She used to be a “five, five and five girl” — five minutes each of prayer, worship and reading her Bible every morning.
Now she says she can’t look at her Bible without crying.
“If I start to pray, which I haven’t lately, I start having an anxiety attack,” she said.
The woman is a former member and employee of Vibrant Church in Columbus. She and another former employee told The Dispatch they were both propositioned for sex by lead pastor Jason Delgado while they worked for Vibrant.
Both former employees spoke to The Dispatch on the condition of anonymity due to the sexual nature of their allegations.
Moreover, they both said they reported the harassment to other church leaders. But Delgado remained in his position, and nothing was done until one of the women hired an attorney and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month.
Her attorney, Corky Smith, confirmed to The Dispatch he spoke with both women and two others who had similar stories. He also said he has evidence church leaders knew of allegations against Delgado at least as far back as 2016.
“The purpose of this is not to attack anyone,” Smith said. “… This is an attempt to stop this kind of behavior from happening, especially from those positions of power. … Much is expected from (a minister’s) position of trust, and when you abuse that, there have to be extreme measures taken to make sure those positions of trust are not violated in the future.”
Smith said he believes there may be multiple other victims he hasn’t spoken to, saying several of the women he talked to said they knew of other former and current church members and employees who also faced harassment.
Church leaders announced in February that Delgado voluntarily took a leave of absence from his duties and has sought professional counseling after engaging in “inappropriate conduct.” Executive Pastor Mike Stephens confirmed to The Dispatch church leaders are aware of the allegations and the EEOC complaint, though he did not address the accusations directly, adding “there are a lot of rumors out there.”
“There’s some stuff that happened and is coming to light, and our priority is people and will always be people,” Stephens said. “We’re in the middle of that. We’re dealing with it. It’s hurtful. It’s painful. Trust is broken and it hurts, but we’re going to move forward and keep reaching the lost and … being a beacon of light and hope in our community.”
The woman who filed the EEOC complaint said the harassment began subtly.
She said she nearly lost her job at Vibrant last year when another supervisor wanted her to leave, and Delgado stepped in, even calling her to his office to assure her that her position was safe.
From there, she said, Delgado began sending her private messages through social media, and those messages eventually became propositions for sex.
“That put me in a conflicting position because he had just saved my (place in my church) community,” she said, “so I felt obligated. I know that sounds weird. I felt obligated to respond.”
She said she never pursued him and tried to keep her correspondence with him to a minimum.
She said the inappropriate messaging continued for about six weeks, and she didn’t know what to do or to whom to report the behavior.
“This is my lead pastor. Who do I take this to?” she said. “If I take this to anyone, I’m just going to sound crazy. No one’s going to believe me. … If I take it to someone, it would be his dad (Associate Pastor Ron Delgado, Jason Delgado’s father) or HR, which is his mom (Human Resources Director Miriam Delgado). And so the only thing I have to do is either stop messaging him and then cut off the person who had saved (her job), or just respond with the least amount that I can, just to keep my community.”
When she did report the behavior to other church leaders, they told her they had reached out to the Association of Relational Churches (ARC), an umbrella organization for hundreds of nondenominational churches, including Vibrant. However, she said no one from ARC ever contacted her, and other Vibrant leadership asked her not to tell anyone, even her husband, that Delgado had harassed her.
“No one ever asked me my story,” she said. “It was tough.”
‘Is there anyone else?’
It wasn’t until she hired Smith that she learned others had gone to church officials with similar reports.
One woman came forward to support Smith’s client, after she heard she had hired an attorney. That woman — who also spoke to The Dispatch under the condition of anonymity — said she worked for Vibrant in 2016 but quit her job and left the church after Delgado propositioned her for sex.
In her case, she said she had heard Delgado say things she thought were inappropriate about other women. She shrugged it off, assuming she had misunderstood.
Then one day when they were both working in the office, he specifically asked her to go out of town with him.
“I was just floored,” she said.
“You don’t know what to do or how to react to this kind of thing,” she said. “… You just have got to get out of there. … He repeated it as I was walking out of the door, (adding) ‘Just think about it.’”
The former employee said she left immediately, turning in her resignation letter the next day.
She said she told her husband — though at that time she didn’t give him Delgado’s name — and they left the church months later.
Later, she said, she took a witness to meet with Ron and Jason Delgado to report the pastor’s inappropriate behavior and to tell them she did not want Jason contacting her or her family anymore. The Delgados told her Jason had been in a “dark place” when he propositioned her for sex, she said, but Jason did not step back from the lead pastor position at that time.
“He knew exactly what he had done,” she said. “There was never any denial, there was never any context, just the sad story of (being in a) dark place and what (they were) doing about it, and the silence to me indicated to me that there had not been anybody since then.”
She said she left the meeting under the impression that Delgado hadn’t repeated the behavior.
“Looking back, we should have bluntly asked, ‘Is there anyone else?’” she said.
‘Am I going up against God?’
One of the former employees said she has talked to multiple other women who told her they had similar experiences, and those experiences have had a “spiritual effect on them.” One of the women will not even drive down Holly Hills Road, where the Vibrant building is located, she said.
“It’s like a ripple effect,” she said. “You’ve got one person that’s been impacted, but it impacts their marriages, it impacts their relationships with their friends. Their friends are wondering, ‘Why are you going to that new church?’ … I had to explain to my children that are 8 and 5, ‘Well someone said something that was not very nice to your mom, so we’re going to go to a different church.’”
The two women who spoke to The Dispatch said they feel being harassed by a pastor is different than being harassed by another acquaintance because victims lose trust in those religious authorities.
“You think, they’re standing up there being men of God, and you’re like, ‘Am I going up against God?’” one of them said.
“This is your pastor,” she added. “He’s my boss. He’s my friend.”
Smith said he hopes the women’s stories encourage others who have faced similar harassment, at Vibrant or other religious institutions, that they are not alone.
“A church is a place where people go and seek comfort,” Smith said. “They seek healing. They seek the power of the Lord to bring them through a lot of tough times. … What’s particularly troubling is, here you have someone that is alleged to use that position, not for the reasons of restoration or for healing or for comfort, but is being alleged to use that position to fulfill sexual desires, which is an extreme perversion of the position of power that you’re in.”
Stephens, the person who returned The Dispatch’s calls seeking comment from Vibrant and the Delgados, said he understands “trust has been broken” for some congregation members but that Vibrant has always tried to be a place where people can come for healing.
“We want to be a hospital for the wounded and not a museum for the saints,” he said. “We want to be a church that was always there for the hurting. No matter what happens, we’re always going to do our best to be there to help others heal and mend and be whole.”
The women The Dispatch spoke to said they still have faith. One attends another church and the other — the same who cries when she looks at her Bible — said her friend has been providing motivational books to her in the meantime.
She said she doesn’t want to equate God’s plan with Vibrant, because she’s still hurt from the harassment and the lack of response from church leaders.
“Yeah, God’s going to prevail, but it’s not just on behalf of Vibrant,” she said. “God’s going to prevail for God’s glory.”