By Jordan Varney, Emily Dill and Lauren Smith
DAVIS, CA – Grace Valley Christian Center (GVCC) controls its members in a number of ways, one of which is through the flow of information, according to what The Vanguard has learned through interviews with former church members.
All members are placed in a home group led by an elder and his wife or a similar high-up couple in the church. Every week members are required to check in with their home group leader of the same gender (women check in with the elder’s wife, men check in with the elder). In the past this was done over the phone but since the advent of email, they have switched to email.
The report from each member is supposed to contain, but is not limited to, what the person did at work that week, what they were doing the following week, who they hung out with, what they struggled with, if they had committed any sins, and if they had observed any former members of the church out and about.
As one source explained, “Every week you have to write to your group leader what’s going on in your life, and they compile that and give it to the pastor.”
Apparently the replies to the detailed, personal emails about church member’s lives are short or nonexistent. If elders want to talk to someone, they do not put it in writing. Instead they call the members on the phone or pull them into a meeting.
Additionally, church members are supposed to report on each other. One source said, “If anyone ever did anything questionable I was supposed to report it.” Another said, “You are encouraged to report on your friends and family.”
College-age GVCC members usually live together in gender-segregated houses owned by the church. One of the members is ‘head of the house’ (usually the person considered most spiritual by the elders). In addition to their weekly report, the head of the house is required to report on what everyone else in their house is up to.
All of the reports from every week, for the decades that the church has been operating, are compiled into a file on every member in the church.
A former member explained “that’s why people hesitate to talk, because they have files on them.” A source referred to a person who had tried to get their own file from the church, “and it ultimately went to legal matters, and they had no right to the files because they belonged to the church.”
Members are nervous because they “never knew what else was in that file.” It was not just what they reported about themselves, it “was what other people said about you, which may or may not have anything to do with reality.”
The church would use this control tactic on children as well. Every year the children are sent to a kids’ camp without their parents where they are made to think that GVCC and God already know the sins in their life and “you need to confess everything, what’s happening at home, what are your parents doing, what are you doing, what are your siblings doing, just report everything.”
One source explained that there is a lot of pressure on the children to confess sins. The church adults at the camp would say “we’ve heard a lot of confessions but God told me that a few of you still have sins you’re hiding.”
One former member summed up the approach of GVCC as “every authoritarian organization relies on this notion of having information on people, particularly negative information. Information that can be used to control and manipulate you.”
If the elders had a meeting with someone about what the person was doing that was “not right” and the person pushed back, then “the file comes out.”
“Every time I would talk to the pastor he would remind me of my sins,” a source said. “[Pastor Mathew] would use it as a club to beat people because he found he got control that way.”
As The Vanguard reported in a previous article, children are required to write weekly reports as well. And as one source specified about her experience as a child, “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.”
Sometimes they would print out her emails or social media posts from her or others and highlight things they wanted to talk to her about. Sometimes they would use the text of her emailed report to point out things in her life and say “this is where your problem is.”
Multiple sources for the series talked about someone who left GVCC and later came out as gay. He added a rainbow frame to his profile photo on Facebook, and the elders printed out his Facebook profile photo in color.
They “showed it around to everyone” asking, “Do you know what this means! Who knew about this!” Even though the person had left at least six months before, they “keep tabs on people who had left.”
A source reported that Reverend Gerrit Buddingh’ (a senior elder at the church, widely described as Pastor Mathew’s second in command) would create fake Facebook accounts and friend people who had left to get more info on those people.
Only one person The Vanguard talked to, out of the many interviews conducted, said they were not afraid of what was in their file. Part of that person’s lack of fear was owning their own story.
“I wasn’t going to allow people to make me feel guilty,” they said. “If people asked me about my past, I shared it…I shared my story.” They noted, however, that they did not grow up in the church so they had life experience and strong relationships outside the church before and during their time there.
According to sources, another way GVCC controls its members is through intimidation and verbal abuse.
Every source The Vanguard talked to mentioned the punishment exacted when the church is upset with someone. The church brings the person into a meeting with a subset of the elders (all male, white, and older) and Pastor Mathew (male, Indian, and older). As one source put it they get “drawn into meetings with leadership where they are just very verbally abusive.”
Sometimes full families are pulled into meetings, sometimes they are pulled in one by one, children included. Every source told multiple stories about themselves being pulled into meetings with Pastor Mathew and the elders.
One time, according to a source for this series, someone got an assignment from a senior pastor to make a list of all of her friends and why she was friends with them.
She went back for a follow up meeting after sending her list over and Pastor Mathew said “this isn’t the list that a Christian person would make” even though every person on the list was also a member at GVCC.
Another source described, as a young girl, “sitting at the table there’s all of these old guys just one after the other telling you what’s wrong about you and what’s wrong with what you’re doing.”
They went on to explain that as a child in the church or the associated school, “you’re technically not in control of your physical body because they could pull you into a meeting or give you detention.”
As previously reported, in these meetings, people are screamed at and verbally abused. Additionally, they are asked invasive questions, said one source, adding, “I know several women who were asked by the pastor about masturbation, how often they did it, and what they did it to.”
Nowadays, “there usually is someone else in there with [Pastor Mathew] so that no one can make any accusations or anything, but always a male elder.”
As one source put it, “Pastor is never alone with any female in a room” so the church can say “he is above reproach because he is never alone.”
In the past, however, a source confirmed that when she was around 12 years old, Pastor Mathew in a one-on-one meeting showed her pictures of people masturbating in a book and asked her if she masturbated and if she touched herself.
The source also confirmed that around the same time two other younger girls had one-on-one meetings with Pastor Mathew where he asked them about masturbation.
“They were all perverts,” the source said, referring to Pastor Mathew and other adults in the church.
One source reported that they asked him about his masturbation habits and an elder brought it up in a later larger meeting the source attended.
Another source reported that as a young woman, in a one-on one-meeting, Pastor Mathew’s daughter and current principal of Grace Valley Christian Academy, Sharon Broderick, asked her inappropriate sexual questions.
The questions included, “if I was sexually active, if I had ever done anything with a guy, if I had ever done anything with a girl, if I had ever watched anything inappropriate, if I had ever masturbated, really personal, intense questions.”
A source reported that some junior high boys are required to report to their discipleship leader if they masturbate, what they did it to and why they did it.
The information relayed in reports and meetings does not stay within the group of elders either. Multiple sources mentioned Pastor Mathew’s history of referencing personal details from the pulpit.
A family that eventually left described the tense period before their departure and that Pastor Mathew “would say things from the pulpit that were about us.”
A source described a time when Pastor Mathew, in front of a crowd of about 100 people, named a church member who had cheated on his wife.
“He would tell you what the person did,” the source said. “There’s no need to stand up and say it because he’s already shared it all.”
And if there are no details the church can reveal about a person or family, sometimes they just make them up, according to sources.
A former member described, “They had made a PowerPoint about this family that had left and it was all of their sins, everything they did wrong, why they were excommunicated, why no one can talk to them, and it was all lies.”
Multiple people said that the church “slanders” people who had left. One said it was a “pattern of abuse, trying to control members’ lives…making up all these lies about [people who had left].”
The church also attempts to maintain a monopoly on information too.
A former member reported, “They are so afraid there will be small talk about the church, they keep everyone apart.”
Sometimes when people leave the church they send emails to current members and the church tells people to not read the emails and delete them.
One source told The Vanguard that her church friend group’s birthday lunches were required to have a church leader present because GVCC was worried about gossip.
One source said their home group leader told them they could not have a text group chat dedicated to talking about the Bible unless they got permission first.
Another way the church maintains control is by driving wedges between families.
One source described a suicide attempt as a child, explaining, “When I was 13 or 14 I took a ton of Advil. They had gotten in between the relationship with my parents. There was one meeting where my parents went into the meeting and when they came out my mom was crying and she was like ‘I don’t even know who my daughter is anymore.’
“They had gotten so deeply in between the child and parent relationship. They really have their way of dismantling the parent-child relationship so they have full control. That was a detrimental moment,” the source said.
“That was when I was like ‘wow this is hopeless if my mom doesn’t even believe me.’ I popped some Advil and really just took a nap because I was 13 and I didn’t know what I was doing,” the source concluded.
The Vanguard has repeatedly reached out to Grace Valley Christian Center for comment and has not heard back yet.