Associated Press [New York NY]
June 27, 2022
By Meagan Gillmore in Ontario
As former pastor Bruxy Cavey appears in an Ontario court, the reckoning continues at The Meeting House.
Reeling from the arrest of their former teaching pastor, Bruxy Cavey, for sexual assault, and a growing number of sexual misconduct allegations against other previous pastors, leaders at The Meeting House are looking for ways to move forward.
“We are deeply sorry for the abuse and harm that has occurred, be it sexual, emotional, or spiritual in our church family,” Jennifer Hryniw, cochair of the board of overseers, recently told the congregation, which operates in 20 locations across Ontario. “We are deeply sorry for how many of these stories have been handled in the past. We continue to be humbled to now be the stewards of these stories.”
The Meeting House was supposed to be a humble kind of church. The Canadian Anabaptist congregation was built around movie theater venues and home gatherings and led by a modest pastor with long hair and baggy clothes.
But during the past few months, The Meeting House has been put to shame by the allegations of clergy sexual abuse.
Despite The Meeting House’s slogan of being “a church for people who aren’t into church,” it was often recognized for its high production value, its facilities, or having “all of the answers,” noted Quincy Bergman, a pastor at its Oakville, Ontario, headquarters.
“That creates almost—and I feel it in myself sometimes and in others—a smugness of who we are,” he told the congregation earlier this month. “God has a way of humbling you when you think you are too big for your britches.”
Cavey, a 57-year-old “hippie pastor,” was the face of the church and its pastor since 1996, before going on leave last December when an allegation against him was brought to the church board. He resigned March 3 following an independent, third-party investigation that found he had had an inappropriate, ongoing sexual relationship with an adult woman in the congregation.
Then, on May 31, he was arrested. Police said they believed there were numerous victims and encouraged people to come forward. The church has declined to say more but directed people with relevant information to the police. Cavey’s first court appearance was scheduled for Monday.
The findings of his misconduct would have been enough to unsettle the well-known Canadian evangelical congregation. But the allegations didn’t end with him.
At the start of June, church leaders told the congregation in a livestreamed meeting that their third-party victim advocate—enlisted in the wake of the investigative report against Cavey—had received 38 reports. They include additional allegations of sexual misconduct against Cavey, as well as against former senior pastor Tim Day and former youth pastors Kieran Naidoo and David Churchill. (The latter two had previously faced criminal charges for sexual offenses involving minors.)
As a result of the reports, The Meeting House launched another investigation into Cavey in mid-March after two other women came forward with allegations against the former teaching pastor. A third allegation was later added to the investigation. A separate investigation into Day was launched in May.
Leadership and membership upheaval
The revelations come at an already challenging time for the multisite church, struggling to rebuild after pandemic shutdowns restricted in-person gatherings, hurt giving, and led to staff layoffs. The church now plans to operate at 60 to 70 percent of its previous budgets and to restructure.
As a result of COVID-19, some of its regional sites have found new locations, and some continue to gather outside. Many members are only meeting virtually, tuning into well-produced livestreamed services from the church’s main site in Oakville.
Leaders are emphasizing transparency and repentance. Preaching during Lent focused on lament; June’s sermon series, “Afraid of the Dark,” included teaching about the need to expose sin and hypocrisy. Pastors and worship leaders have spoken frankly during the services about the grief and anger they are experiencing.
The Meeting House boasts a weekly attendance of 6,000 across sites, but attendance has barely begun to recover from pandemic disruptions. The emerging allegations, as well as leadership changes, have hurt morale.
Prior to Cavey’s confession and resignation in March, Danielle Strickland, a teaching pastor at The Meeting House since 2019, resigned “in solidarity with the victim of the abuse” and has gone on to advocate for the victim, who uses the pseudonym “Hagar.”
Then senior pastor Darrell Winger announced he would leave at Easter, part of a retirement plan unrelated to the allegations against Cavey. Board of overseers chair Maggie Johns resigned at the end of March, saying the “relational and emotional toll” of the investigation had “confirmed” it was time for her to step down.
While the church has stripped Cavey’s content from its digital platforms—a move both praised and criticized by members—some fear it could take years for The Meeting House to “disentangle” its reputation from its fallen pastor and form its own identity.
Darcie Dow, from The Meeting House’s Ottawa location, says the church’s identity as Anabaptist provides a strong foundation for future growth.
While the congregation has seemed to “tower” over its Anabaptist denomination—Be In Christ (BIC)—their tradition’s emphasis on following Jesus simply in community can provide a way forward and allow the church to become more compassionate and humbler, she said.
Victims ‘shamed and rejected’
In churchwide gatherings and Sunday services at individual locations, The Meeting House leaders have continued to express remorse and heartbreak as they learn more about the lasting effects of alleged abuse within their church.
The 38 additional allegations that have been made—including repeated reports from multiple people about the same incidents—relate to past staff members. They include instances of sexual misconduct, adultery, and emotional abuse, all resulting in spiritual harm. Some reports have nothing to do with abuse but raise concerns about relational breakdowns in their church communities.
The board has heard about “brave individuals who tried to address the culture of immorality in the past and they felt shut down and alienated by the church,” said Hryniw, the board cochair. “Each story we’ve read causes us deep grief, but we know it’s only a fraction of the pain that the victims, both men and women, have experienced.”
Collectively, the reports also reveal “a skew to prioritizing the care and wellbeing of offenders over victims,” Hryniw said. “There are multiple stories of victims who felt shamed and rejected by the church while the offender was supported through so-called restoration.”
Tim Day, who had served for 14 years alongside Cavey during the peak of the church’s growth and left it in 2015, was named among the accused. He left his current job at WayBase, a tech company that helps churches and Christian ministries, on June 9.
“We have very limited information related to this matter and have no additional comments,” WayBase said in a statement. “We continue to pray for everyone involved.”
Kieran Naidoo and David Churchill, the other pastors named in allegations, have not worked at The Meeting House for several years. Naidoo was arrested in 2012 and charged with four counts of luring and four counts of sexual exploitation, invitation for sexual touching and possession of child pornography, and possession of a controlled substance.
He was later arrested in January 2021 and charged with one count of sexual exploitation related to his time as a youth pastor at a Baptist church in Toronto between 2002 and 2005, prior to his employment at The Meeting House.
Churchill was charged with sexual assault in 2014. He was working at The Meeting House’s Oakville site at the time and was dismissed when the church learned of his alleged inappropriate contact with a teenage girl.
Hryniw told the church that both Churchill and Naidoo had been convicted.
The church’s board has a subcommittee dedicated to responding to incoming complaints, but it has not been able to do so within the 30-day time period it originally promised. Another subcommittee is reviewing and revising supervision, accountability, and training policies.
Church leaders also said that they compensated Cavey and his family after his departure. The details are confidential, Jared Taylor, the church’s communication pastor said in an email to CT. “The investigation found that Bruxy had abused his power,” Taylor wrote in the email. “We stand behind these findings. The rationale for support was to demonstrate compassion to the Cavey family as a whole.”
Melodie Bissell, the independent victim advocate, continues to hear from church members with concerns. She writes reports describing their desired outcomes and informs them about the process to escalate their allegations if they want to do so. The church board’s victim advocacy committee reads each report and determines next steps. (Editor’s note: The reporter of this piece also writes for Bissell’s abuse prevention organization Plan to Protect on a project-by-project basis, but not involving The Meeting House.)
Bissell told CT last month that she has “little doubt that the overseers mean what they say when they say they have zero tolerance for any form of abuse or sexual misconduct happening at the church.”
She and others have praised the church for immediately placing Cavey on leave when allegations were brought forward, hiring a third-party investigator, and responding to further allegations.
Former pastor Danielle Strickland has been much more critical of the process, saying the church minimized Cavey’s actions and didn’t prioritize victims.
Her new initiative, Hagar’s Voice, has connected with at least 30 survivors of clergy sexual abuse, according to its cofounder Angela Lam. Hagar’s Voice involves survivors, licenced social workers and counselors to offer prayer, listening, and support and advocacy for whistleblowing and disclosure.
Lam previously served at the Jesus Collective, the church leadership network founded by and based out of The Meeting House. She said she believes recent trauma-informed practices as well as its display of remorse during the June 7 meeting are signs that The Meeting House is learning more about how to better respond to victims.
Hagar’s Voice has gone on to “raise the voices of survivors” across churches and ministries. The organization “wasn’t launched out of a protest against the Meeting House,” Lam said, noting that clergy sexual abuse is larger than any one church.
Moving forward as ‘walking wounded’
In March, Be In Christ released a public statement about the allegations, reiterating that none of the named pastors are currently credentialled with the denomination. BIC removed Cavey’s credentials when he resigned in March, and Day voluntarily surrendered his when he learned about the allegation against him.
Though The Meeting House has an outsized place in the denomination—it’s at least ten times larger than the next-biggest church—and Cavey himself was “the leading spokesperson for Anabaptist theology” in the words of BIC leadership, the group did not mention the allegations during its annual meeting last month and has stated that his situation is not representative of a larger problem.
“I don’t think we have a systemic issue,” said BIC’s executive director Mashinter. “I don’t even believe there was a systemic issue at the Meeting House.”
Cavey was the only celebrity pastor the denomination had, he said, describing the former pastor as a “gentle soul” with a “hippie pastor” persona who came to celebrity “unwillingly.”
Cavey was an unconventional megachurch leader. During The Meeting House’s exponential growth throughout the 2000s, he held “purge Sundays,” encouraging casual attenders to either get involved or find another church. While many flocked to the church to listen to the tattooed preacher, congregants were also challenged by him; members recalled how they would spend their drive home debating Cavey’s teaching.
Mashinter doesn’t blame Cavey’s public downfall on his place in the public eye.
“There’s pastors that fall. Unfortunately, it has been (this way) since the beginning of the church,” said Mashinter, who has remained in touch with Cavey since his arrest and says he doesn’t want to minimize the charges against him. “Temptation affects everyone. I don’t think anybody escapes that.”
The Meeting House is considering structural changes as a result of the investigations. The church needs to focus on “operating in pockets of strength,” said Karmyn Bokma, the new senior interim pastor. Currently, the church’s 20 sites operate independently. “But it’s safe to say that we’re moving into a regional framework moving forward.”
While details are still being finalized, Bokma and Matt Miles, senior interim director, told the congregation they can expect The Meeting House to be restructured into possibly six distinct regions, each with its own leadership. Each region will have at least one location for Sunday morning gatherings. Home churches, children’s and youth ministry, and compassion projects will be offered at each, but there will be room for regional differences.
As a multisite church, grieving the pain of the upheaval at The Meeting House “looks different depending on where you are,” said Darcie Dow, children’s ministry coordinator at The Meeting House’s Ottawa location.
Dow and her husband, Keith, started attending the church in 2009, a few months after the Ottawa site launched. That location—which recently moved from a movie theater and now rents space from a United Church of Canada congregation—is the farthest from the Greater Toronto Area and most of the other locations.
She said she agrees with the decisions to hire a third-party investigator and appreciates the senior leadership team’s desire to communicate transparently about the investigations and their response to them. But “Oakville’s grief is like a riptide right now,” she explained in late June. “Anytime you start to get some distance, it just pulls you back.”
Everyone is “walking wounded right now” she said—first from the isolation of the pandemic, and then from constant reminders that, even as they meet together again, no part of church life is the same. These losses have made responding to the allegations particularly difficult, she said.
While Dow is grateful for how Cavey’s teaching introduced her to Anabaptist theology and helped strengthen her faith, her experience at The Meeting House doesn’t revolve around the pastor she only met a half dozen times.
She hopes that fellow members can also find comfort and support in the church beyond its fallen leaders.
“I hope that they’re humbled enough to recognize the wisdom that’s been in their midst the whole time from these pastors that have been shepherding communities and doing pastoral care and working these things out in their local areas for long before The Meeting House, and who’ll be doing it long after,” she said.
But along with the hope for the church’s future, there’s also an expectation that things could remain difficult as the church continues to reckon with allegations. Back at the Oakville site, Bergman referred to the process as an “excavation season.”
“It may sound crass,” the pastor said, his voice breaking with emotion, “but it’s like we need to dig up the bones, in order for us to plant a garden with beauty and light.”