McKEESPORT (KDKA) -- Former members of a McKeesport Church are speaking out about the church and its pastor, claiming the congregation is more like a cult than a church, and that the pastor's teachings and insistence on total control of his parishioners' lives has affected their families in ways they never could have imagined when they began worshipping there.
The congregation is the Church of Life in Christ in McKeesport and the pastor is a man named Guy Miller.
Seven former members of the church spoke to KDKA investigator Andy Sheehan. Some were unwilling to go on camera for his story; others talked but only in silhouette. Bethany Lovett and her mother Stephanie were willing to tell their stories on camera.
"One time he worded it like this: God is at the top, but Guy Miller is right under Him. So, if you please Guy Miller, you please God," said Bethany Lovett.
"Everything had to do with obedience" to him, said her mother Stephanie.
The Lovetts and the others Sheehan interviewed say that Miller is a charismatic leader who claims to speak with and for God and demands the strict obedience to his particular teachings, which they say includes his belief that faithful people don't need to die.
"Literally, he believes you should live forever," said Stephanie Lovett.
All said Miller tried to exert control over all aspects of their lives, down to what they should eat, who they should associate with, even how they should discipline their children if they act out in church.
"They do have spanking rooms, and they provide the paddle," Stephanie Lovett said.
But perhaps worst of all, the former members say, is that at Miller's direction, current church members have to shun those who leave.
Bethany says her father, her grandparents and her brother haven't spoken with her in years. Stephanie, who is divorced from her former husband, says she's no longer able to speak with her son.
"I miss my son. I'm sorry, but it's very hard for me," she said wiping tears from her eyes. "The last time I tried to speak with him he hung up on me."
Miller declined our invitation to be interviewed. Outside of the church, he is considered a reclusive figure. He graduated from McKeesport High School and played on the football team, returning after college to coach and teach English. Then, in the early 1980s, he established his church, which has been operating since 1993.
Sheehan saw him briefly speaking with one of his sons in the doorway of a home, but when Sheehan approached, Miller wouldn't come out to be interviewed.
He did issue this statement:
"I have been a minister for 37 years. I have been called to preach God's word and I have always been faithful to that calling. There have been misunderstandings, but I will never compromise or apologize for the word of God."
Miller's sons told Sheehan privately that he's been blindsided by these accusations and that the ex-members have misconstrued their father's message to the point of falsifying it. But, former members say there is no misunderstanding about shunning.
"He believes that if you leave, his followers should have no communication with you, even if you're family," said a woman who spoke on camera but in silhouette.
The woman says her mother and her sister no longer speak with her because she is in what Miller calls "rebellion" against God. In what is perhaps the strangest part of his teaching, former followers say Miller claims people in rebellion die, but believers live on as long as they like.
She and others quote Miller as telling the congregation that he will live to 110 when God will give him the choice of staying alive or going to heaven. Miller tells his congregation they can have the same choice. "If you rebel and you are in sin you will be sick and you will die, (and) if you stay there and do what he says you won't die."
Those who stay are asked to tithe 10 percent of their income, but the ex-members say they were also asked to dig deep on special "bless the pastor days," which they say keep Miller in luxury late model cars and regular family and staff trips to Myrtle Beach and Disney World. The ex-members say in giving, they were told they too would be blessed with riches.
"Riches or success or health. Anything human beings crave," Stephanie Lovett said.
Some of these former members and others whom Sheehan did not interview contacted an organization called Families Against Cult Teachings -- or FACT.
On the basis of their interviews and using an accepted evaluation method, FACT, "defines this church group as a destructive cult," saying Miller uses three out of four recognized cult techniques to control congregation members. FACT says Miller's church qualifies as a cult on three counts: emotional control, thought control and behavior control.
Each of the former members say the time came when they had to get out. For Stephanie that was when the wife of one of the church elders died of cancer and, she says, Miller said it was because of the woman's lack of faith.
"He got up before the whole congregation and went on a little dissertation about how she didn't get it and that's why she died. I had a hard time with the Amens and hallelujahs after that one," Stephanie said.
For another ex-member who spoke on camera in silhouette, it was when he says he told Miller he was gay and then Miller preached to the entire congregation.
"He said all homosexuals should kill themselves."
Now that they're out of the church, the former members like him have a message for people still in:
"There's life outside of those walls, there's people who will care for you and support you. God is everywhere. He's not just there."
Late today, Ryan James, an attorney representing Miller sent the following statement on his behalf, but has not yet offered the pastor for an on-air interview:
"For 37 years, Guy Miller has carried on a ministry in the McKeesport community. These recent, uncorroborated claims concern events alleged to have occurred years ago, by persons long unaffiliated with Mr. Miller and his church. Simply put, these allegations are specious and unfortunate, and Mr. Miller categorically denies them."
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