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UNM bans 2 pastors, suspends student group

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The top two pastors of a nondenominational Christian church that’s been active at the University of New Mexico for years have been banned from campus for allegedly entering dorms and other buildings without authorization or escorts and for holding unauthorized services in campus buildings.

In addition, the charter for the Lobos for Christ student group affiliated with the New Covenant Christian Church has been suspended.

UNM notified pastors Jim Cooper and Kirk Walker of New Covenant Christian Church of the ban in letters dated April 8 and obtained by the Journal through an Inspection of Public Records Act request. The letters also said their presence on campus “significantly negatively impacted former church and Lobos for Christ members who are currently students.”

The church’s current ministers have not been banned.

Cooper and Walker appealed their bans, which appear to last two years, but interim Dean of Students Jenna Crabb said their appeals recently were denied.

Cooper and Walker declined to comment for this story.

The letters to Cooper and Walker also said UNM had evidence that they and their church improperly used the Chartered Student Organization status of Lobos for Christ to gain access to the school’s anthropology building and encouraged group members to violate UNM policies.

An investigation into the student group remains ongoing.

The ban and charter suspension came after students who were former church members complained about the group’s practices, including aggressive recruiting of freshmen students.

Crabb said she couldn’t speak to the specifics of the investigation. But the letters banning the pastors says they violated several university policies, including entering the residence halls without escorts and holding services open to the public in UNM’s anthropology building.

UNM also said the pastors’ presence on campus would affect the former church members’ “ability to continue to pursue their education and move freely on the university campus.”

Former members told the Journal they filed complaints with the university regarding the church and what they called emotional and manipulative practices.

‘It was so controlling’

In interviews with the Journal, they painted a picture of a church that targets young freshmen looking for a sense of belonging in what are often lonely early weeks of college.

It reaches those students through proselytizing on campus.

The Lobos for Christ charter describes the importance of recruiting new students, often having a booth at freshman orientation.

“We do this to draw students in like fish are drawn in by a big drag net,” the charter reads.

Once recruited, the young members found many of their actions monitored by the church, former members said.

“It was so controlling. They knew everything about us, and I hated that,” said former member and current student Kalyn Kollie.

Before she joined, recruiters at times would call her twice a day in an attempt to get her to join. After joining, she said, young members were encouraged to spend their time with other members and choose them as roommates.

The church’s ministers also advised the students what to study or who to date.

Kollie said that despite her concerns she was attracted by the acceptance and social support the church offered new students.

“You feel like you had a place to fit in,” Kollie said.

But after a year and half, she had enough. And when she left, none of the members would have any further association with her.

On its website, the New Covenant Christian Church describes itself as “reaching the students of the University of New Mexico through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

In a section of the charter manual for the group, the author talks about how to best reserve rooms on campus, but it also said the group acquired a key to the anthropology department building so the church could hold services there.

Les Field, chairman of the anthropology department, said he wasn’t familiar with the church and couldn’t comment on the situation.

According to UNM officials, Lobos for Christ also received some student funds, about $1,480 between 2008 and 2012.

‘Aggressive’ recruiting

Martin Ulloa, who said he is a former minister of the church, wrote a seven-page letter to UNM detailing numerous concerns, several echoing Kollie’s. He also said ministers were tasked with spending most of their time on campus recruiting students, rather than ministering.

“The church practices aggressive recruitment efforts like stalking through constant campus surveys, text messages, phone calls and dorm visits,” he said in his letter.

“You need to bring in numbers. That’s what it’s about,” Ulloa told the Journal.

Crabb said she hadn’t received any complaints about the current ministers on campus.

Debbie Morris, director of the student activity center, said religious groups are required to make a reservation before coming onto campus for proselytizing.

“If any individual or group shows up on campus without a reservation, our office would make contact with them to explain the procedure for using outdoor space on campus and ask them to register their activity,” she said.

And Crabb said it was improper for the church to use the student group to reserve spaces for its use.

The Albuquerque church, former members say, is an offshoot of the Faith Christian Church in Tucson. In an Arizona Daily Star report, the paper interviewed former members of the Tucson church, who also shared stories about what they considered the controlling nature of the church.

Messages left with the Tucson Faith Christian Church weren’t returned.

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