by Bruce A. Smith
A look inside the “church behind the fence”
Across a sloping field along the Orting-Kapowsin Highway in Graham sprawls the world headquarters of the New Testament Christian Churches of America, Inc. Embracing an old-fashioned style of religion that follows strict Biblical interpretations, the faithful of NTCC keep to themselves and are known to Graham residents as members of the “church behind the fence.”
“We’re friendly, though,” said associate pastor Mike Kekel, with a chuckle.
“The fence is mainly for security,” Kekel further insisted, adding, “I even saw a guy once walking up the O-K Highway who tried to steal a 40-foot ladder!”
The fence encircles a large religious campus that includes the main chapel easily seen from the O-K Highway, and numerous other structures: a fellowship hall, an educational building that houses adult seminary classrooms and Sunday school facilities, a teen center, a smaller chapel for special events, a library, office center and printing shop, and a nursery.
Beyond the central complex are ten dorms for seminarians, and further westward along 210th St are homes for administrative staff and faculty.
However, what happens within these buildings is harder to discern. During a three-hour visit not a single seminary student was observed although their student body is reported to have over 100 individuals and is a full-time educational program. In fact, not a single woman was observed anywhere on the grounds during the initial visit.
Adding to the mystery of NTCC was the inability of Rev. Kekel to provide definitive answers about his organization, such as how many churches world-wide belong to the corporation, or how many members attend services, even though Kekel is the CEO.
Nevertheless, Kekel and his co-pastor, Phil Kinson, did say that approximately 700-800 members attend church services in Graham on Sunday mornings.
Internet sources report that NTCC has about 150 churches world-wide, with perhaps five-thousand members.
Despite the uneasy vagueness on organizational issues, both pastors were articulate about doctrinal ones.
“We preach Christ,” said Kinson. “We allow the bible to guide our lives.”
Kekel claimed that the bible is the “pure word of God,” and said that when they preach Christ they are not delivering “an opinion,” but something much more authentic.
In addition, both men agreed that the NTCC seeks to “change the nature of humanity.”
“We believe that Christ is the only way,” said Kinson, “although the NTCC is not the only church.”
As such, both pastors clearly see NTCC as evangelical, with a mission to spread their religious message to the world. To that end, the NTCC sends teams of lay pastors and volunteers into area neighborhoods to invite residents to one of the five religious services typically offered each week at an NTCC facility.
“But we don’t do malls,” said Kinson, with a chuckle. “We respect the privacy of business owners.”
Besides Sunday morning services, church goers can select bible study and fellowship on Wednesdays, and worship services on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.
However, a unique strategy of the NTCC outreach is to target military bases, particularly overseas, where single, lonely American soldiers need something more than honky-tonks and bars.
“We provide a home-away-home,” said Kinson, “and get them out of those filthy, evil barracks.”
Life and worship in the New Testament Christian Church
Although there are five worship services held each week at the New Testament Christian Church in Graham and attended by hundreds of congregants, the fundamental experience that underlies all of that devotion for most believers begins in a place of utter solitude – the Born-Again Experience.
Most church members describe this event as the most profound and beautiful moment of their lives. They feel that they have been touched or spoken to by God directly, and yet, it came at a time of absolute despair.
Co-pastor Mike Kekel describes his born again experience as occurring in his military barracks at Fort Lewis, when he felt the dead-end-ness of his life, the lack of purpose in his existence, and the resulting drugs and cursing swallowing him whole.
“I was so sick of my life, I couldn’t sleep,” he says.
One night in the midst of agony, he fell to his knees next to his bunk. Then, he felt God was touching him physically.
“I believe he was letting me know how real he was,” Kekel says.
In response, Kekel resolved to stop cursing. Shortly afterwards, he met some soldiers who attended the NTCC church in Graham and he followed.
Many others speak of similar born-again experiences and they describe it as the moment of their salvation. Once “saved,” they find their way to an NTCC church, feeling it is the will of God that they attend. In the NTCC environment they find acceptance and nourishment of this most personal transformation.
Soon, the members of NTCC grow to feel their relationship with God is the most important aspect of their life. As a result, most of them travel to NTCC four or five times a week to re-invigorate that relationship.
The services follow a similar format: first a lively song session that has grown men jumping in ecstasy and everyone waving their hands and singing along. A monetary collection then follows, and the service concludes with a biblical teaching.
Although the NTCC prides itself in adhering to a doctrinal purity of the bible “without interpretation,” as member Julian Cox lauded, and “without opinion” as co-pastor Phil Kinson claims, there is actually a great deal of biblical commentary given. In fact, the Wednesday night “Bible Study” session is hardly that at all for there are no questions asked or solicited, and the study, as observed on one occasion, was mostly pithy exposition by Pastor Kinson.
One clear departure from study was Kinson’s asides chastising the inaccuracies of journalists, both modern day and biblical, which was not lost on this reporter.
Membership is quite diverse at the Graham NTCC, with about forty percent of congregants being of African-American heritage, and significant numbers possess Asiatic and Hispanic backgrounds. In addition, about sixty percent of the worshippers are men and most are impeccably dressed in suits and ties. In fact, the aroma of after-shave wafts throughout the parking lot, greeting members as they arrive for service.
Despite the widespread friendliness of the NTCC congregation, many worshippers sit by themselves and appear to be having a singular experience. The preaching itself can be described as old-fashioned fire and brimstone, and Pastor Kekel is a superbly skilled fire-breather.
However, his rhetoric undercuts his substantial biblical knowledge; on one occasion he characterized children as “evil and filthy” when they have hissy-fits in the cookie aisle of a grocery store.
Adding to that virulent tone, Kekel uses a great deal of shouting and a percussive delivery, all of which feeds the view that NTCC has of the world – a hostile place that seeks to subvert the pure of heart -a world that the NTCC must defend against.
Nevertheless, since many members are former military, this combative approach seems to fit comfortably with their own view of the world outside the fence.
Is the NTCC a cult? Ex-members speak out
By most accounts the NTCC is a highly conservative, dogmatic, and controlling faith community replete with strict dress codes, rigid rules of behavior, and sharply-defined manners of worship.
But is it a cult?
Dozens of ex-members, including many former ministers claim it is. In the examination that follows our intent is not to prove or disprove the NTCC’s status as a cult, we are simply conveying the many stories told about the NTCC experience and applying a reasonable analysis to their commentary.
Founded in Missouri during the 1960s by a break-away Pentecostal minister named Rodger W. Davis, the NTCC is a stand-alone religious organization. It has no affiliation with any other denomination, and this singularity sets the stage for a tightly-wrapped organization.
Ex-members, such as Nicole Brown, say the NTCC clergy present themselves as the “actual spokesmen for God, and if you do not do everything they tell you, you will go to hell.”
What the preachers tell their congregations can be disarming: women must wear dresses, can not wear make-up, and must let their hair grow long. If they are married, women are prohibited from working.
Building upon this, women are not allowed to run a ministry, even if they are ordained at the NTCC’s Bible Seminary, which Pastor Kinson acknowledges is a “highly-charged issue.”
Coupled with this is a rigid control of relations between men and women, especially courtship. Many ex-members describe a system whereby a young man wanting to date a woman would first have to ask permission of Rev. Davis during a public fellowship service. If Davis approved, he would then move to the women’s section and ask the young woman if she would like to court the man. If she concurred, then the couple could “sit along the wall,” in pre-arranged chairs and chat. In addition, they were forbidden to meet outside of this time, although they would eventually be permitted to go on a date with a chaperone.
One ex-minister, Vic Johanson, said that when he married his wife, a fellow member of NTCC, they had never kissed nor held hands.
As a result, many ex-ers, as former members call themselves, report the NTCC is filled with troubled marriages.
Social activities are also controlled. Sports are discouraged if not banned outright, as ministers extol their members to spend the time more productively in prayer or other service to God. Simple gatherings can be severely restricted, as well. Ex-er Tracey Pelfrey declared that she had to ask Davis for permission to have children come to her daughter’s birthday party. Davis allowed two guests and the birthday girl’s sister, but no others.
Pelfrey also said that she had to ask Davis for permission to visit a sick relative, and she described the negotiation as nerve-wracking.
Even the simple joys of life are restricted. For a long period of time, watching television was banned and was called “devil-vision,” and the Internet was forbidden and labeled the “sinner-net.”
Pastor Kekel, who is also the church’s CEO, says many of these restrictions have been loosened in recent years and the use of computers is now commonplace. Nevertheless, controlling practices still linger.
In addition, intense financial pressures are exerted upon members, who are expected to tithe ten percent of their income to the church along with “giving ‘til it hurts,” as one ex-er described, in special collections for construction projects and missionary programs.
More troubling though is bullying from the pulpit. Any perceived transgressions in members’ behavior can be cited during services, which many report as humiliating.
Further, when an individual leaves the church they are shunned by the membership, thus losing a lifetime of friends and relationships.
When members have questioned these practices, ex-ers say they received a biblical tirade or were told they were “in rebellion.” Oftentimes, though, they were ignored.
A deeper look into the NTCC – following the money
By all measures, the finances of the New Testament Christian Churches of America, Inc are murky and mysterious.
Ascertaining how much revenue comes into the church and where it goes is difficult. CEO Mike Kekel has not returned phone calls seeking information on this subject, and all attempts to contact NTCC founder and Chairman of the Board, Rodger W. Davis, have been unsuccessful.
Perhaps most telling is the response of Pastor Kinson, who shared a series of conversational snippets in the NTCC parking lot after a bible study session.
When asked how much revenue the NTCC generates Kinson repeatedly said, “I don’t know.” When pressed to reveal who does know and would they be available for an interview, Kinson replied, “No, that would not be possible.”
Kinson also refused to say how much compensations he receives to pastor the nearly 800 congregants at the Graham church.
Nevertheless, ex-ministers of the NTCC have been able to establish a partial picture of this financial empire. NTCC has an estimated 1,500 – 5,000 members attending about 100 churches domestically and a dozen overseas “servicemen’s homes” near US military bases, mostly in Germany and Korea. In addition, it has several missionary stations in Panama and the Philippines.
All the faithful are expected to tithe ten percent of their incomes to the NTCC, and also contribute to “offerings” conducted at every service, along with special collections for the missionary work and special building funds. According to a former NTCC minister, Les Rinehart, some of the tithe collected at local churches stays to maintain that community, but at least a portion travels to the Graham coffers maintained by Davis, Kekel, et al..
Greg Shunk, another former minister and former “overseer” of the three Korean ministries, estimates that these revenues sources can total up to $6 million per year heading to the Graham leadership.
Expenses are minimal. Pastors in the domestic churches do not receive a salary and are expected to maintain full-time employment besides their pasturing duties. Further, they receive no financial assistance to build their ministry, and although the Graham HQ will front the monies necessary to buy land and materials to build a new church the loan must be repaid to the NTCC, which also holds the title. Thus, local churches are required to pay rent to the NTCC on the structures they build.
In addition, when a minister leaves a domestic church the NTCC reportedly absorbs all monies in the local escrow account, which can be tens of thousands of dollars, thus leaving a new replacement minister without funds.
Although $100,000 per year is reportedly raised for the three field missions, those who labor there see very little of it – $300 per month. Further, many ministers report a life in poverty while they labor for the NTCC.
Veronica Medina, a NTCC Bible Seminary graduate and former minister, says she only received a one-time lump sum of $700 to help maintain her ministry in Puerto Rico during a three-year stint, even though she and her family lived in abject poverty. When she asked the NTCC leadership for additional help, Medina says that Rev. Davis sent her $100 – as a loan. She then had to go on welfare to feed her children, and soon after she resigned her ministry and left the church.
Davis, for his part, reportedly lives in a million-dollar home in Graham that is registered with Pierce County as being owned by the NTCC. In addition, in 2004, Davis gifted his son-in-law, Rev. Kekel, with a 39-acre parcel of land adjacent to the NTCC campus in Graham. This property is scheduled to be developed in 2011 and the documentation requesting a variance from local building codes will be presented to the Graham Land Use Advisory Commission on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 7 pm in the Graham Public Library on 224th St at 92nd Ave.
Further protecting these disparities in incomes and lifestyles, the NTCC does not provide financial statements to its ministers or congregants, nor does it belong to the Evangelical Center for Financial Accountability, which according to Les Rinehart is the largest and most respected firm for ensuring sound financially dealings in church ministries.
Such accounting practices are called for by many in the ex-er community, as the NTCC relies heavily on a “cash-only” system.
Former minister Vic Johanson says that his meager $25 per class salary teaching in the Bible Seminary, which totaled about $1,000 per year, was paid in cash from a card table overflowing with dollars. Other former ministers and biblical students report that tuition, dorm rent and utilities, and even tithes, were all paid in cash to the NTCC.
Based upon such financial practices, this organization may be best described as ex-er, Mark Gloer, has stated: “The NTCC is a real estate company masquerading as a church.”
A deeper look: sexual and marital relationships in the NTCC
Of all the allegations leveled against the NTCC by ex-members, perhaps the most serious are those concerning sexual improprieties and destructive marital practices, such as the encouragement of teen brides, church-sanctioned marriage-busting when a spouse leaves the faith, and numerous charges of sexual abuse and misconduct by the ministerial leadership.
Specifically, ex-ers cast harsh judgment on the practice of the leadership betrothing their young teenage daughters to much older ministerial students, many of whom are in their twenties.
A prime target of these charges is CEO and co-pastor of the Graham NTCC church, Mike Kekel, who reportedly started dating his wife Tanya when she was 14 and he was 23, and already a military veteran. Causing further alarm, Tanya is the daughter of NTCC founder Rodger Davis.
Also receiving the wrath of ex-ers is Phil Kinson, the other co-pastor of the Graham church. Kinson reportedly started dating his wife Debbie Johnson Kinson when she was 13 and he was about 20 years old. Kinson’s wife is the daughter of James L. Johnson, a long-time member of the NTCC Board of Directors.
Such arrangements can be construed as border-line criminal activity since Washington state law forbids any sexual contact between a 14 year-old girl and a partner who is four years older, such as in the case of Kekel and Kinson and their girl friends Tanya and Debbie.
Mr. Kinson and his wife both emphatically deny that any physical touching took place when they were dating, and both state that every moment they were together prior to marriage was in the company of others or on a sanctioned, chaperoned date.
The Kekels have declined all invitations to comment on these charges.
Nevertheless, Vic Johanson, an ex-minister who was friends with Kekel and Kinson – even commuting with them to bible studies – firmly declares that both Kekel and Kinson had “boasted about making out,” with Tanya and Debbie when they were young teenagers.
Another ex-member and NTCC Bible Seminary graduate, Linda Rodriguez Fairfield, also claims that she directly heard Kekel and Kinson acknowledge their sexual activity with their under-age girl friends.
Nevertheless, a more problematic issue for the entire faith community may be the efforts by church leadership to encourage a spouse to divorce when their partner leaves the NTCC.
Ex-minister Les Rinehart declares that these efforts of the church were buttressed by doctrinal pronouncements, and the faithful were told by the clergy that when a spouse leaves the NTCC they have effected “marital abandonment,” and thus had created grounds for a divorce.
“This is almost to the point of wife-swapping and ‘anything goes,’ as far as the situations that have been condoned, if not promoted, by the leadership,” Rinehart has stated.
Rinehart is also very concerned about sexual misconduct in the NTCC, particularly acts perpetrated by the ministerial staff. Reinhart specifically accuses Rodger W. Davis of being a “serial adulterer.”
Rinehart’s claims are corroborated in part by a former NTCC preacher who told this reporter that he had received the confession of a married woman who had had an adulterous affair with Davis. Due to the circumstances surrounding how this information was obtained, the preacher has asked that his name and the woman’s identity be kept anonymous. Nevertheless, at least two acts of sexual abuse within the NTCC community are known.
Linda Fairfield states that her 12 year-old daughter Christine was sexually molested by a young NTCC minister, whose name is being kept confidential pending the filing of criminal charges. Fairfield said that she came upon the minister in his bedroom with her daughter.
“Okay, they were fully clothed, but no man – especially a minister – should be alone in a bedroom like that with a young girl,” said Fairfield.
Fairfield also said that her daughter later told her of prior incidents of molestation, where the minister had taken the child on long car trips and had “tickled her where he shouldn’t have been touching her.”
Fairchild’s daughter later confirmed these allegations in the presence of this reporter.
In addition, former NTCC church worker Michael Fontenot has reportedly been convicted of child rape in 2010 and is currently in prison. A complete investigation of this case will be forthcoming shortly in the Mountain News.
© 2011 The Mountain News – WA