Word of Life Christian Church, the upstate New York congregation where two teenaged brothers were allegedly brutally beaten by their parents and others, one fatally, had a creepy reputation among its neighbors in New Hartford. According to one former member, the goings on inside were even more chilling than the rumors suggested.
Chadwick Handville, a congregant who defected from Word of Life in 2000, spoke extensively to the New York Times about his time there. According to Handville, members were forced to perform physical labor in the service of Jerry Irwin, the church’s late founding pastor, who used the third floor of Word of Life’s former school building as his family’s personal living quarters. Handville and others performed the work necessary to make the space livable for no pay, he said.
That included redoing the floors, plumbing, electrical wiring, gas lines and structural work, Mr. Handville said. Mr. Irwin also demanded that parishioners mow the grass, paint walls and perform routine maintenance work. He often forced them to break building codes and flout guidance from inspectors, Mr. Handville said.
Mr. Handville, who spoke earlier to The Utica Observer-Dispatch about the church, said he would sometimes arrive there after trying to spend time with his wife or children, or from working his day job, only to be forced into more hours of physical labor at the church. Depriving congregants of sleep appeared to be part of a plan to control them.
Handville emphatically described Word of Life as a cult, not a church. He said that congregants—some of whom also lived in the building—were emotionally abused, placed in isolation and forbidden to speak to others or publicly insulted and called racial slurs from the pulpit.
Bruce and Deborah Leonard, who are charged with killing their 19-year-old son Lucas and seriously injuring his 17-year-old brother Christopher during a counseling session, were frequent targets of abuse, Handville said. According to police, the brothers were beaten because Lucas was considering leaving the church.
Handville told the Times that he required counseling to relearn a “gentler form of Christianity” when he left the church. Word of Life “ruined a lot of lives,” he said.