By Jordan Varney and Emily Dill
DAVIS — Recently, Grace Valley Christian Center (GVCC), a church on the outskirts of Davis, California, was in the news for the attempted murder of one of its members by her teenage sons.
Several hundred people attend the church, going to services on Sundays and Wednesdays as well as meeting in home groups throughout the week. GVCC has an associated elementary and middle school as well as an online high school. Grace Valley Christian Center is also, according to the many sources the Vanguard talked to, emotionally, verbally, spiritually, and sexually abusive.
Over the past six months, the Vanguard talked to more than a dozen sources about GVCC, including many former members as well as experts on authority structures, abuse in Christian churches, and Indian Christianity. In a multi-part series, the Vanguard will explore the lives of former members and how their time at GVCC impacted them.
GVCC was formed in the late 1970’s by a group of college students and P. G. Mathew, a pastor born in India and formerly practicing in Canada. The church was originally part of the Shepherding Movement, a charismatic movement created in the early 70’s borne from concerns that American churches were straying from tradition and lacking discipline.
The Shepherding Movement offered an all-encompassing solution. It advised that church members should submit to their pastors and elders like a sheep does to a shepherd. This advice extended beyond members’ presence at church; it included purchasing houses and cars, decisions on whom to marry, where to live, and when to seek medical help — much of which continues at GVCC today.
Former members of GVCC detailed stories of authoritative control, verbal harassment of adults and children, sexual assault, emotional manipulation, and drug abuse. Multiple people referred to it as a “cult” and one referred to it as a “dictatorship” with Pastor Mathew at the center of it all.
One source said, “It’s all psychological, weird, controlling, traumatizing, family ruining, life ruining, and I still can’t figure out what for. It feels like it is just for the sake of doing it, or for money, or I don’t know.”
Along with P. G. Mathew, the church is run by his family — notably his daughter Sharon Broderick, who is the principal of the school, and a council of elders, men who oversee the workings of the church including the home groups.
One of the methods of control that Grace Valley Christian Center employs is collecting information on its members, requiring the sharing of intimate details about each member’s day-to-day life in weekly reports.
“They keep a filing system on everybody,” one source said. They shared that “one of the moms told me that her daughter was having a horrible period, and she talked about it in a report and the elders spoke about it in a meeting.” Another source said, “Every week I was supposed to report on how my week went, what I struggled with that week. They would give me feedback or tell me what to do. If I didn’t do it I would get in trouble and they would talk to my parents.”
The Vanguard has obtained screenshots where church leadership requested a report by email every week. If members did not comply, they were listed in a weekly email sent to church members.
Sources reported that when they mentioned future travels in their emails, church leadership dissuaded them from going. One source detailed that “the pastor’s secretary for 44 years overheard us about wanting to go over to Napa for a couple days in someone’s trailer [to help with wildfire efforts]. It got back to me by the next morning that we were told we couldn’t do that. We don’t sleep in trailers with other couples, and we don’t help those outside of the church.”
In addition to maintaining decades of information on people in the church, Pastor Mathew and the elders attempt to control constituents through verbal abuse and public shaming.
Sources described countless times they were brought before Pastor Mathew and the Council of Elders. One source described the meetings as “12 older dudes who just scream at you for hours, they put you in a spot right before service so that everyone walking into service can see your face through the window and hear the muffled yelling.”
One source described being in Pastor Mathew’s office when they were younger than 10, and Pastor Mathew “saying that my [sibling] and I had demons in us, and that was why we were fighting with each other and our parents.”
When one person moved out of their parents’ house to a nearby city as a young adult, Pastor Mathew said they were leaving because they were greedy and money hungry: “You’re arrogant and worthless in God’s eyes.”
One source said Pastor Mathew would “call me horrible things, tell me I am a used tissue, a dirty tampon, no man will want me…I was 12.” The source said that it was “a lot easier to just accept whatever they say about you, and take the punishment, rather than have them yell at you and persist.”
In these meetings, people’s eternal salvation was also called into question. GVCC’s oldest founding members now have children and grandchildren who were born into the church. People become members of the church by signing a lifetime covenant with the church. One source stated that “your covenant with the church was more important than your marriage covenant” and that “if you break it, you are going directly to hell.” Children as young as 10 are asked to sign these documents. Sources told us when they get in trouble at church, they are made to doubt their ability to enter heaven.
The school that is run by Pastor Mathew’s daughter employs similar verbally abusive tactics. “I have heard stories from mothers that their children were just verbally ridiculed [by Sharon Broderick] in front of other students enough that the children went home in tears,” said one source.
Many sources were nervous to talk to reporters because of the power and influence the church and its members have in the larger community. Current church members work at multiple law enforcement agencies, and include doctors, lawyers, and even a former judge.
GVCC also possesses great monetary power. No one the Vanguard interviewed knew exactly how much money the church has access to, but all sources were under the impression that the Church is doing well financially. Historically, there have been annual meetings during which the church’s finances were discussed, but details were never made clear to congregation members.
When congregants saw how much money the church had in the financial meetings, they often asked questions about why the church was holding on to all that money and what the money was going to be used for. According to multiple sources, instead of answering those questions or changing how they managed their money, GVCC just stopped having financial meetings.
The lack of accountability in the structure of GVCC — monetarily and socially — opens the door for abuse. Most prominently, a former member at GVCC was arrested on child molestation charges that were eventually dropped. Sources alluded to the fact that the church would use methods of threatening people to coerce them into staying quiet.
Multiple accounts of sexual assault were reported by sources during interviews. When one source was assaulted outside of the church as an adult, they started having flashbacks to being sexually assaulted as a young child by someone in the church — something they had previously not remembered.
Leaving a place that has so much control and power is difficult. The church dissuades people from leaving by telling members to cut off contact with those who have left. All the sources detailed the shunning that happened to them when they left GVCC. One source described what they were told while they were still a GVCC member, “I’ve seen a lot of people leave, and I’ve been told not to talk to them, delete them on social media.” That same source explained what happened to them — “my parents don’t talk to me anymore, my friends that I grew up with don’t talk to me anymore.”
This article is part of a special series of investigative reporting detailing allegations of abuse and control by former members of Grace Valley Christian Center. Future parts coming soon detail the experiences of former members including exploitation of labor, drug abuse, control of relationships, and how the authoritative structure has led to death. The Vanguard has collected many first hand documents and corroborated accounts. Due to the sensitive nature of these allegations, sources have requested to remain anonymous for their protection.
Updated: This article is one of a multi part series on a church in Davis, California, called Grace Valley Christian Center. You can read Part 2 here.