OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Over two thousand people have signed a petition calling for Church of the Harvest to close after numerous members shared stories of physical, mental, and sexual exploitation.
Branden Palesano, one of the people who started the petition, was a church intern from 2013-2015.
“There’s tons of spiritual trauma, there’s ton of mental abuse, sexual abuse, and finally people are coming forward and it’s been going on for 20 years,” he said.
He created a Facebook post about his internship experience after talking to a friend, and many other people started sharing their experiences as well.
Nikiera Everett was an intern back in 2009.
“All of the dorms were rat infested, we had to build our own furniture that was supposed to be provided for us, it was just filthy going in and horrible there,” she said.
Eric Herrera took part in a college program. He also says the church had him living in terrible conditions and worked him to the point of exhaustion.
“I would be done with work around 2 in the morning, 1:30, somewhere around there. So any given day, you’re running on two to three hours of sleep,” he said.
Online, people have accused church leaders of inappropriate sexual relationships.
Former interns say they were told all the hardships they endured was to enhance their spirituality.
“We were told it was the work of God— we’re doing God’s work so we should be grateful,” Everett said.
“Whenever you use God and purpose you can really mess somebody up whenever they feel they want to resist the thing that they’re being asked to do,” Herrera said.
A group of 42 former students, interns, and staff have released a formal statement calling for the church to shut down and its leaders be fired. You can read it here.
“All we want is for justice for the victims and for them to be heard,” Palesano said.
Church of the Harvest is closed on Mondays.
KFOR has tried to contact the church multiple times in multiple ways for a response.
When we called Pastor Grant Pankratz for a comment, he answered, we identified ourselves, and the line immediately went dead.
We also went to the Pastor Kirk Pankratz’s home, but no one answered the door.
A representative for the church sent the following statement:
As you have been made aware, there are some individuals who have decided to become verbally aggressive and voice various complaints about the church and its leadership.
So much of what is posted on those forums is simply false, misleading and hateful.
No church or organization is perfect and we are in numerous meetings and having dialogue with various parties to carefully listen to Valid concerns, to review every aspects of our ministry & staff and to insure policies and procedures that are in place are being followed.
However, we will not be intimidated by, nor enter into dialogue with, or debate people who choose to spread false rumors, direct lies and both verbally and physically threaten members on our staff and people at our church.
We will continue to be a church who cares for this community, cares for our church family and provides spiritual guidance and hope to people during this national & global time of fear, uncertainty and unrest.Lawrence Swicegood
During an online sermon on Sunday, the pastor alluded to the allegations, saying they’re going to have “outside professionals” investigate, and if there is something wrong, the church will fix it.