Student allegations spark controversy

Chi Alpha representatives speak on former member accusations


Nicole Girgen

Chi Alpha is a national organization affiliated with 350 campuses and local roots as a campus ministry at Winona State. Starting each weekly Thursday meeting with a musical performance by staff members, all in attendance joins in and the time is used to connect with God.

Madelyn Swenson, News Editor

Controversy has reached the campus ministry group Chi Alpha in the form of many allegations.

Chi Alpha is a campus ministry affiliated with the Assemblies of God. However, according to their website the organization is focused on helping people connect with God and Jesus more than a religious affiliation. The organization is a national organization that is on 350 campuses.

Chi Alpha at Winona State University has about 300 members. Out of those there are 42 small group leaders.

Recently, there has been a number of allegations surrounding Chi Alpha, the largest being the organization follows “cult-like” personalities. For the most part, these accusations have been started by former members who have left the organization.

Among the other accusations, former members are stating the organization is more focused on recruitment than retention, the environment of Chi Alpha is toxic, the director and pastor, Steph Peterson, has favorites and the organization shames those who drink or party.

Carolyn Ruback, junior special education major, was in Chi Alpha off and on for about three semesters.

Ruback said while she was in Chi Alpha she was sexually assaulted at a party that was not affiliated with the organization. She had told her small group leader about the assault in confidence. That leader told Peterson.

When Peterson talked to Ruback about it she said, according to Ruback, “You know hun, I am really sorry that this happened to you, but we really need to get you out of that party life.”

That was when Ruback lost trust in Peterson.

Peterson said this is not how the conversation happened.

“I wish there had been a recording during that whole time,” Peterson said. “So many things were said that were misconstrued.”

She went on to say Ruback had gotten up on stage at the “Take Back the Night” event last year and called Chi Alpha and Peterson out by name. Peterson was not personally there. She heard about what was said from members in attendance.

“[Ruback] got up on stage and said my name and that I had said this and that,” Peterson said.

Ruback claimed this never happened.

“I did say what [Peterson] said I just didn’t give her name I just said, ‘my campus ministry pastor,’” Ruback said in an email.

Madi Vachuska, an intern for Chi Alpha, was at “Take Back the Night.” Vachuska said she recalled a girl getting up and sharing her sexual assault story but also bad-mouthed Chi Alpha and Peterson.

Both Ruback and a source who wished to stay anonymous agreed Chi Alpha’s environment is a toxic one.

The anonymous source, we will call her Jane Doe, said she has always had a strong faith, but Chi Alpha made her question it.

“Chi Alpha was an awful experience for me,” Doe said. “I am still working through some emotional pain.”

Ruback said during her time in Chi Alpha she had never felt more alone and that the organization is not good for her mental health.

Two current members of Chi Alpha said only positive things about the Chi Alpha community.

Kelsa Katzfey, sophomore nursing major, has been in Chi Alpha for a year and half and has been a small group leader for a semester. Her favorite part of Chi Alpha is the community.

Katzfey explained when she experienced three deaths of people close to her, Chi Alpha helped her through it. Her small group had written her letters when she was at home one weekend and slid them under her door.

“The community Chi Alpha has to offer is unlike any that I have ever seen,” Katzfey said. “It is absolutely amazing.”

Dani Bina, junior marketing major, has also been in Chi Alpha for about a year and a small group leader for a semester. She too loves the community of Chi Alpha.

“It’s like I don’t need to be as close to everyone because I know we believe in the same thing so then we could get close in a discussion,” Bina said.

This was also seen through students in attendance at the Thursday night meeting on Jan. 24. Most students said they would describe the environment as welcoming and friendly.

Another accusation surrounding Chi Alpha is that the organization focuses more on recruitment of new members as opposed to retention of its current members.

An anonymous source, we will call her Jen Kelly, was in Chi Alpha for about a year. She said the focus of the organization is getting anyone to come to the meetings.

“[Chi Alpha] is all about getting everybody and anybody who will come,” Kelly said. “Sometimes I feel like they neglect people who are already there who are already focused on Chi Alpha and just take them for granted.”

Peterson said recruiting and retention are both of equal importance to both her and the organization.

“If you don’t do recruitment you are going to be gone in two years,” Peterson said. “However, if you have a backdoor that is open, and they are coming in the front door but then leaving you can’t have that either.”

Bina agreed with Peterson and said students are encouraged to bring people to meetings, but the students want to get to know everyone as well.

“[Staff and leadership] always encourage inviting people but also a focus is to grow deeper and not wider,” Bina said. “To grow into the people that you have and into the people of your small groups that already are coming back every week.”

In response to other reported concerns, Peterson said she does not have favorites, but she does have students she knows better because they are in leadership, at meetings and involved in the organization. Peterson said this is because there are about 300 students in the organization.

On the other hand, Kelly said Peterson never even knew her name to her face though Kelly was at most meetings but never in leadership.

As for drinking, Peterson said she has never told the general members of Chi Alpha not to drink. The organization does require those in a leadership positions do not drink because it can be confusing to those they are mentoring.

“Biblically, there are standards and I tell all of the students that after you leave leadership here it’s between you and God,” Peterson said.

Peterson also said this is because of experience. There were students who were small group leaders and would be seen drinking and throwing up on the weekends. Then Peterson would have younger students say they would be confused and unable to take that person seriously.

Both Ruback and Kelly said they agreed the issue with Chi Alpha is not with the members but with Steph Peterson.

Ruback and Kelly said they agreed if Peterson were to leave, Chi Alpha would benefit.

“The foundation of Chi Alpha isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Ruback said. “I think a lot of it is just [Peterson] having her own views and not allowing people to be individuals.”

Katzfey and Bina both said they love Peterson.

Bina said Peterson is a great leader but can come off direct.

“If someone were to just come on a Thursday night, depending on the topic, someone could think that it was really to the point,” Bina said. “She speaks from the Bible. She has said the Bible can be offensive sometimes, but she said [she is] going to stick to that.”

Katzfey agrees Peterson is a great leader and helpful.

When Katzfey and her fiancé first got engaged, Peterson was one of the first people she went to. Katzfey said Peterson gave them great advice on what to do next and what to expect.

“She really takes time to invest in her students even if it’s not Chi Alpha related,” Katzfey said.

Joe Reed, student union and student activities director, has worked with Peterson personally and said Chi Alpha is a good thing for this campus.

“[Chi Alpha] has helped a lot with all the things that we do over freshmen orientation,” Reed said.

Chi Alpha has sponsored or held various events over the years on Freshmen Orientation Week. The organization has held concerts and dinners for first-year students.

Reed also said he and Peterson have a good working relationship.

He said the rumors surrounding Chi Alpha are not a big concern for him because it has only been a few students.

Nicole Girgen
Students gather outside Harriet Johnson Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 24 before the weekly Chi Alpha meeting. When asked to describe the environment of the meetings members said they were friendly and welcoming. Former members share a different view, saying the atmosphere is toxic and bad for one’s mental health.
Nicole Girgen
Chi Alpha director and paster Steph Peterson presented the message of the night on Jan. 24, which focused on exchanging lies for the truth. Peterson said the “lies” we tell ourselves are challenges to over come and suggests finding a Bible verse to help fight them.
Nicole Girgen
Junior special education major Carolyn Ruback is a former member of Chi Alpha, participating with the organization on and off for three semesters. As a member Ruback felt lonely in Chi Alpha, stating the organization was not good for her mental health and she agrees with Jane Doe that the environment of Chi Alpha is toxic.