Oct 18, 2015

New Hartford ex-parishioner reveals church's descent into 'spiritual cannibalism'

Patrick Lohmann
Syracuse.comOctober 17, 2015

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. – The founder of Word of Life Church had a vision, he later told parishioners, that his church would become a raucous place of worship in the Utica area and become a "lighthouse" for wayward souls.

Jerry Irwin wanted Word of Life to become a megachurch, and he was well on his way to achieving that in the early 1990s, according to former member Nathan Ames.

Around 100 people attended every Sunday and described regular "miracles, prophecy and people getting set free," Ames wrote in an open letter for fellow former members.

Ames wrote the letter to Syracuse.com and gave an interview to urge those ex-parishioners to come forward and shed light on how that lighthouse ended up, behind closed doors, twisted and perverted.

Ames attended the church between 1989 and 2001 and has remained connected in the New Hartford area since then. He provide a rare glimpse into the church that has become more and more isolated over the past two decades, until it was exposed this week for grisly torture.

Ames was interviewed by police investigators Tuesday. His story fits with accounts given by former parishioners and neighbors to Syracuse.com and other news organizations.

Church members brought two young men into a "counseling session" Sunday and beat them for hours to draw "confessions" for perceived sins, police said.

One man, Lucas Leonard, 19, died of his injuries, and his brother Christopher was badly injured. Their parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, are facing manslaughter charges, and four other church members were charged with assault.

To understand how that might have happened, Ames said, you need to understand the history of the church over the last two decades. It begins with pastor Richard Wright, who founded the church with Irwin and was known as a charismatic and passionate pastor.

Jerry Irwin, the founder, was "more of a prophet or an overseer," Ames said, and did not have a knack for counseling congregants or igniting spirituality.

Wright was well liked, and the church was growing, Ames said. Gatherings began in a basement at a home in Richfield Springs and then church members bought the school-house building in Chadwicks. The gymnasium was turned into a sanctuary, the classrooms into residences.

The church "started out as a good, God-fearing Pentecostal Church and was rapidly growing. Great things were happening, miracles, prophecy, and people getting set free," Ames wrote in the letter. "There was no beating and or molestation going on."

No more communion

In the mid-1990s, Jerry Irwin grew incensed at what he saw as a lack of communication from his fellow church members, Ames said.

So he returned and kicked Richard Wright off the pulpit. He demoted all church leaders and appointed himself pastor. Then-deacon Bruce Leonard was among those demoted, Ames said. Irwin eliminated the church hierarchy, making himself the only leader among all the parishioners, Ames said.

He became more and more convinced in his vision of Christianity and sin. He regularly attacked other churches or Christians from the pulpit. If he believed a parishioner was "in sin," Ames said, he would walk up to them and tell them so in the middle of a sermon.

He stopped giving Communion to parishioners because they were " in so much sin that he wasn't going to take communion, that he didn't want the blood to be on his hands," Ames said.

"That's where he had that manipulation. That's where he kind of sank his teeth into people," Ames said.

Jerry Irwin disappeared in early 2013; Ames and other former members were told little about the circumstances.

Members of the Irwin family could not be reached for comment.

Traci Irwin, Jerry's wife, is commonly called "Mother" by the handful of church members who remained. Irwin's daughter Tiffanie stayed on as pastor, and Irwin's son, Joseph, was one of the four people arrested and charged with assault against Christopher Leonard. Another suspect is Sarah Ferguson, Deborah Leonard's daughter, Ames said.

'Spiritual cannibalism"

After Jerry Irwin took over in the mid-1990s, church members began leaving. When Ames and his family were kicked out of the church in 2001, around 30 adults and their children attended, he said.

Ames said he was kicked out a couple years before then from the Word of Life Christian School, and the final straw was his older brother's failure to complete a homework assignment, he said.

The Ames family's exit initiated a period of "really weird" behavior, Ames said. They battled rumors that originated in the church about their family, and it became clear that Nathan Ames was being "stalked" over social media by members, he said.

Jerry Irwin controlled the remaining followers, Ames said.

"Many left after realizing that he was a narcissistic psychopath," Ames wrote in the letter. "The few that stayed were slowly lied to and manipulated into believing Jerry was called from God to 'control' their lives – filling their minds with outlandish stories that were for the most part fabricated."

He described the trajectory of the church as "spiritual cannibalism."

Since 2001, more and more people left the church, Ames said, including Tim Wright, brother of Richard Wright and Deborah Leonard.

Richard Wright stayed on at the church, Ames said, despite being demoted in the mid-1990s. A woman at his house declined to comment Thursday, and Tim Wright declined comment.

The congregation diminished little by little, Ames said, and it became more isolated. 
Tiffanie Irwin, who police believe is the church's current pastor, took over from her father in 2013. Ames said she's "her father's favorite daughter" and her tenure would have brought more of the same.

"Jerry's children took the church to a whole new demonic level with more control and randomized yelling and demeaning on the very few church members that were involved," Ames wrote.

"Because they thought they were God, they believed they could do anything to their members and have no repercussions," he said.

Ames said he had never heard of "counseling sessions" like the one at which the Leonard brothers were abused. He also had never heard of any form of abuse against church members.

What makes a cult

There were no ritualistic or "cultish" practices at the church, Ames said. The doctrine was similar to that of other churches.

But it's the personalities of those in the pulpit, he said, that ultimately makes a church.

"When you come out, you realize the meaning of cult is believing that you're the only who is going to make it to heaven. So I would call it a cult," he said. "They didn't do any cultic things. There was nothing that was weird or abnormal."

He did say, however, that Jerry Irwin's doctrine differed in one way from that of other Christian churches.

"There was never really anything outside of the Bible," Ames said. "Except the part where he forgot to forgive people."

Ames said he is urging fellow former members like himself to come forward and shed light on what has for decades now been cloaked in darkness.

"We should all be praying for them and interceding that they see and hear the one true God, and that they truly repent for their sins," he wrote. "Forgiveness does not mean that they will not pay for their sin here on Earth. It means that we release them to the Lord Jesus and ask Him to look softly on their ignorance."

Read Nathan Ames' open letter to former parishioners.


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