COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Stories of abuse and control inside a Columbus church have gotten the attention of a popular podcast with an international audience.
NBC4 Investigates has previously exposed those allegations against Dwell Community Church by former members who call it a cult. That reporting is used as a source in the podcast, over the course of two hour long episodes.
“Let’s Talk About Sects” breaks down the dynamics of different groups all over the world that allegedly exercise control over their members.
When its host, Sarah Steel, found out about Dwell (formerly known as Xenos Christian Fellowship, and still referred to in that way by some former members), she said she did not realize the extent of what she was about to learn.
Steel, a filmmaker, launched the podcast in 2017.
“I wanted to learn more about the psychology of how these groups operate, and how people become so enmeshed in them and, you know, kind of behave in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Steel said. “As I started researching (Dwell), there was a lot more than I had expected. So that turned into a two-part episode because of the amount of information out there.”
Through her research, Steel said she discovered Dwell contained multiple elements of what she considers to be a cult.
“You can see so many experiences of people kind of becoming alienated from family and friends who are not within the church,” she said. “That isolation seems to be a really common experience in Dwell– keeping people so busy that they have no time to do anything else. Like, this is a really common experience in a cult. And, you know, experts say this is about keeping your critical faculties in check. This is also not getting enough sleep, I think, is also a really common experience in this organization.”
What really stood out to Steel, she said, is that church leadership addressed the allegations of cultic behavior on its own website in blog posts, essays, teachings and written responses to public criticisms of the church.
“That I found quite incredible, because they really put me off — I finally thought well, it is a group that has actually, you know, realized that there’s an issue here and dealt with it,” Steel said. “But then it became really clear that it hadn’t.”
Steel said she found out about Dwell when a former member named Desiree Gaylord contacted her.
“I went into that church — cult — as a good little Catholic girl– innocent. And I came out as a chain smoker and an alcoholic and a mess,” Gaylord said.
Gaylord said she was recruited to join the church, which went by Xenos at the time, when she was in high school in the 1990’s. She moved into a ministry house at 16, she said.
Ministry houses are homes that are often owned by Dwell members but not the church itself. Many of the homes are near Ohio State University and rented to younger members in their teens and twenties. NBC4 has previously reported on the hazardous conditions in some of the homes, which former members said could house upwards of a dozen people and often hosted parties with underage drinking and excessive cigarette smoking.
Gaylord said she married a fellow member when she was 20 years old, so she wouldn’t have to live in a ministry house anymore.
She said she was physically abused by her husband.
“I couldn’t breathe. I had rashes. I was so anxious,” Gaylord said. “I wasn’t telling anybody what he was doing. Because at the time, I was protecting him because I didn’t want to ruin his reputation.”
According to Gaylord, her leaders in the church learned about the abuse after she moved into her own apartment to escape it.
“They still got me to take him back,” Gaylord said. “I didn’t want him back, but it was the right thing to do to them.”
Gaylord said she was told the only way the church would consent to a divorce was if her husband was unfaithful.
“My best friend… was praying that he would cheat on me so that I could get a divorce,” Gaylord said.
Gaylord eventually left the marriage, but remained in the church for several more years. She left in 2008.
“I didn’t know I was in a cult. I thought they were just the best church and I wasn’t good enough,” she said. “I divorced and, you know, I thought God was mad at me for that.”
Gaylord said she held onto that belief for years, until other former members began telling their stories on social media and to NBC4.
“When I first started realizing w1as in a cult, I was afraid to even push a like button,” Gaylord said. “After I saw all these people –these heartbroken people– and then they got a voice– and the ball went rolling and I can’t stop now, because I want to prevent girls like me — or anybody –these young kids from going through what I went through.”
Gaylord said she still has nightmares about being shunned. She and other former members have formed online and in person support groups to share their experiences.
In response to an inquiry about the podcast, Dwell Community Church sent a pre-recorded video statement from Senior Pastor Ryan Lowery, saying the podcast was full of lies.
“It grieves us that some have been unhappy with our church,” Lowery said in the video. “While I cannot agree with what they say, I believe their pain is real. Some of our critics are unhappy with our church. Others are opposed to the bible itself. We wish them the best.”
Lowery also said an outside group has investigated some of the more serious allegations against the church and determined they were unfounded. The church did not provide the name of an investigator when asked, but described them as a “law enforcement expert.”
Asked which claims in the podcast were false, the church replied, “There are so many it would be hard to list them all. If you agree to post the full list of distortions, inaccuracies, and lies to the NBC4 website and then hold your story while we take the time to detail them, we will get you that list.”
Minutes after the story aired, Dwell’s leadership responded to a follow-up question regarding which claims in the “Let’s Talk About Sects” podcast are false.
“The podcast claims we teach that Xenos may be the only believing church in the United States and maybe the world. We have always taught that we are a part of the global Church of Jesus Christ along with hundreds of millions of believers worldwide,” said an email from Amanda Hoyt, a project manager at the church. “The podcast claims we randomly discipline members if their groups don’t grow. This has never happened.”
The email said the church takes concerns of self-harm and reports of sexual assault, both of which are discussed in the podcast, seriously.
“Any time someone attending our church claims that they were sexually assaulted we urge them to immediately contact law enforcement. In the case of minors, we contact law enforcement ourselves,” the email said.