A judge found Paxton Singer not guilty of sexual exploitation of a minor. This, despite many disturbing texts from a youth pastor to a minor. Jonathan Singer (no relation) formerly of Harvest Bible Chapel writes a response to both how Harvest handled Paxton and his fear that he was let go to allegedly engage in more abuse at another church.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”
Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands give me delight.
Psalm 119:143 NIV
Paxton Singer (center) when he was hired at Harvest Bible Chapel.
One of the most disturbing stories from Harvest Bible Chapel is the Paxton Singer situation. Paxton was a youth minister who was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor. The judge in that case recently let him go with only the disorderly conduct charge sticking to him. The outcome shocked me and was profoundly disappointing. One of the take aways is that the Paxton Singer situation revealed as to how the government is not keeping up with the changes in technology, and predators know and are abusing that gap.
Jonathan Singer (no relation to Paxton) agreed to write a post for me. I met Jonathan at Julie Roys Restore Chicago in Elgin. Jonathan and his wife were longtime members of Harvest with his children involved in Harvest Christian Academy. Jonathan wrote a solid narrative about how Harvest mishandled the Paxton Singer situation, and also his disappointment with how the judge handled the decision for Paxton. This blog has a lot of respect for Jonathan and enjoyed talking with him in Elgin.
How a Parent Feels When Churches Hide Sin
For many people, church is a place to hear nice songs and an uplifting message some Sundays. For my family, Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin, Ill., was an extended family we needed through some hard times. It was our go-to for help of many kinds. At one point we were there six days a week. All four of our kids went to Harvest Christian Academy (HCA), plus extra-curriculars, Sunday church, and mid-week men’s and women’s small groups.
So, it was absolutely devastating to learn about a long list of indiscretions and sin that was running rampant behind the scenes. The same people who promised to “do life together” and who urged us to live for Christ each week, were themselves worshipping a building, a business model, at best a ministry organization, but none with Jesus at the head. The organization responded by lying about lies; it protected its head, James MacDonald, and labeled outside truth tellers “attackers,” and questioning members “confused.”
I don’t think many people can understand the betrayal and deep wounds that a church can inflict. The situation still has us reeling about a year later. While our trust in Jesus as savior is strong, our trust in man-made church is low. We are re-evaluating what that should look like. I am convinced, though, that a large church like Harvest logistically cannot actually serve its people. They say they do, and they may even wish to do so. But they cannot. Add to that the obvious temptation to “grow, grow, grow” that anyone would feel running a large church, and we’ve decided to never again attend a mega church.
Failing to Protect Our Kids
In October 2018, we got a whopping surprise. Our church betrayed our trust by minimizing the story of a youth pastor child predator, Paxton Singer (no relation). My wife heard about his arrest on a hometown radio station. We were shocked. How could our “church family” have not shared this with us, when we were parents to four children attending the church?
That’s the question my wife asked in a meeting of about 200 Small Group and “Flock” Leaders (coaches overseeing small groups) at the Elgin campus. This meeting was on Jan. 19, 2019, in response to James MacDonald and Harvest being exposed for layer upon layer of hidden sins. About 10 leaders were there, but not one said a word except Jeff Donaldson. The others let him roast. And that’s exactly what he did, bobbing and weaving through questions, in my mind deciding with each question if he should give the traditional “P.R.” answer or the real answer that could expose more sin committed by himself, other leaders, or James MacDonald.
“Yeah, we could have handled that better. I’m sorry.” Was the best Jeff could answer my wife. “But we handled it phenomenally. The problem was just the volume of emails between Paxton and the student.” (I’m sure he intended to say texts vs. emails). Jeff lied.
In court, months later, Landon MacDonald and Kurt Gebhards testified that the texts were out of line in any pastor-student relationship, and cause for immediate dismissal. That same day outside of the courtroom, I was able to ask Landon, James MacDonald’s son, face-to-face, about Harvest’s handling of Paxton Singer. He gave me a couple of answers, but when I asked why they didn’t tell us about Paxton, as Elgin parents, he said, “We should have done that better, and for that, I apologize,” in a rote, rehearsed way. I felt he and Donaldson had the same script.
So, for nine months, from January to October 2018, Paxton Singer was free to further abuse anyone he wanted. We parents didn’t know to ask our kids if they knew him. We trusted that our church leaders, who had stated “protecting our kids is our No. 1 goal,” and performed background checks for youth leaders, would tell us of something so dangerous was in our midst. It turns out pastors like Donaldson, Craig Steiner, Trei Tatum and Dave Learned knew. Men whose kids were friends with mine and were the age Paxton Singer was pursuing. Keep in mind, they knew Paxton Singer had three victims, and who knows how many more who never spoke up. These men and reportedly about two dozen other leaders knew about these incidents. Not only did they hide it from the congregation, but failed to adequately report at least one of the victims to DCFS.
Had Harvest leaders simply just shared the Paxton Singer situation with their congregation in January 2018, they could have been heroes. We would have viewed it as protecting our kids.
The Danger Remains
Unfortunately, on Nov. 12, 2019, Paxton Singer was found not guilty of Sexual Exploitation of a Child. Now, he’s free to prey on more kids at his next job, coaching or youth pastor role. Judge Michael Noland of the 16th Judicial Circuit in Kane County, Illinois, apparently thought it was OK for a youth pastor to ask boys (starting after 8th grade) for photos in their underwear, if they’d stay over night with him, if they are in the shower, to let him know if their interest in pornography increases, if their parents monitor their texts, if they can use SnapChat or FaceTime as well, and more profane questions you can find in court documents. I’m embarrassed to share them, as was the judge every time he hesitated to use the terminology.
With no protection from our government, what is the incentive for a fourth, fifth or sixth boy to speak up?
To this day, Harvest Bible Chapel has still not shared that Paxton’s texts were at all sexual in nature. They called them “verbally inappropriate” and “breaking the boundaries of a pastor/student relationship that is above reproach.” That could have meant a swear word. Further, Harvest failed to share that it was same-sex victims. So while parents may be questioning their daughters about Paxton, their sons might be in the next room too embarrassed to speak up.
Further confusing matters is a letter from then HCA Athletic Director David Lockwood calling Paxton Singer “a great young man” who “made some bad choices.” CC’d on the letter were men my kids were entrusted to: HCA Superintendent Talbott Behnken, Bob Young, and Bryan Bradshaw. Why didn’t one of them tell us?
As late as it is in the Paxton Singer mess, I urge Harvest Bible Chapel to communicate one more time to parents of children attending now and previously. Tell them the sexual nature. Tell them the same-sex nature. Disqualify Paxton Singer from ministry like you did with James MacDonald. Paxton Singer is a serious danger to society. Only by the Lord’s protection did he not molest three boys. Now that he is free again to do so, Harvest should do what it can to protect more boys.
Why I Still Trust the Lord
Through all of this, it’s a temptation to call “hypocrisy” and walk away from the church. Yes, it is hypocrisy. And, I’m aware that I am as big a hypocrite as any. I’m also aware that my expectations of pastors, elders, and church leaders were improperly high. But I’ve seen things at Harvest that boggle my mind. My main question continues to be how hundreds of men apparently saw horrible, disqualifying behavior and just continued to fall in line, putting a building and head pastor above their savior and flock.
I find a wonderful joy, though, that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. His Name is not marred by men who blasphemously claim his name while harming others. He’s not tarnished if a church closes its doors. His promises are not less if James MacDonald doesn’t preach about them again.
We Christians fail every day. In America today we race through our lives and find things to argue about, from politics to theology. I’m growing in belief that God cares a lot less about those things as we do. Jesus boiled his commandments down to “Love the Lord your God…and Love your neighbor” and it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
And, I trust the Lord more today because he’s lead and provided for my family through this time. The Holy Spirit clearly told us to leave HCA two years ago, and Harvest last year. He opened doors for us to speak further, like this blog post, primarily about the Paxton Singer case. We could have backed down and been silent. But we felt called to speak, and to help remove the sin of silence that has allowed Harvest to thrive for 30 years.
God’s protection also has been clear. Paxton Singer didn’t personally prey on our kids, who were present on multiple dates in Awana and youth group, and overnights and lock-ins at the church and camp. My kids, and others, are such easy prey. All Paxton would have had to say to my son is, “Hey, check out this funny video, shoot me your cell number and I’ll text it to you,” and a text relationship could have been born. I’m also so thankful that the year Paxton Singer found a victim at the men’s Act Like Men event, my son and I could not attend at the last minute. And beyond myself, I’m so thankful that the two boys Paxton invited to an overnighter at his apartment and hotel, never came to fruition.
Lord, I pray the pain my family and my former church have gone through can be a warning to other churches in the future. I pray we all cast off idols, and work together toward Christ.
Just a regular husband, father and Christian
For further information on the Paxton Singer case, visit https://www.change.org/p/judge-michael-noland-declaration-of-support-for-victims-of-paxton-singer or https://www.dailyherald.com/search/?crit=paxton+singer&submit=Go