Three years ago, Jessica was excited about the change in ownership at her kids’ school. There would be new resources and equipment for her children, she thought. We are concealing Jessica’s true identity to protect her from retaliation.
But that was three years ago. Last month, Jessica decided that her remaining two children would not return to the private school in the fall. She blames the horrendous experience on Mercy Culture Church.
The charismatic congregation that initially came from North Texas-based Gateway Church and that is located on the North Side had purchased the K-12 school, Calvary Christian Academy, and recently rebranded it as Mercy Culture Preparatory.
Jessica alleges that Mercy Prep’s fundamentalist instruction and rigid enforcement of rules caused her teenage son to have panic attacks that led to uncontrolled bouts of vomiting. Jessica also claims school leaders emotionally and spiritually abused her fifth-grade daughter.
Now that her children are safely out of the private school, Jessica worries about the direction of Mercy Culture Preparatory and whether future instances of abuse will be reported or even taken seriously. School leaders recently instituted a reenrollment program, meaning that current students are not guaranteed a spot with each new school year. The mother believes that move is intended to push out non-Mercy Culture Church members.
School head Esther Penate — wife of Mercy Culture elder and failed Fort Worth mayoral candidate Steve Penate — did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Jessica shared the following account that was relayed from her children.
In December, the school’s spiritual advisor ordered middle and high school students to place their noses on a blue circle in the middle of the gym’s floor. Around a third of the children complied. Even more disturbing to Jessica than the order was the instruction that the spiritual leader gave the children who planted their faces near her feet.
“She said they were blessed for being obedient to God and they should pray for mercy for their friends who didn’t come down,” Jessica said. “That is some psycho Handmaid’s Tale-type environment. That is disturbing and spiritual abuse.”
One incoming senior at Mercy Culture Preparatory who asked that we conceal their name and gender said the school’s founding organization, Mercy Culture Church, needs to be seen for what it is.
“I do think they’re a cult,” the student told me. “Maybe not everyone sees it because they have bad discernment, but there’s clearly some pastor worship and spiritual abuse that has made its way into our school.”
The student also expressed alarm at how the school’s spiritual leader coerced students to plant their faces on the gym floor as a supposed sign of obedience to God.
“If it was a vision from God, why manipulate a bunch of children to fulfill it and not let it just happen?” the student said. “I went back to class crying because I was afraid I was going to hell for not bowing down to these people’s commands. We refer to this as the ‘Blue Line Chapel,’ and everyone knows what we’re talking about. The spiritual abuse is real.”
The student said the spiritual advisor sometimes invites up her husband, who openly mocks Baptists and yells at the children for having the “fear of man,” a possible term for spiritual doubt.
Jessica said that around half of the school’s several hundred students are not reenrolling next year, based on feedback she is receiving from fellow parents. That may be part of Mercy Prep’s plan.
“Almost 50% of the parents there are true believers” in Mercy Culture’s vision, Jessica said, adding that a growing portion of the parents attend the church. If Mercy Culture Pastor Landon Schott “says to send their kids to the school, they are going to do it. Mercy Culture members get a 10% tuition discount. [School leaders] are combing through each current family” for any sign of disloyalty to Mercy Culture doctrine.
The Mercy Prep student said the vast majority of the upcoming senior class has decided to not reenroll this fall, meaning the school may see a drastic drop in upper-class enrollment in a few months.
The school leaders “have become less welcoming,” the student told me. “If you don’t believe exactly the way they do, they say you aren’t partnering with them and then tie your lack of partnership to some sort of spirit. They don’t want you if you’re Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist — literally anything other than them. I think that as Christians, we should open our arms to everyone because we’re supposed to love, right? If you’re actually trying to act like Jesus, you don’t manipulate and push your own agendas on other people. Calvary was a great home. I’m actually glad that Mercy Culture is taking over and owning up to their nonsense. Calvary shouldn’t have its name tied to that.”
The accounts from the Mercy Prep parent and student mirror allegations by two former Mercy Culture Church members who recently told me that church leaders follow a narrow interpretation of Christianity. There is no room for denominational Christians or members of the LGBTQ+ community that Schott verbally attacks on a regularly basis.
The former church members said Mercy Culture is a powerful local leader in a broader Christian Nationalist movement that seeks to end this country’s long tradition of separating church and state. Schott uses church services to call on worshipers to vote for right-wing candidates who hold bigoted beliefs about anyone who is not cisgender and heterosexual.
Jessica said that teaching children that only nondenominational charismatic churches are truly Christian is damaging to the emotional and spiritual development of children.
“It is dangerous when you tell children that there is one way to worship and anyone who does it different is wrong,” Jessica said. “You are alienating those children. They start to look at the world like it’s scary and bad. It is abusive because you are raising children to think the outside world is bad and evil instead of teaching them to have an open mind where you can love everyone, which is what kids should be able to do.”
Jessica said she was motivated to contact our magazine because parents need to be warned about what is happening inside Mercy Culture Preparatory.
“Children shouldn’t be crying because they can’t speak in tongues at elementary,” Jessica said. “My daughter’s best friend is leaving because she cries because she can’t speak in tongues. That is abusive.”