Controversial group settles in Spokane
Members of a tightknit Christian group that has been trailed by controversy around the West have purchased six homes bordering Whitworth College, raising concerns on campus and in the surrounding north Spokane neighborhood.
Bill Freeman, who leads the group with his wife, Patsy, said he and the members of his church just want to live quietly, worship as they see fit and keep to themselves. For decades, the Freemans have led a group of fundamentalist Christians who live closely intertwined lives of intense religious devotion, according to several former members and published reports.
“We’re just trying to take a positive attitude, be good neighbors and love our enemies,” Freeman said.
But former members of the church say the Freemans have exerted a “cult-like” influence on followers, arranging marriages, breaking up families, strictly controlling details of members’ lives and profiting from the labors of the followers.
These critics say they fear the group is now looking to build membership with Whitworth students, as it has done in other college towns around the West.
“There’s no accident why they chose to move where they did,” said Steve Kirk, a Spokane Valley man whose marriage was arranged by the Freemans in 1973 and who later was kicked out of the church. “They try to hide what they are. But their history, their track record, proves who and what they are.”
When the Freemans and their associates began purchasing homes adjacent to Whitworth last fall, university officials began hearing so many calls of concern that they issued a campuswide e-mail message about the group.
The group has continued purchasing homes there – the most recent purchase was about two months ago – and a Whitworth administrator said the school intends to renew its message to the campus when classes begin this fall.
“We want students to be aware those questions are there,” said Kathy Storm, vice president for student life and dean of students at Whitworth, a small Christian college. “We simply want them to be as informed as possible as they make decisions about what groups off-campus they want to get involved with.”
Bill Freeman would not agree to be interviewed last week. But he did say during a brief telephone conversation that the members of his church have been hurt “incredibly” by the college’s actions and by a series of articles published earlier this year in the student newspaper, the Whitworthian, that detailed accusations of ex-members against the group.
Former followers of the Freemans say they’re the ones who have been hurt.
Deborah Kirk, Steve Kirk’s wife, said she joined the group when she was 20, during a summer in Seattle between years at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. Eventually, she said, she was encouraged to distance herself from her family. She said she doesn’t want the same thing happening to other young people.
“It really hurt me to try to treat my family the way I was being encouraged to treat them,” she said. “I hurt a lot of people who love me a lot, in the name of God.”
The Freemans have been leading religious groups since the 1960s, according to several accounts. In those early days, they were involved in a Quaker congregation in Southern California, but in 1970 they moved to Seattle to lead a church affiliated with a movement known as The Local Church.
The Freemans split with the church in the mid-1980s, in part due to concerns over the influence they were exerting on families, said Jim Clark, an elder with The Church in Spokane, which is affiliated with The Local Church.
The Freemans and several followers moved to the Scottsdale, Ariz., area, and then several years later they split up temporarily, with Patsy Freeman moving to Lake Oswego, Ore., and Bill Freeman living for a time in Moses Lake, according to ex-members. They appear to have reunited in Spokane.
Former associates of the Freemans say that the couple has tended to draw members from college campuses at each stop along the way, including the University of Washington and Arizona State University.
Bill Freeman has written several books on the Bible, and he runs a nonprofit publishing house and Web site called the Ministry of the Lord.
The church that he leads with his wife doesn’t appear to have a formal public name and is identified only by its association with the Freemans in press accounts and conversations with ex-members.
The Ministry of the Lord is listed as a Washington nonprofit corporation. Over the last several years, the ministry’s federal tax records show that Bill Freeman was paid a small salary – from $13,800 in 1999 to $30,800 in 2002.
The ministry itself also has reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and donations over the years, according to tax records. Between 1995 and 1998, the ministry reported more than $900,000 in such contributions, though that figure dwindled thereafter.
The group’s critics say the Freemans have also made money by purchasing homes, putting everyone in the group to work on refurbishing them and then reselling them for a profit.
The Freemans began buying homes near Whitworth at high prices last September, starting with a home at the corner of East Hawthorne Road and North Whitworth Drive – across the street from campus and near President Bill Robinson’s home. They purchased another home next door and then a third across the street about a month later.
According to county property tax records, the Freemans spent more than $1 million for the three properties, which had been assessed with a taxable value of about $400,000.
Three other homes in the immediate neighborhood are also owned by longtime associates of the group.
Their arrival soon caught the attention of Clark’s congregation as well as former group members who track the Freemans. Clark said The Church in Spokane wrote a letter to the Freemans when they moved here, objecting to their methods and their move to the neighborhood around Whitworth.
He said the division between The Local Church and the Freemans was – and remains – less about religious belief than it does about the influence of the couple on the lives of their followers. However, both the Freemans and The Local Church have been targets of debates regarding cult-like behavior and beliefs, and several online sources bandy the debate back and forth.
“The issue that pertains to Whitworth in particular we don’t feel at all is a doctrinal matter,” Clark said. “Rather it’s a concern about the kind of practices we’ve seen in the past – interfering in people’s marriages.”
It’s unclear exactly how many people live in the homes around Whitworth. One ex-member had heard that between 50 and 60 people were expected to move here, similar to the number of people who have reportedly moved with the Freemans before. The Kirks and other former members say it was common in the group to have as many as 10 people living in a home at any given time.
Neighbors and others say the homes near Whitworth are noticeable for the number of vehicles parked outside and for the steady renovation work being done.
Storm, the Whitworth vice president, said the school has not had any direct problems with the group or seen any visible signs of proselytizing. She said the school had tried to find a “reasoned and fair” way to balance its treatment of the case, but noted that the school heard from many critics and others with concerns about the church and felt an obligation to let students know.
In late January and early February, she authored e-mail messages to faculty, staff and students. The messages said, in part, that “numerous individuals previously involved with the Freemans and their organization contacted the college to warn us that the couple had exerted negative influence on their personal lives. … Subsequently, we have met with Mr. Freeman. Certainly, his description of his group differs from what has been described by others who have contacted us.”
In subsequent weeks, the Whitworthian published a thorough and extensive series of articles on the Freemans, detailing the group’s background in other places and interviewing several former associates.
Bill Freeman, in a brief telephone conversation and in other public statements, has complained about the actions by the college and the student newspaper, saying his group has been victimized and lied about.
“You can’t understand the hurt to families,” he said.
President Bill Robinson could not be reached to comment for this story. But he responded earlier this year to criticism from group members by saying the school could not simply ignore the concerns it was hearing from many different people, according to the Whitworthian.
“Unless people are just lying to us about their experiences,” he wrote, “there is a ton of damaged fruit in the Freemans’ history.”
Arranging a marriage
Steve and Deborah Kirk had never met when Patsy Freeman began suggesting that they marry.
They had become involved with The Local Church in Seattle in the early 1970s. The Freemans were prominent leaders in that congregation at the time.
“God told Patsy that Steve Kirk should marry Deborah Nielsen,” Deborah said. “Three weeks later, I married Steve, who I didn’t even know. And that’s just weird.”
The Kirks hosted large groups of other members in their home. Deborah Kirk said that, in retrospect, she considers the group “cult-like” in its practices, though their beliefs were generally fundamentalist Christian teachings not dramatically unlike those of other conservative faiths.
Back then, she said, the group’s members were encouraged to sever ties with all outside life; they ritually burned objects associated with outside people or activities, to symbolize the giving-up of that world. She said she burned a spoon collection given to her by her grandmother, and Steve, who worked at Boeing, burned his letterman’s jacket from the University of Washington. They turned over a lot of money to the Freemans and said other members were encouraged to do so as well.
“We easily gave 40 percent of our income,” she said.
The Kirks, like several other former members, say Patsy Freeman, in particular, attempted to control the daily and family lives of members in minute detail.
The Kirks eventually moved to Denver, to join The Local Church there, which they considered more joyous and energetic than the Seattle group. But the members of the Denver church were kicked out of The Local Church organization in 1978 over differences in approach and belief.
The split was painful at first, given the prominence that the religion had come to occupy in their lives, the Kirks said. But gradually “we actually started deprogramming ourselves,” Deborah Kirk said.
The Kirks now live in the Spokane Valley and are members of Opportunity Presbyterian Church. Deborah Kirk said she’s become deeply suspicious of any religious organization based on the leadership of charismatic individuals who aren’t part of a larger church hierarchy.
The Kirks went through counseling and decided to stay together, and now they say their marriage is strong. But they said they know many other stories of families who cannot say the same. The atmosphere within the group is intensely us-versus-them, they said, and members are encouraged to cut off contact with any family member who is outside the church.
Steve Kirk said he first heard that the Freemans had arrived in Spokane early this year.
“It was a shock,” he said. “I had not thought of Bill and Patsy for quite a number of years. To see them invading Spokane – that angered me.”
A house divided
Unlike the Kirks, Jim Longmate’s family didn’t outlast its affiliation with the Freemans.
Longmate, a 52-year-old Bremerton man, was a member of The Local Church in Seattle. He said his marriage in 1981 was arranged and encouraged by Patsy Freeman and another key group leader. He and his then-wife followed the Freemans to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1987.
But when his job as a pharmacist began interfering with the time he had to devote to the group and he pulled back, Longmate said, Patsy Freeman drove a wedge between him and his wife and daughters, helped prevent him from contacting them, and fought his efforts to have regular contact with his children. He and his wife divorced in 1998.
Most recently, his visitation agreement was changed to reflect that his two teenage daughters must agree to the terms of all contact, something they did not do this year for what had previously been their annual summer visit. He said that his daughters, like his ex-wife and others who remain loyal to the Freemans, consider him a “poison” to the work of their church.
Longmate is, in fact, organized and aggressive in raising the alarm about the group. He has gathered an extensive amount of information and has been a prominent and outspoken critic.
“I’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars” in legal fees and donations to the group, he said. “I’ve lost my three children. I will be an advocate for avoiding (the Freemans) for the rest of my days on this earth.”
Some former members of the group are hesitant to call it a cult, but not Longmate. He says the members are immersed in a world that completely erases all others – family and friends – and operates under the control of the Freemans, for the benefit of the Freemans.
And the key to the organization, he said, is recruiting energetic young people on college campuses.
“Now that they’ve moved to Spokane,” he said, “they’ve targeted Whitworth College.”