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Registered Sex Offender Continued to Minister to Chi Alpha Students

Some Texas pastors supported and involved a man they knew was convicted of child sex abuse. Now more victims are coming forward.
Registered Sex Offender Continued to Minister to Chi Alpha Students
Image: Edits by Christianity Today / Source Image: Courtesy of XA and The Lions Den
Daniel Savala

Update (June 5, 2023): The man at the center of a sexual abuse scandal that has rocked Chi Alpha campus ministries in Texas is now in jail. Daniel Savala was arrested on Friday and charged with continuous sexual abuse of a young child. His arrest comes two weeks after a former chapter leader at Baylor University—Chris Hundl—was charged for bringing two boys to Savala’s sauna to masturbate in 2021 and 2022. In Texas, the crime carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison without parole.

Update (May 24, 2023): Eli Stewart, the College Station, Texas, pastor who promoted Daniel Savala as a mentor and teacher, was dismissed by his church this week after an investigation. Mountain Valley Fellowship said Stewart “had fallen into sinful practices unbecoming of the office of a pastor and that he had neglected his duty to protect his flock from a known predator, both of which disqualify him from ministry.” Eli Gautreaux, Chi Alpha’s district director, and Johnny Hauck, of the UTSA chapter, have also stepped down during the investigation.

Over the past 30 years, well over a hundred men involved in Texas chapters of the campus ministry Chi Alpha have seen Daniel Savala naked.

At Savala’s house in Houston, he invited them to strip down and talk about spiritual issues in his sauna. He offered his bed to overnight guests while sleeping in the buff. And at least 13 men reported that Savala molested or raped them while they sought his spiritual advice as college students, according to a new online forum collecting victims’ stories.

Savala, 67, doesn’t hold an official title with Chi Alpha, isn’t employed by the organization, and isn’t credentialed by its denomination, the Assemblies of God.

But former members of Chi Alpha say a network of pastors leading chapters at several Texas colleges viewed Savala as a mentor and spiritual guru, supporting him and sending their students to his house—even after Savala was convicted of child sexual abuse and registered as a sex offender a decade ago.

Victims are speaking up to call out those who continued endorsing Savala and put students at risk. Officials with Chi Alpha and the Assemblies of God had previously been warned about Savala’s status and activity, but because he didn’t have an official role, they couldn’t—or didn’t—stop it.

A website for victims who were groomed and abused by Savala launched in April, and last week, the Texas A&M student newspaper The Battalion broke the story and covered the claims that some Chi Alpha leaders knew Savala’s background but still involved him in their ministry.

The decades of allegations against Savala extend into the present day. One parent reported that last year his minor son was invited into Savala’s sauna, and another obtained a restraining order in March to block Savala from contacting her children.

Two Texas pastors who connected their Chi Alpha students with Savala initially responded to the recent news by saying that Savala was a “master manipulator” and that they were shocked by the revelations.

Their churches, each with close ties to local Chi Alpha chapters, have since removed them from their positions and launched investigations. The Assemblies of God district in North Texas has stepped in to see if other credentialed ministers may have also been “in violation.”

For a small group of victims and family members who have tried to sound the alarm on Savala for several years, these moves—along with the attention over the past few weeks—are signs that people may finally be listening.

“The hope I have is that God loves us so much he won’t allow sin to stay hidden anymore in this organization,” said Ron Bloomingkemper Jr., who launched the website “XA and the Lion’s Den.” Until now, he shared his testimony of being groomed by Savala under the username Gideon.

Bloomingkemper, 50, sees the latest calls for accountability as part of a movement for revival and restoration. He lives in suburban Houston and learned that local college students were still meeting with Savala but struggled to convince others that Savala posed a risk. While reading the Book of Nahum, Bloomingkemper was struck by a passage in his study Bible about how God uncovers and exposes “every secret thing.” He was inspired to speak up and offer a platform for fellow victims.

Bloomingkemper attended Sam Houston State University (SHSU) in Huntsville, Texas, about an hour north of Houston, and belonged to the Chi Alpha chapter there in the mid-1990s.

Chi Alpha—the Greek abbreviation for christou apostoloi, or “Christ’s ambassador”is a coed ministry focused on mission and discipleship among college students. The Assemblies of God sponsors chapters on 275 campuses and connects them with churches and leaders in its movement.

Sam Houston’s Chi Alpha chapter was the largest in the country and was lauded as a model for growth; it launched 30 new campus plants under the direction of its longtime leader Eli Gautreaux, now the district director for Chi Alpha in New Mexico and South Texas.

Many of the students and leaders at SHSU went on to serve at Chi Alpha chapters at other colleges (including Rice University, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and A&M)—spreading Savala’s influence, particularly among schools in driving distance of Houston.

Eli Stewart was part of the Chi Alpha pastoral team at SHSU before relaunching a Chi Alpha chapter and planting a church at Texas A&M University, in College Station, in 2017. Stewart had known Savala since childhood, when the minister would come up from Texas during the summer months to serve at his church in Alaska.

Savala wasn’t employed full time by any church or organization, but he got by on the trust and generosity of friends in ministry, who would invite him to work with youth and, in turn, sponsor his housing, meals, travel, and other expenses.

Stewart defended Savala when he faced allegations from men who said Savala abused them as children at Clover Pass Community Church in Ketchikan, Alaska, between 1995 and 1997. In 2012, Gautreaux and Stewart tried to recruit fellow Chi Alpha leaders to petition the judge by saying Savala posed “zero risk” of “harming anyone,” according to a letter written at the time (pdf).

Savala was indicted on 11 counts, pleaded guilty to one in a plea deal, and was released after a 90-day stint in prison. The timing of the crime in the 1990s allowed him to evade harsher mandatory sentencing laws, but he still was required to register annually as a sex offender—a designation that would come up with any background check (not to mention a basic Google search).

Gautreaux and Stewart continued to take groups to visit Savala’s home even after his conviction and sex offender status; several Chi Alpha alumni who posted on the online forum said they inherently trusted Savala because Gautreaux and Stewart (“the Eli’s”) did.

He was an unmarried, older mentor in the realm of student ministry, referred to as Papa Daniel, Uncle Daniel, or even “God’s vagabond.” Savala was known for his stacks of books, love of reading, speaking in maxims, and deep sense of holiness.

Bloomingkemper remembers hearing Savala called “the holiest man alive.” In a 2018 conference talk, Stewart doesn’t name Savala but recounts how “the Lord brought this man, this angel” to his church when he was nine, and “I saw a soul in communion with its Maker.”

Savala was cited on certain Chi Alpha chapter websites and social media beyond 2013, and students would visit on “mission trips” to work on Savala’s home, garden, and backyard apartment. Those who met with him for spiritual guidance, according to Bloomingkemper, were encouraged to leave a donation inside a book at his house.

On April 23 of this year, Stewart addressed the ongoing allegations against Savala from the pulpit of his Assemblies of God church, Mountain Valley Fellowship in College Station, Texas.

“A major influence in my life has turned out to be a master manipulator,” he said. “We have received major allegations that he is a wolf that has preyed on the innocent, pure-hearted and trusting. Recent testimonies have revealed this man, Daniel Savala, to be an active predator.”

The following week, Stewart and two elders involved in Chi Alpha at Texas A&M were placed on leave. A statement from Mountain Valley said it had learned of “some major allegations against our Pastor and grievances against our church.”

The Assemblies of God district in North Texas told CT in a statement that it is investigating the allegations that Stewart “knowingly allowed” a registered sex offender to be involved with Texas A&M Chi Alpha and Mountain Valley Fellowship, and it’s also reviewing “whether any other credentialed ministers in our District may have violated the expected requirements of ministers regarding this situation.”

The Battalion spoke with a member of Mountain Valley Fellowship who contacted law enforcement over his teenage son’s interactions with Savala last year. The father wrote on the victims’ forum that his son met Savala at the church’s youth group at age 13, the two texted each other, and his son went to visit Savala’s home in Houston with his small group leader, where all three sat in a sauna together in towels.

“I love my Church family but my family is hurt, angry, concerned … but we are thankful our story isn’t anywhere near as bad as others,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, leaders at Gateway Fellowship—an Assemblies of God congregation that partners with Chi Alpha at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA)—heard from Savala’s victims within their own congregation and investigated the situation internally.

“On April 18, 2023, I was first made aware through personal accounts that select Chi Alpha leaders had knowledge that [Savala] was a self-confessed and convicted sex offender but still promoted this man and/or brought select college-aged students to this man’s house, where they were introduced to him and later hurt or abused,” lead pastor John Van Pay said in an announcement to his congregation on Sunday. “One of our primary jobs as pastors is to protect the church. Anyone who had knowledge this man was a convicted sex offender and failed to disclose to the church and others is wrong.”

The church accepted the resignation of its teaching pastor, Kyle Volkmer, who was involved in SHSU’s Chi Alpha as a student and was part of the team that launched Chi Alpha at UTSA.

On April 22, Volkmer posted a statement on Savala, “urging all that knew him to stay away from him” and standing with Savala’s victims. He wrote that he was “personally shocked and in great grief” but “actively working with others and law enforcement to get to the truth of it all.”

Van Pay told the church that Volkmer was “subject to church discipline for failure to communicate and duties related to his role to protect the flock of God.” He said that Volkmer resisted the church’s restoration plan. Gateway also pulled its funding from Chi Alpha ministries with ties to the Savala allegations, advised the UTSA leader Johnny Hauck to temporarily step down, and stopped using a small group resource by Volkmer that quoted Savala.

The Battalion reported that an attorney representing multiple Savala victims notified university leaders at A&M, UT, the University of Houston, Rice, and Texas State last month about Savala’s ties with Chi Alpha chapters at their schools and his patterns of abuse.

In the past week, CT reached out to five men who were reported to have maintained relationships with Savala and took students to see him. None agreed to answer questions.

Two of them, including Eli Gautreaux, shared a statement saying they were “heartbroken” by the allegations and “While [Savala] was not an Assemblies of God minister or Chi Alpha staff, we mourn with everyone affected by the actions he took against students.”

Bloomingkemper told CT that he had contacted leaders with Chi Alpha and the Assemblies of God, including Gautreaux and the denomination’s district superintendent Tim Barker, after learning of Savala’s 2012 conviction the following year.

Years later, people who knew Savala from Alaska reached out to Assemblies of God leaders once they saw on social media that the man who preyed on children in their congregation was still being promoted by pastors in Texas.

“We trusted that churches would do background checks. We naively thought that since he was on the sex offender registry, they would cut ties,” said Olivia Wolf. She met Savala through the church in Ketchikan as a student and knows many of the “Alaska boys” who were groomed and abused by him, some of whom are family.

Wolf told CT she and others knew that Eli Stewart, who had gone to their church, continued to side with Savala. She said what they didn’t expect is that so many others with Chi Alpha would go along with him, rather than challenging his judgment or taking action to restrict Savala’s participation.

Emails obtained by CT indicated that Assemblies of God general superintendent Doug Clay, Chi Alpha national director E. Scott Martin, and Barker in South Texas all received a 2018 message “Re: A Concerning Situation with Chi Alpha” that called out Savala’s involvement through Stewart and Gautreaux.

At the time, the denominational office referred the concerns to the Texas districts and reiterated that Savala was not credentialed with the Assemblies of God.

Martin wrote that there had been “no report of any inappropriate behavior” from Savala, but also said Savala had been the subject of a Title IX investigation at Sam Houston and would no longer be around.

He offered assurance that Chi Alpha ministries with these unofficial ties to Savala would be provided “pertinent information” and that the organization would “construct and adopt a mandatory reporting policy relating to all sexual offenses.”

Yet students continued to connect with him through Chi Alpha, unaware that the man was a sex offender.

“I gave them a clear-cut opportunity, like, ‘Here is a clear predator,’ and they did nothing,” said Monica Roeger, who sent the emails to officials five years ago. A former Chi Alpha member in Oregon, Roeger knew Savala and the reports of his abuse through friends from Alaska.

“I want to be hopeful, but I don’t know what that looks like,” she told CT last week. “I want people to be safe.”

The Assemblies of God North Texas District, which includes Stewart’s church, said in a statement that it has mandatory training for employees and volunteers who work with children and youth and encourages “all churches who are a part of our voluntary fellowship to do the same.”

The Alaska man whose report resulted in Savala’s prosecution spoke to The Battalion about the abuse he experienced through his teen years, when the minister would undress and masturbate in front him, encourage him to masturbate, and invite him for sleepovers.

“All the way through my teenage years, this continued with a core group of young teenage boys and myself,” the former Clover Pass churchgoer said. The paper said another victim and a youth pastor at the time of the trial, Clint McClennan, confirmed the man’s account.

Kevin Gould, a retired Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor who connected Savala to the Clover Pass church after working with him in Europe, told CT he had been unaware of any allegations against Savala before or since the incidents in Alaska.

Bloomingkemper’s story of being groomed by Savala resembles many others that have been shared on the online forum he launched.

Some Chi Alpha students, even in the Texas schools that had connections to Savala, said they hadn’t heard of him or met him. But those who were introduced remember him being talked up as a holy and wise man and saw it as a special privilege to get to visit him.

Google Maps’ image of his home in Houston shows a rounded front door and façade covered in vines. Behind was a two-story garage apartment that had been nicknamed the “Upper Room.” On the forum, a University of Houston student said he and others had been living there up until a few weeks ago.

Chi Alpha groups continued to come to the house during the year and half he lived on the property. “I got used to seeing a lot of random guys around the house pretty much all the time, as groups from other XAs in Texas would often visit Daniel to help out with the house renovation,” he wrote.

In mid-April, Savala had warned the college students living there about “spiritual slander” and lies about him that would be used against Chi Alpha. The student wrote that even then Savala didn’t disclose his sex offender status; he found out by Googling Savala’s name.

Savala lives in the same place where Bloomingkemper hung out with him 25 years ago when he sought his advice as a young believer. Savala told him not to worry about his struggles with porn and masturbation, going as far as using a code word (“relax”) to recommend he masturbate. Bloomingkemper was taken aback when he called Savala for help one day and Savala recommended they “masturbate together.”

In the forum posts, victims recount being coerced into masturbation, masturbated by Savala, or sexually assaulted. Nearly all said they had been groomed by seeing Savala naked at his house—one even described an attempt by Savala to reclaim the “naked and unashamed” status in the Garden as “biblical justification”—and discussing masturbation. Some of the abuse allegations were reported as having taken place during the years immediately after Savala’s conviction, when he would have still been under probation.

Multiple former Chi Alpha students posted about how Savala recommended thinking about God or reading a book about God right after watching porn. Some alleged that Stewart also endorsed masturbation in his private counsel. (Stewart did not reply to an email request to comment for this story.) One victim of Savala’s, a former small group leader at SHSU Chi Alpha, wrote, “I allowed him to convince me that watching pornography was not a sin so long as we did it the ‘right way.’”

Beyond the alleged grooming and abuse, Savala’s teachings contradict the Assemblies of God’s stance on pornography and sex, as it names chastity as a “consistent ideal for sexual experience” outside of marriage, and its bylaws list porn use as a cause for disciplinary action.

“The teachings and practices of the Assemblies of God stand in strong opposition to the teachings and practices espoused by Mr. Savala, especially as it relates to issues surrounding sexual purity and moral transgressions,” a spokesperson for the Pentecostal denomination said in a statement.

Savala’s behavior, as described by his victims to CT and in forum posts, fits with a pattern among male perpetrators who groom boys and young men for abuse. Research shows they often have more victims than those who abuse girls and that their victims often don’t recognize or report the abuse for 20 or 30 years.

“The job of the offender, the groomer, is to normalize the conduct. … In the context of religion, the religious figure often incorporates a spiritual or biblical theme to explain or justify what they’re doing,” said Victor Vieth, chief program officer for the Zero Abuse Project. “There’s a type of purity culture where it’s like, ‘We men are so tempted by sex that we need to talk about it all the time. Confess to me your sexual thoughts and desires. Confess to me if you masturbate this week.’”

Beyond Savala, the forum posts describe a bigger issue with nudity among groups of young men and groups of young women in Texas Chi Alpha chapters, including flashing, skinny dipping, going topless at sleepovers, and spending time naked in saunas. Former members from UTSA quoted an unofficial mantra that “nudity brings unity.” (The experiences aren’t universal; Roeger, who was involved in Chi Alpha in Oregon, doesn’t remember any focus on masturbation or any activities involving nudity among her chapter.)

The allegations around Chi Alpha’s ties to Savala come less than a year after a Chi Alpha pastor in Corpus Christi, Texas, was arrested and charged with child sexual abuse. He has pleaded not guilty, and the case is awaiting trial.

In College Station, the story of Savala’s ties to its Chi Alpha chapter and Mountain Valley Fellowship broke less than two weeks after the student paper covered spiritual and sexual abuse allegations at another local congregation, Christland Church.

“Is this just another church scandal? No, this one is different,” said Bloomingkemper, who spent 11 months praying with a small group before launching the XA and the Lion’s Den website.

Since it went live on April 23, it’s drawn around 800,000 pageviews, according to Bloomingkemper. Keeping up with it is taking over his days. But he said he’s never felt closer to God.

Bloomingkemper believes the recent disclosures and calls for accountability represent a powerful opportunity for restoration for leaders in Chi Alpha.

“They’re saying, ‘We’re praying for purity and revival,’” he said. “Well, what do you think this is? He’s cleansing his church.”

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