Illustration by Adam Hayes
Roughly 100 people are scattered throughout the sanctuary of Mariemont Community Church for Gladstone Community Church’s Thursday night Bible study. Most of them are standing, eyes closed, arms raised, singing to Jesus as the praise band leads them in worship. A few sit, heads bowed, deep in prayer. Most are young white adults, pretty evenly split between male and female, with a few infants and seniors sprinkled in and a handful of races and ethnicities represented. It’s a scene fairly common in any number of churches across town on a typical Sunday morning, just more intense—more spiritual, perhaps.
Zak Kijinski, Gladstone’s lead pastor, climbs on the stage. He’s young and lanky, sports a scruffy beard and is dressed modestly in a quarter-zip sweatshirt and faded jeans. As the band plays on, he reads from the last chapter of Revelation. “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”
Many of those gathered in front of him are members of Gladstone. When the sermon wraps up, they’ll return to their homes—their community—just up the road. Not only do they worship together, but they live together, eat together, and share finances together.
Earlier in the evening, Kijinski preached from the book of Acts about the apostle Paul being imprisoned, maligned, and falsely accused. “Are you prepared for the scorn and hatred of others, to say false things about you?” asked Kijinski in his slow, methodical voice. “Are you prepared in your life to face those things?”
Gladstone Community Church describes itself as an intentional community of Christ-followers. Members of the community live together in “common purse,” meaning they share all of their income, contributing everything to a single account. Each adult is doled out only enough to pay his or her bills plus a small, uniform stipend. They hold everything in common—clothing, cars, personal possessions—purposely limiting themselves in an effort to give everything they have as an offering to God. This includes living and worshipping in a communal sense; 80 to 90 members are spread across roughly 20 houses on or near Grace Avenue in Columbia Township, on the edge of Madisonville, often cramming eight or nine people into a two- or three-bedroom house. (There are a lot of bunk beds.) It’s Cincinnati’s own Haight-Ashbury of radical Christianity.
The concept is taken from the New Testament disciples living in common purse with Jesus, a practice that the Bible says continued after His crucifixion. The Gladstone Community cites Acts 2:44 as its scriptural basis, which reads: “All the believers were together and had everything in common.”
Initially, Gladstone offered an open invitation to their worship services but politely turned down any interviews for this piece, referencing 1 Thessalonians Chapter 4’s call to lead a quiet life. But a few weeks later, members Cebastian Hilton and Benjamin von Korff volunteered to speak on the church’s behalf. We sat down over coffee in the lobby of Mariemont Inn.
“We saw that [common purse] was the earliest Christians’ response to how Jesus and his disciples lived,” says Hilton, one of the church’s elders. This is considered a prescriptive reading of the scripture, as opposed to descriptive, and it fits with Gladstone’s nondenominational Christian theology of strict, literal adherence to biblical teachings.
“This is the doctrine,” says von Korff, placing his hand on a Bible the pair brought with them. “That’s as straightforward as possible.”
As alien as all of this might seem, particularly in today’s superconnected culture, it’s far from a new idea. “All of the themes are very familiar in terms of new religious groups, historically,” says Danny L. Jorgensen, an author and professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida who specializes in the sociology of cults and sects. “There have been a lot of groups who emphasized these ideas of Restorationism, of going back to a primitive, pristine form of Christianity.”
It’s also a conviction that has opened the community up to a good deal of controversy. One simply needs to type “Gladstone Community” into a Google search bar for the auto-fill function to suggest “cult.” A quick scan of the comments on their Yelp page and a handful of blog posts will turn up loaded terms such as brainwashing and manipulation. Further digging reveals a collection of ex-members, families, and local religious leaders who have grievances against the church, a number of which trace back to the community’s origin.
Zak Kijinski founded what came to be known as Gladstone in 2007 while living with a few other guys in a Mariemont apartment. According to Geoff Hill, a roommate at the time, Kijinski had a dream in which God told him that he was King David and his roommates were David’s mighty men, and that he was to build a city of refuge in Cincinnati to escape the coming judgment. “And we believed it,” says Hill.
This dream was not exactly an anomaly for Kijinski. He had become obsessed with biblical prophecy and visions since attending Northstar Church in Loveland a couple of years earlier. Ryan Dennis, an earlier roommate who attended the same church, claims that Kijinski became convinced the world was going to end, drawing wild connections from news articles and staring at pictures of the Pope on his computer, whom he believed to be the Antichrist.
In the early stages of forming the community, Kijinski’s focus shifted more toward dreams and purported communications directly from God. To Hill and Dennis, such claims reminded them of Kijinski’s involvement in what they both describe as a “vampire slaying cult” in high school, in which he convinced a number of people that he was God’s chosen warrior who they then helped hunt vampires in the woods of Mt. Washington.
“[Gladstone] just echoed back to my previous experiences with him,” says Dennis. “It morphed into this. It’s just a more biblical, more believable version.”
(Gladstone did not make Kijinski available for comment; neither von Korff nor Hilton would address Kijinski’s involvement in a vampire slaying cult.)
The new group attracted followers quickly. Kijinski and his roommates decided to pursue the common purse practice and began hosting a Thursday night Bible study at their apartment, generally led by Kijinski, which anyone was welcome to attend. It was mostly high school and college-age kids, growing from 10 or 15 people to as many as 70 by the summer of 2008. By that point, the members had moved into the church’s first house on Grace Avenue, which inspired the community’s name—it was the same frame as the “Gladstone” model home from the old Sears catalog.
“Those Thursday nights, they were fun. I got really close with a lot of the members,” says Danny Dressler, who joined the community that summer. “I had only been a believer for about two years. Everything was new and exciting. It was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Once on the inside, however, there were those who questioned and ultimately left the group because they thought Kijinski had too much control and the community was too insular. Members were encouraged to spend as much time as possible with the group in order to grow in spiritual presence. They were warned that their family and friends might disapprove of their new lifestyle and were encouraged to distance themselves if that was the case. There were instances where people in college either felt called to drop out and devote more time to Gladstone or were encouraged to do so. Every decision was prayed about at length, and typically, the verdict had to be delivered by God’s voice. Kijinski’s teaching focused heavily on prophecy and other charismatic gifts. Over time, this pushed some away.
“Zak would say that these people were leaving God’s blessing and protection,” says Hill, who left the group in early 2009. “He’s so good at manipulating.”
Despite some squabbles and a faction of aggrieved ex-members, Gladstone has grown in both number and reach since 2007: The community currently owns a catering business (Gladstone Catering), a home repair and remodeling business (Handy Home Guys), and a landscaping business (Handy Lawn Guys). Anyone who lives in the community must work 40 hours a week, and many do so for these companies, but they can also work outside of the community. Among the members are lawyers, nurses, engineers, janitors, and baristas.
In spring 2012, Gladstone Community Church registered with the state of Ohio as a nonprofit corporation.* Around the same time, the Thursday night gatherings moved out of their meetinghouse and into Mariemont Community Church. (That’s not an unusual location—around 40 or so local organizations, from Alcoholics Anonymous to Boy Scouts of America, gather at the church in any given month.) About a year later, they began meeting in the church’s chapel along Wooster Pike on Sunday mornings as well.
“The way it’s grown has really mimicked the book of Acts,” says von Korff, referring to Acts 2:47, which follows the mention of the common purse lifestyle: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
“They didn’t have a huge plan,” he adds. “They had Jesus’s words.”
Von Korff was just finishing high school when he started attending the Bible studies in 2009. Now 23, he says he was living “in some serious sin” at the time. He had plans to attend a college in Baltimore, but instead began spending time at Gladstone and says he was directed by the Holy Spirit to join. “There’s something very attractive about people who are laying down their life for God,” he says. “It looks painful, but it draws you to it, because there is real life there.”
His story is similar to others who felt lost or broken until they found a family within the group. “There’s a real dynamic sense of community and love there, feeling like you belong in a place,” says a former member, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid upsetting current church elders. “It’s a place of refuge for a lot of people.”
Many Gladstone members are relatively new believers in Christ, or have been “born again” in some way. They relate to or claim to have experienced various charismatic gifts of prophecy, contemplative prayer, and speaking in tongues. Hilton, who joined in 2011 and admits to having a history of drug use and self-described “sexual immorality,” had a vision of a globe covered in black with points of light popping up all over the United States and Jesus hovering above the earth wrapped in heavenly light. “I knew He was communicating to me that He was raising an army of light, and I could be part of this army,” says Hilton. About a week later, he moved into one of the Gladstone homes.
Stories like this make some skeptical of the community’s motivations. For believers and nonbelievers alike who may not share or believe in charismatic experiences, it’s difficult to trust their validity. It’s led many of those who have left the Gladstone Community or have children there to deem it a cult. In an academic sense, though, this accusation is somewhat hollow. “Cult terminology is imprecise,” says Jorgensen, the professor from USF. “It ends up being a word we use for something that we don’t like. So what is it that you don’t like?”
Among those who take issue with the group, the main concern is that members are isolated and encouraged to cut off contact with outside family and friends. They disagree with some of the church’s teachings and practices, whether it’s common purse or their belief that divorce is sinful; indeed, numerous members who are children of divorce have told their parents they are living in sin. These families fear that Gladstone’s leadership has too much influence.
“I wanted my kid to be a light for the Lord, but I never wanted this,” says a parent of a current member who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “I just feel like they have been misled.”
“My child’s personality changed so dramatically and quickly. Very robotic, so emotionally detached from us,” says another parent who also requested anonymity. “It doesn’t appear that our child has the freedom to be the person who God created them to be.”
“You’re so isolated from everything that is outside of the community,” says Danny Dressler, who stayed at Gladstone less than a year. “You get to a point where you go so far into the community, you have no way out.”
A number of ex-members feel they were smeared after leaving—though some in Gladstone would argue the same—and still question Kijinski. “Is he conning or is he genuine?” says Geoff Hill. “I hope he’s lying. If he believes it, he’s batshit.”
Kijinski aside, even dissenters admit that the vast majority of members are sincere and have willingly committed their lives to God. The church preaches the gospel, gives to missions all over the world, and gives back to its community. In the past few years, Gladstone has developed relationships with a number of rehabilitation organizations: Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug rehab facility; Pure Life Ministries, a sexual addiction clinic; and River City Correctional Center. Detractors argue Gladstone is preying on these people; supporters believe they are rescuing them.
Denis Beausejour is one of those supporters. The senior pastor at Mariemont Community Church since 2004, he has served as a mentor for Gladstone’s leadership, and believes they have made great strides over the years. The two congregations even worshipped together regularly on Sunday mornings for about two years between 2012 and 2014. “I would say if you look at the continuum of zealousness and maturity, they have been pretty steady in their zealousness but increasing in their maturity,” says Beausejour. “They did have some people who left and [the church] didn’t handle that very well. They made some mistakes, they are learning, and they are getting better.”
It’s still a radical Christian community, but just like any church or organization, it’s evolved over time. “I would say most of them are two degrees off center,” Beausejour says affectionately. “We believe that what they’re doing is certainly not perfect, but definitely orthodox Christian.”
Despite the community’s isolation, they are fairly transparent in what they believe: They post audio versions of their sermons on their website (gladstonecommunity.org), and their services are open to the public. Still, most of the problems and criticisms stem not from doctrine, but from a lifestyle that is simply anathema in our society. Members are used to it. They expect outsiders to be puzzled, and to some degree seem to welcome it. When asked about being denounced as a cult, von Korff grabs the Bible and flips directly to Matthew 5:11–12: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
“We never want to be accused of anything for the wrong reasons, but I think we’re in pretty good company,” adds Hilton.
Gladstone is cloistered, imperfect, and as far as modern America is concerned, pretty weird. But is it a cult? “Psychological abuse is a very hard thing to measure. There is a huge gray area,” says Tim Miller, an author and professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas who specializes in intentional communities. “But unless there is something manifestly wrong going on, I think people should have freedom of religion.”
When asked about the mission of Gladstone Community Church, both Hilton and von Korff reference Matthew 22:37–39, one of the most prominent passages in the Christian faith. In the first part, Jesus tells His followers to love the Lord “with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” It’s tough to argue Gladstone doesn’t do that.
The second part instructs them to “love your neighbor as yourself.” They do that too, though it’s a lot easier when you own nearly every house on the block.
*Correction: This article originally stated that Gladstone Community Church registered with the state of Ohio as a 501(c)(3). The 501(c)(3) designation is a separate federal classification, and any organization that meets the federal requirements of a church is automatically treated as tax exempt under 501(c)(3) regulations.