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Texas Pastor Linked to Chi Alpha Sex Abuse Scandal Dismissed From Church

By Josh Shepherd
eli stewart savala
On May 21, 2023, the board and elders of Mountain Valley Fellowship in College Station, Tex., dismissed Eli Stewart as lead pastor. (Photo via Facebook)

A central Texas church has dismissed its lead pastor for “sinful practices,” saying he neglected “to protect his flock” by referring young men to convicted sex offender Daniel Savala for spiritual guidance.

On Sunday, the board and elders of Mountain Valley Fellowship in College Station, Texas, announced Eli Stewart has been dismissed as lead pastor. They stated Stewart had “fallen into sinful practices unbecoming of the office of a pastor and . . . neglected his duty to protect his flock from a known predator.” These actions “disqualify him from ministry,” they added.

The statement refers multiple times to itinerant minister Daniel Savala, 67, who was convicted of sexual abuse in 2012 and is a registered sex offender. In recent weeks, a group of whistleblowers has alleged that Texas leaders of Chi Alpha Student Ministries have allowed Savala to attend meetings and prey on students, raping or sexually assaulting at least 13 men.

Chi Alpha, a national college ministry of the Assemblies of God denomination, has chapters on 275 campuses nationwide. According to multiple sources, Savala has been involved with Chi Alpha at seven south-central Texas schools, most frequently at Texas A&M University and Sam Houston State University.

Stewart, ordained in the Assemblies of God denomination, relaunched the Chi Alpha chapter at Texas A&M University in 2016 and was named director in 2021. (He was placed on leave from this role in April.) Chi Alpha meetings and worship services have been frequently held at the church, located 10 miles from the college campus. 

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eli stewart chi alpha
In 2016, Eli Stewart leads a meeting of the Chi Alpha chapter at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. (Photo: FB / AG)

The Assemblies of God (AoG) has not yet pulled Stewart’s ministerial credentials, according to a statement provided to The Roys Report (TRR). Mountain Valley Fellowship is located in the AoG North Texas District, which has reportedly investigated the allegations against Stewart and provided a recommendation to the AoG General Council.

TRR reached out to the AoG North Texas District for a statement, but did not immediately hear back.

The denomination’s South Texas District is currently investigating the claims related to Savala’s years of involvement in Chi Alpha programs and affiliated AoG churches, allegedly enabled by Stewart and others.

Upon completion of that investigation, District Superintendent Tim Barker will make a recommendation on further actions including removal of credentials. “Once those recommendations are received, the General Council Credentials Committee (will respond) accordingly,” stated Mark Forrester, communications director of AoG.

Stewart defended Savala, invited him on campus

Stewart, who was mentored by Savala as a college student, has publicly defended his friend. After Savala was indicted on 11 counts of sex abuse charges in January 2012, Stewart and Eli Gautreaux, also a mentee of Savala, initiated a letter-writing campaign in Savala’s defense.

Their letter called the criminal indictment against Savala an “absolute attack of the devil on his life” based on accusations by “angry and bitter” men. “So, we NEED YOU TO WRITE A LETTER THIS WEEK to appeal for Leniency for Daniel,” wrote Gautreax and Stewart.

In July 2012, Savala was convicted on one count of third-degree sexual abuse.

Stewart was a campus leader and then director of Chi Alpha’s Texas A&M chapter. Gautreaux became district director for Chi Alpha in New Mexico and south Texas. As reported by Christianity Today, Stewart and Gautreaux led Chi Alpha “groups to visit Savala’s home even after his conviction and sex offender status”—in multiple mission trips over several years.

Multiple sources noted that Chi Alpha students provided labor to help Savala build a sauna at his home in Houston. And, according to reports in recent months, Savala’s pattern of grooming involved him and alleged victims spending time naked in Savala’s home sauna.

daniel savala
On April 1, 2018, Daniel Savala is pictured in attendance at Mountain Valley Fellowship in College Station, Texas. (Screengrab)

As a college student, Ron Bloomingkemper Jr. rebuffed Savala’s suggestion of group masturbation and steered clear of him, Bloomingkemper told TRR. Bloomingkemper said he was shocked 25 years later to find Savala still linked to Chi Alpha, and recently helped coalesce a group of advocates and survivors at XA And The Lions Den.

“Eli Stewart is the key player with Daniel,” Bloomingkemper told TRR in an interview. “Because he is so good at talking people into doing stuff.”

Church elder under investigation cancels sauna construction

Among those involved with Stewart at Chi Alpha Texas A&M was Josh Nitcholas, who joined the campus ministry as a “full-time missionary” who raised his own support. He helped launch Mountain Valley Fellowship in March 2017 and has served as an elder in the church.

In January, Nitcholas’ wife Abby revealed in a social post that her husband’s “latest project” was “building a sauna in the back yard.” She added: “We are excited at the conversation and memories that will soon be created there!”

Last month, a legal firm’s letter on behalf of abuse survivors and advocates, documenting some allegations against Savala, led to responsive action. Mountain Valley Fellowship placed Stewart on leave, as well as Nitcholas and Jonathan Bryce, another elder and Chi Alpha leader.

On Monday, Nitcholas stated in a social post that the sauna project has been cancelled. He posted an offer for “700-800 planks (of) Red Cedar from a mill in Arkansas. My plan was to use it on an out door (sic) sauna.”

josh nitcholas sauna
On May 22, 2023, Josh Nitcholas posted in a public forum regarding the sale of Red Cedar planks (Screengrab – profile photo blurred)

TRR reached out to Nitcholas for comment via social media but did not immediately hear back.

In a statement to TRR, Kirk Armstrong, a board member of Mountain Valley Fellowship, said the church’s investigation is ongoing and that the unanimous vote to dismiss Stewart is “the only action the Board and Elders have taken so far.”

Advocates ask: Will AoG investigation be rigorous?

Alongside Stewart, Nitcholas and Bryce were allegedly instrumental in inviting Savala to Chi Alpha events and even on campus at Texas A&M to meet with students.

texas AM Chi Alpha
Logo of Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship at Texas A&M University (Image via social media)

In a social post dated August 20, 2020, a Texas A&M student recounted meeting with “Josh Nitcholas and seeing XA (Chi Alpha) guys talk to students . . . then Eli Stewart showed up with Daniel Savala.”

Now the pattern of these AoG-credentialed ministers lending their on-campus access to a registered sex offender is reportedly under investigation by the AoG South Texas District.

According to an unverified statement posted to an abuse survivors’ forum online, the denomination has engaged Foley & Lardner LLP, one of the nation’s Top 50 law firms, to “independently investigate” these matters.

TRR reached out repeatedly to the South Texas AoG office to verify the statement, but the office has not responded.

tim barker chi alpha
Tim Barker (Video screengrab)

In a separate statement also posted to the survivors’ forum, AoG District Superintendent Tim Barker stated that Chi Alpha District Director Eli Gautreaux has been suspended from his position. The statement said Johnny Hauck, director of Chi Alpha at University of Texas-San Antonio, has also been placed on leave.

Bloomingkemper told TRR he first reached out to Barker about abuse issues in Chi Alpha in 2013. Bloomingkemper said Barker promised to look into it.

Three weeks later, Bloomingkemper said he followed up with Barker and Barker said he “completely forgot” to look into the matter. Recalling the conversation, Bloomingkemper said, “You have years of potential sexual abuse here and an untold number of victims, and you forgot?”

TRR reached out to Barker for comment on this exchange but did not hear back.

Correction: This story has been corrected to note that Mountain Valley Fellowship falls within the AoG North Texas District.

Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his family live in the Washington, D.C. area.

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9 Responses

  1. It’s most encouraging that these elders clearly saw that this pastor’s actions disqualified him for ministry. Prayers for many more church leaders with such clear discernment.

  2. Thank you for your new information today. This is a tragic problem for so many people involved with Chi Alph and or the churches. It is good Eli Stewart was dismissed. I pray for his repentance and restoration to the Lord. I pray for deeper investigations into many of the leaders involved-especially with this afternoon’s news account of the Chi Alpha leader in Waco being arrested to continual sexual abuse of two minors ( his own sons). This is so evil and tragic for all the victims.

  3. This article is a reminder that abusers do not only groom their victims but also the people who might be able to hold them accountable.

    1. This is an important point. Abusers are known to groom enablers who will jump to their defense when they get caught and they need a defense. These enablers are often leaders they keep close and shower with attention. In churches, these enablers are often pastors and other leaders in places of authority. In the book A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, they say, “When allegations arise, toxic churches almost always follow the same script—silencing the victims, spinning Matthew 18, and spreading a false counter-narrative by blaming the victims.” The pastor in this story jumped to the abuser’s defense following this script. Thank God the leaders in the church saw through this strategy and called him to account. Unfortunately this is not the norm. Exposing abusers is not the work of the devil but a Godly protection of people and the church.

  4. Question:
    Do some of these churches not do background checks? Some of these events occurred after an actual conviction, and the accompanying offender registration. A conviction showing up should have been a no go for hiring this person; it certainly would be in our church or the school where I work.

    – Greg

    1. Background checks were not needed. They were 100% aware that Daniel Savala was a registered sex offender and just did not care. They were involved in paying for his legal defence and had one of their pastors, while on missionary support, live with Daniel in Houston as his chaperone to enable him to return the Texas from Alaska while out on bail.

    2. The article says that pastors in Texas knew all about the Alaska conviction, and put the criminal in positions of trust anyway. I wonder if criminal charges might be appropriate for them too? They do sound like they might be accessories to statutory rape, or perhaps pimps.

  5. Tim Barker knew allegedly was warned about this behavior 10 years ago and forgot about it? When reminded he still did nothing? But now, 10 years later he’s getting serious about it? Facepalm.

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