of Dwell defectors accept taken up the aforementioned cause. Several launched a Facebook abutment accumulation in 2018, which has back swelled to about 450 members. They about use the accumulation to aperture and animate anniversary other, but they occasionally allotment account for action. A cardinal of members—including Gail Burkholder, one of the group’s administrators—participated in a Columbus Dispatch commodity criticizing the church’s 2020 rebrand. (Burkholder likened the name change to putting “lipstick on a pig.”)
Mark Kennedy started his own website in 2018, afterwards watching his sister’s associates breach the ancestors apart. (The website, declared “Xenos is a Cult,” was started afore the abbey afflicted its name to Dwell.) Kennedy, 24, advised to use the armpit as a catchall for assorted writings about the abbey broadcast above the internet. But anon afterwards it launched, he said, above associates started sending him their own testimonials to column to the site. He has so far appear 185.
A bounded NBC base appear a alternation of seven accessories analytical of the abbey this winter, and a documentary is reportedly in the works. Still, authorities in Columbus accept remained abundantly bashful about the allegations adjoin Dwell. Both the burghal lath and the University Breadth Commission, an advising lath that was ahead analytical of the alive standards at admiral houses, beneath to animadversion on the almanac to The Daily Beast. The Franklin County Sheriff’s Department did not acknowledge to a appeal for comment.
Kennedy says he is not attractive to get the abbey shut down, alone to acquaint others about the dangers of joining. Others said they would aloof like the abbey to accept the absurdity of its means and accomplish to change. But Burkholder, whose ex-husband still works for the church, said she wasn’t captivation out hope.
“My ambition is for my ex-husband to be unemployed, [and for] the accomplished abode to go abroad and stop affliction kids in Columbus, Ohio,” she said.
“I’m 60 years old, I’m not an optimist,” she added. “I apperceive what a baneful alignment looks like.”
Editor’s note: The Daily Beast gave Dwell administration the befalling to acknowledge to all allegations in this adventure afore publication. Afterwards publication, the abbey appear a lengthier response. Some of those comments accept been added to this allotment throughout.
Read added at The Daily Beast.
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