By KRISTEN LOWE, WPBN/WGTU
MT. PLEASANT, Mich. (CIRCA via WPBN/WGTU) — College is all about learning and gaining independence as an adult.
But when an Alpena, Michigan, 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," Elizabeth Antkowiak said.
“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 to pursue a doctorate in physical therapy.
"She was a very successful student," Elizabeth said. “She said, 'I want to be a physical therapist.'"
Elizabeth says while their daughter was attending CMU 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, her parents 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 in 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 it's 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 way to intervene. University officials declined to be on camera but sent 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 10 others have reached out to CMU, too. They say their concerns were brushed off by administrators.
“(An administrator) gave the impression that they didn’t receive any complaints. And then later, she said well 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?”
Officials at Grace Church declined to be interviewed on camera, but they did refer us to a written statement, which reads in part:
"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.""
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 traveling 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 feel 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 some place that’s going to look out for their well-being just a little bit more," Elizabeth said.
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