Calvary Chapel Pastor Runs Persecution-Themed Boot Camp With ‘Simulated Torture,’ Former Students Say

By Rebecca Hopkins
patmos boot camp
Chet Lowe speaks to students participating in a Patmos Reality Discipleship Intensive, in a photo from October 2015. (Photo via Facebook)

Influential and up-and-coming Calvary Chapel pastor, Chet Lowe, runs a Christian boot camp in southern California that simulated torture as a part of its discipleship process, according to numerous former students who spoke recently with The Roys Report (TRR).

The students said the boot camp—Patmos: Reality Discipleship—pushed them beyond their breaking point. Patmos used firing squads and middle-of-the-night chases by “Muslims” to make them rely on God, they said, leaving some traumatized and some questioning their faith. One said she left the camp in a wheelchair. Another said he was forced to survive alone outside in the snowy mountains for four days with only communion crackers and grape juice.

“It was meant to break you down,” said Ashley Ruiz, a former student and former staff member at Patmos. “That’s what abusers do. They break you down and they put you back together the way they want you to be. That’s exactly what Chet would do. He viewed that as his mission. People need to know who he is and what he’s done.”

patmos boot camp chet lowe
Chet Lowe (Photo: Calvary Chapel South Bay)

Lowe, a former missionary, was appointed as senior pastor of 8,000-member church Calvary Chapel South Bay (CCSB) earlier this year.

In recent years, Lowe has also been given access to resources from Calvary Chapel’s flagship church, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa (CCCM), for his Patmos boot camp, former students say. The students added that Lowe has also been allowed to recruit students from Calvary Chapel Bible College, Calvary’s main Bible college. And Lowe has used the college campus for Patmos discipleship as recently as 2018, a college spokesperson confirmed.

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Patmos also has inspired a spin-off version of Patmos for eighth graders, called Pierced. This was started in Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale by a different youth pastor while Lowe was still a pastor there, former students told TRR.

CCCM’s Senior Pastor Brian Brodersen and Jeff Gill, former CCSB senior pastor and a former Patmos board member, have not responded to TRR’s requests for comment.

The Roys Report has repeatedly reached out to Chet Lowe for comment, but he has not responded.

The camp for “radical disciples” was born

Lowe founded Patmos to create “radical disciples” in 2005, while working as the adult family and outreach pastor at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, the Patmos website and his church bio state. On its website, Patmos markets itself as a 16-week adventure camp for adults aged 18-35 to “stretch you spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally to drive you to the feet of Jesus.”

Lowe left the Fort Lauderdale church in 2015 for California, bringing Patmos with him. From 2016 to 2021, Lowe worked as senior pastor of the nondenominational church, Coast Hills Church. During this time, he also held Patmos “intensives” at a CCCM camp in California, Green Valley Lake Christian Camp, which was founded by Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith.

In April 2020, Patmos survivors began telling their stories of “cult”-like behavior on a Calvary Chapel watchdog site, Phoenix Preacher. In August 2020, Patmos and Pierced survivors also formed a Facebook support group called Pierced by Patmos: We are not alone, now at 38 members.

patmos boot camp
Students participate in a Patmos: Reality Discipleship intensive, in an undisclosed location. (Photo via Patmos Reality)

The American-run Patmos camp hasn’t had intensive camps since 2019 due to the pandemic, said Gaby Estrada, executive assistant at Coast Hills Church.

But a Patmos branch in El Salvador that Lowe founded—and where he sometimes teaches—has been meeting this year, Estrada said. If the U.S.-based Patmos begins its camp again, Lowe will run it out of Calvary Chapel South Bay, she added.

What happens at Patmos stays at Patmos

Eight former students, ranging from the 2007 Patmos class to the 2016 class, came forward to The Roys Report with similar stories. They said they found Patmos through their Calvary Chapels all over the country—Montana, Colorado, California, Oregon, Florida, and New Jersey. Two former students—Justin Nguyen and Victoria Venard—found it through their college, Calvary Chapel Bible College in Twin Peaks, California, and earned college credit for it.

Former Patmos students said they didn’t know what they were getting into. They said they weren’t supposed to talk about what happened with others outside of Patmos, either to keep the surprise for future Patmos students, or because Patmos leaders said those on the outside wouldn’t understand. This message was confirmed in a packet sent by the Patmos admissions team, saying “for some, your decision will not be understood nor supported.” Some students said they were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

“Now I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are you doing?’” said former student Rebekah Dispoto. “But at the time, I was like, ‘These people are Christians and they love God. So, they’re not going to do something that would harm me.’”

patmos boot camp
Promotional photo for Patmos: Reality Discipleship intensive (Photo via website)

Lowe encouraged students to seek donations for the $5,500 experience, according to documents obtained by TRR. Much of it happened in other countries—the Bahamas, Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador—without safeguards or accountability, students said.

Students were required to journal about what God was teaching them through various “challenges” and extreme workouts, which they said were often demeaning and dangerous, and left some feeling like failures. Two former students—Elijah Olachea and Victoria Venard—shared portions of their journals with TRR.

One workout lasted six hours with no stopping for drinking water—to represent hell for those who hadn’t been raptured, said Venard, who attended in 2015 in California. If a student left to use the bathroom, they were told they would be kicked out of the program, she said. A commitment letter the students were required to sign gave leaders “sole discretion” to remove students without refunding fees.

During “persecution week,” leaders pretended to be Muslims who chased them all night long, and required them to simulate injuries, such as losing limbs or tongues. Students had to carry the “injured” students with them, said Dispoto and Olachea. Recordings of the Quran being chanted played over a loudspeaker, said Ruiz.

boot camp patmos
Journal entry by a former Patmos student, Elijah Olachea.

Venard’s class feared they’d run into bears or mountain lions in the vast forest where they’d hide all night long. She witnessed leaders dumping cold water on a young woman several times—in the winter—as punishment for her teammates not completing grueling workouts.

Another woman was made to swim across a lake during the winter, a couple weeks before the San Bernadino mountains got snow, Venard said. A young man in her class was forced into a storage container for two days with no way to keep warm, she added.

Patmos Chet Lowe Victoria Venard
Journal entry by former Patmos student, Victoria Venard.

In a 2016 class in California, leaders forced bags onto the students’ heads, dragged them into the bathroom, kicked them, and forced their heads under faucets, said Justin Nguyen. Then the staff lined up students—bags still on their heads—and fired off a real gun with blanks, said Nguyen.

Fellow 2016 classmate John Wooley said interns wrapped his head—covering his eyes—with duct tape and forced him into a closet for two days. Once a day, someone would open the door and throw a dinner roll at him.

Nguyen said he was made to live out on a small metal boat in the woods in the middle of a snowy winter in the California mountains for four days. He said he found toilet paper to stuff into his clothes to keep warm.

In the 2009 Bahamas class, students were made to sign documents without being allowed to read them, which ended up being travel documents to Brazil, said Ruiz, Dispoto, and Olachea. One student refused to sign it and he was kicked out of the program, Dispoto said.

All the students said there was no medical personnel at these camps, monitoring the often extreme weight loss, injuries, and cold weather challenges. Patmos was training them to be missionaries, and the reasoning was, missionaries wouldn’t have access to hospitals, said Venard.

Lowe would regale the students with epic missionary tales that added to his stature, said Dispoto.

“He saved people, the devil was coming after him . . . He accomplished all these things for God,” she said.  

In his autobiography, Living Parable, Lowe tells how at age 13, he was made to smuggle Bibles into China as part of a missions trip. He writes about near-death encounters in Liberia, where Lowe moved in 1995 with his wife and 4-month-old baby in the middle of a civil war. Lowe’s church bio states that in a period of five years, he started 17 churches and seven rehabilitation homes that ministered to 1,500 child soldiers.

“(Lowe) was this big, larger than life, prophet personality,” said Lauren Chastain who knew Lowe through family connections. “He was known for speaking for God into people’s lives.”

Chet Lowe preaches at Calvary Chapel South Bay on Feb 15, 2016. (Source: Video screengrab)

‘Come to Jesus’ breakdowns, long-term effects

Several former Patmos students talked about how Lowe spoke authoritatively, but also had a way of drawing in students. Venard said she wanted to please Lowe, wanted him to be proud of her, wanted to be chosen by him to be a Patmos leader.

Students struggling with mental illness were also drawn to Patmos and Lowe, hoping for the camp to heal them, said Dispoto. She struggled with self-cutting and depression. But during an intense time of questioning in what Lowe called the “Cabin of Conviction” meant to change her, she said Lowe seemed to taunt her.

“He says, ‘So, do you really want to kill yourself because I’ll get a knife from the kitchen and you can slit your wrists right here,’” Dispoto said.

During the initial days of the pandemic, Dispoto reconnected with her class from Patmos through Zoom, then started the private Facebook group for Patmos and Pierced survivors. Many former students told TRR that it took them years to see the toxicity of the teaching on the importance of extreme submission and suffering.

Patmos Reality Discipleship logo

Students were required to fast from food at a moment’s notice—sometimes for days, Olachea said. He attended the same camp as Dispoto did in 2009. Olachea’s parents signed a waiver to allow him to leave to go to the Bahamas with Patmos at age 17, he said. The week of his 18th birthday, Patmos leaders required students to fast from three to five days, he said. Olachea chose five days, but on the last day of the fast, the students were required to run 10 miles.

Olachea continued the long fasting periods once he got back home “to prove to God that I was radical enough,” developing into what he called a “God-shaped eating disorder.”

Sometimes the leaders’ attempts to “break” students went too far. Olachea said he was so exhausted from carrying two cinder blocks over his head for days—and then being required to do lunges—that he momentarily considered walking onto a busy street to get hit by a bus.

“The whole thing is facilitated for you to have basically like a ‘come-to-Jesus moment’ when you’re in the position where you can’t rely on anything else but the Lord,” Olachea said.

Dispoto said she injured a knee in an intense workout—it “collapsed” while doing a burpee—but she kept going because Lowe would keep pushing them. She then “blew out” her other knee, both knees swelling at least twice their usual size, she said.

Several days later, Lowe finally allowed her to see a Bahamian doctor who told her there was nothing he could do and told her to use a wheelchair, Dispoto said. Later at home, she said a doctor told her she could do surgery or physical therapy. She declined the surgery, but still struggles with pain.

Olachea confirmed that Dispoto was injured and was required to use a wheelchair.

Students were allowed to leave early, but former students said leaders would shame, shun, and spiritually abuse them. Wooley said Lowe was rarely at his camp. Lowe put immature leaders in their 20s in charge, so Wooley decided to leave early.

Wooley said the person who took him to the airport told him to remember that he had signed a nondisclosure agreement and should not talk about the experience to anyone.

When another student, Charles Baker, tried to explain to Lowe his reasons for leaving early, that it wasn’t helping him, Lowe reportedly told him he was “bitter.”

The Patmos experience wasn’t cheap. Most students remembered a $4,000-$6,000 price tag. The documented amount for the 2016 class was $5,500. But when Ruiz worked there, she said very little of that translated into her salary—just $300 a month. She said she had to raise or fund the rest of her salary.

Each term is limited to 24 students, Patmos’ website states. Official financial figures aren’t publicly available. Due to Patmos’ religious, tax-exempt status with the IRS, Patmos isn’t required to file 990 tax forms. Annual reports that Patmos filed with the Florida Department of State list its board of directors, but no financial figures.

A history of abusive boot camps

In 2005, after being arrested for alcohol possession as a minor, Ashley Ruiz was forced by her parents to choose between a residential treatment center and Montana-based discipleship camp, Potter’s Field—Patmos’ predecessor. 

Potter’s Field was a Montana discipleship boot camp where Lowe used to work, Ruiz said. It was run by former Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale (CCFL) worship minister, Pam Rozell and her husband, Michael Rozell. Potter’s Field was open until 2019, but closed when former students accused Michael Rozell of verbal abuse, overworking them, and sexual harassment.

Lowe convinced Ruiz to choose Potter’s Field, saying it would change her life, Ruiz said. Ruiz went, struggling through it. But when Lowe “positioned himself as a father figure” in her life, she followed him to Patmos as staff when he launched the first session in 2007. Ruiz then served as his assistant off and on until 2010.

chet lowe teaching boot camp
In a photo posted in September 2019, Chet Lowe teaches students in El Salvador. (Photo via Facebook)

While Lowe was still a pastor at CCFL, Mike Rust, a CCFL youth pastor started Pierced, a “mini-Patmos” for eighth graders, said former student Jenna Voutsinas, from the 2013 class. Wearing army fatigues and carrying airsoft guns, leaders awakened students at 3 a.m., she said. Rust bullied students, said Lizzie Chastain, who attended in 2016.

Rust is being sued for sexually abusing a minor in the 1980s when he was a mentor for a Jehovah’s Witness church in Florida. Rust was fired from CCFL when the lawsuit was filed in 2019, confirmed Katy Mills, executive director of engagement at CCFL. CCFL ended the Pierced program at that time, Mills said.

Rust did not return TRR’s request for comment.

According to Mills, CCFL broke ties with Patmos in 2015.

Despite former students’ stories of abuse from Patmos’ first camp, Mills said Patmos was likely initially “healthy.”

“Typically, what happens in programs like that . . . they start out healthy but when the leader becomes unhealthy, the program becomes unhealthy,” she said. “We’re a church. We don’t need to be extreme camping.”

Patmos’ move to California, a report of abuse

After leaving the Fort Lauderdale church, God told Lowe to “rebuild” and “revive” in California, Lowe’s church bio states. Lowe posted on Patmos’ website in June 2015 about partnering with Calvary Chapel Bible College (CCBC) and Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa.

Nguyen, Venard, and former CCBC student Sam Morgan all said CCBC allowed Lowe—who also taught at CCBC—to recruit students from the college into Patmos.

patmos boot camp
Students participate in a Patmos: Reality Discipleship intensive (Photo via Facebook)

Patmos limited students’ communication to people on the outside. But at a 2016 camp, Nguyen said he found a way to reach out to friends who were students at CCBC about his experiences. His friend, Sam Morgan, told Jeremey Wilson, then a CCBC staff member, about possible abuse happening there. Wilson confirmed to TRR that he suggested they, together, report the concerns to Andy Deane, who was director of the college at the time.

In a meeting with Wilson and Morgan, Deane said he knew Lowe well, trusted his methods, but said he’d connect Morgan with Lowe, both Wilson and Morgan told TRR. A few emails later, Morgan didn’t feel like Deane or Lowe were taking his concerns seriously. Deane offered to set up a meeting to talk further, but never did, Morgan said.

“The whole situation kind of just got dropped,” Morgan said.

Deane, who is now pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, did not return several attempts by TRR for comment.

As recently as 2018, Patmos has used CCBC’s campus for its program, confirmed CCBC’s student life coordinator Kayla Peterson.

CCBC’s current president didn’t answer TRR’s request for comment.

Don’t ‘just go to reporters’

The families who still have concerns about Pierced or Patmos can come directly to Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale with their hurts and concerns, said Mills.

“If they just go to reporters, then that healing can’t take place with their church or making sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Mills. “We don’t want to leave that hurt out there.”

But processing the trauma with church leaders may not feel safe, said Lauren Chastain, mother of Lizzie.

“What it would take for true healing to happen is for them to actually acknowledge that they’ve done something wrong and make amends with the victims,” said Chastain. “Pay for the therapy. Help them navigate these traumatized waters that we are all drowning in. Saying you’re sorry we’re hurt doesn’t make it right.”

This article has been updated to correctly identify Pam Rozell. 

Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist based in Colorado.

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54 thoughts on “Calvary Chapel Pastor Runs Persecution-Themed Boot Camp With ‘Simulated Torture,’ Former Students Say”

  1. The Patmos experience wasn’t cheap. Most students remembered a $4,000-$6,000 price tag. The documented amount for the 2016 class was $5,500. But when Ruiz worked there, she said very little of that translated into her salary—just $300 a month. She said she had to raise or fund the rest of her salary.

    Each term is limited to 24 students

    Twenty four students at $5500 each is $132,000. Deduct the paltry $300 per month salary for the six week program for a few “counselors.”

    And somebody is making a *LOT* of money.

  2. I know this isn’t the point of this article but as a survivor of Potter’s Field Ministries, I do want to point out that PFM and their programs have not closed but is still in existence, just with a skeleton crew of a staff. But they are still very much taking sponsorship money and Mudman is opened as well and they are now hiring kids from the community in Montana instead of interns who had already been through the Ignite program. They “closed” for a few months from July to (I believe it was) November in 2019. Everyone was told that Mike Rozell was removed and would not be involved and the sponsorship would be transferred to another Calvary Chapel in CA. The Rozell’s waited for the news to fade from headlines and then they stepped back in and pushed the other Calvary Chapel out. They then worked on opening the Mudman restaurants again. Just wanted to make it clear that they are not closed.

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