(RNS) — When Cristal Porter and her family first visited Hope Community Church in Austin, they felt a sense of relief.
Led by pastor Aaron Reyes and his wife, Michelle Ami Reyes, known for their expertise in helping Christians talk about race, the congregation of about 135 was filled with people of color and diverse couples like the Porters. The church aspires to be a “meaningful community where people can find lifelong relationships, mutual support, and a sense of belonging,” something the Porters had longed for.
“Just looking around the room was really healing,” Porter said.
The Porters threw themselves into the life of Hope, becoming small group leaders and making friends in the congregation. By the fall, Porter had joined the staff part time, with the hope of a full-time role in the future.
Within a year, everything had fallen apart. Disagreements among the staff led one of the pastors to resign, turning long-simmering tension at Hope into all-out conflict and eventually into public allegations of spiritual abuse and calls for an investigation of church leaders.
After Porter accused church leaders of spiritual abuse in a July 5 Twitter post, Michelle Reyes responded on Twitter and accused Porter of lies and slander. She also dismissed the claims of other critics.
“These are wealthier white folks, trying to gentrify our church,” she tweeted. “They’ve caused horrific pain/trauma to our 1st gen immigrants.”
The conflict at Hope seems to be a mix of personality clashes, unclear expectations, questionable leadership decisions, a lack of healthy church structure, as well as a congregation where everything revolved around the pastor and his wife, whose platforms as experts in cross-cultural engagement among Christians have grown in recent years.
Aaron Reyes is a board member for Crete Collective, which plants multiethnic churches. Michelle Reyes is an influential author and speaker, known for her award-winning book, “Becoming All Things.” She’s also vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative.
In an email, Hope leaders denied any abuse but acknowledged an ongoing conflict at the church. The elders also distanced themselves from Michelle Reyes’ remarks, saying she was an unpaid volunteer at the church and not an elder.
“Dr. Reyes’ views are her own and not representative of the elder team,” the elders said in an email.
Conflict at the church exploded after the departure of James Gómez, a former associate pastor at Hope. He had been hired at the church in 2021 and said he began to have concerns about the health of the church and about Reyes’ leadership style.
Gómez told RNS in an interview that he tried to implement some changes, slowing down the pace of new programs and urging Aaron Reyes and church leaders to spend more time listening to the congregation. They responded, he said, by accusing him of failing to support Reyes’ spiritual leadership.
By March 2022, he had resigned. His departure led to confusion and anger among church members and staffers like Porter, who had questions about what had gone wrong. In response, the church’s elders — Aaron Reyes, Josh Posada and Matt Price — accused Gómez of lying to church members and his wife, Angela, of sowing “seeds of division and strife.”
Things heated up after the church elders released a report, which criticized church members for failing to control their tongues. That report admitted Aaron Reyes and other leaders had made mistakes but dismissed any claim of abuse.
The elders gave church members two choices: submit or leave.
Church elders also brought a “prophetess” to a church meeting, where she detailed an elaborate dream about Aaron Reyes being under attack by the devil. They also cited two prophetesses in their report.
“To make it clearer, in the words of two prophetesses in our church, we are here because the evil one has used the words of a few to inflict damage upon our church,” they wrote.
Porter said that conflict with Gómez revealed a significant flaw at Hope. Staff and church members were expected to obey Reyes and other leaders without question and were punished if they refused to do so.
Complicating matters, Porter had gone on maternity leave about the time Gómez resigned. She had planned to take a full-time job with the church after her leave was over. But that job offer fell apart, she said, due to the conflict.
RELATED: Is Dave Ramsey’s empire the ‘best place to work in America’? Say no and you’re out
Church members Derrick and Rennee Woods felt church leaders used those prophetic dreams to attack anyone who disagreed with them. During the meeting, Derrick said he questioned why the church leaders spent more than half an hour discussing a dream at a church meeting to address conflict.
“It was narrative spinning,” said Woods, who is Black. “They were trying to tell a different story about how they were under attack by the devil, which implied that the devil was controlling those of us with legitimate concerns about church leadership.”
In an email to Religion News Service, the church’s elders said the conflict was caused by both legitimate disagreements and the devil. They defended the decision to have a prophetess speak, saying the church believes in the gift of prophecy.
“Practicing spiritual gifts and being aware of spiritual warfare is not spiritual abuse in the Bible,” they said.
Kyle Howard, a preacher and trauma-informed soul care provider, sees the use of prophetesses to bolster leaders at Hope as troubling. Howard, who has spoken to Hope members and advocated for an investigation, said that crosses the line from unhealthy church practice to abuse.
“They leveraged spiritual power — that is supposed to be used to reconcile — and made it a tool to silence people,” he said.
The conflict at Hope has been met with dismay and calls for a third-party investigation into allegations of spiritual abuse at the church, most notably from writer Helen Lee, who co-authored a recent book with Michelle Reyes called “The Race-Wise Family.”
“Given the allegations, it’s clear to me that a credible third-party investigation of all that has transpired under the Reyes’s leadership is necessary and crucial to discerning the full truth,” Lee wrote in a public statement.
RELATED: Saddleback elders say no ‘pattern of abuse’ found in investigation of new pastor