MT. PLEASANT , Mich., (WPBN/WGTU) -- College is all about learning and gaining independence as an adult.
But when a Alpena couple sent their daughter to Central Michigan University, they say she got caught up in a church that influenced her to cut them out of her life.
"We want our daughter back," said Elizabeth Antkowiak.
“We were really close," said David Antkowiak. “In my mind I just say it’s out of alignment with the way things were and it hurts."
Elizabeth and David met at CMU, so they were happy when their daughter chose to go to there for a doctorate of physical therapy.
"She was a very successful student," said Elizabeth. “She said I want to be a physical therapist.”
Elizabeth says while their daughter was attending Central in 2005, she joined Grace Church in Mt. Pleasant. A little while after, she says her daughter started to give up on her dream career.
“At one point she said to us maybe God doesn’t want me to be a physical therapist," Elizabeth said. "That’s what she said to us.”
Instead, they say she focused on her new husband, a man heavily involved in the church.
“We got a call from her spouse, and he told us not to contact her anymore," said Elizabeth. "He said that if we needed to contact them, to only go through him."
It's now been more than two years since the Atkowiaks have seen their grandchildren.
"That is not the relationship that we had with her at all," said Elizabeth. "I feel like I’ve let her down. I feel like she’s got caught up into something."
It's a sentiment echoed by dozens of posts on the website GraceChurchExposed.org.
"We are not to question leadership. If we do, it's likely there is sin in our lives," writes "Gal5Gal".
Some former members allege that they were encouraged to give up on career goals.
"I was told not to go to college and God would reward me with a husband and a family," writes "LS". "I was told women weren't designed to be leaders."
Others claim they were encouraged to not go home for the holidays, and to eventually cut their families and friends out of their lives.
"I was challenged not to visit my mom because I had responsibilities at the church that were more important," wrote "ExpensiveCranberry".
Grace Church Mt. Pleasant is a block away from CMU's campus. It has a registered student organization called The Young Church Connection, that links from CMU's website to the church's.
"Everybody thinks well its associated with campus, it must be cool... we don't have to worry," said Elizabeth.
Despite this, Central Michigan says it's not affiliated with the church and has no means to intervene. The university declined to go on camera, but sent us the following statement:
We are certainly aware of the media coverage about concerns individuals have had with Grace Church. Yet, Grace Church is not affiliated with the university, and as such, we have no means to intervene and have no control over their activities. We feel for the families and individuals involved. However, matters of spiritual life are personal decisions. The Mount Pleasant area — including campus — does have multiple churches from which individuals can choose. CMU cannot force anyone to align with — or not align with — any given organization. We are, however, available if students need to talk. We encourage individuals with concerns about the practices of any non-university organization to contact the local authorities for assistance.
The Antkowiaks say they and at least ten others have reached out to Central too. They say their concerns were brushed off by administrators.
“She gave the impression that they didn’t receive any complaints. And then later, she said while they haven’t received any of a criminal nature." said Elizabeth. "So then my question is then why are we having any other policies anyway? Why not disregard the student codes and policies unless it’s a violation of Michigan law?”
Grace Church declined to be interviewed on camera, but they did refer us to a written statement:
From the beginning of our ministry we have sought to be transparent with both our church body and the public, especially when we recognize areas where we need to grow. As a church, we have always maintained that we are simply broken people trying to follow Jesus the best we can. We recognize that we have done this imperfectly and, throughout our 20 year history, we have tried to address and each situation that arises in a Christ-like manner. However it seems clear, especially during the first decade of our ministry, that our ministry resulted in a number of hurts and offenses that have yet to be resolved. We remain committed to seeking healing and resolution wherever possible with those who desire it.
On our website we have also provided specific details as to our beliefs, doctrine, finances, ministries, and etc. Beyond broadcasting our church services on our website, we have also streamed them live on our Facebook page and our local public broadcasting TV station for many years. In order to protect the privacy of our guests and members we have recently, and reluctantly, had to pull back on some of these areas because of the efforts of some to harass and intimidate those who can be identified on the video of our services. These tactics include online trolling and an anonymous letter campaign directed against various people inside and outside of our church with the intent of scaring and discouraging the recipient regarding Grace Church. Although we have chosen to limit some exposure, our church services and building remain open to the public every day of week and our church website continues to be a central place for information about our ministry.
In terms of our connection with students, we have a passion for learning and support the value of post-secondary education. We recognize it as an important and necessary training ground for many professions. We have a thriving group of students, known around Grace Church as the Young Church, ranging from high school and college students to those pursuing graduate degrees and beginning their careers after graduation. It is a privilege to serve these followers of Christ, especially during this unique transition season of their lives, to be productive members of the community in their area of expertise. We are grateful for the ways God has blessed the people of Grace Church with important and strategic roles throughout the community in a wide variety of fields. We truly believe the church should be a place where people can discover and develop their unique gifts and abilities!
We also recognize that post-secondary education is not for everyone, and we wholeheartedly support those who choose to pursue other avenues after high school. We encourage students to consider this very important decision with their family. Over the last few years we’ve had a limited number of students who have chosen not to go to college for various personal reasons, but this has been the exception within our church body. To give a little perspective, over 90% of our college-aged students at Grace are taking classes this Fall or have already graduated from college. When looking at the broader group of members of all ages at Grace Church, 80% have completed undergraduate or graduate degrees and all but 2% of our members have taken classes at the post-secondary level. Nationally, about 60% of those who start a college education complete their degree within six years.
Lastly, education is the number one employer in Mt. Pleasant between the public school system, Mid Michigan Community College, and Central Michigan University. Many of our members are also employees or students in these institutions and we value their contribution to the educational environment.
The importance and value of relationships with family and friends is hard to overstate. Our families have an immeasurable impact on our lives, and we believe that this is God’s design. God has blessed us with so many awesome kids at Grace Church. We love them dearly and desire to model a life of authentic and genuine faith in our homes and when we’re gathered as a church.
In particular, we believe that parents play an essential and irreplaceable role in their child’s growth and development. Although the relationship between parents and children shifts in focus as kids get older, we believe that parents are to be honored and respected through every stage of life. Our parents have valuable insight into our character and their counsel should not only be heard, but strongly considered and heeded whenever possible.
The relationship that students have with their parents during the college years poses some unique challenges and we don’t quite feel like we have this all figured out yet. Many students are away from home from the first time, or still living at home, and desiring more autonomy and independence. We see this is a natural and necessary part of growing up. That being said, we recognize that when students are also learning to rely on God and consider His will for their life as they make decisions, these added dynamics can be especially challenging for parents who may feel at times like their input into their child’s life has been diminished. We’ve thought a lot about this over the last several years and sought, in both counsel and practice, to make sure that students are actively seeking their parents’ input and that parents still feel they have an “open door” into the lives of their kids.
From our experience, the communication from students to their parents is not always the best, which can lead to some understandable questions or concerns. For those in our church with kids at this stage of life, we too wrestle with the tension of giving our kids the space they need to make their own decisions and mistakes in life, while also providing appropriate support, counsel, and feedback along the way. This can be tricky to navigate and we’re constantly trying to learn how to best help our students during these formative years of their life. As a church, we feel a sense of responsibility to encourage our students to seek out their parents’ input, honor their counsel, and to practically express their love and commitment to their families by making the efforts to get home whenever possible.
The overwhelming majority of our members, both students and otherwise, have great relationships with their families, and that’s the way we think it ought to be.
For the Antkowiaks, their resolution has yet to come. Now they're leading a grassroots effort to draw attention to what they say is going on at Grace Church. They're travelling across the state, handing out flyers and speaking to high school leaders.
"This is a smart young woman that we have here, and there are many other smart, credentialed people that are involved in this," said Elizabeth. "It can happen to you. It can really happen to you."
The once proud alumni, feeling betrayed by the alma mater that brought them together in the first place. Now, they have a message for other parents: If you're sending your kids to Central Michigan, be aware.
"It pains me to say this, but if your child has a choice between going to Central and going someplace else opt for someplace that’s going to look out for their well being just a little bit more," said Elizabeth.